Field Trip- water sampling, Iowa State Department of Agronomy.
CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Today is Earth Day, the 45th celebration of what was launched as a symbol of environmental responsibility and stewardship. This “could be the most exciting year in environmental history,” according to the Earth Day Network. “The year in which economic growth and sustainability join hands. The year in which world leaders finally pass a binding climate change treaty. The year in which citizens and organizations divest from fossil fuels and put their money into renewable energy solutions.”
Or it could be just another missed opportunity to understand the most important discovery of the environmental movement: the idea that there are good ways and bad ways to deal with the natural world. Despite the deference paid to evolution, human beings have been in the driver’s seat of this planet for at least a couple of centuries and many do not like being told that they are, so to speak, running it into the ground.
Yet it’s true; the Earth is groaning under the burden of man’s insatiable appetite for more – more land for production, more minerals, more fuel, more dumping grounds for waste – and needs to be saved. Not saved from people as such (though some would disagree), but from their greed, their carelessness, their short-sightedness.
The United Nations reports that last year, 41.8 million tonnes of so-called e-waste – mostly fridges, washing machines and other domestic appliances at the end of their life – was dumped. That’s the equivalent of 1.15 million heavy trucks, forming a line 23,000km long, says the report dramatically. Less than one-sixth of all e-waste was properly recycled. In 2013, the e-waste total was 39.8 million tonnes – and on present trends, the 50-million-tonne mark could be reached in 2018.
And no-one can escape the daily warnings about atmospheric pollution from human generated carbon emissions that is allegedly driving global warming. Rising oceans, increasing droughts, extreme weather of all sorts threaten both the Earth’s ecology and its ability to sustain whole populations.
Environmental and climate sceptics tend to dismiss such alarms as symptoms of pessimism about man and his ability to manage change, a loss of faith in progress, or just a bid for political power. They may have other powers to contend with when Pope Francis produces his promised encyclical on Creation – a document anticipated with optimism by many greens.
But the green movement already expresses a philosophy that a whole line of popes and theologians have endorsed, even if the environmentalists are not aware of it. It is the idea of natural law.
Implicit in the green view of the world is the idea that the Earth has its own ecology, a natural order that man should respect and work in harmony with. Radicals, or “deep greens” might even say that humans should relinquish all dominion over the rest of nature and submit themselves completely to its order, but this would be irrational, would it not? Whether by accident or design, man is equipped with reason, which puts him in a superior position with regard to other life forms and leads him to improve his own condition – or else we would still be cave men.
However, the greens get one important thing right: even from his position of “dominion”, to use a Biblical image, man has to respect nature even as he “subdues” it. If he pushes his privileged position too far and destroys the natural environment, he destroys his own home and means of sustenance. In practical terms this usually means that some humans – those with the means to avoid the consequences of their depredations – spoil the Earth for others, whether in the Amazon Basin, or the Niger Delta, or the former forest lands of Indonesia. In the long term nature will recover or adapt, but in the meantime generations of people suffer.
So we can thank the greens for pointing out that human reason has to be guided by the nature of things – by ecosystems, by the laws inscribed in living things – and not let itself be carried away by its own cleverness and technical ability, to the point where dominion becomes domination and domination becomes destruction.
And that is not all, since this idea has far-reaching consequences for human beings themselves. Without realising it, the saviours of Mother Earth have taught us that we humans have to respect our own nature. We are part of the natural world; our bodies carry instructions for the preservation and propagation of the species, for its flourishing and for a way of life befitting our dignity as rational beings (and, for believers, even more).
Reason alone is not enough to guide us along this path. If it has led us astray in our use of the forests and oceans and the very air we breathe, perhaps it is also leading us along false paths with regard to our humanity.
When, for instance, we talk about same-sex marriage, transgender persons, babies produced in laboratory dishes, babies produced for gay couples, are we not describing the equivalent of a dangerously overheated world? Aren’t these things signs that we need a Human Nature Day and a global campaign to bring reason and technology back into the service of human ecology?
“Our world is worth saving,” say the Earth Day campaigners. That is certainly true, but what would it profit us to save the world and lose our very selves?
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.