A New Reverence for Life: Redeeming Humanity’s Relationship with the Earth
by Carol Hohle
Part Three: Religious Environmentalism
There is a natural convergence occurring between religion and environmentalism. As religion has grown more compassionate and environmentalism has embraced a more holistic approach to healing they have become allies – allies, in creating new social and ecological ethics. Both camps believe that their key concepts deserve reverence. Both find self-examination and spiritual practice important. And, both cherish the ideal that there is more to human wellbeing than money, power, and pleasure. Not surprisingly then, religious environmentalism is emerging as a means to offer a fresh voice in the public and political arenas where so many of the challenges that lie ahead will require clearly articulated and shared values.
Petra Kelley, the vibrant social activist who co-founded the German Green Party in 1979, articulated values that address humanity’s over consumption:
Like the mind-set that places men above women, whites above blacks, and rich above poor, the mentality that places humans above nature is a dysfunctional delusion. It is based on the principle of domination. We humans take our Earth for granted and never hesitate to exploit it and its inhabitants to gratify our immediate wants. We have to understand that we are part of nature, not outside of it. What we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves. Understanding our interconnectedness with all life is the essence of ecological politics and an ecological economy.
We need very little of what consumer society tells us. Lavish consumption brings only a crude sort of gratification. Cultivating the intuitions of our identity with the whole of life in all its diversity brings delight to the heart and a deeper and more durable fulfillment. These intuitions are essential for a life based on values, and they are also the basis for political action. The personal transformation to what Arne Naess calls ‘a life simple in means but rich in ends’ is itself a political act. If we want to transform society in an ecological way, we must profoundly transform ourselves.(14)
Likewise, E.F. Schumacher identified this same need in his now classic text, Small is Beautiful, “The violent and aggressive approach to the natural world is fed by human greed for short-term material gain without care of the long-term ill effects on other generations…. Western economic thinking depends upon insatiable consumption … where is the basic ethic of restraint?”(15)
Consumerism, fundamentalism and globalization are, according to Roger Gottlieb, the three features of modern life that dominant the world’s culture, politics and economies. He says, “If religious environmentalism is to ‘save the earth’–or at least make things a little better–it must come to grips with these forces.”(16)
In the United States today there are twice as many shopping malls as there are high schools and the average American consumes 120 lbs. of manufactured or extracted materials a day.(17) What’s shocking about these statistics is not that humans have consumptive habits. Throughout history people have always had basic needs. But the shape of consumerism today is no longer about “needs” it is about the unending expansion of “wants.” These wants become a form of addiction where addicts lose sight of yesterday, tomorrow, and other people and only think about the object of desire and the exhilarating and fleeting moment of purchase.
Fundamentalism, the second threat in Gottlieb’s triangle of negative forces, erects barriers to the “other” and arises when people are threatened by dramatic and seemingly uncontrollable change. Idealization of the past and anthropocentric views often appear as expressions of fundamentalism. The increased pace of change and the sheer amount of change that appears necessary to save the planet is threatening to a poorly educated, fearful, consumption addicted society.
Beyond consumerism and fundamentalism looms the unbridled threat of globalization. Globalization values commodity more than community, reduces citizens to consumers, packages nature as a commodity, and has empowered trans-national corporations beyond the authority of local and national governments. Globalization’s dark side exposes itself in the form of new pollution now hovering over China, the clearing of the Amazon forests with the attendant disruption to the way of life among the indigenous tribes in the region, and the increased wave of economic refuges migrating illegally from Mexico into the United States.
14. Petra Kelly, Thinking Green! Essays on Environmentalism, Feminism, and Nonviolence (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1994), 21-22.
15. E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful, quoted in Kelly, Thinking Green, 22.
16. Gottlieb, A Greener Faith, 216.