Weird Science: Sustainable Development,
Deep Ecology, and Social Critique

Section Two

By Steve Best

Ecology From Within

The second half of the book explicitly focuses on various deep ecology perspectives which inform some of the essays in the first half. In "An Ecological Cosmology: The Confucian Philosophy of Material Force," Mary Evelyn Tucker, Associate Professor of Religion as well as member of various environmental organizations, claims that the Confucian worldview offers important resources for a new ecological worldview, thereby directly contradicting Crosby. Tucker provides a useful historical overview of the historical context of the philosophy of ch'i as it emerged and developed within Confuscianism. Referring to the "vital force" that underlies all reality, the philosophy of ch'i provides a non-dualistic cosmology that avoids Western dualisms between matter and spirit, mind and body, self and nature.

According to this philosophy, the same basic energy or life force informs all life. Both human beings and nature are infused with dynamic energy. All things are in a process of constant change and change is seen as vital to spiritual growth of the self. Ethically, the concept of ch'i provides a foundation for an earth-bound spiritually that reveres human beings and the earth as part of a single living process. By nourishing our own ch'i and the consciousness of our connection to this energy, we become participants in the dynamic processes of the universe; ch'i provides a physical, moral, and spiritual link to nature that is indispensable for a new relation to nature. Tucker's approach is sound because it brings not only the mind but the body into play and argues for the kind of deep connections to nature necessary for recasting our values and practices. The first site of nature is our own bodies and if we are alienated from them, we are likely to be alienated from the earth.

Jay McDaniel, Associate Professor of Religion, explores the ecological dimensions in Christian theology. "Emerging Options in Ecological Christianity: The New Story, the Biblical Story, and Pantheism," describes how the growing community of "ecological theologians" are rejecting anthropocentrism and speciesism in favor of a religiously-inspired ecological ethics that stresses the interconnection of all life forms and the responsibilities of human beings toward the earth and animal life. Christian theology, in short, is taking an ecological turn. As examples of these new trends, McDaniel describes "the new story of creation" as told by Thomas Berry, an ecological version of the biblical account of creation developed by Protestant thinkers associated with the World Council of Churches, and the pantheistic understanding of God put forth by process theology.

In his influential Dream of the Earth, Berry argues that the traditional biblical story of creation has become outmoded and he seeks to replace it with a new story that traces the evolutionary development of life from the first formation of particles in space to the creation of conscious human beings. Berry's teleological account suggests that differentiation, community, and individuality are the goals of evolution. McDaniel tries to assess the advantages and disadvantages of Berry's story compared to the traditional biblication. While Berry's new story has more scientific plausibility, for example, it lacks the biblical emphasis on the special significance of animals. Yet no matter, McDaniel argues, since the differences between these stories are reconcilable and both work together to promote ecological responsibility. This may come as a surprise for those who remember that the bible grants human beings "dominion" over nature and the animal kingdom, but contemporary Christian theology interprets that term to mean responsibility and emphasizes the need for love of earth and animals.

Looking at the pantheism of process theology, McDaniel finds it lacks the narrative component essential for moral teaching and that it could be enriched by incorporating Berry's new story and the biblical creation story. Pantheism can help us to see that God is a dynamic force present in all things, and the old and new stories of creation can supply compelling narrative frameworks. McDaniel takes us for a ride on the good ship Hegel which voyages on the "adventure toward the universe being conscious of itself in human existence" (149). Although his focus is more on moral teaching than conceptual coherence and critical thinking, more on useful myths than scientific facts or plausible modes of thought, McDaniel exhibits the virtue of tolerance and his essays is a good example of attempts being made by the Christian community to overcome its sorry legacy in favor of more progressive outlooks.

Professor of Theology Rosemary Radford Ruether advances a ecofeminist viewpoint in "Ecofeminism: Symbolic and Social Connections of the Oppression of Women and the Domination of Nature." This is the most politically charged essay of the book, but it too succumbs to a fatal vagueness when it approaches the crucial question of social reconstruction. Reuther provides a brief but provocative genealogy of the domination of men over women and nature which she sees as related problems. Drawing from anthropological studies, Ruether argues that the problem begins in pre-Hebraic cultures with the identification of men with culture and women with nature. This occurred through the evolution of the social division of labor where men gained control over hunting and agriculture and women were confined to domestic duties. Males gradually monopolized culture and designated domestic work as inferior; through time, both men and women were socialized into this hierarchical division of labor and mentality.

In their child-bearing capacity, the material world became seen as something separated from men and symbolically linked with women. Male activity became dissociated from nature which it sought to control and exploit. "As we look at the mythologies of the ancient Near Eastern, Hebrew, Greek, and early Christian cultures, we can see a shifting symbolization of women and nature as spheres to be conquered, ruled over, and finally, repudiated altogether" (158). In her discussion of Hebrew and Christian cultures, Ruether focuses on their patriarchal and domineering aspects which are glossed over in McDaniel's attempt to construct an ecological bible.

On Ruether's account on Hebrew and Christian religion, God is the original patriarch who hands his power to human males who in turn rule over women, children, and the land. In Greco-Roman culture and the Reformation, she finds that the immaterial intellectual world is divorced from the material world, reproducing the male-female dichotomy. When, in the scientific revolution, nature was devitalized and transformed into a dead machine, it was appropriated by the male elite and used to augment their wealth and power. For those who like to extol the genius of the Western scientific and industrial revolution, Ruether reminds us that is has been built through exploitation of people and land and is now threatening to destroy the entire planet.

Ecofeminism is valuable in two ways. First, it illuminates the historical separation of culture and nature, male and female, and how male control of the external world has been used for destructive purposes. Second, it offers important ethical and spiritual resources for overcoming the forms of alienation and exploitation that imperil our planet. Ecofeminism seeks "to reshape our dualistic concept of reality as split between soulless matter and transcendent male consciousness" (163). It attacks the patriarchal roots of anthropocentrism and reminds us that we are parasitic latecomers on the evolutionary scene. Her remarks that "Nature does not need us to rule over it; it runs itself very well and better without humans" (164), offers an interesting contrast to the teleological myths of Berry, McDaniel, and others who suggest that nature (or God) strives to realize itself in the conscious human form that has declared war against it.

Ruether also holds that ecofeminism can redefine the notion of God. Rather than a God modelled after an alienated male consciousness, "God in ecofeminist spirituality is the immanent source of life that sustains the whole interplanetary community. God is neither male nor anthropomorphic. God is the font from which the variety if plants and animals well up in each new generation, the matrix that sustains their life-giving interdependency with each other" (164). One might reply, with Hume, Kant, Comte, and others, that the entire concept of God is meaningless since it lies outside the boundaries of possible human knowledge. But a Feuerbachian reduction of theology to anthropology would have added power here by showing the distinctly patriarchical aspects of the projection of human male qualities into an idealized self-image.

The main goal of ecofeminism is to overcome dubious dualism and crippling hierarchies, between men and women, different groups of human beings, and humans and nature. Ecofeminism encourages an egalitarian, cooperative, and participatory ethic that sees human beings embedded in nature. More mundanely, Ruether argues women must be allowed more access to public culture, just as men must assume more responsibility in child-rearing and household maintenance. To the extent these divisions are rooted in male power, to the extent that our current environmental crisis is a result of a domineering, alienated male consciousness, ecofeminism indeed is an important component of social and ecological politics. Hence Ruether concludes: "But these tentative explorations of symbolic changes must be matched by a new social practice which can incarnate these conversions in new social and technological ways of organizing human life in relation to one another and to nature" (165). But here she, as do all her co-contributors, remains silent.

In his second essay of the book, "The Land Aesthetic," Callicott seems to invoke deep ecology thinking, but of a very fuzzy kind. He makes the interesting argument that unlike ancient traditions in China and Japan, it is only in the 17th century, as a result of landscape painting, that the West has evinced an appreciation for natural beauty. Whether one looks at Homer, Plato, Aristotle, the Old Testament, the Gospels, or medieval texts, Callicott claims that nature was ignored as a source of aesthetic experience. Hence, Western appreciation of natural beauty is a relatively recent phenomenon and rather than flowing from nature itself, it is derivative from art. Once again looking to Leopold, he finds that his land aesthetic provides "a seminal autonomous natural aesthetic theory" that may help to awaken our aesthetic appreciation of nature.

As Callicott points out, Leopold's natural aesthetic involves not simply the eyes, but the entire ranges of senses as well as the faculty of cognition. The appreciation for natural beauty can involve the feel os the grass, the fragrance of the flowers, and the taste of saps. Nature, like art, can refine our aesthetic sensibilities. Our experience of nature, moreover, is infinitely enriched with a knowledge of evolution, geology, or paleontology, Leopold's own works, informed by such knowledge, "are "the only genuinely autonomous natural aesthetic in Western philosophical literature: It does not treat natural beauty as subordinate to or derivative from artifactual beauty" (180).

While Callicott makes interesting claims, the essay altogether fails to develop the implications of such an aesthetic to ecology and ethics. How might nature, as Rousseau suggests, be a civilizing influence and stimulation to moral development? Will an autonomous natural aesthetic be sufficient for an ecological approach to nature? Clearly, the answer is no, although it is an important necessary condition. People who live in artificial urban environments and rarely if ever enjoy the natural wilderness are so alienated from nature that its ruination is not an important issuer for them. But love of nature cannot compete with economic needs to develop it and so the land aesthetic itself cannot offer much. In addition, a deeper ecological attitude would be simply to appreciate nature because it is nature, because of the life forms that it sustains, rather than for its utility to human beings. Whether this utility assumes the form of land for development of scenery for appreciation, the land aesthetic does not escape the utilitarian mentality itself.

Professor of Theology Louke Van Wensveen Siker's essay, "Review and Prospects: The Emergence of a Grounded Virtue Ethic," develops the relation of ecology and ethics only touched upon by Callicott. Summarizing the various approaches in the book, she identifies some of the key elements in a new kind of ecological virtue ethic: holistic thinking, respect or reverence, eros, compassion, attunement, humility, acceptance of finitude, asceticism, creativity, and inclusivity. These virtues allow us, in Aristotle's language, to develop an "excellent" relation to ourselves, others, and nature itself.

With Botkin, she suggests that we make nature a great teacher and a source of moral development: "nature teaches holistic thinking (through the structure of ecosystems); halts and awes one into respect and reverence; pulls one into communion (eros); awakens one's compassion; captures one's attuning sensibilities; grounds one; guides one in discipline (e.g through rules of health); inspires and nourishes one's creativity; and models the way of inclusivity" (220). She rightly argues nature is not the only source for a virtue ethic, since virtues like respect, reverence, compassion, and humility have sources in ancient traditions, but it can be a powerful source and its potential is largely untapped, certainly in moral philosophy, but also in everyday life.

Bron Taylor, Professor of Religion and Social Ethics, reveals the spiritual and religious underpinnings of radical environmentalists in "Earth First!'s Religious Radicalism." Better known for tactics such as monkeywrenching and tree-spiking, Taylor shows that their political tactics are animated by a wide diversity of religious orientations. These range from Christian nature mysticism to Buddhism to American Indian Spiritualism to Ecofeminism and neo-paganism. While Earth First! members reject organized religion, Taylor argues that all share an basic ecospiritualism, informed by different sources, that sees human beings, animals, and the earth as interconnected. Earth First! members believe in the need to resacralize nature and adopt a diversity of rituals to promote ecological consciousness. In their "Council of All Beings" workshops, for example, they practice Zen-like exercises to designed to help one experience one's place within the web of life. Breathwork, meditation, chanting, and songs are also employed to induce a primal spirituality. Earth First!ers also share an apocalyptic outlook that foresees the immanent collapse of industrial society and the potential regeneration of nature in a post-civilized world. Human beings will have a place in this future if they learn to adopt tribal lifeways.

While Earth First!ers distrust reason and focus on developing intuitive connections to nature, Taylor argues they do not altogether abandon reason, as evident in their ecological research. The thrust of this research is to support the dire warning of species extinction and to issue a radical critique of industrial society and overpopulation. In extreme cases, Earth First! leader Dave Foreman and others have welcomed genocide and AIDS deaths to ease the burden on the planet.

Despite their common allegiance to a deep ecology outlook, Taylor notes there are important divisions within the Earth First! movement. These stem from two principle factions, the "Wilders," who seek to keep the group's focus on preserving the wilderness and prefer tactics such as monkeywrenching to civil disobedience, and the "Holies," who stress the need for a larger holistic perspective that argues ecological issues must be connected to social issues, to understanding the connection between exploitation of nature and lower classes, and who believe that monkeywrenching detracts from mass support and should be replaced by civil disobedience. They believe that ecotage does more harm to the movement than good by alienating public opinion. Taylor finds that these differences ultimately stem from differences in human nature, where the more optimistic Holies decry the misanthropism of the Wilders and believe human beings have the potential for reform.

Taylor's analysis provides an informed look into one of the major environmental organizations in the U.S. and shows its commitment to deep ecology outlooks and spiritual values and the philosophical and tactical differences that divide it. Disappointingly, he offers no assessment of the important issues he raises. Rather, he concludes: "depending on one's perspective, the militancy of Earth First! provides either hope or an ominous portent of things to come" (203). The example of Earth First!, however, is useful for showing the difficulties of defining a proper philosophical and tactical position in one group alone, to say nothing of a national or international organization.

Critical Conclusions; The Need for a Social Ecology

For all the flaws in its various essays, Ecological Prospects is rich, interesting book that raises numerous important questions and would serve as a useful textbook. Still, I have argued that it does not successfully advance a viable notion of sustainable development because its does not raise the difficult issues relating to the imperatives of capitalism. The question, "What possible flaw in the human psyche has enables us to develop attitudes which result in the poisoning of our own nest" (xvi), is misplaced because it places the burden on individuals or some transhistorical human nature rather than specifiable social logics and institutions.

While it is very true we need to balance human needs and the requirements of ecosystems, we cannot be as uncritical as the authors in this book about the "needs" that development is geared to meet since many of these "needs" are excessive and belong to a lifestyle that the planet cannot no longer shoulder. One United States is already too many, and yet other countries seek to emulate our lifestyle.

One such "need" would be that of heavy meat consumption. A major flaw in the book is that no essay addresses the crucial relation between ecology and a meat-based diet. Through the commodification of cattle, chickens, pigs, and cows for food, the rainforests are being razed for grazing land, precious topsoil is being destroyed, the ozone layer is being depleted, and our vital food and water resources are being wasted to feed the animals that feed human beings rather than directing feeding human beings (for the incredible data, see John Robbins Diet For a New America and Jeremy Rifkin, Beyond Beef). A vegetarian-based diet not only improves our health and reduces the amount of suffering inflicted on animals (under conditions of factory farming), it saves our resources and is gentle on the earth.

Against the accomodationist policies recommended in much of this book, I suggest that the slogan Earth First! -- whatever one thinks of the group -- provides a needed counterbalance. When jobs are pitted against the survival of the spotted owl, for example, the spotted owl should come first. Those jobs will disappear soon enough anyway once the forest are destroyed and with a little imagination people in the timber industry could be retained for jobs that help rather than harm the environment.

Also, I believe that while a deep ecology outlook is a necessary condition of a new ecological ethic and consciousness, it is not a sufficient condition because personal change has to interact with social change. Contra Sagan, Margulis, and Crosby, Western culture is bereft of resources for the kind of radical conceptual shifts needed to realign ourselves with nature. These resources come, rather, from various non-Western and premodern cultures. What Western culture does have to offer, however, is a rich heritage of democracy, rationality, and individuality, all of which are of profound importance in creating the forms of autonomy and social relationships necessary for an ecological society.

What the two main problems of Ecological Prospects have in common then is that they fail to raise adequate social, political, and economic issues relating to ecology. Deep ecology has to be part of a larger social ecology that examines the social underpinnings of our relation to nature and the institutional mechanisms that perpetuate the exploitation of nature. [1]

A Review of:
Ecological Prospects: Scientific, Religious, and Aesthetic Perspectives. Ed. by Christopher Key Chapple. New York: SUNY Press, 1994, 236pp.


1 Here the reviewer highly recommends the works of Murray Bookchin; see, especially, The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy.