A different sort of question today. No, it’s not about something children might ask about the house they live in when they leave for an extended vacation, or perhaps move permanently to an entirely different place. It’s about the place called home for the entire human race.
Much has been brought to our attention in recent years regarding the status of the earth’s health. Maybe the first memory some of us have of not taking everything natural for granted was in Smokey the Bear’s reminder that only you can prevent forest fires; or maybe it’s the image of a native American standing by the side of a littered roadway with a tear running down the side of his face. Water pollution, air pollution, global warming, overpopulation, escalating rates of species extinction, and a host of other issues, some real, some imagined or concocted have come to our attention over the relatively recent past.
One outgrowth in the academic world is a new field for philosophers called environmental philosophy. It is the topic of the current issue of a journal I have referred to a couple of times on this blog, Philosophy Now. The history of this particular sub-discipline is, like all things academic, subject to debate; but usually included in the accounting is an essay by Aldo Leopold entitled “The Land Ethic,” published in 1949. In it, Leopold formulated what has become a widely discussed principle which says, “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity of, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” At first glance, it seems simple enough. But reflecting on it for a little while shows how a field of philosophy/ethics could be spawned. What exactly is the biotic community? How do members of that community related to one another? Who decides for the community? What does the integrity spoken of mean, and how do we know it? What vantage point must be assumed to even begin to answer this? Is such a point attainable? What longterm goals should be in view in order to make sense of what will tend toward integrity, stability, and beauty, etc., etc.?
The fact is that such potential problems such as overpopulation, to take one example, have been discussed at least as far back as 1798 essay by Thomas Malthus, who had dire forecasts. He saw the problem becoming even more pronounced if we as a race could make any headway against the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” which he delineated from the Book of Revelation: War, Famine, Pestilence, and Disease. Tim Delaney’s essay changes this to the “Five Horrorists” which now face us, adding “enviromares” to the list. These are some of the mass-scale disasters, such as the nuclear melt-down in Japan last year–things that have a natural world component coupled with an environmental impact exacerbated by technological “advancements.”
Jim Moran outlines three reasons why “saving the planet” is difficult (I confess: it is difficult for me as a Christian theologian to shift my thinking that salvation is something of which we are the saved rather than the saviors). The first of these is overcoming anthropocentrism; the second is understanding our place in nature (the first principle might have set this one up), and defining moral status. My interest is not to delve too deeply into the specifics of Moran’s thesis, but to begin thinking biblically, theologically about the possibilities that the earth is in need of saving by humankind, and whether or not that is a specifically Christian interest. Or has stewardship of the earth and its resources been so far from our concerns that when someone finally points to a bit of smoke that should not be there (metaphorically speaking here), we either shout down the messenger or take his account of the facts and along with it his worldview assumptions? Make no mistake here: the idea of our being created in the image of God with a special place in the scheme of earth’s history is very much at stake in this discussion.
Where might we begin to participate in the discussion? How might we fittingly teach a better way to our children–and their parents and grandparents? Or should we allow what will happen ti happen and go about saving souls? Just asking.