Sunday, February 22, 2015

(A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There by Aldo Leopold.  Special   Commemorative Edition, published 1989.  Originally published by  Oxford University Press, 1949.
Moral Ground; Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, edited by Kathleen Dean Moore and  Michael P. Nelson.  San Antonio: Trinity University Press, 2010.)

A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold has achieved lasting, almost iconic stature as a classic of American nature writing.  Published posthumously in 1949, its influence has steadily increased;  and arguably as a framer of contemporary thought, its theses are even more impactful than those of another iconic publication – Thoreau’s Walden published originally in 1854.   Leopold’s Almanac, frequently quoted by present-day environmentalists, is an early framer of conservation philosophy and provides the core premises of an on-going and evolving debate of the individual’s ethical responsibility to the natural world.

The genesis of debate
The “land ethic,” as articulated by Leopold, posits a radical ethical shift in Western thought, changing “the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.” (SCA p. 204)  He argues that a philosophical shift from one of dominance and economic exploitation of nature to one of respect and mutual beneficence is necessary for the continuance of the biotic community.  Leopold, writing to the lay public, is among the first conservationists to argue that all life forms are fragile, interdependent and inter-connected.  As symbiotic ecosystems, the degradation of one system degrades the system nearby, setting in motion a cascade of events that lead to the degradation of the whole – the biomass itself. 

Many  contemporary environmentalists, e.g. Elizabeth Kolbert in The Sixth Extinctionfurther develop Leopold’s thesis of symbiosis and argue that mankind’s quest for a higher standard of living, through expropriation and exploitation of wild things, has resulted in an unnatural extinction – the Anthropocene Epoch.  Environmental ethicists argue that species extinction, rapid and man-induced, adversely impacts humanity and possibly threatens our continued existence.  Certainly, life as we know it today will be irrevocably altered for future generations.  To avert environmental degradation, Leopold  advocates the extension of social ethics to the members of the land-community, a community which includes humanity, but whose boundaries are enlarged to include soil, water, plants, and animals, and we might add today, the very air we breathe.   All are  elements upon which  life depends. (SCA p. 204)  Love, respect, and value should be granted to all members of the community.   (SCA p. 223)

A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land.  Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal.  Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.  (SCA p. 221)

Leopold acknowledges that the “evolution of a land ethic is an intellectual as well as emotional process.”  (SCA p. 225)  The editors of Moral Ground further develop this idea, asserting that much of what is missing from public discussion of the environment is the affirmation of one’s moral responsibility to the present and future world.  “No amount of factual information will tell us what we ought to do.  For that, we need moral convictions – ideas about what it is to act rightly in the world, what it is to be good or just, and the determination to do what is right.”  (MG p. xvii)   Leopold is perhaps the first to define “what it is to act rightly in the world.”  His Golden Rule of Ecology sets the parameters of ethical discussion:

Quit thinking about decent land-use as solely an economic problem. 

Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and esthetically right,

as well as what is economically expedient.  
A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity,
stability, and beauty of the biotic community. 
It is wrong when it tends otherwise.  (SCA p. 224)

Like many philosophical ideals, Leopold’s Golden Rule leaves much to personal interpretation.  Moral Ground attempts to define “what it is to act rightly in the world.”  Over eighty essayists (world-renowned environmentalists, scholars, spiritual leaders, and scientists) clarify Leopold’s nascent environmental ethics, centering upon individual actions which are right not only for humans and human futures, but also on what is right for the other inhabitants of the world, and for the world itself.   “A moral life will also honor the interests and the beauty and mystery of all the Earth.”  (MG p. xixi)   Compelling arguments, many  based on the inter-dependency/inter-relatedness of Earth’s systems, require that the individual act to protect a “a planet in peril.”

Spiritual imperatives for ethical action
A small selection of essays in Moral Ground present the Christian perspective to environmentalism.  Recurring themes emphasize the individual’s responsibility and accountability to a dominant, creative, and inclusive God.
The Bible supports at least two schools of thought regarding our relationship to God’s Creation and to His continuing Creating Word:

  1. One dictum holds that God has given dominion of His Creation to humanity.   Consequently, the natural world has value only to the extent that it fulfills God’s instruction to mankind to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the Earth and subdue it.”  (Gen. 1:28)
  2. Another school  rejects this long held template which, some argue, permits humanity’s indiscriminate, self-aggrandizement at the expense of nature.  An evolving Christian ethic holds that God retains His sovereignty of the world, that He is passionate about His Creation, and that He invites mankind to join Him in creative stewardship.  God has not abandoned a world that, in His first six days of recorded action, He declared “Good.” 

Marcus J. Borg, Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture Emeritus at Oregon State University, is a leading proponent of this alternative vision.  Nature, created by God, reveals God.  The Psalmist, Job, and Jesus Himself see in nature not only the lavish generosity of God, but also His power and majesty, and one might add, His tender care of the vulnerable: “From whence cometh my help?  My help cometh from the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and Earth.”   For the Christian, perhaps most compelling is Borg’s interpretation of John 3: 16.  “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten son....”  Borg emphasizes that the love prompting God’s sacrifice extended not just to humanity, not just to Christians, but to the world He first created.  We are reassured of God’s love by His promises of personal resurrection and the restoration of  heaven and earth.  God’s love is all encompassing.  He is passionate about His Creation,  and He calls us to a divine-human collaboration.   According to Borg, life is dependent upon the success or failure of that collaboration.  “The world and its future matters to God, and we are called to participate in God’s dream for the Earth.”  (MG p. 253)  

Borg’s commentary helps to distinguish the concepts of earth and world.  The use of the word earth is restricted to the natural world, to nature and those life-sustaining elements of the land- community as defined by Aldo Leopold: soil, water, plants, and animals.  World is comprehensive.  While generally referring to the myriads of peoples inhabiting the earth, it also includes the earth itself and all of its elements.  This interpretation not only elucidates Psalm 24:1-2, the scriptural authority for the Green Team, it infuses the verses with new meaning. 

The Earth is the Lord’s and everything in it.  The world and all who live in it.
For He founded it upon the seas and established it upon the waters. 
Psalm 24:1-2

Earth and world are not synonymous; rather, they are distinct entities.  Moreover, the structure of the verses give equal weight to each.  It is interesting that Earth, the first of God’s created beings, is mentioned first.  This word/concept order may simply follow the recorded pattern of creation, or it could imply a larger meaning:  Perhaps, God wants His people to recognize the value He places upon wild things and their habitats, upon the land- community.  Perhaps, God expects His people “to act rightly in the world” He has created. 

Tri Robinson (founding pastor of the Vineyard Boise Church in Boise, Idaho) also emphasizes God’s passion for the natural world, citing as verification His covenant following the great flood. The promise to never again destroy all life by water reveals God’s concerns both for humanity and for “every living creature.”

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him: I now establish my covenant
with you and with your descendants after you and with every living creature that
was with you – the birds, the livestock and all the wild animals, and all those
that came out of the arc with you – every living creature on earth.  I establish
my covenant with you.  Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a
flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.
Genesis 9: 8-11
This covenant, symbolized in nature by the rainbow, is tri-lateral, existing between God, humanity, and every living creature.  Structurally, the covenant allocates more space to the earth and everything in it than to the descendants of Noah.  Evident is God’s passion for the first fruits of His work, a work He declared “Good.”  Surely, our disrespect and abuse of the Earth can only cause pain and possibly irritation to the Sovereign Being.

John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I jointly issued a code of environmental ethics in June 2002.  They reject the teaching of human dominance over the created earth. 

At the beginning of history, man and woman sinned by disobeying God and rejecting His design for creation.  Among the results of this first sin was
destruction of the original harmony of creation.  If we examine carefully the social and environmental crisis which the world community is facing, we must conclude that we are still betraying the mandate God has given us: to be stewards called to collaborate with God in watching over creation in holiness and wisdom. God has not abandoned the world.  (MG p. 52)

These two spiritual leaders were concerned about negative social and ecological consequences  resulting from our irreversible degradation of the earth.  Our stay here is brief, and “and we have not been entrusted with unlimited power over creation; we are only stewards of the common heritage.”  (MG p. 54)   Elsewhere Bartholomew calls us to a voluntary asceticism – a self-restraint that assures the wise use of earth’s resources, that allows us to live in harmony with our environment, that benefits present and future generations.   Bartholomew declares that humanity’s degradation of the environment is an ecological crime and a sin against God Himself: 

For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation, for humans to degrade the integrity of Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the Earth of its natural forests or destroying its wetlands, for humans to injure other humans with disease, for humans to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and life with poisonous substances – these are sins.  (MG p. 136)

The upshot
Before it is too late, let us agree with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew that God’s gift of Creation is a gift to all, not ours to exploit for our own convenience and self-interest.  Let us agree with Marcus Borg that we are called to a divine-human collaboration of creative stewardship, to be participants in God’s dream for the Earth.   Let us agree with Tri Robinson that God  recognizes the sanctity of all life and we are accountable for our use of God’s Earth.        Let us agree with Pope John Paul that we are called to collaborate with God in watching over His Creation in holiness and wisdom.  Let us agree with Aldo Leopold that “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community.”   Let us agree that “The Earth is the Lord’s.”  Let us strive to act rightly in the world.

Linda Thompson is a member of the First Baptist Church Green Team. Last year First Baptist was awarded the City of Austin's Platinum Certification as an Austin Green Business Leader. The Team also went beyond carbon neutral for the church's fiscal year by reducing more than its fair share of greenhouse gas pollution. This involved: switching to green electricity and purchasing carbon offsets at biodiversity preserve in Colombia. Learn more about FBC's "Carbon Positivity" here

This piece edited by Chris Searles.


Post a Comment