Review: Walking God's Earth, Part II

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I began a review of David Cloutier’s new book Walking God’s Earth: The Environment and Catholic Faith. You can read it here. Today, I will look at how Cloutier assesses the current situation.

Cloutier entitles the chapter in which he assesses the world’s current environmental situation “Losing Our Place.” The phrase is resonant, challenging the extreme form of environmentalism that sees human beings as set in opposition to nature, as opposed to a part of it, but also to the extreme form of exploitation which sees nature as our plaything, rather than something in which we must find our place. He begins with a quote from Pope Benedict XVI: “At present, in the face of great threats to the natural environment, we want to express our concern at the negative consequences for humanity and for the whole of creation which can result from economic and technological progress that does not know its limits.” As is typical of a quote from Benedict, every word tells. The environment is “creation,” not an arbitrary, chaotic phenomenon. “Progress” can defeat itself when it “does not know its limits.” And, that final word, “limits,” is always the crux of the matter, especially for us Americans who tend to think of any suggestion of limits as a challenge to be overcome rather than respected.

Nature is sometime threatening, and the urge to dominate it can begin as a humane impulse to protect ourselves and those we love from the harm nature can cause. But, dominion can quickly, too quickly, fall over into domination. He writes:

A good deal of nature’s apparent hostility is rooted in our desire to dominate nature, rather than learn its form. To dominate something (or someone) is to pay no attention to its own form, but rather only to how it can serve the desires of the master. Our desires are no longer shaped by a sense of wonder, care, and reverence for the existing creation. We no longer see God in the world. As we will see, Christina theology suggests that God has given humans a rightful ‘dominion’ over nature, but we exercise that rule incorrectly, acting not in God’s image and likeness, but according to our own wills. We might compare the difference between dominion and domination to the great and joyful challenge of parenting children. Parents do have “dominion” over their children, but they gravely harm relationships when they start to “dominate” their children. And so it is with us and the fabric of creation: When we lose the feeling of wonder in the face of the miraculous ordering of the world, we no longer understand our authority as limited by a higher power. Instead, we are the higher power.   

I quote that passage at length to give an indication of what I mean by Cloutier’s ability to combine deep thoughts with accessible writing and examples.

Cloutier discerns three primary “spiritual diseases” that cause us humans to lose our place in the natural environment we inhabit: scale, speed and selfishness, and he notes that these “are the underlying roots of our disruptive and disrupting relationship with the rest of creation, as well as with one another and our very selves.”

Scale is the human ambition, first seen in Eden, to wish follow “the serpent’s promise that we can be ‘like gods.’” This is the deadliest sin, the sin of pride, and in terms of the environment, our inability to think small, and plan big, get in the way of respecting nature and its ways. He quotes E.F. Schumacher: “There is wisdom in smallness if only on account of the smallness and patchiness of human knowledge…The greatest danger invariably arises from the ruthless application, on a vast scale, of partial knowledge.” That last sentence has obvious applicability to a range of fields and endeavors. For Cloutier, on account of this inability to grasp the appropriate sense of scale, a person “fails to see not only the harm being caused but also the beauty of the order that actually exists and the need to work with that order.” He points to the vast water fountains of Las Vegas as a prime example of the absurdity that can result when we impose our human ambitions on climate: Las Vegas is in the desert, after all, and is always just a step away from a “water apocalypse.”

The life of the Spirit is rarely fast-paced. There are moments of instantaneous conversion – think St. Paul falling from his horse – but for most people, and for most peoples, conversion is slow, plodding, not the stuff of fleeting moments, more like the long history of God’s plan unfolding itself with His people Israel. So, it should not surprise that speed is the second spiritual malady that makes us lose our place detected by Cloutier. He quotes David Harvey who believes our current era is characterized by “time-space compression,” a process which leads “to the point where the present is all there is.” That is the definition, Cloutier points out, of “the world of the schizophrenic.” This could not stand in greater contrast to the rhythms of our revealed God whose forbearance is such an obvious and amazing attribute. As anyone who has a compost pile knows, time and patience are virtues in establishing a right relationship with nature.

Finally, selfishness stands between us and a better relationship with nature. “People displaying selfishness is not new,” Cloutier writes. “However, for most of history, human beings understood their identity as constituted by their particular place in a social order, a social order that was in some sense related to the divine. That is, the order of the universe was reflected in the order of society.” He quotes Charles Taylor’s observation to the effect that modernity, precisely in its individualism, has brought about “a great disembedding.” Although this book was not timed to come out at the end of the synod on the family, Cloutier notes that marketing agencies target those with high disposable income, teens, young adults and seniors, those least likely to be tied down with commitments to family. Of course, modernity was all about not being “tied down” and modernity was not wrong to invite humankind to get out of bed!

Still, the hyper-individualism of our age, reinforced now by powerful economic interests deploying all the psychological tools at their disposal to further enslave us into a life as consumers, has deleterious impacts on our relationship with the environment. We are now entitled to define ourselves by our consumer choices and give short shrift, as Cloutier points out, to “the social character of our everyday ‘lifestyle choices’ and in particular their impact on our shared environment.” He also notes the increased mobility of individuals and families and contrasts that with “genuine stewardship [which] is most likely to happen when individuals and groups are committed to permanence in a particular place.” All this yields a kind of “counterspirituality” that yields abominable practices like mountain-top removal mining in order to provide us with the electricity we need for air-conditioning in places like Las Vegas that were never meant to be inhabited by human beings.

Tomorrow, I shall conclude my three part review. Note to Readers. I shall be traveling the rest of the day so no more links throughout the morning.




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