Chapter 10: Humanity at War with the Planet
Ever since humans began to emerge from their pre-human ancestry (maybe around two million years ago), the species learned to accommodate itself to the natural environment. Humans, like all other earthly creatures, evolved in a symbiotic relationship with the world around them, living at the mercy of natural forces. In their slowly developing, language-based culture, our far distant ancestors gained some understanding of the ways of nature and they developed beliefs, myths and rituals to acknowledge their absolute dependence on the earth, which supplied all the essentials of life.
As our forebears came to name the particular forces of nature as unseen spirits and/or gods, they showed them the utmost respect. The gods of nature were the chief objects of their worship and veneration. Dependent upon these ‘spiritual forces’, the early humans knew they were not free to do whatever they liked on the earth. On the contrary, they developed practices to protect and sustain the various sources of their food supply. To early humans, the earth was revered in personal terms, and often regarded as their Mother.
This relationship between humans and nature lasted for many centuries, until the Axial Period 1 introduced some radical changes. These were most pronounced in the monotheistic culture which arose in ancient Israel and which diverged eventually into Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As polytheism turned to monotheism, the focus of attention shifted from the earth to the sky. In mythological terms it was a shift in worship from the Earth Mother to the Sky Father. The Israelite prophet Hosea reflected this when he portrayed the divine Heavenly Father complaining that the people of Israel ‘did not know that it was I who gave them the grain and the wine and the oil and lavished upon them the silver and the gold’ -- gifts which they in their ignorance attributed to Baal (one of the Canaanite gods of nature).2
The monotheistic cultural traditions have long interpreted this ancient struggle between the old nature religions and the worship of the One who ruled from the heavens as a struggle between idolatry and the truth, in which the latter ultimately prevailed. But banishing the gods of nature had the effect of desacralizing the earth. Christians, even more than Jews and Muslims, came to regard the earth as a fallen world and contrasted it with the wholly spiritual world of heaven. Christian monasticism encouraged the faithful to withdraw from the materialistic world with its earthly attractions and prepare themselves for their ultimate destiny in the heavenly realms.
Western culture has been slowly relinquishing this dualistic view of reality and learning to value the physical world -- the only world of which we have first-hand experience. Yet that traditional dualism left a deposit of attitudes which we have yet to overcome, and whose consequences we have only begun to acknowledge in the twentieth century. For one thing, monotheism’s rejection of the gods of nature badly upset the prevailing gender balance. In polytheism, the Sky Father was a somewhat distant figure, complemented by the Earth Mother, with whom humans had the closer relationship. When the one and only deity affirmed by Israel banished the Earth Mother and the other gods of nature (both male and female), the Sky Father was left supreme. As the term Heavenly Father suggests, this God inherited many of the characteristics of the primitive Sky Father, such as unlimited power and the male macho image -- manifested in storms and thunderbolts. The elimination of the Earth Mother effectively downgraded the earth in favor of heaven. And as a result, women and female characteristics were downgraded, and a superior place for men was established in society. When the divine male gender reigns supreme in the heavenly places as the Almighty, so the human male gender dominates the earth. Thus the monotheistic traditions became strongly patriarchal and the feminine virtues were devalued.
The first expression of pure monotheism in Israelite thought is found as late as the sixth century BCE, in the words of an unknown prophet. In the latter part of the Book of Isaiah he wrote: ‘I am the Lord and there is no other. Apart from me there is no god.’3 About the same time (according to most modern scholars) the opening chapter of Genesis was composed in its present form. In this creation story, humankind was made in the image of this all-powerful Creator, able likewise to subdue the earth and exercise dominion over every living creature that lives upon it. Although this later biblical myth specifically stated, ‘God created mankind in his own image male and female he created them,’4 God continued to be described in male terms. It was natural, therefore, for the mediaeval theologian Aquinas to conclude that women are simply unfinished males.
This biblical tradition went deep into the collective consciousness of the western world, causing people to believe that the earth was expressly made for the use of humankind, with the male gender in authority. People felt free to exploit the earth and its resources for their own ends. In no century more than the twentieth has this exploitation been so widespread. James Gaius Watt, a committed Christian and Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Interior, argued that developers should have access to controlled parks and natural resources, with this reasoning:
The earth is merely a temporary way station on the road to eternal life. It is unimportant except as a place of testing to get into heaven. In this evil and dangerous world, one’s duty is to pass through unspotted by the surrounding corruption. The earth was put here by the Lord for his people to subdue and to use for profitable purposes on the way to the hereafter.
While this view may be considered extreme, it was nevertheless consistent with traditional Christian teaching -- and indeed expressed popular (although ill-considered) Christian thought. As recently as 1952, a theologian of world renown, Emil Brunner (1889 - 1966). wrote:
Because man, and man alone, has been created in the image of God, and for communion with the Creator, therefore he may and should make the earth subject to himself, and should have dominion over all other creatures . . . Man is only capable of realizing his divine destiny when be rises above Nature and looks at it from a distance [emphasis added] 5
This attitude towards the natural world is now facing strong criticism. However, this same attitude may well be the reason why empirical science first evolved in western civilization. Some philosophers and scientists have claimed that empirical science could only develop where there was nothing sacred about the earth, leaving humans free to experiment with it. In Christian teaching, not only were there no gods of nature to take vengeance on humans who interfered with their domain, but also humans already had dominion over the earth, granted by the one and only God.
Empirical science gave rise to modern technology, and this has been not only a justified source of pride but also welcomed by people in many different cultures. Few are willing to dispense with the technology on which human life has now come to depend. But from the far distant past, when primitive humans discovered how to make fire and invent tools, up until the recent present, nothing that humans did through their technology made much difference to the forces of nature. It is only in the twentieth century that human forces have become sufficiently magnified as to be comparable with natural forces. We may not yet be able to control the weather, but our collective activities now have subtle but serious effects on weather patterns. Our extravagant use of the earth’s resources is now turning to wasteful exploitation, and our human activities are causing many other species to become extinct.
During the last two decades an ever-increasing number of books have been published, warning that a frightening nemesis is now appearing on the horizon as a result of our changing relationship with the earth. They started with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1966); later came titles such as The Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell (1982), The Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry (1988), Earth in the Balance by Al Gore (1993), and The Sacred Balance by David Suzuki (1997). We are being awakened to the fact that not all of our technological and other achievements necessarily promote the long-term wellbeing of the human race. We find that the rise of modern culture in the Christian west, followed by its rapid spread around the world, has been both a blessing and a curse.
The Christian west, including monotheism, is now meeting moral criticism, from within the western culture. Arnold Toynbee in 1973 wrote:
Some of the major maladies of the present day world -- in particular the recklessly extravagant consumption of nature’s irreplaceable treasures, and the pollution of those of them that man has not already devoured -- can be traced back to a religious cause, and this cause is the rise of monotheism . . . Monotheism, as enunciated in the book of Genesis, has removed the age-old restraint that was once placed on man’s greed by his awe. Man’s greedy impulse to exploit nature used to be held in check by his pious worship of nature.6
Similarly the Lutheran theologian Jürgen Moltmann said:
It was the Western ‘religion of modern times’ that freed the way for the secularization of nature. At the end of civilization’s long history, the ancient view about the harmony between the forces of nature has been destroyed -- destroyed by modern monotheism on the one hand, and by scientific mechanism on the other. Modern monotheism has robbed nature of its divine mystery and has broken its spell.7
Toynbee’s growing concern about the future of humankind led him, after spending a lifetime studying human history, to devote the last book of his career to Mankind and Mother Earth. As he observed: ‘We now stand at a turning-point in the history of the biosphere and in the shorter history of one of its products, mankind . . . Man is the first species of living being in our biosphere that has acquired the power to wreck the biosphere and, in wrecking it, to liquidate himself.’ 8
The word biosphere has come into common use only in the twentieth century. It was coined by Austrian scientist Edouard Suess in 1875 to refer to the thin film of life around the earth between the hydrosphere and the atmosphere, and penetrating them both; in this are found all earthly living creatures, great and small. Teilhard de Chardin used the word to draw attention to the unity of all planetary life, and to the complex and awe-inspiring ways in which the myriad living species within the biosphere interrelate both with one another and with their environment.
The increasing use of such terms as biosphere illustrates a radical shift taking place in our understanding of the world, a shift which may be described as a move from atomism to holism. Atomism (which goes all the way back to Democritus, who coined the term atom) assumes that physical reality consists of tiny indestructible parts or atoms, and that by analyzing an object into smaller and smaller parts one can learn all there is to know about it. Analysis of this kind has been very fruitful in modern chemistry and physics. But there is much that this sort of analysis misses, and may even destroy, in the search for knowledge. The term ‘holism’ was coined in 1926 by J.C. Smuts to refer to the tendency of nature to produce wholes from ordered groups of units. We now know that, in the phenomenon of life, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. To understand life in general, including the many particular forms of it within the biosphere, we must study it holistically.
All living creatures are organisms or living systems, the essential components of which are carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen. These are, in themselves, lifeless and inert. A system is alive if it obtains energy and other substances from its environment, returns wastes to that environment, and maintains the conditions necessary for the process to continue. All living organisms not only possess an internal living system but also constitute with their environment a larger living system, which could be called a ‘life field’. The holistic approach, which examines physical reality in ever-greater wholes, has thus told us that all forms of life are dependent on systems. Even the biosphere of the earth itself is dependent on the energy drawn from the sun.
The continuing life of each species depends upon the preservation of a delicate balance between the organism and the environment which supports it. Each organism contains self-regulating mechanisms which help to preserve that balance. We can understand this best by thinking of the organism we know best -- the human being. We have long been used to thinking of ourselves as wholes rather than as aggregations of parts. Indeed, it is only modern physiology that has fully identified the various organs or sub-systems which exist within the human body. When one or more of those systems has its balance disturbed and can no longer function (as, say, in diabetes) our health (literally, our ‘wholeness’) suffers. We become ill and, if the balance cannot be restored, we die.
The earth has provided certain basic conditions which must be met by all earthly creatures if they are to survive as a species. Humans have evolved within those parameters. Our respiratory system fits both the nature and the proportions of the gases found in the atmosphere. Our bodies, which are 80 per cent water, fit the earth’s water supply. The ozone layer protects us from the sun’s harmful radioactivity. Our muscles and bone structure have evolved to meet the conditions of the earth’s mass. For humans to be healthy they must be able to breathe fresh air, drink clean water, eat adequate food, and live in an environment not too different from that in which they became human. The more the environment changes from that in which a species has evolved, the more the health and behavior of that species will show maladjustment. Its health will deteriorate and then it will die. We humans will always be earthlings, along with all other earthly creatures. Our existence remains earth-related.
To acknowledge the reality of living systems, and especially the ultimate system which links all systems of earthly life, the word eco-sphere is now often preferred to the earlier word biosphere. A full appreciation of the whole eco-system has led some, such as James Lovelock with the Gaia hypothesis, to describe the earth itself in terms of an organism, of which the biosphere is the living skin in the same way as bark is the living skin of the tree. His term Gaia is the name for Mother Earth derived from ancient Greek mythology.9
At the very time we humans have been learning more about the ecology of all planetary life, we have been discovering to our horror how much we are now upsetting the delicate balances in the living systems of the ecosphere. Humanity has had no intention of ‘wrecking the biosphere’, to use Toynbee’s words. While there is an unfortunate streak in the human psyche that delights in destruction (as vandalism ancient and modern shows), the current damage to the eco-sphere is quite unintentional and occurs partly out of ignorance. The eco-sphere is suffering chiefly through our sudden expansion in numbers and our rapidly growing technology -- and the first of these is serving to exacerbate the second.
The impact of the population explosion on a finite world has already been discussed in Chapter 9. It is also shifting balances within humanity itself. The racial composition of the world’s population is altering rapidly, for the population increase is occurring mainly among the non-white races. For example, in 1950 the population of Africa was only half that of Europe, but by 2025 it could be three times that of Europe. In the 30 years before 2025, Nigeria’s population could jump from 113 to 301 million, Kenya’s from 25 to 77 million, Tanzania’s from 27 to 84 million and Zaire’s from 36 to 99 million. The population explosion is also changing the economic balances, for it is the nations that are already economically poor, and in many cases saddled with massive international debt, that will bear the burden of feeding between two and three times as many more mouths than they do at present.
The fast-increasing population also upsets the ecological balance between various species and their source of sustenance, by putting added strain on the natural resources of the earth. Humans, in order to live, are interfering with the food chains which have evolved over time, and are depriving many other creatures as well as ourselves of sustenance. All food for human consumption, and for many other species as well comes either directly or indirectly from four biological systems: croplands, grasslands, forests and fisheries. Each of these is being seriously depleted at the same time as the human population is rapidly growing. It was estimated in the 1970s that, from the time human agriculture began to develop some 10,000 years ago, one half of the earth’s food-producing soil had disappeared and a third of the remainder would be lost in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Because of the clearing of pasture and forest lands for agriculture. vast amounts of topsoil are being swept down into the ocean and lost for the future. The United States alone is said to lose four to six billion tons annually.
Further, and even more seriously for the eco-sphere, the human population explosion is upsetting the balance which has long existed among earthly creatures. All species have evolved in a state of interdependence with one another and with their total environment. Humans now dominate the surface of the earth as never before. Human expansion into previously uninhabited areas has disturbed, and in many cases already destroyed, the natural habitat of other species. Species are becoming extinct much more rapidly.
The delicate balances in the planetary eco-system are also being upset by technology, much of which has been specifically developed to meet the needs of a greatly increased population. Human technology began, of course, many thousands of years ago and took a great step forward with the rise of agriculture. Yet, for a very long period, human technology was basically of the same order as (and not greatly more advanced than) the simple technology which other higher animals had developed and operated largely by instinct. The difference between the spinning of a spider’s web (for example) and human technology is that the latter came to depend increasingly on human thought -- or what Teilhard de Chardin called the evolution of the noosphere. This he saw as the thin sphere of creative and self-conscious human thought within the biosphere. Teilhard de Chardin identified the arrival of the noosphere as a transition in the evolutionary process just as far-reaching as the evolution of life out of a non-living planet. The philosopher Karl Popper, using a different model, referred to the total product of noogenesis as World 3, a non-physical but very real world of objective knowledge created by human thought.10
Human knowledge has been slowly accumulating over many millennia and has been transmitted from generation to generation; its practical application constitutes human technology. In the last 200 years there has been an explosion in (World 3) knowledge. This partly contributed to population growth, in that we had a better understanding of human health. But it has also greatly expanded human technology. The ratio between the forces of nature and human forces has significantly changed.
Population pressures and human technology are together adversely affecting the natural conditions of the surface of the planet in the following ways:
• We are polluting air and water, the two most basic commodities on which human existence depends.
• We are increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the air, causing changing climatic conditions and global warming. This in turn raises ocean levels sufficiently to endanger the habitation of those living near sea-level.
• We are depleting the ozone layer, which protects us from the harmful effects of the sun’s radiation. This not only increases the incidence of malignant cancers but can also bring about unforeseen genetic changes.
• We are destroying the rainforests, increasing the deserts and, as noted above, washing the topsoil into the sea. (The earth’s forests are shrinking by 17 million hectares per year.)
• We are making massive demands on the earth’s natural resources and rapidly exhausting many of its non-renewable deposits.
• Our increasing competition for the fruits of the earth, coupled with the quite unequal use of the earth’s limited resources, is building up explosive tensions within the human species.
• The complexity of our growing interdependence in the global village makes the global economy exceedingly fragile.
Modern secular prophets (such as the writers referred to above) are telling us about the early warning signals of a living earth feeling the pressure of the activities of one species. What has evolved over millions of years we are now in the act of destroying in a few decades, either knowingly or unknowingly. And this is the result of what may be called the humanization of the earth. Some of these prophets are so pessimistic that they ask whether it is possible for some five to eight billion people to change the direction of our global life in the relatively short time available.
Others are more hopeful and see no reason why, with human ingenuity and further technology, we should not be able to reverse the dangerous policies we have set in motion. We have, for example, already taken some measures to deal with one of the probable causes of the growing holes in the ozone layer, and to reverse the destruction of European forests by acid rain. Thus, the more optimistic of the modern prophets (like their ancient counterparts) are far from saying that doom is inevitable. Jonathan Schell ends his book The Fate of the Earth by pointing to the choice humankind must make between the path that leads to death and the path that leads to life. His words are reminiscent of the words of Moses: ‘I have set before you this day life and good, death and evil . . . Therefore choose life.’
But do enough people even see this choice between life and death? Plenty of critics dismiss these prophetic voices as ‘doom merchants’, who grossly exaggerate the warning signs and too readily ignore the capacity of human ingenuity to cope with threats. When Rachel Carson dared to suggest in Silent Spring that synthetic pesticides did more harm than good, her book was dismissed as so much hogwash. Carson’s allegations have since been confirmed as legitimate, with the result that many pesticides are now banned and organic farming is expanding fast.
It is not difficult to discover that the critics are usually people in the affluent west whose wealth, business interests and economic policies are dependent upon the technology doing the damage. Those who flatly dismiss the warning bells appear to be largely driven by self-interest, and so they shut their eyes to the consequences of their commitments just as surely as the Christian fundamentalists turn from the evidence that points to the end of the Christian era.
Even more serious is the fact that resistance to environmental issues is built into the economic policy underlying capitalism itself -- an economic policy which, since the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, has been widely adopted around the globe. Its first maxim is that a nation’s wellbeing depends upon the wealth produced by its industry, technology and economic development. The second maxim is that this wealth can be measured by its per capita Gross National Product (GNP). The third maxim is that to maximize a nation’s well-being it must maximize its economic growth. Thus annual economic growth is commonly being used as a criterion to measure the success or failure of political policies. Modern economic orthodoxy regards these maxims not only as basic to capitalism but also as normal for the way humans relate to the natural world. As Edward Goldsmith says:
The modern discipline of economics is based on the assumption that the destructive economic system which is operative today is normal . . . it does not occur to many academics that what they take to be normal is highly atypical of humanity’s total experience on this planet . . . They are like biologists who have only seen cancerous tissue and understandably mistake it for a healthy tissue.1
It is not surprising therefore that these maxims are coming under attack. Herman Daly, one-time economist with the World Bank, collaborated with theologian John Cobb to publish in 1989 For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community, the Environment and a Sustainable Future. They argued that the standard system of profit-and-loss accounting used by economists is deeply flawed. For example, many solar-powered energy systems are currently considered uneconomic when compared with those dependent on coal, oil or uranium; but if the full costs of production, consumption of a non-renewable resource, waste disposal and damage to environment are all taken into account, they could begin to look relatively inexpensive. Similarly, they argue, the accounting system used for the calculation of GNP can seriously mislead. However useful GNP may be for short-term planning, it gives false expectations about the long term, because it regards a national economy as a self-contained system which can be divorced from its surroundings. A national economy needs to be treated as a sub-system of the larger eco-system on which it is dependent, for it is drawing upon raw materials (some of which are irreplaceable), it is producing waste products (which have to be deposited somewhere) and it may be causing some damage to the eco-system. Thus any calculation of GNP is false if it does not subtract the negative impact caused by these other factors. When these subtractions are made, ‘positive’ economic growth may well turn out to be negative in fact.
Daly and Cobb argued that, to get a balanced picture of the current state of human well-being on the planet, we need to see that state in terms of the whole eco-system and not just in terms of one of its sub-systems. They set about constructing an alternative way of measuring economic growth, one that took account of the whole system. They called it the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare (ISEW). Then they applied it to the American economy. Judged by the standard GNP statistics, the US per capita income had increased in real value by 25 per cent since 1976; but, using the ISEW, they found that over the same period the economic wellbeing of Americans had actually declined by 10 per cent.
At a time when humans have become emancipated from the many social and religious restrictions of the past, including what our forebears thought to be the dictates of the Heavenly Father, we find ourselves becoming increasingly dependent on another set of forces. The eco-sphere itself has now become the God ‘in whom we live and move and have our being’ (to use the words of Acts 17:28), and the warning voices referred to above are its prophets. Indeed, the giving of our full attention to the needs of the eco-system (call it Mother Earth, Gaia or Nature, if you wish) is in many ways replacing the dutiful obedience which humans were expected to show to the Heavenly Father in traditional monotheism. The basic Christian doctrine of sin, which stressed that humanity exists in a tragic state of alienation from the God who created it in his own image, is being replaced by the discovery that humanity is currently in a state of war with the planet which has brought it forth.
Leading theologian Jürgen Moltmann has said:
What we need above all [if modem society is to have any future] is a new respect for nature, and a new reverence for the life of all created things . . . for it was the Western ‘religion of modern times’ that freed the way for the secularization of nature. At the end of civilization’s long history, the ancient view about the harmony between the forces of nature has been destroyed -- destroyed by modern monotheism on the one hand, and by scientific mechanism on the other.12
The question of how humans are to return to a state of harmony with the forces of nature is a daunting one. Those in the affluent countries who are in a position to appreciate the whole picture and respond positively are often blinded to the consequences of their countries’ policies because everything around them seems to be in good heart. Most of them have never been so well off financially and materially. It is very tempting, and much more reassuring, simply to dismiss today’s prophets of doom as scare-mongers. This negative response has been likened to the refusal of the passengers on the Titanic to take seriously the announcement that the boat would sink within an hour and a half. The people in undeveloped countries who are already suffering the results of the imminent nemesis are often powerless to obtain information, or to act on it. In any case, their immediate concern is often where the next meal is coming from.
Thus an appreciation of the damage we are doing to the earth has been slow to surface in modern human consciousness. Most people are so taken up with personal and local affairs of the moment that they are almost completely unaware of the larger picture. It is for such reasons that the more pessimistic prophets believe we have collectively, but unintentionally, set in motion a global movement that we have no means of stopping. To surrender in despair to what may appear to be inevitable will simply hasten the possible disasters. Yet some of these may have to occur before we are jolted out of our complacency. Just what these may be, we shall now explore.
1. See Preface
2. Hosea 2:11.
3. Isaiah 45:5, 6, 4, 18, 23.
4. Genesis 1:27. The priestly creation myth Genesis 1-2:4a is now commonly regarded as reflecting a later cultural period than the Yahwistic creation myth, Genesis 2:4b-3:24, which the ancient compilers of the Pentateuch placed after it.
5. Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of Creation and Redemption, pp. 67-68.
6. Arnold Toynbee, ‘The Genesis of Pollution’, Horizon (New York, American Heritage), Summer 1973, p. 7.
7. Johann-Baptist Metz and Jürgen Moltmann ,Faith and the Future, p. 71.
8. Arnold Toynbee, Mankind and Mother Earth, p. 17.
9. James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia; A Biography of Our Living Earth.
10. For a fuller description of World 3. see the author’s Tomorrow’s God, pp. 63-71.
11. Edward Goldsmith, The Way: An Ecological World-View, p. xiii.
12. Metz and Moltmann, op. cit., p. 176.