|The Ecological World View and the Faith of Ecology
I have previously referred to the ecological world view and would now like to describe what this expression denotes in the context of recent cultural experience. This brings us to the second part of my title - the faith of ecology. Ecology is primarily a science - the study of relationships within ecosystems. But it is also an orientation for living, a way of making sense of and adapting to the functional integrity of the biosphere in general and specific ecosystems in particular. This discussion returns us to heavy sledding, but please bear with me; we will emerge into some grass roots activists considerations and some very specific recommendations of what needs to be done.
A fundamental reorientation is taking place around the question of collective human security and well being. Issues of justice, peace, and ecological integrity are all converging on the reality of the human-earth relationship. In this convergence, economic adaptation appears as a central feature in each area of concern. Ecologically sound economic adaptation is central to the long range security and well being of communities, peoples and nations.
The prime question with which human knowledge in its scientific, humanistic, and religious modes must now be concerned is the present state and immediate future of the human-earth relationship, and its expression in economic adaptation. The human future will be reasonably secure or disastrously disrupted depending on the way economic life is arranged and carried on. The relationships that are generating resource wars, social triage, entrenched inequities, and ecological disruption are all focused in economic adaptation. Ameliorating these conditions and altering the human trajectory toward greater equity, security, and well being requires changing the economic adaptation arrangements of the human-earth relationship.
This is the broadest possible concern that can be placed before the conscience of all human communities. We might ask why this concern should be a particular focus for religious communities since it must be addressed at all social, economic, political, educational and professional levels? The answer is simply that religious authenticity depends precisely on bringing the energy of love and the work of community to the broadest possible concern for the human future. The Religious Society of Friends, historically, has been particularly effective in developing this sense of religious authenticity. The insights that emerged within the Quaker movement around this sense of religious authenticity, and became encoded in Friends testimonies, are now often felt and expressed as the common heritage of a much broader community of conscience. For Friends to make a focused study of economics in an ecological context, is to renew our comprehensive sense of the sacred, a sense expressed by John Woolman when he observed; “The produce of the earth is a gift from our gracious Creator to the inhabitants, and to impoverish the earth now to support outward greatness appears to be an injury to the succeeding age.”
One way to approach the study of the ecological world view, and its implications for economic adaptation, is to ask what are the main areas of information, knowledge, and experience that must be brought into focus? For the purpose of this discussion, four primary tracks will be identified and briefly described. Each track is referenced to a person whose work has contributed in a significant and accessible way to the creation of the ecological world view. Although the figures referenced are well known to many students of ecology and culture, it will be useful to present their contributions in a way that links their work into a composite understanding of earth process, cultural process and economic adaptation. Each of these figures has been adept at coining phrases that catch and communicate the organizing concepts of their work. In the scientific, earth process track we have James Lovelock with the “Gaia hypothesis”. In the cultural history track we have Thomas Berry with “the new story.” In the ecology and economic adaptation track we have Barry Commoner with “the closing circle.” In the human-earth relationship track we Aldo Leopold with “the land ethic.”
The Gaia Hypothesis. In considering James Lovelock’s work, a clear distinction must be made between his formulation of the Gaia hypothesis and the subsequent adoption and promotion of the concept by others. While he resisted attempts to read more into his scientific work than the evidence warranted, he eventually realized that the Gaia concept had escaped his protection and had taken on a cultural life well beyond any influence he could exert. With good grace he came to allow that those who had imported the Gaia story into their religious world view may well be onto something about which his own experience and inclination stopped short. The scientific work and scientific reasoning so ably recounted and illustrated in his book, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth, has stood the test of over two decades. It is this scientific work that is the focus of this discussion.
Through his experimental work on the interactions of chemical elements and compounds in earth history and in the development of life, James Lovelock recognized a feedback and regulatory process. The history of this process helps provide an explanatory context for the persistence and flourishing of life within the environment of the planet. The evidence with which he was working led to a surprising and a compelling conclusion: The evolution of the chemical composition of the atmosphere, and its increasing suitability for the flourishing of biotic process, could only be explained, in scientific terms, through the regulatory contribution of the whole biotic complex itself (the biosphere). The evidence indicated that, having once gotten started, life, as a collective phenomenon, became a direct contributing agent to the maintenance of earth’s atmosphere within a certain range of chemical composition - the very range, it turned out, required for the further development of life. And it is only through this continuing regulation of the atmosphere by planetary life that planetary life continues to exist and is able to flourish with a high level of diversity.
The kind of self regulating behaviour that Lovelock describes within the planetary ecosystem, is a defining characteristic of an organism. He brings this question into focus: Is the development and maintenance of the biosphere an expression of the whole earth system? Are human communities, along with all other life communities, agents in the metabolic process of a recognizable, earth encompassing form of life? While allowing that this interpretation moves beyond the comfort zone of some biologists and earth system scientists, it is the case that Lovelock’s work has established a dramatically new view of life within the context of earth process.. At the very least, and without going into questions of intelligence or intention, the evidence James Lovelock established argues convincingly that life process and earth process are a single, integral event, an event that is continually unfolding a tapestry of interdependent forms and processes.
With the Gaia hypothesis, ecological intuition acquires a comprehensive scientific context. Those who were predisposed toward seeing earth as a holistic reality, responded with delight. Aboriginal peoples responded with a slightly amused patience. They said, in effect, “That’s good medicine you have there. Too bad it took so long for you to come up with it. Welcome to the circle.” Those who were determined to regard earth’s environment as a stockpile of raw materials and infinitely manipulatable processes were understandably alarmed that their industrial ventures and quest for economic growth could now be held to account against a history of biotic integrity.
Lovelock’s scientific work provides a comprehensive context for the study of ecological relationships. It sets all life communities, including the human, squarely within the history of earth process, and shows them to be entirely beholden for survival to the continuing integrity of Gaia - life process at the planetary level.
The New Story. Thomas Berry, a Catholic priest, trained in theology and the history of culture, has come to regard himself as a “geologian”. After a long life in the scholarship of religion and culture, Berry has developed an understanding of the human story that makes earth and its processes primary. Berry sees the human-earth relationship as central to the unfolding of culture, and all the facets of behaviour that culture encompasses - most especially economic behaviour.
Berry observes that modern Western cultures are in a state of confusion with regard to guidance, and are destructively floundering with regard to the human-earth relationship. The story of human origin, cultural development and moral orientation that has been built up out of the Judaic-Christian and Greco-Roman contexts has become seriously dysfunctional. Individuals and subculture groups may still organize their lives and behaviour according to some version of the “old story,” but in its larger public and cultural dimensions it is failing. Among the most notable examples of this failure is the contemporary state of the human-earth relationship. Berry notes this cultural failure as an autistic like blind siding of the organic circumstances of our lives and of earth’s biotic processes in general. The Western narrative has not engaged the human-earth relationship in a way that offers adequate guidance. Instead, it has spawned a deviant dominion story that now provides the only comprehensive guidance taken seriously at a public level in modern societies. This is the narrative of technological domination, maximum resource development, unfettered capital accumulation, and unlimited economic growth. It is promoted, and largely accepted, as the only reasonable scenario for the human-earth relationship.
Thomas Berry describes an alternative. He sees a “new story” and a new sense of guidance in the composite narrative of scientific cosmology, evolutionary biology, global cultural history, and ecological knowledge. He combines the story of earth as it has emerged from cosmic process, the story of life as it has emerged from earth process, and the story of the human as it has emerged from the culture of earth. He sees ecological understanding emerging from both scientific work and an increased awareness of the beauty and diversity of Creation. In his collection of essays, The Dream of Earth, he introduces his work on the “new story.” In the book, The Universe Story - written with cosmologist Brian Swimme - he presents the whole sweep of cosmic unfolding, earth history and human emergence. In his most recent book, The Great Work: Our Way into the Future, he offers a wide range of guidance for understanding and developing a mutually enhancing human-earth relationship.
While Lovelock speaks mainly to the scientific track, Berry incorporates the scientific into the story of culture and re-presents the human as a constituent part of earth’s revelatory emergence and unfolding. Berry’s work honors the scientific-cultural dimension and the religious-cultural dimension in the same discourse, and has become a principle guide for the cultural track feeding into the ecological world view.
The Closing Circle. In the late 1950’s Brian Hocking, a well known biologist of the time, published a book with the arresting title - Biology or Oblivion: Lessons from the Ultimate Science. He argued that the trajectory of our society’s industrial-commercial adaptation is in serious conflict with the way the organic world actually works, and, if we persist in this conflict, we are bound to crash our civilization. The book was issued by a small publisher, received little attention, and rapidly disappeared from view.
In 1971 Barry Commoner, also a biologist, published a book that picked up on Hocking’s theme. The Closing Circle was brought out by a mainstream publisher, received major attention, and became a prime text of the emerging environmental movement. As a professional researcher and educator on the physiochemical basis of biological processes, Commoner is especially qualified to address the fundamental conflict between biospheric integrity and the technology of our economic system. He points out that behind the form and functioning of earth’s biotic environment there is - so-to-speak - two to three billion years of “research and development.” As a way of thinking about the intervention of modern technology into this context, he offers a striking analogy. If you open the back of a fine Swiss watch and poke a sharp pencil into its works, there is an infinitesimal chance this action will improve its functioning. The probability is much greater, of course, that the watch will be damaged. The watch is the result of a long tradition of highly skilled craft work, and is not likely to be improved by such intervention. From the standpoint of biological systems, the modern capital driven economy is wielding its technology in a strikingly similar way, and with predictably disruptive and damaging consequences.
Barry Commoner was among the first to apply biological systems analysis to the dilemma that modern economics has created around the human-earth relationship. This dilemma is clearly illustrated by the fact that in order to maintain the capital driven economy under present conditions, it is necessary to increasingly damage the functional integrity of earth’s ecosystems, and the biosphere as a whole. From the standpoint of science, this situation is devolutionary; from the standpoint of enlightened humanism, it is absurd; from the standpoint of religion, it is blasphemous.
Commoner’s analysis of this dilemma is based on the “four laws of ecology:” “(1) Everything is connected to everything else: (2) Everything must go somewhere: (3) Nature know best: (4) There is no such thing as a free lunch.” While at first glance these statements may appear simplistic, they are solidly rooted in biological knowledge and in the thermodynamics of energy and matter. Taken together, they describe the ecological world view and offer the guidance needed for an ecologically based economic system.
In a second book, The Poverty of Power, Commoner develops a schematic formula that is both profound and memorable. It goes like this: Human settlements and social order depend on the operation of three great interrelated systems; (1) the planetary ecosystem, (2) the production system, and (3) the exchange system (monetary system). Further description goes like this: (1) The encompassing ecosystem is the source of all materials and processes that support human life: (2) The production system is the network of agricultural, industrial, and service activities that convert earth’s materials, processes, and relationships into the real wealth that sustains human settlements and social life: (3) The monetary system represents the value of this wealth in ways that facilitate its exchange. It governs how this real wealth is distributed and what is done with it.
In an ecologically sound arrangement of these three systems, the governing influence would flow from the ecosystem, to the production system, and then to the monetary system. The continuing integrity of the ecosystem would determine the design and operation of the production system. The stability and good service of the production system would determine the design and functioning of the monetary system. Our contemporary economic reality, however, is exactly the reverse. The monetary system drives the production system into unlimited economic growth. The production system, in order to meet this demand, frequently operates without regard for the health and integrity of the ecosystem. The ecosystem, in turn, is disrupted and damaged by the operation of the production system. The governing influence is flowing the wrong way, and the environmental crisis is the result. These comparative relationships can be diagrammed as follows:
Governing Influence >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>Outcome
Monetary System >>>>Production System >>>>Ecosystem = Ecological Over Stress & Breakdown
Ecosystem >>>>Production System >>>>Monetary System = Ecological Health & Resilience
It can be noted that another approach to ecologically sound economics raises the prospect that specific monetary reforms and specific fiscal policies could alter the way money influences the production system to such an extent that the production system begins to function more and more within the integrity of the ecosystem. This approach seems well worth exploring. Meanwhile, Barry Commoner’s formula clearly illustrates the dilemma that we must address on our way to an ecologically sound way of life.
The Land Ethic. And lastly, consideration must turn to the founding figure of modern ecological consciousness - Aldo Leopold. Leopold was a conservation biologist whose work encompassed field research, university teaching, public policy and literary accomplishment. He had the ability to frame his thoughts and insights in plain, memorable language. His best known book, A Sand County Almanac, published in 1949, collected his sketches from the field and his reflections on the relationship of land and people. One would never suppose from such a modest title that this book would become one of the prime sources of ecological consciousness in our time. Leopold’s skill was twofold: He articulated a philosophy of ecology in a language of such quiet beauty that we get not only the conceptual understanding, but a deep sense of the spirit in which he lived and worked. In this respect he was a figure much like John Woolman. He died of heart failure fighting a forest fire on a neighbor’s farm in Wisconsin.
In A Sand County Almanac he argued that the recognition of the “land community” is the preeminent discovery of modern science. This may seem a curious claim when such an array of dramatic discoveries, especially since his time, could be named to this honour. But if we think carefully about this, I believe we will see he is correct, and that he will continue to be correct for as long into the future as we care to imagine. The recognition of the “land community”, and its ecological integrity, is the fundamental context of human adaptation and well being. The same cannot be said for any other context of scientific discovery.
Leopold suggested the next major step in the evolution of human moral sensibility will be the development of “the land ethic.” He offered this formulation; “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.” Many volumes have since been written on the philosophy of ecology, but it is this simple statement, with its emphasis on the aesthetic factor in moral awakening, that has become the touchstone of the ecological world view.
In summary: James Lovelock describes biotic emergence as an expression of earth process, an expression that is characterized by a regulatory enhancement of earth’s environment in favour of the phenomenon of life. This ecological world view inducts us into a great responsibility, the responsibility of being citizen coworkers in the commonwealth of life. Thomas Berry describes the cultural context of this citizenship, and details the range of activities that flow from the exercise of this responsibility. He calls these activities “the great work.” Barry Commoner describes the processes and relationships that compose the organic world. He explains why the capital driven economic system is deconstructing ecosystem integrity and cannot be sustained. He describes the ecological orientation toward economic adaptation. Aldo Leopold describes the enhancement of the human-earth relationship based on the emergence of “the land ethic.” The land ethic, according to Leopold, comes into effect when aesthetic experience of earth and its life communities rises into love.
This is the point at which science, culture, economics, and the human-earth relationship converge into the ecological world view, and the ecological world view becomes the expression of authentic, revelatory experience. This experience unfolds with a sense of presence that calls us to wake up within a greater life of beauty, service and love. If we can take up this ethic, the ethic that closes the circle on the human-earth relationship, and makes us responsible citizens of the earth community, that greater life may yet come to grace our ways of doing and being.
From Theory to Practice
In 1987 I was invited to make a presentation at the First Annual Conference of Christianity and Ecology held here in Indiana at Lake Webster Conference Center. By that time I had been working for over a decade and half in agricultural production, food processing, and direct marketing with a view to the development of community based, sustainable food systems. I was asked to speak on “Agriculture and the Church.” My talk was titled “A Sustainable Food System and a Living Faith.” To now move this talk from theory to practice, I will finish up by reviewing some thoughts from that presentation, and from another essay on the same subject published in a Mennonite periodical in 1990. In this latter essay, titled “Economics as a Religious Responsibility,” I argued that economic behaviour which systematically damages the goodness of God in Creation leads, in effect, to a kind of functional atheism - a denial of the primary relationship in which Creation engages us. I will first list my thirteen concluding recommendations.
If we wish to have a tolerable environment and avoid the practice of a functional atheism, we must work to create an economic system that is supportively adapted to earth process. We need an economic system that nourishes all levels of life and spirit, which exercises the governance of restraint, and which heals and renews as a matter of course in its daily operation.
Obviously, we cannot recreate the village economy of the pre-industrial era, although where elements of community based self-provisioning are still in place they are well worth conserving. But just as obviously we cannot, in good conscience, in the long run, sustain a formof economic adaptation that is systematically disabling the biotic integrity of Creation. We need to develop a new ecologically based, social economy. The activity of marketing is not the problem. The marketing process must mature our of its simplistic motivation - the production of money - and take up the production of social and ecological health. An ecologically based economy must provide basic goods and services on a more-or-less equitable basis from a material and energy allotment consistent with the organic renewal processes of earth’s ecosystems.
What structures, processes, and patterns of relationship move our economic activity from earth degrading to earth maintaining? What are some of the features of an ecologically based, social economy. What, with respect to social and economic development, are the new issues for religious responsibility.