Thursday, 11 October 2012

A Deeper Ecology

An important article by Mary Taylor in Communio, based on her forthcoming book, offers Catholics a new paradigm for considering the ecological question. The following notes are based on her article. She calls the various ecological approaches “trajectories”, because they are not – or not only – theories, but encompass ways of thinking, of being, of acting, and of living. Roughly speaking, there are three such trajectories.

The First Trajectory sees the world as made up of separate entities, extrinsically related like the various mechanical parts of a machine. It is underpinned by the philosophies of modernity, characterized by mechanism in physics, representative epistemology, and instrumental reason. It is "dualistic" in the sense that it separates public and private, immanent and transcendent, subject and object, fact and value, mind and body. It tries to solve problems by tinkering with the machinery, making it more efficient and effective. The human will aspires to supremacy, and natural resources are valued only in terms of their utility to people.

The Second Trajectory focuses on nature as a holistic system that needs to be sustained for its own sake and not simply for human utility. This is the home of "Deep Ecology", which approaches environmental problems at levels above and beyond the
technical and economic, and so asks important social, political, ethical, and philosophical questions. However, it tends towards idealism or pantheism, perhaps even seeing the earth itself as a goddess. In the Second Trajectory, everything has equal intrinsic value, and so the anthropocentrism of the First Trajectory is often replaced by biocentrism or ecocentrism. The Second Trajectory also encompasses those postmodern philosophers who attack both scientism and pantheism but do not attain a clear vision of human nature.

Religious believers are often rightly suspicious of these first two trajectories. Both fail to account for the unique place of persons in the order of nature, and occasionally even lapse into regarding humanity as a “cancer” on the earth. Glorification of the human will on the one hand, and organic wholeness on the other, can all too easily lead to a contempt for human liberty and self-determination. The first two trajectories play into the hands of those who seek coercive political control, justifying measures that are intrinsically immoral for the sake of a greater whole.

The Third Trajectory does not reject instrumental reason or interconnection, technique or dialectic, but sees these in a different light. It bases itself upon "a deeper critical evaluation of the category of relation” (Caritas in Veritate, 53). This deeper evaluation sees all creatures as co-constituted by their relations to each other, but the human person as also characterized by its relation to the transcendent, and so with a responsibility to the whole of being, to everything that exists. This is the root of the fact indicated by Pope Benedict XVI that "The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. Every violation of solidarity and civic friendship harms the environment, just as environmental deterioration in turn upsets relations in society."

The Third Trajectory could therefore be described as "personalistic" rather than "mechanistic" or "organicist". An example might help to make this distinction clearer. A few years ago, a young consecrated layman, Ricardo Simmonds, was given the project of creating a small park out of a garbage dump in a South American shanty town. If it had been a First Trajectory project, the initial step might have been an economic feasibility study, followed by hiring a planning/ redevelopment consultant, then seeking out landscape designers, waste management engineers, and other technical help. A Second Trajectory project might have begun with an environmental impact assessment and a stakeholder charrette. Instead, Simmonds put a large statue of the Virgin Mary in the middle of the dump. First the mothers came to pray and plant flowers, carving out natural walkways; the children came to play; the fathers came and began hauling the garbage away; then others from both the shantytown and the city saw something beautiful happening that they wanted to be a part of, and volunteered their services, time, and money.

This might seem like an isolated, irrelevant, or marginal event, and clearly a religious statue reflects a very specific milieu, but large-scale environmental projects have been carried out in a similar way: by reversing the standard order of starting with technical fixes and economic costs, which often lead to various social or political conflicts, and instead beginning with the common call to meet our deepest shared needs for meaning, beauty, mystery, and friendship. The other steps are not eliminated but are rightly ordered under what is most important.

The Third Trajectory has only recently emerged as a distinct paradigm, but it enables Catholics and others who believe in the spiritual integrity of the human person to embrace, heal, and bring to fruition all that is good in the earlier trajectories. This Trajectory, to borrow a phrase from David L. Schindler, is able “to integrate the achievements of modernity, while at the same time moving us truly beyond modernity.”

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