Higher Truths Can Lower Environmental Awareness

Holy Mackrel!

Judeo-Christian texts such as The Bible presented a barrier to many modern and science-based attempts at rescuing nature from extinction and us from anthropocentrism. Within the Roman Catholic Church at least a rare species was St Francis of Assisi who put principle before power in the c. 12th - 13th and advocated the protection of wildlife. Though he said little about plant life.

By that Church's own standards prompt rejoinders followed on World Environment Day in 1979 when Pope John Paul II declared St Francis to be the Patron Saint of Ecology and on 19th March 2013 when the inauguration address of Pope Francis made a special reference to the fact that the environment is in distress. John Paul admitted that contemporary Catholics would find it a challenge "...not to behave like dissident predators where nature is concerned..." Pope Francis went further and hinted at a tentative review of the cherished idea that mankind is the pinnacle of all creation, separate from nature, when he said: "...let us be protectors of creation, protectors of God's plan inscribed in nature, protectors of one another and of the environment." Soon after, in his Easter Sunday address, he called for a halt to the: "...iniquitous exploitation of natural resources..." It is unclear whether his definition of natural resources also includes the great commons that are not enclosed by national or territorial boundaries as well as the farms, fisheries, forests, fossil fuel and mineral reserves, and great areas of fresh and salt water that are.

What is clear though is that these words do not amount to a rejection of monotheism, nor any recognition of the biological fact that Man is just a part of nature, albeit a very adaptable - maybe too adaptable - peculiar and extremely successful one, but an emphasis on the fact that the organic environment is in poor shape. This is important considering the traditionally cautious and regressive nature of the Roman Catholic Church, the legacy of which can be seen in Europe where Northern, Protestant and non-conformist areas traditionally showed more interest in conservation and natural history than the Catholic areas,where Fascist ideologies were also spawned.

What is also clear is that these are difficult times for a Church faced with scandals about abuse, banking, cruelty and secrecy. The times of St Francis were difficult one's too with the brutal repression of the Cathars and Albigensians, the rise of the voluntary poverty movement of the Vaudois and the mystical anarchists (C/f Raoul Vaneigem, Les Heresies).

Given that most environmental issues are political dynamite the Catholic Church has been a by-stander in these matters and now gives the impression that it is intent on rehabilitating a tarnished reputation. Concerning the environment Pope Francis has already sought out radical theological texts written by theologians who were marginalised by the Church in recent times and the likely aim is to of reclaim the ethical territory occupied until recently by numerous environmental groups and NGOs.

For someone who has first hand knowledge of the Church's protracted opposition to family planning and of the living conditions in the slums of South American cities, he could have usefully made a start with the urban environment where over 3 billion of the world's population huddle together in small spaces at the mercy of the system as a whole and who hanker after the respite offered when the organic world is more centre stage.

The attraction of nature

A former Minister for Transport in the UK came close to the truth about this latent connection people have with nature when she quipped: "Scratch the skin of a town dweller and you find a countryman underneath." Countless studies and social surveys of outdoor recreation conducted in one of the most urbanised countries in the world demonstrate how the majority in the UK opt to take their holidays and recreation by the sea, in the mountains, beside water and inforests. In 1962 the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission in the US undertook the biggest ever study in this field. In magnitude it was outdoor recreation's 'answer' to The Kinsey Report and showed how people readily connect to the great outdoors - as they do to sex.

Then something happened to alter and influence the perceptions of Nature held by many and perhaps set the clock back for conservation. There was the first moon landing in 1969 during which an artificial life-support system facilitated the impressive feat of Man leaving the safety of the biosphere and the influence of planet earth. It was so impressionable that those images from space showing earth to be a vulnerable blue planet in splendid isolation - a one-off - were easily overlooked and a view took hold that we could leave Nature behind and sort things out with a bit of technology – forgetting of course that Nature is a complex set of systems not a technical problem with a boundary drawn around it.

Philosophers who interpreted the world

Some philosophers brought up in the Christian tradition were barriers to conservation as well. Descartes excelled with his contributions to mathematics but concerning nature, and animals in particular, he was antediluvian: "Animals are soulless automatons." The thoughts of Leibniz were no better and Emmanuel Kant pronounced that "...humans only have to be moral (good) to other humans but not to nature." ("...der Menschist nur gegenuberanderen Personens ittlichverpflichtet, nicht gegen uberder Natur.")

Much more recently the philosopher Slavo Zizek, proposed that people should de-naturalise themselves in order to become more environmentally aware even though so many are already disconnected from the natural environment and have been kept biologically and scientifically ill-informed.

Dealing with disparagement

For a long time then the dye was cast and the dead weight of history of European thought bore down heavily. As recently as the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s reasonable people could escape criticism for saying the most asinine things about people in the environmental movement and be assured of the moral support of politicos, cadres, politically 'conscious' Lefties, the Confederation of British Industries, the Country Landowners Association, career servicemen, the Institute of Directors and the editors of the Economist, the Spectator or Nature. In response to this a number of environmentalists battened down the hatches during the Thatcher years in particular and made their concern for conservation and ecology aprivate or personal matter.

Of relevance here is Mahatma Gandhi's observation about the tendency for people to defend their rejection of change or new perspectives by indulging in disparaging and nasty talk: "First they ignore you; then they insult you; then you've won." A rider to this theory should read: That any time lapse between the insults and winning could be so long that it is not clear how close is victory.

Support from where?

If enough of the natural world is to be conserved in order to ensure biological sustainability – gene pools and plant and animal communities that are have a role in important cycles for example – the advice from our Judeo-Christian heritage, or any other faith heritage, is not the best to follow. The environmental challenges of today have to be met with science-based conservation, moderated by humanity, and the supersession of political economy. As the solution is many solutions our aesthetic sensibilities, critique of all ideologies, observational powers and predilection for fun and pleasure can be brought into service.

There are of course people of all kinds of faith backgrounds who are appalled and disgusted by the way people can treat both the environment and other humans with such distain, but their belief systems hinder a fundamental approach to the protection of the environment and public health, which is part of human ecology.It is also true that some myths and values of people, steeped in Christian culture for example, helped in the protection of springs, watercourses, wells and the preservation of a few species.Those c. 19th English country parsons "...with one hand on "The Bible" and the other on the microscope" (E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class) did their bit for nature and a number of them were nature poets as well as naturalists.

But even this handful of conservation efforts has its origin in much more ancient influences, e.g. the Yew tree in many an English churchyard or the water source nearby dates to a pre-Christian era.The Red Alpine Elder next to hay barns in the Alps or the Alpine Swift or Swallow allowed to nest in cattle stalls were signs of good fortune.In China, and under the influence of a different belief system altogether, the Buddhist monks saved the evolutionary ancient Gingko biloba from extinction in their walled monastery gardens. Two outcomes of this religiously motivated act of conservation are that the Gingko biloba is today a readily available source for a plant remedy and one of the trees of choice for local authorities to plant in order to improve amenity.

Traditional and historical faiths might at first glance offer more balanced guidance because they give a central place to harmony with, and the worship of nature that can lend support to an argument in favour of scientifically-based conservation and the aesthetically and functionally driven movement to restore the natural environment – Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty or the prevention of soil erosion. A parallel example is the way in which the down-to-earth popular culture of gardening can be used for something as sublime as environmental conservation - reconnecting to and restoringthe environment. But in the context of today'senvironmental problems ancient faiths are not reliable guides either. For one, they may easily encourage people to overlook how little nature in its pristine state or wilderness is left and how instead man-adapted nature reflects back to us many important, modern social questions. The whole biosphere is now the terrain of political economy – of the capitalist system.

Surprising guiding lights

There are in fact no natural allies in the drive to conserve and protect the environment and there are still all kinds of people who, if nudged to explain where they draw the line between the natural and the man-adapted, between conserving or idly standing by and watching the extinction of nature, do not have an answer. There is of course the problem of ignorance and the pervasive feeling that everything all too complicated but it would help if more realised that environmental conservation includes the inorganic as well as the organic world, such as parish churches and their churchyards, coastlines, geological formations, fossiliferous localities, landscapes, views, waterfalls and so on.This would rally more support.

The support of independent thinkers among the artistic community can be of help, for during the early stages of industrialisation in the UK a small group including John Ruskin stood in isolation as critics of the raw fallout of industrialisation and rapid urbanisation by pointing out that soil erosion, deforestation, air and water pollution are not necessarily signs of progress.In the c. 20th the modern artist Kurt Schwitters developed the point nicely: "Create connections, if possible, between everything in the world."

The science community oncewholeheartedly embraced independent thinking too. The ecologist, Frank Fraser Darling showed that signs of social regression are visible in agricultural landscapes. He could look over a farming district and estimate how many alcoholics lived there or something about its skewed demographic structure. Arthur Tansley was another ecologist who was also aware of how the big social question impinges on nature.

The environment as a mirror

Many examples spring to mind. People would cycle and walk more if motor transport were not supported by a massive hidden subsidy. There are mountains of discarded spring water bottles because many think that the quality of tap water is not high enough despite the fact that it could be. The perceived and documented increase in the number of opportunist predators and scavengers such as the Carrion Crow, Herring Gull and Magpie highlight both the unsatisfactory management of waste that has been generated to an unsustainable level and the decline in other species of garden and woodland birds. Leaving aside the Feral Pigeon, Grey squirrel and the Monk Parakeet that are not native species, there is also the burgeoning rat population in sewers feeding off macerated food waste from millions of kitchens. Ecologically the domestic cat population of several millions has also reached a level that is unsustainable if associated ecological damage is to be avoided.

The social question is evident in so-called pristine wilderness too. In the Pacific Ocean a semi-submerged plastic sea covers a vast area and poses a threat of all kinds to marine life and commercial fisheries. Although some of this may be the result of storms and floods on land, the seas have been used as a dustbin for these petroleum-based products – a profligate use of an important resource. In the Himalayas huge junkyards of abandoned climbing equipment built up. In the Arctic ice tetra-ethyl lead dating from the first use of anti-knock compounds in petrol in the 1930s can be found while at the other end of the earth the fat tissues of Penguins contain residues of persistent organo-chlorine pesticides. In the late 1960s and early 1970s anthropogenic fluoride and lead were discovered in plants in the Grand Canyon National Park and pollutants emitted from the Four Corners power plant and motor vehicles were discovered in trees in the national and state forests of New Mexico.

The aesthetic appeal of nature can be a sound basis for encouraging environmental conservation. After all, "If it looks good it is good." was a starting point for advances in hygiene and engineering, '...and it might also smell good'. Anyone who has visited places such as the tropical rainforests, the Eternal Forest in Finnish Lapland, the Sequoia gigantea groves in California, the Grand Canyon or other places that are just as beautiful and fascinating could experience a sense of wonder. It is something that Charles Darwin wrote about engagingly in The Voyage of the Beagle. They are places that evoke a feeling that we owe it to ourselves to sustain nature.But this debt is not a financial one, a burden,or a duty,but more about pleasure. In fact it is not unconnected to the ethical issues argued over within faith communities. On the other hand any one who is not drawn to belief systems but who takes on a conscious, responsible approach to the environment can discover that if you do something to sustain nature there are always bonuses. No doubt someone will try to quantify and monetarise these bonuses but their very approach will tend to prevent them from recognising the real nature of a bonus.

The imperative to define

As the environmental problems confronting us are in essence the degradation of inter-relatedness and complexity in life-support systems, and the boundary between pristine nature and cultural or man-made landscapes becomes more cloudy it is useful to look at a definition of life and the nature that was worshipped or elevated to a higher form of truth in pantheistic religions. This is more difficult than it sounds, for crystals reproduce, fires take in oxygen and produce carbon dioxide, stalagmites grow and continents, glaciers and sand dunes move. Two definitions at opposite ends of the spectrum include one that sounds like tautology: That which exhibits the characteristics of life, and another touches on theory: "...little patches of order in a sea of chaos."(Erwin Schroedinger, What is Life).

This second definition from a mathematician, who spent more time on physics and philosophy,connects to entropy. There may not be much we can do about the second law of thermodynamics but by prolonging and sustaining life on earth we are in a sense facilitating order. This is not necessarily a reversal of entropy but it certainly does not accelerate it, and whatever thermo-dynamicists say about it, the capitalist mode of organising economic life increases entropy – and so do wars.

A definition of life remains to be stated if there is a discussion about conserving nature. All life is made up of cells, all cells came from other cells and all life demonstrates the presence of DNA. The presence of DNA is perhaps the most satisfactory indication of life because it is a molecule that is found in the largest of organisms such as Sequoia gigantea and the Blue Whale, and the smallest unicellular organisms, and if the conditions are cold, dark and dry it can last thousands of years.

But this resistant and long-lived chain of molecules is found in living and dead organisms. Defining life in these terms is a quantitative approach that does not help when dealing with the pressing problem of the erosion of quality of life that follows loss of biodiversity and environmental degradation.Also there is a move to make synthetic DNA for micro-computing so it is unwise to get too attached to this definition. For the moment though it does provide a useful working definition of life, if not of nature, which has been adapted by Man in all kinds of ways.

Although many have mined his ideas, the generalist and philosopher Lewis Mumford has been ignored when he points out that first and foremost our technology, including our cities, should be harnessed for the enhancement and prolongation of life – in part, to avoid accelerating entropy.

On Dialectical Gardening

Theoretically it may be impossible to reverse entropy but in practice it can be arrested and slowed down. A combination of gardening and the use of the dialectic provide very low-tech and highly accessible approaches to solving more than a few environmental problems.

If order is the opposite of entropy then the cultivation of gardens is one way of arresting disorder. Although the world's library shelves are heaving with the weight of books, reports and documents that contain other solutions, just for one minute, compare a piece of degraded land, or a neglected plot of concrete and asphalt,with the same that has been cultivated as a garden. Bear in mind also that nearly every human culture and ancient civilisation has at some time associated the garden,in some sense, with an ideal – a model. The biodiversity and ecological energetics of the wasteland cannot stand up to comparison with a little patch that is order, or, according to some ancient texts, paradise.


In 2013 "Be fruitful, and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it..." (Genesis 1:27) can readlike an edifying version of an Anglo-Saxon insult, coupled with the ideology of the 30thPresident of the USA. Although the environmental crisis has been looming since before the industrial revolution, it accelerated after 1760 and peaked from 1939 to 1945. One by one other crises received more attention. In c. 20th for instance numerous crises linked to wars informed us that no one can be trusted with political power. In the c. 21st we have been informed that the system sets things up so that crime does pay – much to the loss of the vast majority of people and the environment.

By: Nicolas Holliman (2013)