The Ecology of Faith and the Faith of Ecology

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The Ecology of Faith and the Faith of Ecology
Is Ecologically Sound Adaptation Within the Human Potential?
Keith Helmuth
She saw the history of this place complete, yet still unfinished: .....

She saw eight decades given over to the formation, on the wounded

surface, of a thin healing layer of new soil . . . Nothing was lost.

She saw the water seeping and flowing from the tile and the spring . . .

She saw the over-flow rushing over the spillway of the dam into

Little Coal Creek, then to the Skunk River where Indians had

fished, to the Mississippi, to the Gulf of Mexico, to the sea. She

saw it circling the earth, mingling with all the waters of all the

oceans, traveling the air as cloud, returning to fall again as rain,

as this gentle rain, on a pond in Iowa. Eon building on Eon, she

saw the water washing away all soil, all stone, atom by atom,

letting the particles sink to rest, to form new stone, new soil, on

the other side of the earth, or here. She saw the earth at work.
Margaret Lacey

Silent Friends: A Quaker Quilt, 1994
And here luxury and covetousness, with numerous oppressions and

other evils attending them, appeared very afflicting to me, and I

felt in that which is immutable that the seeds of great clamity and

desolation are sown and growing fast on this continent. Nor have

I words sufficient to set forth that longing I then felt that we who

. . . . have tasted the love and goodness of God, might rise in his

strength and like faithful messengers labour to check the growth

of these seeds, that they might not ripen to the ruin of our posterity.
John Woolman

Journal, 1763

A World View Deep in Denial
There is a folk tale from fourteenth-century Spain about a Moorish king tricked by three con-men into believing that a beautiful new suit they are weaving for him cannot be seen by persons of illegitimate birth. Embarrassed to admit he cannot not see the glamorous fabric, the king sends a servant to inspect their work. The servant, greatly alarmed that he cannot see the fabric reports good progress is being made. A second servant also comes back and with the same report. The king then returns to the weavers hoping that he will, after all, be able to see the fabric.  But, alas, even as the weavers complete their work, and turn the outstanding cloth they have created into and stunning suit, the king still cannot see it. Fearing that if he were to admit his inability to see their stunning creation, he might lose his legitimacy and consequently his kingdom, the king proceeds to lavishly praise the the new suit. This leads an accompanying constable, obviously concerned about his own reputation, to also extol it, which understandably makes the king even more embarrassed.
The news about the new suit spreads through out the court and its beauty is repeatedly confirmed by still others who dare not admit they cannot really see anything. The king then rides into town proudly displaying his new suit, the reports of which have spread far and wide. Although it is invisible to all, everyone thinks others can see it, and that if they do not, and say so, they will be disgraced and ruined. Finally, an outsider, an African, tells the king “either I am blind or you are naked.” This breaks the collective denial and everyone can then admit the truth.
This is the story Hans Christian Andersen retold five centuries later in a somewhat different form as “The Emperor's New Clothes,” In the original story it takes a person with a different world view - an African - to tell the truth. In Andersen’s telling, a naive child, not yet conditioned into collective denial, acts as the truth teller. This story has become a frequently cited reference for a widely recognized, and often humourous, characteristic of collective human behaviour.
Unfortunately, there is an species of this behaviour deeply ingrained in the history of American culture that is anything but humourous - the denial of the ecological reality of the human-earth relationship. Historian William Appleman Williams calls this cultural characteristic, and its historical unfolding, “the great evasion” - the evasion of not taking into account the fundamental relationships required to achieve a sustainable pattern of settlement and economic activity within the regional ecosystems of the continent. Because the whole political economy of the United States was, and is, driven by the unquestioned assumption of endless economic growth, no reflection on sustainable adaptation has every gained a significant public hearing. The expanding frontier mentality and the vast natural resources of the continent have allowed this “great evasion.”
Like the king and his entourage, our culture of endless economic growth, increasing consumption and high energy living is in deep denial. The king and his followers could recover after the truth was told with nothing more than severe embarrassment. Our situation of denial is far more difficult. We have had a variety of truth tellers about the reality of the human-earth relationship for some time - the most recent of which are the climate scientists on global warming. But denial of ecological reality remains the dominant stance of our culture. There is tacit agreement between political, industrial, business and financial leaders on one side and consumers on the other, that to maintain and advance the capital driven market economy it will be necessary to progressively disable the biotic integrity of ecosystem after ecosystem world wide. A rational response to this situation is to say: “But that’s absurd! We can’t go on destroying the biosphere and expect for there to be a decent human future.”
  On the hopeful side, however, many voices are now becoming increasingly clear about “the emperor's new clothes,” about the denial of ecological reality that has been our heritage and is still our daily diet. Real steps are being taken at many levels and at many points of engagement to retrofit this heritage. Even the Pentagon has now taken an interest in the human-earth relationship and has recently issued a report that cites climate change as a major national security issue. Token gestures are now being made at the national policy level to reduce oil consumption and promote a greater mix in the energy diet.
It should be noted, however, that there is danger in the trajectory of this response. When a political jurisdiction with a world view structured by the ethos of aggrandizement and domination finally gets the environmental message, it is likely to veer policy into a kind of ecological fascism. It is likely to use the ecological crisis to justify the continuation and intensification of its domination.

For example, within the first two years of their first term, the current Federal administration went from a denial of global warming, to an admission of its reality, to the view that it is now too late and nothing can be done about it. The policy direction that emerges from this cynical view is triage and enclave - write off the weak and vulnerable, and secure resources for the strong and successful, a blatant calculus of losers and winners.
It seems likely this policy will fail. It seems likely that the earth and its human communities are now far too interdependent for a policy of triage and enclave to be allowed. It is susceptible to both social revenge and ecological bite back. It is also susceptible to the common sense of social and ecological solidarity. For example, a change in the Federal administration could bring into power a leadership that would reorient United States policy toward cooperation and equity on issues of global human well being and ecological integrity. For the sake of the human future, let us hope that this common sense and moral commitment will soon prevail. A recent song titled “The Land of Plenty” by poet and singer-song-writer, Leonard Cohen, raises this hope in a kind of forlorn but deeply moving way. He writes:
Don’t really have the courage

To stand where I must stand.

Don’t really have the temperament

To lend a helping hand.
Don’t really know who sent me

To raise my voice and say:

May the lights in the Land of Plenty

Shine on the truth some day.
For the millions in the prison,

That wealth has set apart -

For the Christ that has not risen,

From the caverns of the heart -
  For the innermost decision,

That I cannot but obey -

For what’s left of our religion,

I lift my voice and pray:

May the lights in the Land of Plenty

Shine on the truth some day.
The Human Future at Risk
A spectre is haunting our sense of the human future - the spectre of failed human potential, the spectre of a downward spiraling fatalism, the spectre of faith gone awry, the spectre of a loss of human solidarity.
You may recognize this image of the haunting spectre. It comes from the 19th Century’s most famous philosopher of political economy and proponent of human progress, Karl Marx. Marx is now generally regarded as a failed prophet. The social, political, and economic developments of the 20th Century have not followed the course he forecast. But he was not wrong about the spectre haunting Western Civilization. The spectre has not disappeared. It has gained in substance, enlarged in scope, and now colours the entire horizon of the human future.
For Marx the crisis of his era was fueled by unsustainable inequities and the damaging domination of those who controlled resources and wealth. For a time, prodigious economic growth seemed to reconfigured these inequities and power relationship in a progressive way, and a coterie of new prophets told us they could foresee the “end of history” with regard to this tradition of conflict and struggle. It appears they were naive. Inequities within many jurisdictions are again on the rise, and a new fight for the control of resources is escalating. Resource wars have begun. The cutting edge of progress is cutting in ways that are progressive for some, but deeply wounding for others and especially for earth’s biotic integrity. The spectre has raised the stakes.
Marx was a social and economic thinker embedded in the philosophy of progress. The spectre of conflict he saw haunting Europe would, in his view, lead to an upheaval with clearly progressive consequences. The philosophy of progress, and its economic engine of capital accumulation, must now be seen as embedded in earth process and surrounded by the ecological world view. The spectre of conflict that arises from this reality has a far more complex scope of haunting and gives no assurance that the upheavals to which it may lead will be, in any way, progressive.
We are thus faced with the question of the human future in a new and more profound way than were those who could rally behind the banner of progress. The banner of progress has now become part of the problem, and for many thoughtful people, faith in the human future is contracting toward the vanishing point. This may not be an entirely new phenomenon in human experience, but it is certainly a new and dramatic erosion of the world view that has prevailed in Western cultures for the last several centuries.
  It is difficult to overstate the significance of this loss, of this world view failure. It would be one thing if we were now just required to modify our drive for progressive development into sustainable economic growth, but quite another if economic growth, as such, is coming to an end and a wholly different kind of economic and social adaptation is in prospect. I would argue that the evidence is strong and growing stronger that the latter is the case, and that we are approaching a radical reconfiguration of the human-earth relationship. In this situation, it seems to me, we need to take up the task on two levels: the nourishment of faith and the design of living. It is to this spiritual and grass roots task that I now turn. First, a look at two species of faith and then a consideration of, what I call, the faith behind faith.
Economics as Religion: The Rise of a Modern Faith
Why has the discipline of capital driven economics replaced both religion and science as the primary source of guidance in modernized societies? There once was a time when religion was the primary focus of authority and decision making in Western civilization. With the rise of the scientific world view, the credibility of religion as a comprehensive system of guidance was severely compromised, and in some cases largely eclipsed. With the rise of capital driven economics, the guidance function of both religious and scientific knowledge is almost universally trumped by economic decision making. We now have a situation in which economic behaviour, driven by capital growth and accumulation, systematically and routinely contravenes the scientific understanding of biological and biospheric integrity.
Why is it, for example, that earth’s forest cover continues to be sacrificed to capital accumulation when we know beyond scientific doubt its biotic function is central to the maintenance of life on earth as we know and experience it? Why is it that bioticly productive land - both cultivated and uncultivated - continues to shrink in order that the domain of motor vehicle use can expand? President Bush, in response to the scientific evidence on human induced global warming, recently declared he “will do nothing”, with regard to regulating greenhouse gas emissions, “that would hurt the US economy.”
This situation cannot be adequately understood as caused by greed or ignorance. It can be understood only by reference to a belief system in which capital accumulation and economic growth is expected to produce the best possible of all worlds and be capable of solving all problems of whatever sort that may occur along the way to this goal. This is a majestic utopian dream of the same sort that galvanized the socialist experiments of the recent past.
No culture, no society can exist without a working structure of faith, without a “theology” of some kind, without a world view that makes sense in terms of authority and guidance. With the rise of science as a public faith, religious authority devolved into mainly personal,, small group, and subculture contexts. With the rise of economics as a new public faith, the scientific perspective is being increasingly overrun and sidelined. In nearly every domain, capital accumulation and economic growth routinely win out in conflicts with scientific information and caution. Capital driven economics has become the new public faith, complete with a moral “theology.”
  In 1776 Adam Smith, a moral philosopher, introduced a profoundly appealing idea about economic behaviour. In his book, The Wealth of Nations, he argued that self interested economic behaviour automatically serves to advance the common good of human settlements, communities and nations. In Smith’s discussion, this linkage was surrounded with certain operative moral conditions. His central idea, however, was soon abstracted from his carefully thought out context and put into service as a free standing moral imperative. It was taken up by the advocates of the emerging capital driven economy as a natural law, complete unto itself, that should be allowed to operate in an unfettered and unlimited way. In describing the way self interested economic behaviour is guided to produce the common good, Smith coined the expression “the unseen hand.” This concept has become the “moral theology” of capital driven economics.
From the time this idea passed into the category of natural law, faith in the providential operation of capital driven economic behaviour has increasingly become the focus of authority and decision making in modern society. Faith in the capital driven economy is now functionally replacing all other ways of making sense of the human world and of adapting to earth in all its social, material and energy processing aspects. Capital driven economics provides a structure of faith, a sense of guidance, and a world view. It has become a full fledged religion substitute, and the “unseen hand” has become, in effect, a God substitute.
This faith believes that unfettered capital accumulation and unlimited growth is the automatic result of getting out of the way all the old social and economic forms that had previously prevented the emergence of this “natural” economic behaviour. This belief system is convinced that the capital driven economy has risen to its present dominance because it is an inevitable evolutionary program of human nature and of human social and economic adaptation. This is the world view of those who seek to bring all of earth’s forms and processes within the jurisdiction of the capital driven market, and who see the operation of the market as the true and best source of social order.
A kind of mental lock down has been placed by this world view on the whole question of how human settlements can and should adapt to the biological processes, the material and energy options, and the social conditions of the earth environment. We are given to understand there is one right way - the way of capital driven economics - and that’s the end of it


But is it? How does capital driven economics stand in relation to its faith, in relation to its central moral claim? - the claim that free range capital will create the best kind of social order and the only kind of common good that is possible. Given its present ecological and social trajectory, I think it fair to say this faith is failing and its moral claim has been discredited.
The point here is not that self interested economic behaviour is a bad thing - it certainly is not. It is just that it does not and cannot generate the full context required for a generous development of the common good - a short fall of free market ideology that Adam Smith clearly articulated and provided for in his overall moral philosophy. Competitive, free market capitalism is to the social context of the common good as a hammer is to a full set of carpentry tools. And, as the saying has it, if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a  nail. We might add, in this context, if your only tool is money, everything will look like an investment, like an opportunity to capitalize on the development of resources, including that chilling formulation - “human resources.”
Although this utopian faith has now apparently triumphed in the contest for capital accumulation and economic growth, it seems likely to lose its moral authority for the same reason other totalizing systems have been abandoned - failure to support and sustain the health and social well being of human settlements and communities. This is an old story that has recurred at various times and in various places, and which the capital driven economy seems now poised to repeat. The problem this time, however, is that the crescendo of its performance is rising to a degree and scale of social disruption and ecological disintegration that seems on course for crashing many of the arrangements on which human settlements and communities have come to depend for a reasonably secure and satisfying way of life.

If my sense of this is correct, and economic faith is being eroded by the unsustainable contradictions it has created in the human-earth relationship, we need to make the demise of its credibility explicit. It is not a question of whether the capital driven economy has produced many good and useful things. It certainly has. It is not even a question of whether the capital driven economy has produced many hazardous and useless things. That too, it has certainly done. It is not a matter of adding up the pluses and the minuses to see which comes out in the lead. The question is whether the trajectory of the capital driven economy is leading to increased security and well being in a relatively equitable way wherever it prevails. And over and above that consideration is the question of whether it is leading to a functional enhancement of earth’s biotic integrity, or to increased breakdown and dysfunctionality at the biotic level. Given the evidence, that everyday accumulates in more and more ominous form on both the social and biotic level, the orientation of the trajectory we are on seems reasonably clear. If we don’t change course we are headed for a bad end - a bad end for biospheric integrity, and a bad end for human economic adaptation.
Faith that the “unseen hand” has been rolling out a “natural” evolutionary program of progressive economic development according to the principle of unfettered self interest, now faces the heavily weighted prospect that it has been proceeding under a false flag. It now appears that the capital driven economy is best understood as an experimental, high risk cultural project to be judged within the context of ecological and social integrity, instead of being seen as an inevitable evolutionary program to be taken on faith as the last best form of human development.
The end of economic faith, however, does not mean the end of the capital driven economy. Those who control the economy certainly have the means to continue it without the pretence of serving the common good. If we want a way of life that holds the common good front and center, we will have to reconfigured a whole range of economic, property and social relations within a context of ecological integrity.
Our human species has a long history of adaptational experience within the flux of earth process - some of it disastrous but much of it highly successful. Given the range of cultural forms and the diversity of economic adaptations that compose the human heritage, and given our knowledge of this history, it is reasonable to think that a better approach to the human-earth  relationship in general, and to economic adaptation in particular, could now be developed. It makes no sense for the human world to be increasingly locked into one particular configuration, especially when it portends ecological and, thus, social catastrophe.
The prime question is whether mainstream economic behaviour continues to be driven by capital accumulation and unlimited growth or shifts to biospheric adaptation. The former is a high stakes, high risk gamble of a truly reckless sort - a gamble that is increasingly based on the dream of a presently unknown technological breakthrough with regard to energy and material science that will, at the last minute, “save the world.” The latter approach is “conservative” in the true meaning of the word. It is an approach that aims to maximize the security and well being of earth’s life communities within the context of biological integrity as we understand it, and, at the same time remains open to the development of further insights - both technical and social - that serve to facilitate a mutually enhancing human-earth relationship.
How has it happened that we have come to such a high risk situation with regard to human adaptation? Why, after a long history of evolutionary conservatism, have we suddenly vaulted into such a precarious, high stakes human-earth relationship? Part of the answer may be just be chance, but another part connects with the another species of faith, to which I now turn for brief consideration.
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