This book addresses ecological problems from different disciplinary perspectives in ways that general readers can easily understand. Several of the essays concisely summarize the major players and points of view on particular issues while presenting new points that contribute to the ongoing discussion about what needs to be done and how.
-Danie Kealev Towson State University
-john Grim, Bucknell University
Christopher Key Chapple is Associate Professor of Theology at Loyoia Marymount University lie is the author of Karma and Creativity and Nonviolence to Animals. La and Sell in Asian Traditions both published by SUNY Press.
THIS BOOK seeks to address the notion that the living forms of the planetary system we know as Earth, or Gaia, merit protection. As some of the following essays mention, Western civilization has traditionally re- garded the natural world as ripe and ready for use by the human order. We have succeeded all too well at this enterprise, and now we are endangering our own home. The first section of this volume explores the notion that the planet Earth is a complex living system, and that this perception can serve as the basis for a more informed, more life-sensitive science and technology. It also includes a group of essays that weigh the merits and practicality of nature preservation as balanced against human needs. The second section explores the history of an ongoing relationship between humans and the Earth as viewed through the prism of religion and aesthetics, noting that the appreciation for beauty in nature has led to concern for its preservation and continuity.
The environmental movement in this country evolved out of a fascination with the great American wilderness. As it developed, it took on two distinct characteristics, romantic and activist. The early environmental movement was tinged with a romanticized vision of the natural world, familiar to us from the works of Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and john Muir. Emerson, the New England transcendentalist, wrote that "Within these plantations of God, a decorum and sanctity reign, a perennial festival is dressed, and the guest sees not how he should tire of them in a thousand years. In the woods, we return to reason and faith."1 The activist preservationist position later was undertaken by john Muir, who explored the mountains of California and inspired the American Conservation Movement, which initiated our state and national parks systems.
Later, as the environment was increasingly disrupted and threatened by human incursion, the aestheticism and romanticism of the early naturalists was replaced by a more urgent cry-—the need to maintain an ecological balance and to avoid destruction of ecosystems. In A Sand County Almanac,} published in 1949, Aldo Leopold describes in great detail the erosion of our land and the disappearance of the creatures dwelling on it. In 1962 Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring became a best seller that made DDT a house- hold word and brought environmental consciousness to millions of Americans. This awareness grew throughout the 1960s and culminated in the celebration of Earth Day in 1970 and 1990.
During the 1970s and 1980s, our awareness of the effects of pollutants on the biosphere and the potential for major ecological catastrophes was brought home with the events at Three Mile Island, Love Canal, Times Beach, Chernobyl, and Bhopal. What we now call environmental stress is the terror we feel at the certainty that human life has been diminished beyond recall. Indeed, Bill McCabe’s book The End of Natural signals the radical and irreversible alteration of our biosphere by industrial processes. Throughout vast expanses of the Northern Hemisphere, forests and lakes are dying, presumably from acid rain. In 1991 the American Medical Association announced that the occurrence of breast cancer in American women has risen from one woman in ten to one woman in nine, a change which may well be related to chemicals in our food. Similarly it has been suggested that the increase of various kinds of cancers and of immune deficiency diseases are related to environmental degradation. Are these events like canaries in a coal mine? What do they foretell for the future? If environmental and health changes are this visible within one human generation, how much will have changed over ten generations? Or twenty generations?
Nature and Sustainable Development: The Need for an Ecological Economy
The continuing assault on the natural world by industrial processes has awakened in many concerned persons the awareness of the need for corrective action that will begin to halt the desecration of our planet. But if such action is to be truly effective, it must arise from sources as deep as life itself, namely from a new or renewed understanding of cosmological and ecological processes that sustain all forms of life. Without such a comprehensive context in which to rethink sustainable development, we may be unable to counter the powerful pragmatic logic of present technological and industrial growth. We cannot minimize the complexity of the problem at hand, nor can we simply condemn all industrial processes. Nonetheless, the emerging conflict of economic demands for growth versus environmental concerns for protection will continue to be a major challenge of our times. There clearly is a need for a comprehensive ecological economics. How to balance the areas of economic growth and environmental protection is going to be critical in both the domestic and the international arenas. The work of economists such as Herman Daly, Hazel Henderson, and Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen will be important in formulating ecological economies. A new series of essays recently published by Columbia University Press and titled Ecological Economics is a major contribution to these efforts.
It is abundantly clear that we are involved with complex, interrelated global problems regarding the pollution and the depletion of our air, our water, our soil, and other life forms. The growing hole in the ozone layer, the diminishment of the aquifers, the loss of topsoil, the destruction of the forests, and the disappearance of species is occurring on a scale never before witnessed in human history.
It was in 1983 that an enormous hole was first discovered in the ozone layer over Antarctica.6 Five years later a similar hole was found over the northern polar regions. In 1991 scientists announced that ozone depletion was even worse than previous estimates had led us to believe. Rates of skin cancer and cataract damage are up significantly in both the northern and southern hemispheres.
In the western regions of the United States the scarcity of water is in creasingly becoming a major political and economic issue. Farmers, business people, and residents in the desert regions of the Southwest and Southern California are painfully aware of the precariousness of the human de- velopment that has spread with little constraint across fragile bioregions. In the summer of 1992 many farmers in Southern California had to cut down large parts of their orchards due to the rising cost and scarcity of water.
Loss of topsoil is taking place at a staggering rate. It is estimated that fifty million tons of productive topsoil are being lost each year due to over- grazing, erosion, desertification, and deforestation. Yet to form only 2.5 centimeters of topsoil can take from one hundred to 2,500 years, depending on the kind of topsoil.
The destruction of forests not only contributes to erosion, it also adds in global warming, interrupts rainfall patterns, and allows for significant loss of species. Forty thousand square miles of rain forest are being cut each year. It is predicted that at the present rate of destruction, within the next sixty years all the tropical rain forests will have been cut. The rain forests tem HOT regenerate themselves as can temperate forests. Moreover, they contain between 40 and 50 percent of the Earth’s species. The United Nations Environment Programme estimates that between one hundred and 300 species are being lost each day. This is the greatest wave of extinction in the last sixty-five million years.
We cannot underestimate the dimensions of human energy and ingenuity that will be necessary to reverse these alarming trends. An essential challenge is how to foster sustainable life, growth, and development for all species that will not undermine the very sources of our common existence and that of future generations.
The term "sustainable development" has emerged as a key concept in relation to the problem of encouraging an economic growth that is balanced by environmental integrity. Indeed, it was the main theme of the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development held in June 1992 in Rio de Janiero. The principal document to be issued by the conference, Agenda 21, is intended to become a blueprint for sustainable development from now until the 21st century.
The term "sustainable development" has been used widely since 198Z when the World Commission of Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland Commission) issued a report entitled Our Common Future.7 It was formulated around the principle that economic growth must "be based upon policies that sustain and expand the environmental resource base."8 It emphasized a fact that heretofore had been largely over- looked, namely that economic development must begin to use a cost ac• counting that includes the effect of such development on the environment and on the depletion of resources.
The importance of this formulation is highlighted by Lester Brown and the World Watch Institute in a report, also released in 1987, on the State of the World. The report notes that progress has come with an enormous price. Indeed, the radical changes brought about by humans in altering at- mospheric chemistry, global temperatures, and the abundance of living species "reflect the crossings that may impair the Earth’s capacity to sustain an ever—growing human population. A frustrating paradox is emerging. Efforts to improve living standards are themselves beginning to threaten the health of the global economy. The very notion of progress begs for redefinition in light of the intolerable consequences unfolding as a result of its pursuit."10 In calling for a rethinking of the meaning of progress and reformulating the notion of a sustainable society, the study observes:
A sustainable society satisfies its needs without diminishing the prospects of the next generation. By many measures, contemporary society fails to meet this criterion. Questions of ecological sustainability are arising on every continent. The scale of human activities has begun to threaten the habitability of the Earth itself. Nothing short of fundamental adjustments in population and energy policies will stave off the host of costly changes now unfolding, changes that could overwhelm our long-standing efforts to improve the human condition.
With the added momentum of the UNCED Earth Summit in Rio, there is a growing international movement to encourage sustainable development which will incorporate environmental concerns.
Attitudinal Changes Toward Nature: The Need for an Environmental Ethic
In addition to new economic approaches to our environmental problems, there is a growing realization that attitudinal changes toward nature will also be essential for creating sustainable societies. Humans will not be apt to preserve what they don’t respect. What is currently lacking, however, is a broad moral basis for changing our exploitative attitudes toward nature. In other words, we are still without a sufficiently comprehensive environmental ethic for altering our consciousness about the Earth and our life on it. This has been changing during the last ten years as different ecological issues have been fiercely debated and a new journal of Environmental Ethics has been launched. Seminal work is being done in this area by philosophers such as Ian Barbour, Baird Callicott, Eugene Hargrove, Arne Naess, Tom Regan, Holmes Rolston, Kristen Shrader-Frechette, and George Sessions. In addition, there have been the contributions of theologians such as john Cobb and jay McDaniel; cosmologists Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme; biologists Charles Birch, Richard Levin, and E.O. Wilson; and historians such as Roderick Nash. Issues of animal rights as well as the rights of trees, plants, and other forms of life have been vigorously debated. Important philosophical distinctions have been drawn between utilitarian rights of nature versus intrinsic rights, and strong disagreements have emerged between conservationists and deep ecologists. A major point of contention concerns the anthropocentric view versus the eccentric or bio- centric view. In other words, how does the human fit into the natural world not by dominating or exploiting, but rather with a deepened sense of reverence in being one species among many?
Part of the confusion arises from our own Western vision of reality focusing almost exclusively on the primacy of humans as the crowning point of evolution over and against other species, animal, vegetable, microbial, and mineral. In the Western philosophical tradition, humans have been seen as the rational, reflective center of creation while in the Western religious traditions the relationship of humans with the divine has dominated all else. The Earth and its myriad species were secondary to the significance of human beings.
Various philosophers have struggled with this problem of anthropocentrism for the last decade. With a few notable exceptions, theologians and historians of religion have been slower to reflect on this issue. Only recently has the critique of anthropocentrism in relation to environmental problems been raised with renewed force in the field of religion. It is to this development that the comments here are directed.
The question we might pose is this: To what extent can the religious traditions of the world provide us with cosmological and ethical perspectives that supersede anthropocentrism and offer theoretical positions to confront the growing environmental crisis? Can the insights of some of the world’s religions be brought to bear on the question of the role of the human in relation to the natural word? While very few of the world’s religions have traditionally espoused an ecological morality, their attitudes toward the natural world may well have some light to she on our own current crisis of values. The essays in this volume present different traditional approaches to the problems of the environment, including indigenous, monotheistic, and Asian religion us perspectives, as well as the more secular approach that emphasizes a heightened aesthetic sense of an respect for natural beauty.
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