Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Creation Care and Character: The Nature and Necessity of the Ecological Virtues

My first journal reading for this semester was "Creation Care and Character: The Nature and Necessity of the Ecological Virtues" by Dr. Steven Bouma-Prediger who was/is in the Department of Religion at Hope College. I found this article through The Christian Environmental Studies Center. In order to better understand this post, you should read the article. I'm going to assume that that's exactly what you're doing, as y'all are intelligent folks, and my post is going to reflect what stood out to me in the article. This is quite philosophy-heavy, so bear with me (and the article).

The first thing that Dr. Bouma-Prediger did here was to establish classic philosophical and ethical arguments for what a virtue is. Quite simply
A virtue is an state of character--with the attendant desires, attitudes, and emotions--formed by choices and habits over time, which disposes one to act in certain ways, and shapes one's vision of the world. Some virtues are intrinsically morally good, while others are instrumentally good. Some have more to do with intellectual excellence, while others have more to do with moral excellence. Some are corrective in the sense that their necessity derives from various temptations; others would exist in a perfect world. All virtues shape our character and substantially influence how we see the world.

I've just hinted at it with this quote, but one thing that he stresses is that virtues must be lived out. One is not simply something by saying that s/he is that thing, one must act to be that thing. Matthew 7:17 says, "Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit" and Galatians 5:22 and 23 tell us what the fruits of a good tree are: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control." Notice that bearing fruit is an active thing. The tree doesn't just call itself a fruit tree, it produces fruit so that we can see that it is, indeed, a fruit tree. The same principle applies to attaining virtues (or the fruit of the Spirit - if you read the article, you know that what the author calls virtues are very similar to the fruits of the Spirit): you can't just call yourself righteous with practicing righteousness. You can't call yourself patient without practicing patience (and you might have already found that God doesn't give you patience, He gives you opportunities to be patient). And you can't call yourself loving without loving the people God commands you to love. In this case, doing=being.

One thing that the author tries to get us to examine is our attitude towards creation. I think, especially here in America and in a lot of evangelical settings, we have the belief or attitude that what God created is only valuable because of how we (humans) can use it, but

All creatures--the wild asses, the cedars of Lebanon, the storks, the rock badgers, the young lions--depend upon God for their existence and their flourishing. In addition, God's creatures are valuable for their own sake. That is, they are valuable not because of their usefulness to humans--though some are useful, indeed essential, to us; but rather they are valuable to each other--e.g., the cedars are valuable as places for birds to nest and the mountains are valuable as places of refuge and rest for the wild goats--and, most importantly, they are valuable simply because God made them. In short, rocks and trees, birds and animals, have not only instrumental value but intrinsic value. Their value resides in their being creations of a valuing God, not in their being a means to some human end.

In environmental ethics, something is intrinsically valuable simply because it exists, and in Christian environmental ethics, something is intrinsically valuable because God created it and its worth is in God. It doesn't matter if that creature has no value to us for any purpose; it is valuable because God created it. And
Because species have intrinsic value, they have moral standing. And because they have moral standing, we as humans have certain duties with respect to species. Given, furthermore, that species are dynamic natural kinds, unique and irreplaceable, entire forms of life the extinction of which is a form of superkilling, we offer the following moral maxim: we should act so as to preserve diverse kinds of life. More exactly, we have a prima facie duty to protect and preserve non-human species. In other words, while the possibility exists that other moral considerations could outweigh or overrule this duty, normally we are obligated to protect and preserve non-human species.

Enter more ethical considerations. This, for example, absolutely smacks of utilitarianism, which says "we should always do whatever will produce the greatest possible balance of happiness over unhappiness for everyone who will be affected by our action" (Environmental Ethics 65). Normally, utilitarianism is an ethic used for mostly human consideration, but I think it applies well as an environmental ethic. We all function better when our environment is functioning well; this includes plant and animal life. Utilitarianism doesn't discount the fact that sometimes hard decisions need to be made, and we won't always make a decision that makes everyone happy. In other words, sometimes the human has to win. Given the choice between saving the life of my child and the life of my dog, my child will always win. But if everything is equal, I will do and must do what I can to preserve the lives of both child and dog. And bird and tree and blade of grass.

It's important to talk about consumption when we discuss environmental stewardship. The author says
Given that the earth is finite, I propose the following moral maxim: we should acknowledge the finitude of the earth and act so as to live within our means. More precisely, we have a prima facie duty to preserve nonrenewable resources and conserve scarce though renewable resources. This duty applies to a wide range of things--from energy to species. We should, for example, conserve our fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas, for once that solar savings account is depleted it will be a very long time before it is replenished. So too we should preserve species, for that "resource" once gone will never return.

With respect to ecological ethics, foolishness is the disposition to act as if creation is endlessly exploitable and expendable. By living only for today one acts as if the future does not matter.

the vice of deficiency contrary to patience is impetuousness. It is the impulsiveness which, fearful of the future, drives us to gratify our desires in the immediate moment, irrespective of the legitimate need of others. Those who exhibit this vice lack the ability to wait. They always eat first at the wilderness supper table. They never put off a purchase in order to pay cash when they could charge it now.

These three passages speak to the foolishness of our drive to consume as much as we can. Yes, we have needs that must be met, and we must consume those needs. That isn't what these three passages are talking about. What's being discussed here is the level of consumption that is destructive to the environment. We don't live within our means. We feel like we have to have our wants and desires met right now. So many of us feel that way that we've driven species to extinction. This is shortsighted of us for two very important reasons. First, it is an attitude of disrespect towards God, because we think our individual needs are more important than the rest of the earth God created. Second, when we consume too many resources, we take those resources out of the hands of our children and grandchildren. And their children and grandchildren. That sounds trite, but it's the truth. Think of all the species that have become extinct because our ancestors either overhunted or destroyed their habitats. There are birds, fish, mammals, and plants that we will never see because the humans before use killed every last one of them. But we are doing the same thing to other species.

Sustainability is also an issue:
We are permitted to use the fruit of creation, but we are not allowed to destroy the ability of creation to be fruitful. Indeed, as these texts suggest, the kind of wise use which preserves creation's ability to replenish itself is an important ingredient in living well.

From this theological motif I derive the ethical principle of sustainability. From this flows the following moral maxim: we should act in such a way that the ability of living creatures to maintain themselves and to reproduce is carefully preserved. To make this maxim more exact, we have a prima facie duty to judiciously use those creatures under our care so as to provide for future generations. We cannot but use plants and animals to survive and maintain our own human existence. Like all creatures we affect our surroundings, in part by consuming other organisms. But we have an obligation to so use the creatures under our care that we provide not only for our own generations but also for the generations--the fruitfulness--of non-human creatures.

This goes along with the previous section comments. Our culture conditions us to consume too many things. It conditions us to think we need things that we don't really need. The problem isn't that we use the fruits of the tropical rain forest for medicines. The problem is that we have decided that it's more productive to burn the rain forest down so that we can raise cattle for meat. More and more forest is being razed and burned so that we have more land on which we raise livestock. It's OK to use the fruit and plants of the rain forest to make needed medicines and feed people. It's OK to eat meat. It's not OK to consume so much meat that it causes us to destroy whole environments to do so.

Actions like this aren't sustainable. Overconsumption of resources isn't sustainable because we usually consume faster than than the resources renew.

And finally, a good Christian environmental ethic includes rest, or Sabbath:
We are reminded of this need for rest in the Ten Commandments--better rendered God's ten best ways to live. In Exodus 20:8-11 we are called to "remember the sabbath and keep it holy" for the seventh day is a sabbath to God on which "you shall not do any work--you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns." Notable for our purposes is the injunction to rest farm animals on the sabbath. Apparently cows and horses and mules need to be rested too. This is spelled out in greater detail in the case law in Leviticus and Deuteronomy where the Israelites are instructed by God in certain very specific ways on how to organize their lives. For example, in Leviticus 25 they are told that the land must be given a sabbath rest every seventh year. In the seventh year "you shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vines" because "it shall be a year of complete rest for the land" (verses 4-5). Furthermore, after seven seven year cycles there shall be a year of jubilee. In the fiftieth year "you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants" and "you shall return, every one of you, to your property and to your family." As in the sabbatical year, so too in the year of jubilee "you shall not sow, or reap the aftergrowth, or harvest the unpruned vines" (verses 10-12). And these stipulations are given, the text makes very clear, "so that the land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live on it securely" (verses 18-19). Life on the land goes better when one observes God's statutes and commandments.

Indeed, God intends that humans give the people, animals, and land under their care periodic rest and the opportunity for restoration. Such intentional rest and nurture of creatures human and nonhuman resists the relentless use and exploitation which drives much of modern society.

Sabbath isn't just for humans, but for animals and the land as well. Everything is more productive when rested. Everything simply functions better when well rested. I the same passage where God commands the Israelites to rest, He also commands the Israelites to allow their servants, animals, and land to rest as well. In this, God ties Sabbath to sustainable living.