The Christian Science Monitor
Alarm Calls for Deeper Values
Staff writer of The
Christian Science Monitor
Thursday, October 1, 1998
A minister in Alaska took a break from the demands of his pastoral work
to go hunting. In the wilds, he suddenly came upon a bear, and when he
raised his gun, it jammed. "Dear God," he prayed, "make him
a Christian." The bear, lumbering rapidly toward him, stopped in his
tracks, clasped his paws together, looked upward and said, "Lord,
thank you for the gift I am about to receive."
The Far Side sensibility of this story - told recently at a conference
here on religion, ethics, and the environment - hints at how conventional
approaches to religion may fall short in helping solve the problems that
confront us, and particularly the crisis in our relation to the natural
‘Concepts of God are ecological concepts. [We need to rethink our
concepts.] It’s too late for conservation. We need active
- Niles Eldredge, American Museum of Natural History
"If the rest of the world lived as we do [in the United
States]," says renowned biologist Edward O. Wilson, "we would
need two more planet Earths."
Copyright 1998 Christian Science Monitor
Yet much of the rest of the world wants to live like Americans, who
show few signs of living any differently. China, with a quarter of the
world's population, has set a goal of matching current US gross domestic
product by 2050, says Karim Ahmed, a deputy director at World Resources
Institute in Washington. (And the US auto industry, urged on by the
Department of Commerce, hopes to fill China's streets with cars, he adds.)
The result of this "progress" is persistent worldwide
environmental degradation - "the disruption of habitats, the
dismantling of ecosystems, and the extinction of 30,000 species a
year," says Niles Eldredge, a curator at the American Museum of
Natural History in New York.
While the planet has faced earlier mass extinctions due to climate
change and asteroid impact, today's cosmic force is human beings - and
particularly the industrialized world, its methods of production, and its
rate of consumption.
How have we come to this predicament, and can the world's faiths help
us get out of it? Can they rethink and inspire values that will transform
current practices? Those are questions posed by a series of conferences
sponsored since 1996 by Harvard University's Center for the Study of World
Religions (see story below). Ten conferences exploring each of the major
faiths and its ecological views led to a recent four-day interdisciplinary
session in which religious scholars discussed the nature of the crisis
with scientists, economists, educators, and policymakers.
Our predicament, most agreed, is the result of both individual choices
and systemic problems, and the solution lies in re-envisioning and
revitalizing spiritual values. Who are we, and what should be our
relationship to the natural world? How do choices we make flow from those
values? Do we need a new definition of progress, of development, and of
"the good life"?
From the standpoint of Taoism, says James Miller of Boston University,
"the shriveling, dying, and degradation of the physical world is a
result of the shriveling of our own religious imagination."
"Anything we do to nature reflects our inner self," says Tu
Weiming, professor of Chinese philosophy at Harvard. "The Western
Enlightenment mentality turned nature into raw data, raw materials."
There is a "disconnect between knowledge of the need for change
and our inability or unwillingness to change," says Robert Massie of
the Coalition for Environmentally Responsible Economies. "What will
it take for people to act in a new way - individually and collectively? We
need to cope with our own hypocrisy."
Individual choices make a definite difference - from the purchase of a
sport utility vehicle in the US to slashing and burning a parcel of rain
forest in Brazil. And technology won't provide a quick fix. Technological
changes have reduced environmental impact, but that is being erased by
increased output and consumption, says Juliet Schor, a Harvard economist
and author of "The Overspent American."
Larger houses, gas-guzzling vehicles, and more frequent air travel are
some of the highly damaging choices Americans now prize. Income
distribution is a key factor in fueling the consumer boom, she says, with
the increasingly wealthy buying more; other factors are easy credit and
exposure to TV's wealthy lifestyles.
Can religious faiths more effectively articulate a "good
life" other than consumerism? Some biologists, citing the
"parochial nature" of religions, suggest that a new worldview
based on evolutionary theory could provide a more universal environmental
ethic. But others see the "selfish gene" model as part of the
problem, with Darwinian theory a factor in the free-market model
responsible for the environmental crisis. "We need to get beyond an
economic system based on the selfish gene," one group concluded.
A basic problem, some say, is Enlightenment thinking, which has
separated science (including economics) from ethics. Scientists and
corporate leaders may have good personal ethics, but they sometimes fail
to take responsibility for the consequences of their discoveries or
Even now, when there is broad consensus on global-warming findings,
industry is still hiring scientists to insist we don't have enough
evidence to stop what we are doing, says Eric Chivian, director of the
Center for Health and Global Environment at Harvard (and the teller of the
"Expert" knowledge is too often driven by the idea that we
can attain truth without ethics, says Frederique Apffel-Marglin, professor
of anthropology at Smith College. "There is a blind belief research
will give us answers," she says, but we are dealing with ethical
choices. "We can no longer operate on the basis that we can't act
until we have the scientific evidence for certain."
Why have religions as a repository of ethics not been a more powerful
force? Some say consumerism and technology have become a religion. Others
say religions, apart from indigenous traditions, have been too
human-centered and not seen the environment as their moral turf.
"Concepts of God are ecological concepts," says Dr. Eldredge.
We need to rethink our concepts. "It's too late for conservation. We
need active stewardship."
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