Friday, December 18, 2009

Musings on News(ings): Nature's Salvation

Note the clever ambiguity of the title to this blog post, my second in half-cocked summarizing and semi-ranting about major topics in the blogosphere of late. What's she going on about this time? you may ask, not at all impressed. Well... The two big, glaring, angrily-harumphing topics circling the same central issue of global warming and the nonsense going on at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, of course! The role of skepticism and the trustworthiness of the scientific community; and the extent to which environmentalism is "religious" and/or dangerously "pagan."

Where to begin? Surfing from link to link this morning over four-cheese soufflé and a hot chocolate, I came across this article by Jonathan Abrams about his conversion from AGW-denier to true believer, and how this was not a scientific or even a rational conversion, but really a change of heart. It seems that among the scientific rationalists and new atheists, especially those of libertarian and right-wing persuasion, there is some dissension in the ranks about exactly what role skepticism should play, and just how far we should push such skepticism when it risks undermining common sense and the consensus of the intellectual (read: scientific) community.

My impression, from reading only a few select blogs mind you, is that the question of skepticism is one that hits very near the heart of New Atheist belief. They debate its relative merits and applications with a seriousness and intensity that rivals religious debates over scriptural literalism and transubstantiation, with global warming (and the embarrassment of "Climategate") sparking new fervor as scientists are revealed to be human and the world to be, well, complicated. If I didn't know better, I might think I was reading in these "skeptical of skepticism" debates the panicked musings of folks undergoing a spiritual Dark Night of the Soul. But that can't be the case; these are atheists after all, and everyone knows atheists are purely rational beings completely without any need for a "soul"! (Of course, not everyone debating global warming is an atheist; but I've noticed a heightened sense of vulnerability from these folks in particular, and my heart goes out to them.)

In the end, I am of the firm but probably unpopular opinion that all this controversy over the facts of global warming is misdirected energy. We have scientists working around the clock and around the world to compile complicated graphs and statistical models, some of which may very well be botched or inaccurate, all to convince us of a single basic and obvious truth: don't shit in the bed. Whether or not the planet is actually, literally burning up under our destructive stupidity is really beside the point. What is painfully obvious is that we have complicated systems of waste disposal removal redistribution to obscure the consequences of our consumer-driven plastic-packaged lifestyles. Even if the planet can survive our belligerence and abuse, I for one don't want to live in a world where a continent of trash swirls in the Pacific and people "would rather drive fancy cars than breathe clean air or look at the stars," even if that world isn't a single centigrade warmer.

Which is why I laugh with a kind of horror when the Pope objects to "'absolutizing nature' or considering it more important than the human person," because it may end up "abolishing the distinctiveness and superior role of human beings." I have some news for the Pope (as if any good Catholic didn't already know this): human beings are small, selfish, stupid creatures capable of great ugliness. Anyone who thinks that people are the best and most superior thing about this world just hasn't been paying attention. And I say this as a lover of humanity, really; this is one of those "I can call my dog ugly, but if you call my dog ugly we're going to have a problem" scenarios. I have said many times in this blog that I do believe in and celebrate humanity's uniqueness as a species, though I could not conscientiously describe that uniqueness as "superior," let alone the most important (surely the role played by cyanobacteria in creating an oxidizing rather than reducing atmosphere billions of years ago was fundamentally vital to absolutely all forms of life on this planet, for instance). It is true that, in order to learn how to be good human beings, it is not always wise to emulate the wolf or the spider or the sunflower or the kangaroo rat, but that is not the same thing as saying we are separate from Nature-capital-N and have nothing to learn. I think sometimes we make pretty crappy human beings.

I'm getting bogged down in my own messy rhetoric. My point, to put it simply, is that it does not serve us to set up a false dichotomy between humanity and nature (or, what we really mean to say, the rest of nature). We are a part of nature, and while we may be unique within it, it would be as much a mistake to imagine ourselves exempt from its laws and limitations as it is to idealize a less rational, more "animal-mind" way of living. We cannot forfeit our humanity, and any environmentalism that would ask us to reject our uniqueness would be as misguided as one that demanded trees stop behaving like trees, and lions lay down with lambs. But neither can we afford to fall into self-worship and imagine ourselves separate and above the natural world, who is our mother and sustainer (and seems to have no qualms pulling out the big guns of consequence and causality when we step over the line).

Does this constitute a religion or religious belief? I'm going to go out on a limb here and say: yes. It is, anyway, fundamental to my religion. I can see that now especially when I contrast it to the Pope's stated views, which seem utterly ridiculous and even a bit unhealthy (and which, it is important to remember, do not represent the extremist/fundamentalist worldview, but express a general belief held by or at least expected of the world's one billion Catholics, among others). Believe me, I was a bit surprised myself. I certainly don't remember thinking, during my Catholic childhood, that man was essentially and existentially superior to nature. Yet back then, the Pope's assertion wouldn't have phased me or seemed so completely wrong-headed, yet now I'm taken aback at how obtuse the position sounds. Perhaps this is the kind of belief so embedded in our culture that we simply can't acknowledge it or look it squarely in the eye and demand that it account for itself, not until we have shifted to a new worldview that places the earth at the heart of our being.

After all, in some ways the debate about what to do about global warming still takes humanity's superiority and exceptionality as its central tenant. We made this problem, and by God, only we have the power and knowledge to fix it! But it seems to me that the very first thing we have to do, regardless of everything else, is stop doing harm. Plans to cover the oceans with cooling hurricane-thwarting devices or taking other drastic and short-sighted measures to wrench temperatures back in the "right" direction are doomed to well-meaning but uninformed failure. In any case, a world economy based on our presupposed right to consume without limit could never support such action (unless the World Saving Technology could be properly patented and would make a lot of important people rich) — which is why the Climate Conference in Copenhagen amounts to only so much waffling and mutual fear-mongering.

Because if it's fair to characterize environmentalism as a kind of spiritual commitment (one might even use the word "faith"), then we must also remember the long-unspoken religion of consumer capitalism against which it struggles. In the face of our own arrogance, I can't hold out much hope that we will somehow be the saviors of the world. Instead, all I can do is seek humility, and do every single little thing I can to step out of the cycle of harm and abuse and ignorance and greed that spins and spins off in every direction. As for the rest, I can only sigh deeply in my grief and say to myself, Let go, and let Gaia. If humanity's salvation as a species doesn't lie in the hands of our Mother, then at least I can go out singing and dancing and making love in the grass under her arched blue skies.


  1. You know, it does constantly amaze me how we just assume the planet can't get on without us. Most debating about global warming tends to focus on "saving the planet," when, in reality, we're thinking about saving ourselves. I'm not saying this is a bad thing--or even a good thing, it's really just *a* thing---but I do think it's logically dissonant at best and intellectually dishonest at worst.

    Anyway, I think if we do enough damage, we'll wipe ourselves long before we leave the planet so crippled that it can't heal. Earth's been around for several billion years. We've got, what? A couple million? It seemed to get along pretty well before us. I'm pretty sure it can go on after us, as well.

    (This is not to say I have a fatalistic view, of course; I do think there's pushback already starting, and we can turn back some of the damage and separation we've already inflicted. But if Themis deems it necessary to bring the hammer down on us for the good of the planet, she may be sad, she may be disappointed, but I don't think that'll make her stop to aim.)

  2. Hi,

    thanks for this great and passionate post :) I love what you say.

    The concept of a nature/human dichotomy is the key here. While I agree with pretty much all you say, I think humanity’s unique place in nature is our ability to think we CAN be apart, superior or different from nature. I see no evidence of tarantulas, dugongs or meerkats believing this nonsense. Yet somehow we can, and do. So, I think we are in some way different to most other forms of nature currently in existence on this wonderful world.

    I can also understand why, given the human tendency for denial, numbed-out comfort and control, the anti-nature or human-superior ideologies find fertile ground. To quote Gaiman and Pratchett from ‘Good Omens’ :)

    “Pepper's given first names were Pippin Galadriel Moonchild. She had been given them in a naming ceremony in a muddy valley field that contained three sick sheep and a number of leaky polythene teepees. Her mother had chosen the Welsh valley of Pant y Gyrdl as the ideal site to Return to Nature. (Six months later, sick of the rain, the mosquitoes, the men, the tent trampling sheep who ate first the whole commune's marijuana crop and then its antique minibus, and by now beginning to glimpse why almost the entire drive of human history has been an attempt to get as far away from Nature as possible, Pepper's mother returned to Pepper's surprised grandparents in Tadfield, bought a bra, and enrolled in a sociology course with a deep sigh of relief.)”

    How we change all this is beyond me; but I am pretty sure it will have to utilise the same capacity we have for believing we are apart from nature. The power of the human mind to formulate, share and believe this meme is, in one sense, transcendent to nature. If were to utilise this ‘transcendent’ cognitive ability while recognising we are nature, I have a hunch we would develop a new way of being in and of the world, one where shambles like Copenhagen would never get close to happening.

    Thanks for the blog!

  3. Peregrin, Thanks so much for stopping by!

    Your quote reminds me of another bit of Pratchett (isn't that man awesome?), this one from Hogfather: "Humans need fantasy to be human. To be the place where the falling angel meets the rising ape."

    It seems to me that there is absolute truth in that; human beings are unique creatures. And while I don't really know what a meerkat or a tarantula or a dugong (or a dolphin) needs to be who and what they are, I think humans do need stories, fantasies, that in some sense transcend or overtake present reality. Of course, in some Pagan circles, I could be hanged and quartered for suggesting the human species is unique, because for some reason one of the most persistent fantasies is that unique must mean separate (and separate almost always means superior).

    For me, acknowledging the human species' uniqueness is a way of calling attention to our need, even (or especially) within nature-centered spirituality, to learn how to be good humans as an aspect of and deeply involved in nature. The meerkat and the tarantula don't struggle to be who and what they are, as far as I know, but we do, I think in part because while we have the capacity for fantasy and storytelling, we often imagine ourselves to be at the mercy of story, instead of its creative participants.

    On the other hand, my experiences in the natural world leave me with the feeling that all of reality is in some way a participant in story (or, to put it Druidically, all creatures have their songs which they sing in harmony with the Song of the World). I believe there is a complex ecology of Spirit that exists within and about the world. Perhaps the role of creative story-telling and fantasy in our lives as humans is simply that place "where falling angel meets rising ape." Or perhaps we are only one place where this occurs (this article about the intelligence of dolphins leaves me wondering...). Perhaps seeking out these other places is also part of what makes us human; we trundle around seeking holy sites and sacred relics, making art not only to create new beauty but to call attention to a sense of the sacred shining through the thin spots already out there in the world.

    Honestly, it's something I'm still working out, and maybe it's something that will remain a struggle and a mystery, how we live so deeply in nature and yet persist in our humanness, and what our humanness even is when the final notes of our song have been sung.