Conservation and Cosmology
Modernity’s manic disposition—its constant teleological fluctuation between dread and excitement—owes to the anticipated arrival at the summit of two slopes: technological emancipation and ecological ruination. The pinnacle of these inseparable edifices marks the completion of humanity’s schism with nature, and invites us, from the loneliness of our remove, to contemplate the precipice.
Presuming we forego the temptation to step into the abyss of either nature’s utter collapse, or our own total enfeeblement to the thin atmospheres of virtual reality, how will we reverse down the mountain through the ecological and cultural wastes? What reserves of a discarded enlightenment will we rely on? What ethic will we have left to guide us, when we are alone with who we are?
Because one can only hope we will back down. We will realize that industrial growth and the growth of the natural world are contradictory, and we will choose to cherish the living over the dead, reality over artifice, fidelity over novelty. We will admit to the wrong-headedness of consumerism and recover a sense of propriety—the kind of self-restraint our forebears understood as the mark of a fledged individual. And we will prove that the last credit due the human race is the belief it can change. Or else why, in the first place, go to the mountaintop?
The ever more urgent question of how to disentangle our economic reliance on industry from our biological reliance on nature, assumes the culture we are now a part of is capable of solving such a quandary. It is not. Because we are impugned by the laws of subjectivity. Our impact on the planet is now so total, we cannot escape the thinking that produced it. The world we have made is the citizen we have aspired to be. If the world now suffers from the effects of our collective materialism, it is because that was the object of our collective imagination. To now ask how to “fix” our dying planet, is the equivalent of expecting to see through a mirror.
Because the state of our environment is a reflection of the consciousness that created it, the preoccupation with what precise change is needed cannot be answered without asking the precursory questions of what kind of world we want to inhabit, and what kind of people we want to be. Which is another way of saying we cannot motivate ourselves to fulfill an ethos that doesn’t exist. The failed stewardship of the planet is not so much the result of any deliberate assault on nature, as it is the consequence of dispensing with whatever sentiments inhibit consumption. But while we have had no use in our economy for feelings of moral indignation or the concept of inherent worth, it is those surrendered capacities we now need to recover.
Despite the presence of much individual concern for the environment, we are not culturally equipped to translate that concern into any kind of broader mobilization. The economic “externalization” of nature, which refuses to account for the environmental costs of industrial production, has similarly displaced our cultural affinity for nature, through the inverse refusal to grant nature meaning. The natural world is seen as external to human purpose, as it is external to human economics. Crucially, only a commitment to both ideas allows either to persist.
The severing of the natural world from human identity is, of course, illusionary. Nature is a totality, of which we are a part. But nature’s lack of meaning and worth is an important misconception for the industrial economy to perpetuate, since it enables industrialization—and confounds remediation—in two important ways.
When our perception of the natural community is limited to an inert, inexhaustible, “otherness,” disconnected in any essential way from the human community, it reduces the moral questions of consumption to matters of intent. The ravaging of an “external” environment—of an object, and not a collection of subjects—can only rank as a moral violation by some application of malice. Without demonstrating the personal failing of malevolence, there can be no sense of wrongdoing. And since the modern economy’s purpose can’t be said to explicitly malign nature, consumers can assuage any feelings of personal guilt or responsibility through their benign intentions for simple convenience.
The condition of nature’s ultimate meaninglessness further minimizes our implication by reframing the principle of environmental responsibility to the scale of environmental transgression. In the same way one often hears the complaint that individual actions to help the planet are futile, we perceive our own impacts on the planet as infinitesimal, and similarly unimportant. However, no one would consider the rightness or wrongness of, for instance, harming a child based on the degree to which the child was hurt. The principle is the full measure of culpability, not the scale. But a lifeless planet (in the sense of being unconnected to modern life) is incapable of having a principle applied to it, since there is no moral consequence for failing to adhere to the principle—no means of binding the contract with an “object.”
If alternatively, we see the phenomenal world as it actually is, as the source of all life, all energy, all innovation, all beauty, all meaning—when we see it as the ultimate self-referent—our individual complicity in the degradation of the phenomenal world is clear. Whether we intend to harm nature or not, we are aware of the likely consequences of our actions. And the scale of whatever insult we make towards nature, is still an insult. But even accepting these simple moral truisms misses the fundamental issue at the heart of our environmental problems.
All life is an expression of the universe. And the warblers, sawgrass, deer mice and trout lilies of the world are all particular expressions of that mystery. They reveal specific qualities of the universe we cannot know, but within the universe we are still a part of. They embody the universe’s potential. They are—sometimes literally—the flowering of the universe.
But in the quest to secure our own safety, and in tandem with our growing technological advancement, we have cut ourselves off from that mystery. We have sought to free ourselves from the universe’s struggle to come into being, and insulated ourselves from the destructive forces of the universe’s creation, by mediating nature with technology. However in the process of providing for ourselves, we have replaced the ultimate self-referent of a sentient, evolving, emergent universe, with a soulless, inanimate and self-seeking technology. A technology that has become the very kind of destructive force on the planet we originally tried to escape.
The now obvious truth is that humanity cannot avoid our ultimate condition. We are not merely “dependent” on nature. We are a unique expression of the universe’s story, which manifests symbiotically within the larger living community. The answer to the question of how to “fix” our dying planet, lies in the answer to the question of how to re-enter a relationship that not only respects nature’s physical properties, but validates a process of mutual actualization. This is what the environmental movement truly represents: the realization of the human soul in the witness of an ascendant nature.
When our care for the environment coincides with our awe for the environment; when a deep respect for natural communities guides the development of our human communities; when the healing of the planet serves to restore our own capacities to love, forgive, and to evolve, then—finally—we will have made the transformation at the mountaintop. And only then, in the company of nature, we will find our way back home; when our works on nature’s behalf become, in the words of the ecotheologian Thomas Berry, “the ever-renewing moments of celebration of the universe, moments when the universe is in some depth of communion with itself in the intimacy of all its components.”