In the early 17th century, the widely regarded father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes, writing about his ideas on the mathematical structure of nature at the beginning of the scientific revolution, presciently wrote the following:
“For these notions made me see that it is possible to arrive at knowledge that would be very useful in life and that, in place of that speculative philosophy taught in the schools, it is possible to find a practical philosophy, by means of which, knowing the force and the actions of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens, and all the other bodies that surround us, just as distinctly as we know the various skills of our craftsman, we might be able, in the same way, to use them for all the purposes for which they are appropriate, and thus render ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature.”
Descartes recognized the potential of mathematics and the scientific method to provide us with knowledge that could dramatically alter the human condition. To persons living during his lifetime, where diseases were often death sentences and the material comforts of life limited, such ideas may have seemed fantastical. With the hindsight of 2021, we can see that Descartes glimpsed what has since far surpassed his anticipations. The continued marvels generated in the medical fields; the latest technological advances in Silicon Valley; the ways we’ve dramatically increased the yields of crops. In these and many other ways, the scientific and technological advances of the past several hundred years seem miraculous.
Central to the vision of Descartes, and the scientific revolution in general, is a dramatic transformation in how nature is understood and related to. At the same time that we were becoming aware of the incredible spatial and temporal depths of the universe, we were also zapping nature of its inherent meaning. In the past, people viewed themselves as playing a role within a meaningful cosmic order. Now it is not uncommon to hear those initiated into mainstream culture speculate that we are random accidents on some small rock in a small corner of the universe. Claims that nature is inherently beautiful and worthy of respect are commonly regarded as subjective projections of private opinions. I see this firsthand every semester that I teach Plato’s Euthyphro, where the question of the origin of value arises, as students think it is common sense that all values are subjective.
Combined with this transformed way of understanding nature has been the belief that we can master and manipulate nature to suit our purposes. If nature has no intrinsic meaning that ought to be respected, then there would seem to be no reason for limiting our relentless ambition to dominate it. For some historians, humanity’s success in dominating nature is the central theme of history. Nature is often viewed merely as raw material available to be extracted and manipulated to satisfy our appetites. We can think of the billions of livestock subjected to shockingly cruel conditions; we can think of the willingness to despoil pristine and/or sacred natural habitats for the sake of increasing the amount of oil we extract or transport; we can think of our use of the ocean as an all-purpose dumping ground. Indeed, the way our economic system encourages us tirelessly to consume ever new products compels us to treat nature as mere raw material. The capitalist economic system driven by growth and consumption is arguably intrinsically antagonistic to sustainable environmental stewardship. Nature is limited; our appetites appear not to be.
What was unanticipated by the early champions of the scientific revolution and is still unappreciated by far too many is that this way of relating to nature leads to disastrous consequences. Most gravely, we have altered the conditions of the earth so drastically that we now live in what geologists refer to as the Anthropocene Epoch. As the name suggests, this epoch is characterized by the dramatic alterations of the conditions of the earth through human activity. New geological epochs usually take millions of years to arise, but the Anthropocene has arisen in a few thousand. This should not seem surprising, however. When has there been creatures like us, who have so thoroughly dominated the globe in so many different ways in such a short period of time? Naturally, this has led to dramatic destabilization of virtually every ecosystem on the planet. Elizabeth Kolbert writes how we are living through the sixth great extinction, as between 20-50% of all living species will have gone extinct by the end of the century.
Our most important resources for sustaining life, including soil, water, air, are all undergoing degradation and being used in totally unsustainable ways. For instance, in his brilliant work Small Farm Future, Chris Smaje writes, “There’s no doubt that soil loss and soil degradation are major problems, with an estimated 25-33% of world soil already moderately to highly degraded due to human-caused erosion, nutrient depletion, acidification, urbanization and chemical pollution, and 12 million hectares (30 million acres) of soil ‘lost’ annually to degradation.” He continues:
“Water is part of a perpetual hydrological cycle, and therefore unlike fossil fuels or soils it can’t be ‘used up’. However, the availability of water in a given place varies due to short-term fluctuations and long-term climatic and topographic change, and when it comes to meeting human needs it’s possible to abstract it faster than it’s replenished. These factors combine to make water availability a critically limiting resource in many places, with global supply projected to meet only 60% of demand within 20 years.”
The reality of human-driven climate crisis should be easy to accept considering the multiplicity of ways we can identify dangerously destabilized ecosystems.
When we take the climate crisis seriously, there two basic grounds for responding individually and collectively. On the one hand, we can recognize that the climate crisis is an existential crisis for humanity. It is simply in our self-interest to relate to nature more sustainably. Already, we are experiencing heightened environmental problems ranging from droughts to heat waves to storms. As the recent intergovernmental report stressed, if we do not implement dramatic changes immediately, our children and grandchildren will live on a far less hospitable planet by the end of the century. The existentially dire predicament we are in should suffice to motivate us to change how we relate to nature. If it does not motivate change soon, the change will be forced upon us.
On the other hand, more positively, we can recognize that nature has intrinsic value, that it is worthy of respect. From a Judeo-Christian perspective, this view flows from the beginning of Genesis. When God looked upon what He created, He pronounced it good. God recognized and affirmed the goodness belonging to that which He created.
There is a belief in contemporary culture that all value is subjective and projected by humans onto things. The root of this trend seems to be the fact of pluralism, the experience people have of living in a society where disagreement on ultimate questions is common. The fact of pluralism leads people to infer that relativism is justified. Whenever I teach college students about the “Euthyphro” problem, from Plato’s dialogue of that name, I am surprised if even one student realizes that there are rational grounds for responding to reality in certain ways, that our evaluative responses to reality are more than merely arbitrary subjective preferences. Rather than challenging the person who views sunsets as boring and meaningless that he is missing out, in order to summon him to see things anew, they maintain that there is no “right” way to respond to sunsets. If this were true, then claims that nature has intrinsic value would be groundless, worthy of being ignored. Yet, it is not hard to show that human beings live as if there are objective values. When my class moves on to the death of Socrates and I ask the students if there are things worth dying for, their answers implicitly betray that they do indeed believe in objective value. If someone were to die for family, they would readily affirm such a decision. If someone were to die for a video game, the decision would seem baffling, unintelligible. The point is most clearly driven home when I ask them about the reality of human dignity as the justifying ground for human rights. If there were no human dignity rooted in reality demanding that we respect human rights, we would simply be imposing our arbitrary values on others when we challenge them for egregious abuses against human beings. Indeed, whenever we make an evaluation of anything, we can explore the intelligible reasons rooted in reality that seem to justify the evaluation.
You may ask, whence comes this value rooted in reality justifying certain responses as appropriate? Well, the book of Genesis provides what many see as the most compelling basis. God, infinite goodness, created our world as good. While it is the case that there are various perspectives able to support the truth that nature has inherent value in itself worthy of acknowledgment, what CS Lewis collectively referred to as the Tao, the members of the American Solidarity Party tend to be motivated by the theological vision.
Many of the persons who tend to be skeptical of the consensus of scientists on climate change are likely sympathetic to the idea that the world God created is worthy of respect. We have only to consider Jesus in Luke 12:22-34, as He speaks of the lilies of the fields and the birds in the air being providentially cared for by God to help us see that God views nature benevolently. Indeed, at the core of relating to nature in this way is a transformed understanding of what it means to be human. Ought we to understand our status as masters of nature through the lens of a slave-master forcefully extracting what he pleases or through the lens of a shepherd concerned with cultivating and caring for that which has been entrusted to him?
This positive approach of relating to nature in light of its inherent goodness is a more powerful basis for caring for nature. If we only cared for nature because our survival depended on it, we could easily be persuaded to destroy an ecosystem if it could be shown that such a course of action had an impressive cost/benefit ratio. Many tech and business leaders believe the solution to the climate crisis can be resolved through technological means, without any cultural change. As Jeff Bezos recently asserted, “We need to take all heavy industry, all polluting industry, and move it into space.” Why not limit our polluting industry, Jeff? If we regarded nature as inherently good, we would be resistant to efforts that involved degrading nature. We see this playing out in politics all the time. During the Trump administration, the secretary of the interior, Ryan Zinke, spearheaded an aggressive program of targeting protected lands and national parks in order to promote energy independence. Would he have done that if he regarded our national parks as national treasures possessing priceless value rather than merely potential resources for exploitation?
In his recent encyclical, Pope Francis movingly writes of the examples of St. Francis:
“Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise. He communed with all creation, even preaching to the flowers, inviting them “to praise the Lord, just as if they were endowed with reason.” His response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection. That is why he felt called to care for all that exists. His disciple Saint Bonaventure tells us that, “from a reflection on the primary source of all things, filled with even more abundant piety, he would call creatures, no matter how small, by the name of ‘brother’ or ‘sister.” Such a conviction cannot be written off as naive romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behaviour. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”
Genuinely recognizing the inherent worth of nature entails changing strong cultural tendencies. For example, our economic system is based on global manufacturing which requires extensive systems of transportation. If we shifted our focus to local production for various goods, we would reduce dramatically the waste involved in massive transportation. Hence, the American Solidarity Party’s economic vision is centrally concerned with the promotion of local production, because it empowers local communities and because it involves responsible environmental stewardship. The visionary work of Chris Smaje emphasizes the need to promote small-scale farming in local environments in order to adapt to the present crisis and to live more sustainably on the earth. Local farming is characterized by a sensitivity to local variables, working with the land and local resources, rather than forcing the land to yield whatever we want it to.
We are also inundated with demands to engage in relentless consumer lifestyles, even if it is detrimental to our health, in order to keep the economic engine of growth churning. The GDP is often regarded as the barometer for determining the well-being of a nation. Not only is the lifestyle of relentless consumerism deeply harmful to our psychological, physical, and spiritual well-being, it is also completely unsustainable. We are conditioned to be never satisfied as new consumer products always appear to stimulate our desires further. Pope Francis has characterized the consumer lifestyle predominant in the world as belonging to a “throwaway culture.”
As Pope Francis recognizes, the throwaway culture does not simply involve the exploitation and degradation of nature. It also involves exploiting and degrading human life. For we too are parts of nature, and our world is rife with instances and trends of dehumanization. The willingness to abuse nature renders us more willing to abuse one another, as Aquinas recognized long ago. Abortion, euthanasia, sex trafficking, interpersonal violence are all bitter fruits of a culture that fails to respect the inherent worth of humans. The ambitions of technological mastery over nature includes, of course, the human body itself. The transhumanist movements affiliated with the tech giants in silicon valley envision a world where our power to manipulate human genetics is complete. As C.S. Lewis presciently wrote near the end of The Abolition of Man of those who aspire to such mastery, “Let us decide for ourselves what man is to be and make him into that: not on any ground of imagined value, but because we want him to be such. Having mastered our environment, let us now master ourselves and choose our own destiny.” Transhumanists see the current phase of the human condition as merely temporary, as destined to evolve by merging with technological developments.
There is a multiplicity of practices we can adopt and promote in order to live in a manner reverently attuned to nature. But we must realize that this systemic problem will not be resolved simply through the responsible stewardship of individuals and local communities, however important that is. The American Solidarity Party embraces the principle of subsidiarity which affirms the right of local organizations, communities, and families to govern themselves in light of their particular circumstances, supported and empowered by the federal government. However, subsidiarity also recognizes that certain issues require the direct oversight of a broader political power. In this case, international collaboration is required, as the scale of the crisis affects all humanity. Sadly, it is hard to remain optimistic in the face of the stultifying political crisis in our own country, not to mention the divisions between nations. Yet, try we must. If current politicians refuse to take the issue seriously, we must vote for and support those persons and parties who do. If the political will is lacking, we must nevertheless strive for grassroots solutions.
The root of the solution, however, lies in our ability to recognize that nature has inherent value demanding our attention. Many of the most compelling solutions to our current crisis arise through creativity born from attending patiently to nature. Indeed, the most compelling source of hope for me personally is learning of stories where individuals are combining extraordinary technical know-how with reverent sensitivity to the natural world in order to render us more responsible stewards of nature. We can also have faith that the God of creation will not abandon His work. I direct your attention to the marvelous recording of Gerard Manley Hopkin’s magnificent poem God’s Grandeur, linked here.
The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod? Generations have trod, have trod, have trod; And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil; And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. And for all this, nature is never spent; There lives the dearest freshness deep down things; And though the last lights off the black West went Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs — Because the Holy Ghost over the bent World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
Sean McCarthy is a PhD candidate in Philosophy at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. He joined the American Solidarity Party in 2016.