Monday, June 08, 2009

Domination and Preservation

Another Environmental Sermon
Same warnings as before... some abrupt jumps and endings that I just planned in my head, didn't write down and don't now recall. As before, I didn't make copious note of where I got all my info... but i did try to attribute sources a bit more carefully.

Environmental Sermon Series
Sermon 1: Domination or Preservation?
Gen 1:26; ' Then God said, ' Let us make humans in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'
Gen 1:28; ' Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over he fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.'
Gen 9:2-3; 'The fear and dread of you will fall upon all the birds of the air, upon every creature that moves along the ground, and upon all the fish of the sea; they are given into your hands... Everything that lives and moves will be food for you.'

Gen 2:5b; ' plant of the field had yet sprung up... there was no [human] to work the ground.'

Gen 2:15; 'The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.'

One of the basic assumptions that humanity has developed and operated under and which shapes our relationship to nature is summarized in the first chapter of Genesis... the natural world is in place to be 'ruled over.' We were placed here to have 'dominion over' In King James language all of nature. At the close of the story of Noah and the ark the human relationship to nature is phrased in even more shocking language; 'fear and dread'... nature will have fear and dread because of our dominion, our God given right to dominate.

An example of this assumption which comes from our own history is found in a letter from then President Thomas Jefferson to Andrew Jackson... informing Jackson that he must advise the Native Americans to sell their 'useless' forests and become farmers. Notice the assumption that Jefferson is operating with... the forests are useless or valueless,until farmers add value by transforming them into fields. (I believe that, philosophically, comes from Locke) Jackson later wrote, after a mission of 'advisement' which was a polite and sophisticated term for 'slaughter,' “In their places [the dead Indians] a new generation will arise who will know their duties better... the wilderness which now withers in sterility and seems to mourn the desolation which overspreads it, will blossom as a rose and become the nursery of the arts.' (Takaki, A Different Mirror pp 84, 86) A sermon on the treatment of Native Americans will have to wait for another day. For now I would suggest we focus on Jackson's assumptions. The forest withers away for lack of production. It groans in anticipation of salvation from 'the ignorant savages' and will now be reborn under the grace of farmers of European descent. Indians were not adding value to the forest and so the forests were wasted and languishing, awaiting a savior to give them value.

This assumption, one that we are perhaps, not even conscious of, shapes our modern economic system and its philosophy. Herman Daly, a former professor of Economics at LSU and former senior economist for the World Bank says; 'Human beings add utility to matter/energy. This is what we mean by production... Useful structure is added to matter/ energy by the agency of labor and capital stocks. The value of this useful structure imparted by labor and capital is what economists call 'value added.' In other words matter and energy has no value until we add value to it. Daly goes on to say 'modern economists have remarkably little to say bout that to which value is added. It is just' matter' and its properties are not very interesting (Daly in Ethics of Consumptions pp.21-22) In short, it is our dominion over nature that give nature value... Water, trees, natural gas, sunlight, fish, have no value until we, through production give it value.

This particular view of human relationship to nature has not always served us well.

One obvious example is the Dust-bowl era of the 1930's in the plains states. In the 1920's technological advances in agricultural equipment; the development of the tractor, combine, plow and truck lead to what some have called 'the great plow up.' These technological advances and the theories of leading agronomists that suggested that continued plowing of fields would lead to greater water absorption were intended to increase productivity. The amount of value that farmers could both give then receive from the land would increase. And it worked for a few years. Until a strange confluence of heavy rains and drought lead to the great dust-storms. The ecological equilibrium was disrupted by continual plowing and the anomalies in the weather patterns, which probably could have been mitigated previous to the great plowing, were left unchecked. Only 15% of land designated for crop production at that point, could actually produce anything. This lead to poverty among the people living in the plains states and a mass migration to California. Special hospitals had to be opened up to treat 'dust-pneumonia' as great numbers of people contracted respiratory diseases due to inhaling vast amounts of dust particles.

A couple of months ago I shared a story of an American billionaire, who decided to add value to the Brazilian rain forest by stripping almost 9 million acres of native flora in the Amazon to both plant new trees which could be developed for a wood pulp business and also to create an agricultural project to produce beef and rice among other crops. He imported trees better suited for pulp production from Africa and planted them on a half a million acres. Since the trees were growing outside their own ecosystem they were vulnerable to diseases that they were not accustomed too and the project failed completely. (Leonardo Boff, Cry of the Earth, Cry of the Poor; pp 91-92).

Now, I'm not saying that production and development is evil. I am not saying that this value adding is bad. I am well aware of the fact that without this production I would be in the state of Adam and Eve in the garden. From socks and shoes to suit and skivvies, my clothing is value-added to natural resource. Without production I wouldn't have a roof over my head or heat for my apartment. But I do believe that these stories strongly suggest that our view, our assumption that nature is valueless until dominated by us, has weaknesses. Weaknesses that can have serious and dangerous consequences not only to the natural world, but to the people who live on, in, with and depend upon the natural world for home, food, health and safety. Perhaps we should be a bit more humble about our relationship to the natural world. Perhaps we should be more aware that we always have a relationship with the natural world. (need more)

The Bible does give us an alternate view, a different model for thinking about our relationship to nature. It too is found in Genesis. In Genesis 2:5 we find a hint of a new way of living with the earth. Genesis 2:5 tells us that there was no man to work/till the ground. And in Genesis 2:15 we read that the Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden to work and care for it. Literal translations of the original Hebrew make this alternate view more clear. The word that we often read as work or till is more literally translated... serve. And the word that we often read as 'care for' is more literally translated as guard or protect. The Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden to serve and protect it...

We don't necessarily hear a lot in the Bible about human relationships to the rest of Creation. We do find it again in Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy. In Exodus and Deuteronomy God gives the 10 Commandments to Moses and one of them is to observe Sabbath. Take a rest, God says to the people of Israel. Specifically in Deuteronomy God ties Sabbath to the Exodus... You observe Sabbath to be reminded that unlike the Egyptians, I value you not for what you develop or produce for me... but just because you are. Israel was treated like matter/energy without value until the Egyptians added value to them by using them for development, building, production. But to God, Israel's value was inherent... they were valuable just because of their existence. And that Sabbath applied also to... livestock, animals, they too were to have the benefit of Sabbath... they were valuable to God beyond productivity... They were valuable because they too, were created by God. In Leviticus Sabbath is expanded even to the land. Every 7 years give your crop-land a rest... God said.

This could just be good land management which would ensure good crop return in the future. But it wasn't a practical suggestion, it was a commandment. God commands you to observe Sabbath, you, your livestock and even your land... all are valuable to God.

In other words, awareness of the environment and care of the environment is a matter of faith. It is a moral as well as ethical matter commanded by God. Care of Creation, through the sabbath, becomes a spiritual practice like prayer, devotion, Bible study, and worship... When Rhonda drives her hybrid car that is a spiritual practice, caring for the earth. When people bring clothes to the clothes closet and we redistribute them, that is spiritual practice that benefits the natural world as cotton is one of the most damaging crops to the soil that grows it. When Bob and Missy support the American Chestnut fund, that is a spiritual practice... they are caring for the earth not because scientists have told them too, or politicians... not because they will receive benefit from it... but because they care about the American Chestnut for its own worth. It may not be a constant theme in the bible, it may simply be a minority report, but still, these verses make it clear... we were placed here not simply to dominate, but to guard and care for, to preserve the rest of creation. Sabbath makes it clear that care and keeping of the natural world has a spiritual dimension... when we care for the earth we are connected to God... when we ignore the earth... we are separated from God. This matter of how we interact with the earth, utilize its natural resources, clearly is a practice of connecting to God. To ignore this earth and the warning-signs of its suffering due to our domination, is to ignore God.

The earth is the Lord's, we gabbled
and the fullness thereof --
while we looted and pillaged, claiming indemnity:
the fullness thereof
given over to us, to our use--
while we preened ourselves sure of our power,
willful or ignorant, through the centuries.

Miswritten, misread, that charge:
subdue was the false, the misplaced word in the story
Surely we were to have been
earth's mind, mirror, reflective source.
Surely our task
was to have been
to love the earth,
to dress and keep it like Eden's garden.

That would have been our dominion....

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