by Donald Heinz
Dr. Heinz is associate professor of religious studies at California State University, Chico.
This article appeared in the Christian Century, May 12, 1976, pp. 464-466. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
The religious impulse of the ecological movement explains both its popularity — it satisfies a basic human need — and the uncertainty of its future. Since we can’t even guarantee that enlightened egotism will save the world from a nuclear doomsday, what will prevent the earth from turning into a gigantic feedlot for 40 or more billion people?
They gathered, broad as Amazonian targe,
And with what skill they had together sewed,
To gird their waist -- vain covering if to hide
Their guilt and dreadful shame; O how unlike
To that first naked glory. Such of late
Columbus found the American so girt
With feathered cincture, naked else and wild
Among the trees on isles and woody shores.
-- Paradise Lost, by John Milton.
In this generation Americans have awakened to a traumatic sense of guilt over the damage we have done to our environment. The veil has been torn from our past, and we start in astonishment to see the awesome downhill sweep of ecological history. After decades of thoughtless waste and destruction, we have come to the belated perception of a sort of cosmic Fall. As a popular song simplistically puts it, we’ve paved Paradise and put in a parking lot.
Unlike the Garden of Eden, pre-Columbian or pre-industrial America is accessible not merely through myths, but through the historical imagination. We have all sorts of records, from fossils to photographs, of what the country was like before we ravaged it. As late as the 19th century, artists like Audubon or Catlin or Bierstadt could venture into the wilderness and bring back pictures of a teeming paradise. Even today a traveler to the national parks from any blighted city or countryside might get an impression of escaping from a world of physical and moral filth into one of primal innocence. These bits of Eden make our Fall seem poignantly close, almost within the reach of memory.
But nostalgia is playing tricks on us. The Fall did not occur in 1492 or 1620 -- though the arrival of the white man certainly spelled catastrophe for the land -- or in 1849 or any such date. The fact is that human presence on this continent has always been more or less disruptive, and the first migrants to cross the Bering Straits brought trouble with them. In the Pleistocene period over 100 species of large animals disappeared, probably, as Paul Martin has shown, because of wasteful hunting methods. And even though their scanty numbers and lack of technology greatly softened their impact on nature, in their modest way Amerindians too plundered the world around them (by killing eagles to make head-dresses, for example).
So we can reach a state of paradisiacal purity only if we erase humanity from the picture entirely. However much human settlements may enhance nature in certain cases, they also inevitably cause it to deteriorate. Civilization has its costs. Roads smother the land they cover, books doom the trees they are made from. Not all this damage is permanent, of course, and much of it is in part desirable; yet, after all allowances have been made, an irreducible mass of evil remains. We are all sinners -- in this, theology and ecology agree.
The Fall itself resulted from’ man’s abortive endeavor to seize godhead for himself. In setting him over the plants and animals, God had already given him power and responsibility, but that was not enough. He wanted to know (i.e., be arbiter of) good and evil, to treat the earth as if he were its only Lord. This attempt to deny creaturehood has been the root of ecological havoc. Man the strip-miner, like man the "developer" and man the chemical farmer, makes money the criterion for whatever he does to the earth, because he thinks of himself as above and beyond it,
Now we always put one artificial construction or other upon nature, for such is our postlapsarian nature. To be human as we know it is to interfere, to try to remold reality nearer to the heart’s desire. We may resist this inclination, but only up to a point. We have left the womb of nature, and there is no going back. It is impossible for us to will exactly what nature wills -- only animals can, because they aren’t free. We shall never achieve unison with nature (except perhaps in death), nor would we want to. What we can do is strive to lower the dissonance -- to efface not original sin (since that is conterminous with humanity) but its effects.
And even in that we can go only so far, this side of universal redemption. For, like every other human activity, love of nature is conditioned by the Fall. We cannot become aware of natural beauty unless we have experienced alienation from it, just as moral consciousness comes only after breaking the law, or as consciousness tout court requires separation from its object. One cannot simultaneously love nature and be a part of it. Bighorn sheep don’t pause to admire the Rockies.
In other words, appreciation must be paid for by pain. Only someone oppressed by the crowds and ugliness of the city could long for wild places. Only someone disgusted with the mindless exploitation of nature could feel the urge to lose himself or herself in virgin territory. From the very beginning the rise in ecological consciousness has matched the decline in the quality of life. Walden starts out from the realization that the world of getting and spending is insane.
We are not simply nature’s exiles; we are also its enemies. The Fall has laid a hereditary curse on us which works two ways. First, nature is hostile to us and frustrates our designs. "Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your ‘life." This curse holds for everyone: even the most ecstatic naturalist steers clear of grizzly bears and poison ivy. Second, we, whether we like it or not, are hostile to nature. To live in the world is to pollute it. Every time we flush the toilet or turn the ignition key or put the garbage out, we contribute to the mess. As the world is constituted, we can’t avoid that.
This unhappy truth, sometimes smudged over by conservationists, has not escaped their enemies. Oil-company representatives clamor about the need
for jobs and energy, and damn their opponents as selfish elitists. They conveniently dichotomize all land-use decisions as people versus scenery or hungry workers versus idle back-packers. TV commercials cast a heroic light on engineers toiling on the Alaska pipeline or offshore oil rigs, suggesting that Exxon, unlike those environmental fanatics, is pitching in to help the people. The various friends of the earth" counter -- and rightly so -- that this self-serving rhetoric mocks the public interest. Surely we know by now that short-term profits from raping nature turn into dreadful long-term losses. Why drain the Everglades to fill condominium swimming pools?
But, for all this, there’s no point in pretending that a perfect solution can be found to the conflict between humankind and nature. Something has to suffer. The Great Plains can’t swarm with bison and enormous herds of cattle. The anticonservationists are right: ecology does in some ways downgrade humanity. Like religion it bids us abdicate our claim to sovereign mastery, and respect a transcendent reality. As a matter of fact, this approach generally makes more hard sense than greedy exploitation, but it’s still not truly practical. "Practical attitudes" toward nature lead to things like tree-farming and game management, whereas the religiously minded ecologist (the so-called "preservationist") wants to leave nature alone, even if this approach hinders economic expansion.
This determination to live with nature so far as possible rather than rule over it is not just an aesthetic preference, a taste for wilderness instead of gardens. It is a bowing down to the mana that flows through the universe, a reverence for life. Nature is not just the supreme datum: it is also the eternal unknown, the first and greatest mystery. So if, as John Passmore says, philosophy insists that animals have no rights, ecology will give them some anyway.
The ecologist attacks the familiar picture of creation as a pyramid of power with the human being at its lonely apex. In the first place, our omnipotence is illusory, since we are totally dependent upon the earth. In the second place, there are, as the transcendentalists claimed, "higher laws" -- higher than brute force and selfish cunning. Of course these laws can be grasped only by intuitive faith -- which is why ecology has become a religion, and why the battle over mundane issues like dams or highways is at bottom a holy war.
The religious impulse of the ecological movement explains both its popularity -- it satisfies a basic human need -- and the uncertainty of its future. In a world governed by Realpolitik, religion is always threatened. Since we can’t even guarantee that enlightened egotism will save the world from a nuclear doomsday, what will prevent the earth from turning into a gigantic feedlot for 40 or more billion people?
What indeed? Ever since the Enlightenment there has been a progressive tendency to deny original sin as an offense to human dignity, and to promote experiments in reaching for divinity. Many of these have failed catastrophically, but the attempts go on. It may be that the time has come for a broad recognition of the ecological Fall. It’s certain in any case that there can be no salvation, even piecemeal salvation, without "conviction" of sin. We can’t begin to rescue what’s left of the land till we have a common consciousness of our radical guilt toward it. That may be a lot to ask for, but nothing less will do.