The Earth We Hold In Our Hands

Edward_Hicks_-_Peaceable_Kingdom 2

Justin E.H. Smith considers the theology underlying a certain strain of environmentalism:

Ironically, much conservationist thinking involves an implicitly mythological conception of species diversity that agrees in its essentials with the creation account offered in Genesis. In the scriptural tradition, God looked upon his work and deemed it good, and what ensued was a stable order of fixed, discrete, and well-bounded kinds, with no relations of descent among them. The best metaphor for conceptualizing biodiversity in this view is Noah’s ark, where each kind can be neatly separated from the others in its own compartment. The conservationist view generally leaves the creator out of the picture, yet the creatures are still deemed good, intrinsically good, and if they do not remain fixed and unchanging, then we may conclude that something is out of order – or “unnatural,” to use [Elizabeth] Kolbert’s term.

Darwinism, properly understood, is the opposite of this mythological outlook. It tells us that no particular arrangement of biodiversity is good in itself, and that no species has any absolute reason to exist. … The point here is not to relativize the current ecological crisis, or to call for an approach to mass extinction that simply says, que será, será. Rather, it is to suggest that conservationism might do well to acknowledge the endurance and the strength of the mythopoetical conception of nature, the one that sees our fellow creatures not only as more or less well adapted, but also as good, truly good.

The indifference to specific species is indeed one of Darwin’s great revelations. The whole planet is a teeming mass of DNA attempting to advance itself through various environmental challenges and changes. The death of one species is as integral as the birth of another. And so it will surely be with climate change. And at some point, I’ll wager, as the reality seeps through our consciousness, I’m sure we’ll begin rationalizing it. Species are always dying out, we’ll say to ourselves; weather has always changed, hasn’t it?; climate is never fixed, etc. The difference this time, of course, is that we humans have managed to change the climate in unprecedented ways. We have never reached this abyss before in all 200,000 years of struggle and survival. We are gods in that respect in planetary terms. And like the Greek gods, we are fickle, unpredictable and occasionally catastrophic.

A different theological account of environmentalism would not seek to set in stone every single species on the planet or resist any changes that occur because of some pristine present.

It would not construct a religion of Gaia, or be actively hostile to technology and science. But it would understand that we are but one species on this earth, even though we are easily the most powerful, and that our self-awareness bestows on us a responsibility unknown to other species. My view is that nature changes all the time and there’s nothing sacrosanct about this era in the millions of years that the earth has existed. But equally, one species’ knowing decision to destroy countless others, to shift the patterns of climate in potentially dramatic ways, and to up-end the ways of life of so much else on earth is an unprecedented global crime. To have dominion over the earth means a responsibility to be a worthy steward. We can use and exploit its resources – but only to the extent that we do not irreversibly alter its diversity.

You do not have to worship earth above humans to be an environmentalist. You merely have to respect the earth and better understand how all its inhabitants are connected through evolution. When you do that, the kind of wanton vandalism humanity is now wreaking is horrifying to any objective eyes. What a tragedy that the smartest species began as a territorial, murderous primate. And what spiritual revolution will be necessary to prevent this ongoing assault on nature?

(Detail of Edward Hicks’ Peaceable Kingdom, ca. 1834, via Wikimedia Commons)