Paul Tillich once said that “if Christianity ever dies in America, it will die in the American suburban church…not under attacks from without, but of its own respectability.”
Most of us, and all of us collectively, have been trapped in a worldview that is out of touch with reality. Sure, we have known the problems we have caused for some time. The Biblical record is replete with reflections on our problematic relationship with the land and peoples. The centuries are packed with awakenings to harm and reckonings with the consequences. As long ago as 1864, George Perkins Marsh spoke of his discoveries of anthropogenic climate change (albeit not on a global scale) in his book Man and Nature. The concepts of pollution, overpopulation, habitat destruction, and the recognition of our reliance upon biogeochemical processes of life, and complex interrelationships within ecological communities, were not born on the first Earth Day in 1970. Our demise has been noted for centuries. Our science has advanced our knowledge of how things work and what fixes are needed. But we have known, and we think, technically with the view that the earth is at our disposal to manipulate as we will. This technical worldview has produced at least six errors in our perception of the world and our place in it.
First, it has led us to believe that a technical fix can be devised for any of our big problems and that the fix will allow us to get back to normal – to consume and live the profligate life to which we have become accustomed.
Second, it has conditioned our minds to assume that all that is needed to achieve a sufficient remedy is greater scientific understanding. One of the greatest errors that any educational approach can make is to assume that knowledge contains within it an intrinsic moral valence – that a grasp of scientific facts naturally translates into correct action. And with that, to ignore the fact that moral agency is already in play as we choose certain methods to gather data and to come to conclusions directed by certain commitments that constantly act to interpret data, experience and phenomena so that they are coherent with and reinforce the worldview’s defining framework. This delusion has been exhibited in some widespread environmental education curricula which have claimed to “teach people how to think, not what to think” while uncritically presenting arguments, ostensibly representing a range of perspectives but with varying degrees of objectivity, that are biased in favor of a particular conclusion. Usually the one favored by the corporate sponsor.
Third, it has blinded us to the narrow self-interest and limitations that are inherent to human being in favor of a concept of humans as limitless in our ability to objectively comprehend the complexities of life.
That we are still caught up in the self-serving, technical, objectifying worldview is evidenced by the language we use which is still dominated by commercial, extractive and domineering terms such as “resources” (even in preservation agencies), “gross domestic product,” “customer service” (even for government services), and “stewardship” (even that which recognizes the need for solidarity with all life), and which uses language that is deceptive and inaccurate, such as “recyclable”, “Green” and “sustainable.” It also so honors wealth that it accepts philanthropy in exchange for a meaningful critique of how wealth is generated.
Fourth, it has prevented us from seeing the humanity in other humans and in recognizing kinship with other creatures. The need for such recognition is not merely to satisfy an aesthetic, but to relate in ways that honor the ontological reality of mutual interdependence.
Fifth, it has kept us from knowing ourselves as integral members of ecological communities with which we have co-evolved, and prevented us from exploring our calling as responsible members of those communities.
Sixth, it prevents us from achieving our full humanity through experiences and expressions of the force and compulsions of the love that embraces others, and it fails to comprehend the fundamental role that love and loving relationships play in the humanity to which we are called. Significantly, it utterly fails to recognize the essential role love plays in moral discernment and the quest for knowledge, greater understanding (including technical knowledge) and its role in choosing how to act. So even though it may recognize love as a human emotion capable of compelling action, it misses entirely the role of love in the quest for understanding. And so the frequently cited quote from Baba Dioum is backwards, “In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” Although the conclusion may be right, the danger in this thesis is in thinking that love is a product of a technical knowledge, rather than the force that drives the entire process of understanding and action. It all starts with love – love that is known in relationships. I believe the progression more properly starts with first-hand contact, a sense of wonder, and a feeling of belonging. There is no way to achieve full understanding without the force of love.
But must we resign ourselves to such a constricted world view? What does it take to escape it? Not a technical knowledge – we can see the failure of that to solve the world’s big problems all around us. That much has been visible and recognizable to us for quite some time. It should be enough to lead us to repent for the damage we have done. But world views are hard to crack. It takes a breakthrough – a glimpse of something transcendent that gets us out of our mental traps and allows us a glimpse of an alternative reality – an alternative future. That time is now! We’ve been counting the passage of time that now prevents us from enacting business as usual and satiating our appetites as if it is a burden and an affliction. In some sense it is certainly that – there are victims who suffer tragically. But while we must recognize and respond to that, we might also consider that waiting out the passage of time is not our most important task. Perhaps recognizing that this is a special time is. This is not chronos we’re waiting on, but a Kairos moment – a special time when we are enabled to recognize truths beyond the world view of the status quo. We need to pay attention now.
Things are opened up, revealed to us now. This is both a time of crisis and a time to embrace the reality that more clearly, more viscerally, engulfs us, and to respond with the love that is within and around us. Let’s take stock of some of things that we can see more clearly now: First, it is the more vulnerable among us who suffer the most – the weak, homeless, impoverished, the immigrant. We’ve known this for a long time, but it now hits home in a new, profound way. Second, our economic system is not geared towards mutual support as much as it is for the survival of individualists and people of wealth. Third, our health care systems are not designed to meet the needs of all. Basic health care should be guaranteed to all and our best collective effort should be organized through agents that are not motivated by profit but by public service. Fourth, but perhaps primarily, we have a better sense of how interconnected we are with all the peoples of the earth. There is no sense in, or possibility of “America First” because it is self-destructive as much as it is harmful to other nations and peoples. Fifth, global climate change is upon us, and the only sufficient response to that now will be a concerted global response characterized by mutual support and solidarity. Sixth, I remember Aldo Leopold’s saying, because it seemed to express my own feelings that “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” It seemed to me that much of what was recognized long ago as ecological harm with severe implications for the future generally had little impact on the worldview whose focus was extraction, consumption and manipulation. Despite some real progress in social and ecological justice, we achieved little in the way of deep ecological understanding and connection, and the educational responses were by-and-large coopted by the extraction industries that would have the most to lose under a healthier worldview. It should be apparent to all that we live in a world of wounds now.
But what have we seen lately? Some report that the air in urban areas is cleaner than before. That wildlife is seen with greater frequency and in greater abundance. There is a sense that the earth is taking a breather while we, for the moment, relax our stronghold and our incessant dismembering and polluting. Go outside – find any wild place, pay attention, experience it with your feelings and your senses (relax your inclination to objectify) and you are guaranteed to be astounded. Kairos is now. We can hear the call of the earth, the call of each other. Let’s be sure also to listen for the call of God for new Being, dedicated to pursuing the vision of a future that is an alternative to the failed “respectability” of the past. We’re done with trying to manhandle the world as rugged individualists. We’re done serving the gods of laissez fair capitalism and fulfillment through consumption. It’s time to surrender the dominion model of stewardship and any pitch to care for the earth that is undemanding. Now is the time to exercise, as we never have before, the love to which we are called and which we see coming to expression around us more in these days of crisis. It’s time to reinterpret the world through a lens of solidarity that honors all creation, to seek new ways of thriving together. The time is now for a new beginning.
David Siegenthaler has volunteered as an eco-justice minister in the Presbytery of San Francisco and as an educator on the adult education committee of Montclair Presbyterian Church. He is employed by the National Park Service to manage the Federal Lands to Parks Program for the Western Region. He also works in other federal grant programs including the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Urban Parks and Recreation Recovery Act Program, and the National Historic Lighthouse Preservation Program. His work with non-profits has included interpretive planning and design, wildlife sanctuary management, environmental education, and public interest work. David serves on the Board of the international group, The Institute for Earth Education, and Starflower Experiences. David holds a bachelor’s degree in Sociology, a Master of Science in Environmental Resources Management, a Master of Divinity, and a Ph.D. in Systematic and Philosophical Theology.