011 The State of the World


Since reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring thirty years ago I’ve been an increasingly committed “environmentalist.” Thus I routinely read the Worldwatch Institute’s yearly “report on progress toward a sustainable society.” State of the World 1992, by Lester R. Brown et al. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, c. 1992), is the ninth in the series. These volumes are now translated into more than a score of languages and serve as texts for various classes in over 1000 college courses. They consistently probe environmental issues and, equally important, seek to illustrate constructive solutions to the problems presented.

State of the World 1992 begins with an brief essay by Sandra Postel, “Denial in the Decisive Decade,” which argues that we’re much like alcoholics who’d rather deny their condition than face the facts and change their lifestyle. Refusing to admit or respond to the realities of pollution and global deterioration, many of us would rather just deny such things exist. From reviews I’ve read, I gather that Dixy Lee Ray’s Trashing the Planet fits into the denying category.

Years ago Dr. Ray headed up the Atomic Energy Corporation and has always insisted that nuclear power is safe. But according to a chapter in The State of the World 1992, one of the things we’d like to deny is our inability to safely dispose of nuclear waste. President Bush has confidently called for doubling the number of nuclear power plants in the next 40 years, while blithely ignoring the sobering truth that we’ve not yet found ways to store incredibly toxic nuclear wastes! We need, insists Ms Postel, to escape some of our addictions, our dependencies, before we can really resolve many environmental issues.

“Conserving Biological Diversity,” by John C. Ryan, stresses the beautiful blend of diverse species present in creation. “Complex beyond understanding and valuable beyond measure,” he says, “biological diversity is the total variety of life on earth. No one knows, even to the nearest order of magnitude, how many life forms humanity shares the planet with . . . .” (p. 9). What we do know, however, is that we’re driving to extinction at least one species each day. Unlike Noah, who helped preserve all creatures, great and small, we moderns seem determined to boot them off the ark! Various factors contribute to this process, but the destruction of habitat, such as the draining of wetlands for urban or seashore development, seems to be the main villain.

Christopher Flavin’s “Building a Bridge to Sustainable Energy” is one of the volume’s best chapters. Lots of folks decry the destruction caused by burning fossil fuels, but few of them are interested in cutting back on the energy such burning provides us. Flavin outlines sane steps toward a future blessed by “sustainable energy,” i.e. non-polluting power. Ultimately, the widespread use of solar power, and the use of hydrogen produced by solar energy, promises to provide an amazingly clean system. “Solar hydrogen could eventually become the foundation of a new global energy economy” (p. 43).

To reach such a solar-hydrogen economy, however, will require some intermediate steps, such as the increased use of natural gas (quite clean-burning, as fossil fuels go), which could ease us into a more ideal world. The future Flavin envisions–and we have the scientific and technical ability to reach it–should be shared with creative young people. For it offers hope for environmental health as well as challenges us to engineer wiser ways to obtain and utilize energy.

“Reforming the Livestock Economy,” by Alan Durning and Holly Brough, focuses on an easily-ignored environmental issue. There are now three times as many domestic animals as humans on earth, and some of them exact enormous demands from the environment. Though cattle, on old-fashioned (Amish-style) farms, once filled a valuable ecological niche, eating roughage and producing fertilizer, today’s cattle industry proves at almost every point destructive. Wealthy consumers who like fat-laced steaks and bacon not only give themselves cardiovascular problems–they also sustain a food-production system which, in the U.S., feeds 70 percent of its grain to livestock. Rain forests in Brazil have been felled to create cattle ranches, whose beef helps sustain fast food chains in the U.S.

In Mexico, the amount of land “planted to corn, rice, wheat, and beans, the staples of the Mexican poor, has declined steadily since 1965, while that planted to sorghum has grown phenomenally. Sorghum, used to raise chicken and pork for urban consumers, is now Mexico’s second-ranking crop by area” (p. 75). Some 30 percent of Mexican grain goes to feed livestock while 22 percent of the people are malnourished! Livestock have a vital role in healthy agriculture, the authors contend. But today’s livestock “industry” causes far much harm to be sustained.

Passing over essays which deal with such issues as mining and urban development, let me glance at the final chapter, “Launching the Environmental Revolution,” by Lester Brown. This coming June, in Rio de Janario, the United Nations will hold a Conference on Environment and Development. It promises to be the largest U.N. conference ever held, with some 10,000 official delegates joined by perhaps 20,000 concerned activists.

In concert with such international concern, Brown argues, we need to launch a revolution. Unless we do, we’ll keep slipping into “a world where famine expands beyond the capacity of international relief agencies, where cancer reaches epidemic proportions, and where the decline in living conditions now under way in some 40 countries continues to spread . . . ” (p. 177). We know how to do what needs to be done! What we need is the will power, the commitment, to do the task. Individuals, as well as governments, can–and have–made a difference! “Saving the planet is not a spectator sport” (p. 190).

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Each year Calvin College assembles a team of scholars to collectively write a treatise addressing some significant contemporary issue. I reviewed one of the volumes, Dancing in the Dark, in an earlier issue of “Reedings.” In 1980, the Calvin team published an outstanding ecological study entitled Earthkeeping. Now the general editor of that work, Loren Wilkinson, has supervised the publication of an updated (“greatly revised and augmented” he claims) version, Earthkeeping in the ’90’s: Stewardship of Creation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, c. 1991).

The original volume’s subtitle read “natural resources” rather than “creation.” Wilkinson stresses the significance of the changed wording, for by using creation “more consistently to describe this vast, dynamic, beautiful, but suffering planet, we hope to contribute to a recovery and deepening of the full biblical doctrine of creation: that heaven and earth are the Lord’s, the product of the Creator’s ongoing love–a love which calls us, through creation and through Christ, back to our original task in creation, which is to be gardeners of the earth, stewards of what God has entrusted to us” (p. x).

The first of four sections in the book is entitled “The State of the Planet.” Needless to say, it’s in a sorry state! Unlike other creatures, who seem to live within limits and rarely degrade their habitat, we humans tend to overstep our rightful limits and destroy the very land we live on. Topsoil disappears, fellow creatures are pushed to extinction, population growth seems out-of-control, and energy resources are rapidly consumed. Acid rain, ozone layer depletion, global warming all threaten the integrity of earth’s ecosystems. The picture’s not pretty, but it must be viewed; the data’s disturbing, but it must be faced!

The second section considers “The Earth Keepers.” Classical and Christian attitudes and environmental practices are compared with those which have developed during the past five centuries. The North American environmental story (including the emergence of environmentalism and some of its more radical quasi-religious variations) is summarized. Then contemporary philosophies and practices come under scrutiny. To understand why we’re here we must know where we’ve been–and this section gives the reader a valuable historical perspective, full of philosophical and theological insights.

Section three declares “The Earth Is the Lord’s.” St Bonaventure’s declaration sets the tone for this section: “He, therefore who is not illuminated by such great splendor of created things is blind; he who is not awakened by such great clamor is deaf; he who does not praise God because of all these effects is dumb; he who does not note the first principle from such great signs is foolish. Open your eyes, therefore, prick up your spiritual ears, open your lips and apply your heart, that you may see our God in all creatures” (The Mind’s Road to God).

Through a careful study of “dominion” passages in the Old Testament, the authors of Earthkeeping in the ’90’s argue that we enjoy “dominion” over other creatures only insofar as we live out our birthright as men and women created in God’s image. The “image of God” should be understood not as some given essence, stamped into our nature like an ancient seal pressed into soft wax. Rather, according to Douglas John Hall, in a careful study entitled Imaging God: Dominion as Stewardship, our “image” is relational: “it describes our unique calling to be in responsible relationship with God, with each other, and with the rest of creation” (p. 285).

Consequently, though humans were indeed placed “over” creation they were called to follow God’s example in caring for the earth–to “till it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). After carefully discussing the Hebrew words, the authors declared: “The significant thing about both words is that they describe actions undertaken not primarily for the sake of the doer but for the sake of the object of the action. The kind of tilling which is to be done is a service of the earth. The keeping of the garden is not just for human comfort but is a kind of preservation. Both verbs severely restrict the way the other two verbs–“subdue” and “rule”–are to be applied” (p. 287). Thus dominion, in the authors’ opinion, means the same thing as stewardship.

This scholarly treatment of biblical teaching, unfortunately, rarely influences the articles circulated by secular environmentalists. All too many of them continue repeating charges leveled decades ago by Lynn White, Jr., in a challenging article entitled “The Historic Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” wherein he argued that the biblical injunction to “subdue and rule” the earth led Christians to abuse creation. While White accurately accused many Christians of ruthlessly trampled over the globe, his sweeping generalizations regarding biblical teaching simply do not withstand scrutiny. The authors of Earthkeeping, devoutly attentive to the meaning of Scripture, working with the original language, help us understand what the Bible really says about our rightful relationship with creation.

To serve God as His stewards, tenderly caring for all He created, is our highest calling. Our uniqueness as humans, the thing that makes us fully human, stems from our relationship with the Creator God. Knowing Him, loving Him, leads us to serve Him. Since He obviously created a world which is His, not ours, and since He considers it “good,” we’re called to serve Him as stewards of His world. Were we to do so, we would serve our Lord Jesus, the living Word who indwells all He created. Rightly doing this, we will help effect righteousness and peace in our world.

This is a fine work. I know of no better thoroughly Christian environmental treatise. Trustworthy in its data, persuasive in its argumentation, readable in its presentation, it deserves widespread study and discussion.

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In The Economy of the Earth: Philosophy, Law, and the Environment (New York: Cambridge University Press, c. 1988), Mark Sagoff urges us to develop stronger ethical and legal norms os as to preserve the environment through social regulation. Taking issue with those who would reduce all environmental issues to economics and its concern for commodities and profit/loss data, he argues “that these problems are primarily moral, aesthetic, cultural, and political and that they must be addressed in those terms” (p. 6). Those who mindlessly espouse the notion that “you can’t legislate morality” might as well close Sagoff’s book at page six, for that’s exactly what he thinks we must do!

Central to his endeavor is the task of dislodging “cost-benefit analysis” from the center of policy-making, law-shaping endeavors. Surely there are goods and services, entities and experiences, which cannot be measured by or reduced to dollars and cents! And surely such things have intrinsic worth which transcends personal preferences. To establish moral and legal weight for intangibles such as community bonds or scenic beauties, and to discover objective criteria for allegedly subjective moral judgments, is Sagoff’s task.

He does so, in part, because once “we accept the theory that values are subjective, that they are just ‘wants,’ we must also accept the idea that managers–whether they be therapists, lawyers, or cost-benefit analysts–are in the best position to handle them for us. We must also accept the idea that we all want the same thing, namely, the satisfaction of as many preferences as possible, taking their intensity into account” (p. 48). Sagoff rejects such utilitarianism because it so easily allows the welfare state to function with little regard for anything but physiological/economic concerns. “We cannot permit welfare economics to replace the moral function of public law. The antinomianism of cost-benefit analysis is not enough” (p. 49).

There is, in fact, an important difference between preferences and judgments. To reduce moral judgments to economic preferences renders one (whether as a person or as a society) incapable of making decisions in accord with what should be done, whether or not it gives me (or us) pleasure. Natural “resources” such as timber have too frequently been parceled out unwisely, satisfying certain persons’ or corporations’ desires but illustrating poor long-range judgment. Allowing the “bottom line” to dictate environmental policies, ignoring the fact that precious scenes or wildlife or pure water have worth and dignity which cannot be reduced to money, forces us to forego making genuinely moral judgments.

Conversely, when environmentalists champion wilderness preservation, they argue for its “cultural importance and symbolic meaning,” articulating “a conviction and not a desire” (p. 94). Sagoff strongly emphasizes the importance of this distinction. Some things are clearly right, other things clearly wrong. He cites a New Yorker cartoon which shows Satan welcoming entrants to hell with these words: “You’ll find there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ here, just what works for you” (p. 99). What we must recover, if we’re to stop earth’s destruction, is a clear consciousness of absolutes–some things are simply wrong! Beliefs, convictions, need neither be reduced to nor confused with subjective preferences.

In a chapter entitled “nature and the national idea,” Sagoff reflects upon the nation’s history. The Pilgrims and Puritans, with few exceptions, saw the wilderness as a foe, something to be conquered. In the words of Michael Wigglesworth, creation was a “Devil’s den”: “A waste and howling wilderness / Where none inhabited / / But hellish fiends and brutish men / That devils worshiped” (p. 125). Such comments prodded Perry Miller, the great historian, to say “‘that the founders had no qualms about doing harm to nature by thrusting civilization upon it.'” Indeed, “‘They reasoned in terms of wealth, comfort, amenities, power, in terms which we may conveniently call, though they had not been derived from Bentham, “utilitarian”‘” (p. 126).

Yet, alongside this utilitarian tradition has grown a quite different perspective, evident as early as Jonathan Edwards, who saw nature suffused with poetic symbols of God. Religious thinkers like Edwards, plus an assortment of literary figures, have espoused a “covenant” relationship with creation. In Sagoff’s opinion: “The covenant we have made with nature, which is as much an obligation to use well our natural environment as to protect it–and, in any case, not to destroy it wantonly or in a wasteful manner–historically had religious rather than economic or even literary and artistic origins.

Ever since Edwards in The Nature of True Virtue, published together with his Dissertation in 1755, defined true virtue as ‘benevolence’ or ‘love for being in general’ and distinguished it sharply from love or benevolence for the things that pertain to oneself, including beauty, family, country and the like, we have been found to recognize that our virtue as a people depends to a large extent on our benevolence toward our natural environment” (p. 141).

Could we but make central, rather than peripheral, the “love for being in general” Edwards espoused, we could establish a basis for environmental ethics and law. At the moment, given the state of American jurisprudence, where everyone’s “rights” must be given an equal hearing if not absolute protection, where “rights” reflect personal preferences rather than perspicacious judgments or prudence, there’s little hope for environmental policies which elicit widespread, lasting support.

Though Sagoff writes clearly enough for non-philosophers and non-lawyers to follow his argument, The Economy of the Earth addresses more of a select, scholarly community than the public at large. The book is carefully argued, factually precise, full of references to important court decisions as well as philosophical argument.

Those of us interested in social and political thought, those of us concerned with public policy, will share one reviewer’s judgment: “His book serves as an outstanding example of how applied philosophy should be done, and it should be compulsory reading for every economist working in the field of public policy” (The Times Higher Education Supplement).

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