Friday, March 20, 2009

State of nature

Environmentalism being the dominant secular ideology of our age, its prejudices and preconceptions are always worth challenging wherever they are found. One of the ideas frequently put forth by Green thinkers -- and recently repeated by an in- house philosopher on Canada's CBC Radio -- is that Western societies are somehow unique in being responsible for environmental degradation because of Christianity's views about nature. We can assume from its mainstream exposure that this isn't a very controversial idea; but what does it really mean?

It's true that, according to the Biblical account, God commanded that man have "dominion" over all the earth in the book of Genesis, and that subsequent Christian thinkers saw nature as having fallen at the same time as Adam and Eve, who were supposed to have inhabited a perfect Creation. Environmentalists conclude from this that Christians have never had any reason either to respect nature or to have refrained from exploiting it mercilessly.

There are numerous problems with this. Most glaring is the historical fact that the two states in which pollution and the destruction of the environment have been most marked have not been Christian at all. The Soviet Union was officially atheist, and it gave us (among many other things) the disgraceful legacy of Chernobyl and the disappearing Aral Sea; while today China -- which is either Communist or Confucian in its values, depending on who you believe -- is happily blighting its landscape to an almost unimaginable degree. Neither of these societies have taken their inspiration from the Book of Genesis. But both have manifested to an extreme the desire to act on an impulse that is not Christian but simply human, which is the desire to make the best of living in what is essentially a cruel world.

It's naturally true that Nature is not "fallen" in some theological sense; Christians were always wrong to say this, not only because it was unclear how or why the Fall of Man would have altered the rest of God's creation beyond recognition, but also because that Creation itself was always so plainly hostile to man in the way it was designed. Even if the lion were destined to one day lie down with the lamb, there was no reason for the lion to be so swift on his haunches and powerful in his jaw unless he had been created to eat smaller, slower animals. Where the Christians were right, however, was in believing that nature was irredeemably hostile to mankind now, and that this would always be the case until the end of the world. It is difficult for affluent modern Westerners -- who unsurprisingly make up the vast majority of environmentalists -- to appreciate this simple fact, since they are insulated by advances in medicine and technology, or even by simple geography, against the crueller ravages of what the natural world has to offer: volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, infectious diseases, large predatory animals, and so on. Our ancestors knew all of these dangers well, and so do many of the world's poor today.

The rejection of the Christian idea of dominion of nature is supposed to lead us to the opposite conclusion, which is that man is just one animal out of many and that we have no more right to exist than any other. But this is inconsistent with scientific perspective. Environmentalists may oppose the building of a subdivision on the grounds that it will disturb the habitat of (say) a particular rodent or bird. But to deny the human being his habitat in favour of that of the animal is to give the priority to the animal, which is not the same as treating the human and the animal equally. And besides, it is a uniquely human trait to assign an objective value to another species and to worry about its continued existence. God knows that the antelope isn't concerned about the continued existence of the cheetah, and anyway if the antelope could express an opinion on the matter at all we can easily guess what it would say.

In practice all of us, whether allegedly eco- conscious or not, behave much less sentimentally when it comes to the matter of our own personal survival: we have almost entirely eradicated the smallpox virus, for example, in the selfish interests of guaranteeing our own longevity, and many of us also have no qualms about eradicating unborn human beings if they pose the slightest threat to our peace of mind. Even in our daily interaction with others, the vast majority of us have no problem with the idea of ruthless competition with other people. One can only conclude that in the vast majority of cases our alleged humanitarianism is a sham, and that our sentimentality about nature is only a flimsy cover for our contempt for human beings. --Even Hitler, they say, was very fond of his dog.

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