Towards the end of 1999 I was lucky enough to encounter a herd of quaggas. They were grazing on scrubland in the southern I part of the Great Karoo in South Africa. Officially quaggas have been extinct since the 1880s. Enormous herds of them used to roam over the central plains of Africa, but they were hunted mercilessly by colonial sportsmen, until all that remained were a few stuffed specimens in European natural history museums. Quaggas were related to zebras but had distinctive markings, with black stripes only at the front, unstriped chocolate coloured coats at the rear, and white underbellies. Some zebras still have a few quagga-like features, and over more than a decade these have been selectively bred to enhance residual quagga-like genes, with the result that the new herd are beginning to look astonishingly like their stuffed ancestors.
But are they really quaggas? And what do we mean by a real quagga anyway? Does a species have to enjoy a direct continuity with its past in order to be a natural species, or is there no essential difference between a natural species and one which has been artificially raised from the dead? Also, given that the process started before it was realised that there might be remnants of DNA from which they could be cloned, why would anybody want to recreate extinct animals by such a laborious and time-consuming method as selective breeding over many generations? And why is the motive likely to reflect such a very different attitude from that of the hunters who originally exterminated them?
The answer to the last two questions, of course, is that many people's perceptions of the fragility of the natural world have changed radically within the last 40 years. There is a growing consciousness of what has been lost, and might be lost in the future. But there remain large questions about what is actually meant by ‘the natural world’, and in what sense a reconstructed quagga might be said to belong to it. My concern in the last chapter was with the concept of nature as comprising everything, he whole physical universe including ourselves. In this chapter I shall be exploring some more restricted meanings, centred on he concept of nature as, to a greater or lesser degree, distinct from ourselves.
It is a concept beset by paradoxes. What could be more paradoxical than the attempt to restore nature, in the form of an extinct species, by means which are wholly dependent on human interference? Add to that the paradox that the area in the Great Karoo where the quaggas are being bred, is itself to a certain extent artificial. It was at one time farmland, and on conversion to a nature reserve was deliberately restocked with its original fauna and flora. Untouched nature is a rare commodity nowadays, and in most parts of the world even the designation of an area as wilderness entails prescribing artificial boundaries, and limited access. Visitors find their wilderness experience by courtesy of the government, and there are clearly different expectations of what a wilderness should be. The US Forest Service has recorded a number of complaints from visitors on the Internet, including: There are too many rocks in the mountains’, ‘Escalators would help on steep uphill sections’, ‘Too many bugs and leeches and spiders and spider webs. Please spray the wilderness to rid the area of these pests’, and ‘A small deer came into my amp and stole my bag of pickles. Is there a way I can get reimbursed?’1
Recent worries about what modern civilisations have done to the earth's atmosphere, and hence in all probability to the weather, take us to the heart of the paradox. It is not just that human beings have in practice so colonised the earth that it is hard to find anywhere untouched by our presence, but that we have done things to the earth, which in the long run will have repercussions for every living creature. Yet there remains a deep-seated longing to encounter, and relate to, nature in the raw, nature as other than ourselves, nature as a source of awe and wonder. My first task therefore must be to set out more fully what this concept of the otherness of the world of nature means, and has meant, in practice.
The Otherness of Nature
A lament about the loss of otherness was the main theme of a book, published in 1990, with the dramatic title The End of Nature.2 The author, an American journalist, was moved by his realisation that the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide is different in kind from other forms of environmental pollution, in being universal, irreversible, and unpredictable in both its short-term and long-term consequences. By itself this may not seem too alarming. More than ten years since the book was written, the debate continues about whether atmospheric change matters or not, and if it does, how far the majority of people and their governments are prepared to do anything about it, particularly in that author's own country.
Dire warnings about the end of nature are not a new phenomenon. In the Victorian age there were fears that the growth of the railways would bring it about.3 Railways certainly changed the world, and helped to pollute it but, rather than spelling the end of nature, they gave more people than ever before the opportunity to experience its glories at first hand. If our prodigal way of life were to face us eventually with grievous environmental and social consequences, optimists are happy to predict that new skills will be found, and new technologies developed, to combat new ills. The world has suffered countless catastrophes and mass extinctions, but living things seem to have an almost infinite capacity to adapt to changed circumstances. From this larger perspective the end of nature is not in sight. Even the ultimate horror of a nuclear holocaust would not be the end. There would always be some form of life which could exploit the new environment, however desolated. Nature is much more resilient than the prophets of doom generally allow. But when all this has been said, the author, in using his deliberately provocative language about the end of nature, had something rather more subtle in mind, something more closely linked to our human perceptions of nature and our feelings about it.
He was in part reminding those of us who live in the West that we are the heirs of, and participants in, an extravagant culture which for several centuries has lived wildly beyond its means, and that we form a privileged section of humanity which has indulged in a monstrous exploitation of the world's natural resources. These are familiar and well-justified moral charges. But beyond the dangers and disadvantages which may attend the consequences of atmospheric change, there is a further moral dimension. One of the implications of such change is that no part of what we now call nature can any longer be separated from what human beings have done to it. Even the rain and the sunshine are no longer just there, sheer facts independent of us, but we are forced to wonder whether they are aspects of a new pattern we have inadvertently created. This, claims the author, entails a tragic spiritual loss. It diminishes the sense that our lives are set within something greater than, and distinct from, ourselves. The natural world is losing its quality of otherness from us. ‘By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man-made and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature's independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us.’4 We even have to create wildernesses.
An American might expect to feel this more strongly than a European. The poet Rupert Brooke, for instance, visiting the Canadian Rockies shortly before the First World War, felt uneasy about the country's lack of human history. ‘There walk, as yet, no ghosts of lovers in Canadian lanes. This is the essence of the grey freshness and brisk melancholy of this land. And… it is the secret of a European's discontent. For it is possible, at a pinch, to do without gods. But one misses the dead.’5 To live in a very old culture is to be reminded again and again that virtually nothing around us has remained unaffected by the presence oil human beings. The immigrant American experience, by contrast, was of an encounter with a natural environment in almost pristine condition, and many have a deep longing to recapture that experience. This is presumably what inspires millions to drive off in their camper vans to remote places, some of them, no doubt, secretly nursing the hope that at the end of the trail they will also find a McDonald's. The author is right, though. We have lost something, something spiritually important, a universal loss which extends to the very composition of the air we breathe. I have dwelt on this book because it expresses movingly one radical concept of nature, as that which is simply there, apart from us, in some respects alien to us, and like the raging sea able to demonstrate to us our littleness and impotence. Much of the pleasure afforded by the endless succession of wildlife films on television derives from this sense of a largely unknown and fascinating world out there, in which other creatures live their own lives, heedless of the fact that we are watching them, I suspect that part of the attraction of blood sports lies in the competitive encounter with creatures which are truly wild, and which therefore have to be studied and respected if their ways are to be properly understood. (Drag hunting in comparison with fox hunting is a mere paper chase.) And the same seems to be true of fishing and rough shooting, both of which arouse comparable emotions. But the otherness of nature can also evoke the opposite reactions—fear and disgust. Seamus Heaney, in his poem ‘Death of a Naturalist’,6 described how as a boy he loved playing by a pond and collecting frogspawn, until one day,
… The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross-bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
The young naturalist quickly renounced his vocation, as what had once been friendly and familiar suddenly revealed another face.
The Romantic poets seem to have had the same kind of experience in reverse, particularly in their encounter with those parts of the natural world which had not yet been tamed and organised. Early in the eighteenth century mountains had been widely regarded as ugly, repellent, and superfluous, ‘monstrous excrecences on the face of Nature’.7 By the end of the century they were evoking awe, terror and exaltation, no longer heaps of stone, but pathways to God. And not only mountains. Wordsworth claimed that even as a child he had glimpsed a kind of holiness in the world of nature. Coming back from school at the age of six, the Wanderer
In solitude returning, saw the hills
Grow larger in the darkness; all alone
Beheld the stars come out above his head.
… In such communion, not from terror free.
… Had he perceived the presence and the power
It was still possible in those days to experience some parts of nature, even in Europe, as if they continued to bear the marks of their creation, like newborn children ‘trailing clouds of glory’.
The ‘as if’ is important because, from another point of view, it seems obvious that the concept of nature in its pristine state itself bears the marks of being a human construct. In describing something as pristine we implicitly compare it with something else. How, for instance, can we lament changes in the composition of the earth's atmosphere unless we know what the atmosphere is, and what its composition has been, and what it ought to be if our familiar weather patterns are to be sustained? The proof of global warming depends on the sophisticated analysis of highly variable temperature fluctuations, but though people have always been conscious of heat and cold, the concept of temperature itself was only invented in the seventeenth century. Mountains may be pristine in the sense that nobody has yet climbed them or even admired them, but in reality they are constantly changing. Thus at every stage we are dependent or interpretation, and scientific discovery, and preconceptions about what is normal, all of which are culturally conditioned. The construction of an idea of nature is essential before we can know whether and when we have made some kind of difference to it. Nor is it just the natural sciences which impose their interpretations, and change our understanding of what it is we are encountering in what we call nature. We have only to consider how it has been regarded in different cultures to see how strongly conditioned our supposedly instinctive, ‘natural’ feelings really are.
There is an obvious illustration in the Old Testament. Different attitudes towards nature seem to have been among the factors in the long drawn-out struggle between the worshippers of Yahweh and the various forms of fertility religion already established in the land they were to occupy. The picture is complex and controversial, not least because of conflicting evidence about the historical events underlying the stories of the Exodus, and differing opinions about the extent to which Israelites were already in Canaan before their religious distinctiveness began to become apparent. But these historical complexities need not concern us because, however things came about, both the distinctiveness of Israel and its assimilation into the local culture were for many centuries undoubted facts of life.
A useful indicator of this distinctiveness is the contrast between different attitudes towards sexual activity as an integral part of religious practice. In the Canaanite cults there is clear evidence that sex was mythicised, with human copulation as part of the religious ritual necessary to ensure the fertility of the soil. Thus human sexuality was called into the service of different processes within the natural world, in so far as these were believed to be controlled and cared for by the god, or Baal, of a particular locality. The God of Israel, on the other hand, stood beyond the polarity of sex,9 just as he stood beyond particular localities and all that went on in them. He was believed to be the creator and owner of the whole land, the prosperity of which depended, not on a fusing of the human and the earthly, but on obedience to a transcendent law. The prophet Hosea, for instance, made much use of sexual imagery. Israel is condemned for saying ‘I will go after my lovers, who supply me with food and drink, with my wool and flax, my oil and perfumes…’ to which Yahweh replies, ‘She does not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the new wine, and fresh oil, I who lavished on her the silver and gold which they used for the Baal… They sacrifice on mountaintops and burn offerings on the hills… That is why your daughters turn to prostitution and your sons’ brides commit adultery.’10 Faithfulness to the transcendent God of Israel should have meant that the divinisation of sex in the interests of earthly fertility was not only forbidden, but theologically inconceivable. Yahweh was simply not the immanent kind of God, deeply implicated as Baal was in natural processes. He had created them and set them in order, yes, but his presence and power were attested by historical events, not by a kind of sexual sympathetic magic. ‘When Israel was a youth, I loved him; out of Egypt I called my son; but the more I called the farther they went from me…’11 The God of Israel and the gods of the people of the land represented two different cultures and two different concepts of the natural world.
That, at least, was the theory. In practice, though, the whole situation was much more muddled than this simple contrast implies. Rather than wholesale rejection of Canaanite religion, its rituals and festivals were incorporated in countless ways into Israelite religion, after appropriate reinterpretation in the light of Israel's history. The brute realities of the natural world are too close to human life to be disregarded in religious practice altogether. Thus in the amalgamation of traditions we can see the outlines of a concept of God as both transcending nature, and as immanent within it, a dichotomy which has analogies with our own ambiguous status as both observers and participants. Sexual practices, of course, were only part of the picture, but they provide a sharply defined focal point around which to taw the contrast. It is no surprise that still today they loom large in any discussion of God and human nature—a point to which I shall be returning in the next chapter. Meanwhile we need to note a further implication from the conflict between these two religious cultures which, contused though they were, tended to polarise theologically between transcendence and immanence.
An excessively one-sided emphasis on God's transcendence of nature can be correlated with a similar view of human beings as standing apart from, and over against, the natural world. This can in turn lead to a strong sense of nature's otherness, not the romantic or mystical otherness already described, but something much colder and more distant. It has often been held responsible for the belief that the right attitude towards nature is to conquer it. The natural world, on such a view, can be seen as doubly separated from God. It is both created and fallen, the damaged arena for the divine drama, not part of the drama itself. Expelled from Eden, human beings have had to struggle against thorns and thistles, and to till a now unsubmissive soil. Nature therefore has to be beaten into shape to serve human purposes. Couple this attitude with the belief that, despite the fall, human beings are innately superior to all other creatures, and the justification for exploiting nature seems all too obvious.
Most Christians today would want to deny this interpretation, and there is indeed plenty in biblical tradition to contradict it. But it also contains a kernel of truth. There is an ambivalence already present in the biblical creation story where everything is pronounced good, yet human beings are given potentially damaging powers over it, the ‘dominion’ referred to in Genesis 1:28 The significance of this concept has been vigorously debated, and there is a compelling case for saying that human dominion over the earth should entail responsible stewardship, rather than conquest. The transcendent God is heard most clearly, we are told, in the still, small voice, rather than in the wind, fire and earthquake.12 It is love not power which ultimately conquers. On a true understanding of creation, God transcends nature by giving it to his creatures, and allowing it to be itself. Nevertheless it has to be admitted that a one-sided emphasis on God's transcendence, often making use of the concept of dominion, has at times helped to promote, or been invoked to justify, destructively exploitative attitudes. And there have been other morally serious people, besides transcendentalists, who have felt it necessary to go to war with nature, among them prominent Darwinians like T. H. Huxley, who were morally repelled by the very process of evolution which they knew had brought them into being.13 Knowledge, in short, is power, and knowledge grows by treating nature as a set of objects for investigation, a Cartesian machine, rigidly separated from the observer who stands outside it. I have earlier pointed out some of the shortcomings of this concept of natural science, and the fact that we are not as detached from our study of nature as we think we are. The vision of nature as ripe for conquest, however, can override such cautions, and the actual powers made available by scientific discovery have massively reinforced the assumption that it can be moulded at will. A science-based culture, in fact, no less than some forms of religious culture, can shape our perceptions of, and attitudes towards nature. There is no such thing as a pure encounter with its otherness.
The Social Construction of Nature
The conclusion that we read into the world of nature many of the feelings and perceptions with which our culture and our history have equipped us, may seem massively obvious. It is worth considering a few examples, however, if only to illustrate how pervasive this process of social construction really is. Just as religion and science have had their share in it, so have ordinary developments in language. Think, for example, what underlies the simple act of looking at a landscape. Leaving aside the worries expressed earlier about the effect of atmospheric changes, it might seem that in admiring a Scottish glen, or a Yorkshire moor, we are viewing nature in the raw, responding to what was there long before any human beings were present to see it or colonise it. But even if it is more or less virgin country, to see it as landscape is a surprisingly modern experience. The word derives from Dutch painters in the sixteenth century. They and their artistic successors have taught us through their pictures to recognise what we now call ‘the picturesque’. To be part of an aesthetic tradition in which landscape painting has played a major part, is to be sensitised to those aspects of nature which would make, as we say, a good picture. Hence the impulse to photograph them. The concept of landscape, in other words, acts as an interpretation of nature in the light of a particular cultural history. ‘Scenery’ has similar origins—this time from the theatre. Both are terms which imply a relatively detached viewpoint, that of spectators outside the action. People who in real life made their living off the land, however aesthetically atractive it might be, were generally not so affected by the look of it. They were more concerned with the quality of the soil, and the health of the trees, and the inconvenience of rocks and cliffs and barren hilltops. Others, more conscious perhaps of history, may see the emptiness of the Scottish landscape in more political terms, as tragic evidence of ancient wrongs.
One of Henry Fielding's novels shows us Parson Adams travelling in the same carriage as wealthy Mr Pounce. Adams observes that it is a fine day.
‘Ay, and a very fine country too,’ answered Pounce.—‘I should think so more,’ returned Adams, ‘if I had not lately travelled over the Downs, which I take to exceed this and all other prospects in the universe.’—‘A fig for prospects!’ answered Pounce; ‘one acre here is worth ten there’ and for my own part, I have no delight in the prospect of any land but my own’.14
In short, the same scene may be perceived through very different eyes. It may also have been created with different degrees of artifice. English forests were once regarded as a waste of space, savage and dangerous places, to be cleared as rapidly as possible. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries planting restarted for economic reasons, because trees were needed for fuel and ships and houses. But landowners were also busy replanting for aesthetic reasons, creating great avenues to mark the importance of the house on which the avenues converged. Alternatively trees could be planted in clumps to enhance the view, or to block out someone else's. A well-planted estate spoke, too, of prosperity and permanence, because trees are planted mostly for the next generation. The love of landscape, particularly as seen from great houses, also gave an impetus to the building of balconies. A balcony is the architectural epitome of observation from a privileged position without being involved.
Simon Schama's fascinating book Landscape and Memory15 has much to say on the history of such changes in the perception of nature. He catalogues in great detail different national and historical responses to woodland, water, and mountains. Forest landscapes, for instance, have particular resonances in Germany, where folk religion and mythology have drawn heavily on the ancient history of the German tribes as forest dwellers. Forests have been a strong feature in German art, they have been symbols of national identity, and it is ironic that the most successful exploiters of these feelings, and hence the most diligent conservationists, have been the Nazis. The savagery and mystery of natural forests seemed to accord with a regime which wielded power by drawing on the darkest and most primitive emotions.
Gardens, too, can speak eloquently of the culture in which they were created. The so-called ‘English Garden’, which became popular in the eighteenth century even on the Continent, was in many ways a conscious expression of Romanticism. Its deliberately cultivated wildness and irregularity signalled a rejection of the excessively formal gardens of the previous century, and with them a rejection of that century's excessively mechanised God. Some of today's television gardening experts are equally eloquent of a culture in which ‘making a statement’ and ‘being myself’ are the primary considerations.
There is another way of looking at landscapes. In 1794 William Smith, a young surveyor for a canal company, climbed with some companions to the top of the tower of York Minster and looked towards the hills where I now live, some twenty miles away. From their shapes and the directions of their slopes he was able to predict what strata would be found beneath their soil. To an eye trained in the study of canal cuttings, a landscape was more than just a view; it was an encitement to discovery. The incident was perhaps the first scientific demonstration in the yet unborn science of geology.16
The fact that the concept of landscape has so many ramifications, historical, aesthetic, political, scientific, economic, and personal, should act as a warning against over-simplifying other manifestations of nature in their distinction from ourselves. Landscape is perhaps a rather obvious example of social construction, but one has only to think of human reactions to different animal species to realise that it is not unique. There are good social, biological and historical reasons why most people fear crocodiles more than they fear cows. Nevertheless in terms of intrinsic worth how is one to judge between what are the most ancient and successful of major predators, and what is a humanly bred species of great practical usefulness? Whether it is simply in the way we view them, or whether it is by what we have done to them, our perception of animals is to a greater or lesser degree a social construct. And likewise with the remainder of the natural world.
What we have done to the world of nature has been sometimes to change it, but always and everywhere on earth to leave on it somewhere our own fingerprint. Perhaps nowadays it is only at sea, or in the remotest places on earth, and when we can forget about universal atmospheric pollution, that the full otherness of nature can be experienced, and even there our mobile phone and the communication satellites overhead are reminders that civilisation is not far away. Humanly released radioactivity has already reached Antarctica.
It is by no means a new thought that the very language we use to describe the world of nature is itself a form of social construction. There is a nice premonition of it in the biblical story of Adam naming the animals.17 In being named they become distinct entities, just as a child learning language begins to separate out its jumble of sensory experiences into things. Edwin Muir draws out the significance of this process in his poem ‘The Animals’.18
They do not live in the world,
Are not in time and space.
From birth to death hurled
No word do they have, not one
To plant a foot upon,
Were never in any place.
For with names the world was called
Out of the empty air,
With names was built and walled,
Line and circle and square,
Dust and emerald;
Snatched from deceiving death
By the articulate breath.
But these have never trod
Twice the familiar track,
Never never turned back
Into the memoried day.
All is new and near
In the great unchanging Here
Of the fifth great day of God,
That shall remain the same,
Never shall pass away.
On the sixth day we came.
And that made all the difference. The world experienced as an ordered whole is the product of language. To imagine, therefore, that it can be known apart from the human construction we learn to put upon it, is to pursue an abstraction. Our mental perceptions, shaped by the use of language, and immersion in the prevailing culture, set the parameters for what we see, and how we react to it.
One possible basis for the growing sense of responsibility towards nature may lie in this increasing consciousness of mutual dependence. We human beings are utterly dependent on the ordinary processes of nature for our survival. Our lives have the roots of their being in what is other than ourselves, and there is nowhere else to go. Yet it is also our world, a world we can at least partially understand, a world indelibly shaped by us, and increasingly dependent for its ability to sustain us on human manipulation. We have also become uneasily aware of the damage we can do, not only to it but to ourselves. Hence the strong self-interest in trying to find some agreement on what kind of restraints and initiatives this mutual dependence should actually entail.
The modern use of the word ‘environment’ cuts across the dichotomies I have been describing, and with them the distinction between nature and culture. What environs us is both the physical reality in which our lives are set, and also the accumulated history of manipulation and interpretation, which are no less powerful in shaping our lives. I have been arguing that the two are inseparable. What is new in the past fifty years is the growing recognition that this composite environment, both physically and culturally, is changing in ways which are potentially harmful. Physical concerns have tended to predominate. But it has become in creasingly dear that the root problems are also cultural, in that different cultures make different environmental demands. Moreover these problems are compounded by the fact that there is no one thing which can be described as ‘the environment’. There are generalisations which can be made about such global matters as the use of resources and atmospheric changes, but there is another sense in which each organism lives in, and to a limited extent may create, its own environment;19 and what is good for one may not be good for another. Mosquitoes and human beings, for instance, have quite different ideas about the desirability of stagnant water. Calls to protect the environment, therefore, raise the inevitable question, Whose environment? It applies not just to different human interests, but to the whole living world. Not that these are entirely distinct, given the extent to which the complex network of living things is so tightly interrelated in all its parts. The concept of ‘sustainable development’ has the merit of bypassing some of these complexities, by its implication that all environments need in some measure to be safeguarded. It gained international currency with the publication of the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development in 1987, and has remained the most widely used statement of environmental goals. It aims to get the balance right between what we do to nature, and what in the long term we allow it to be. It is also politically realistic in acknowledging everyone's desire to better themselves, while at the same time tempering these desires by the constant reminder of longer and wider perspectives. Thus industrial and economic development, for instance, are generally to be welcomed, provided they do not limit the opportunities for future generations, or other peoples, to make similar progress. In practice attention has tended to focus on pollution, the use of non-renewable resources, and the threats to biodiversity. The inclusion of the latter is a reminder that sustainable development is not just about long-term human satisfaction, but should be undertaken in a way that allows all forms of life the space in which to flourish. Hence the need to sustain a wide range of native habitats, or at least suitable environments, in preference to preserving endangered species in zoos. Whether organisms like the smallpox virus should qualify for this kind of protection, is one of those theoretical questions to which broad statements of goals are generally unable to give a consistent answer.
In short, sustainable development could be described as a reasonably realistic model for attempting to live off the world's natural income rather than off its natural capital. The model's inherent weakness is that like it or not, non-renewable capital resources such as fossil fuels will eventually be used up, and therefore not everything we do now is sustainable. Nevertheless, against that can be set the claim that in the past it has always been possible to replace one worked-out resource or technology with a new one. Whether it is credible to suppose that this will continue to be so, depends in part on hopes about what will be technically possible in decades and centuries to come, and in part on the time frame within which people actually care about such matters. On the whole perspectives tend to be relatively short. As John Passmore pointed out in one of the early explorations of this theme, people's future horizons do not usually stretch far beyond their own grandchildren or great-grandchildren.20 While there is moral force, therefore, in the ideal of sustainability, it is not obvious that it is potent enough to counteract the impetus behind continuously accelerating growth, against which Passmore also issued this warning as long ago as 1974: ‘If the liberal democracies collapse, this will be because they have aroused in their citizens aspirations which no society will ever completely satisfy…’21
In the late 1990s I had the privilege of membership of one of the Government's think tanks, the Round Table on Sustainable Development—now defunct. It became clear from this experience that the concept does indeed have some political clout. It is not too ambitious. It can provide the basis for achievable goals. And all the arguments in favour of sustainability can give due place to the central role of self-interest, both in development and in conservation. The Round Table's task was to give practical advice, both to government departments, and to other tiers of government and industry. For its members it served as a thorough initiation into the enormously complex problem of making necessarily radical ideas politically acceptable, and turning them into workable proposals and concrete results. Not surprisingly the main blockages at government level occurred in the Treasury. Despite this, sustainable development has won a few modest successes, and on the global level the international agreement on carbon emissions is an example of this kind of thinking. But as we now know such advances are easily undermined in face of a determined lobby, as shown by the repeated failures in British transport policy, the popular outcry against rising fuel prices, and American intransigence on the subject of carbon dioxide emissions. Part of the difficulty is that self-interest, especially when it is the self-interest of privileged minorities, is notoriously shortsighted, whereas conservation programmes can achieve little except in the long term. Again, self-interest tends to be narrow, whereas one of the most urgent environmental issues is to give proper attention to the needs of the vast majority of the world's population, who have as yet had few benefits from world development. Unless it is undergirded by something more morally or politically compelling, and a more positive vision of the kind of world we want it to be, the concept of sustainable development, though valuable, is unlikely to be able to withstand serious opposition when real vested interests are at stake.
A more radical approach would be to go beyond the attempt to limit damage, for governments to acknowledge a responsibility for the natural world as a whole, and thus to take steps towards managing the planet as a whole. A famous conservationist handbook published in 1985 had the grandiose title The Gaia Atlas of Planet Management for today's caretakers of tomorrow's world.22 At the time it seemed an inspiring concept, and in the intervening years management as the answer to all problems has moved even more into the forefront of modern consciousness. The sub-title ‘Caretakers of tomorrow's world’ is not far from the now much-trumpeted stakeholder economy. It is also reminiscent of the age-old religious theme of stewardship, which is still central to much Christian thinking about these matters.23 A personal sense of responsible stewardship can certainly motivate changes in individual behaviour, and if this were to be translated into responsible corporate behaviour, the results might be dramatic. But management? How does one manage a planet, or extend caretaking beyond the relatively trivial? And whomanages in a world so divided, and when the policies to be decided are so heavily laden with highly contentious political and cultural baggage? Apart from the crushing sense of political unreality, is it fair also to detect a kind of hubris in the idea that the management of nature is even a possibility, still less a desirable answer to its problems? It is dangerously reminiscent of the old ideal of conquest, itself the source of many of today's environmental catastrophes.
The paradox in all this is that the more we subject the environment to our management skills, the more we are likely to destroy the very qualities which make it interesting—its residual otherness from us, its ability to be itself, its naturalness. We might turn the world into a game park and bring back quaggas from the dead, we might clean up our seas and rivers and rid ourselves of pests, we might cut out pollution and waste, and run Earth plc as a super-efficient business, we might even one day be able to control the weather, but do we really want a Disney world, spruced up for human consumption? The real challenge is much harder than that—namely to undertake a radical change of direction, not so much for our sake, but for the sake of nature itself, especially as we become more conscious that the nature we want to conserve has already lost much of its otherness in becoming more and more subject to our own powers of manipulation and interpretation. In religious terms, nature has become desacralised, and a managed world would only be a further step in the same direction.
A very different, and even more radical, approach to the paradoxes of our human relationship with the natural world would be to move in the opposite direction by taking acceptance of the autonomy and otherness of nature to its extreme limit. It has been expressed in the concept of biocentricity.24 A biocentric world is one centred on life as a whole, not on our particular relationship with it. It is one in which the community of life as a whole is treated with respect, because each individual member is seen as having inherent worth. To think of the whole of life as a community is not itself radical or unfamiliar. All living things, including ourselves, are related to one another as part of the evolutionary process. Also, to a greater or lesser degree, all depend on one another for survival. Human beings are dependent on bacteria, for instance, no less than many wild animals are now dependent on us. This tight-knit web of life is not necessarily a balanced and stable one, in fact it is subject to ruthless competition and startling change, as well as mutual support. But all life has enough in common to be a distinct order of being within the rest of nature. Ruth Page in her book God and the Web of Creation has described what she calls ‘the companioned world’.25 The companionship is primarily with God, but no less with all other living things, which in greater or lesser degrees share in that relationship. From a non-religious perspective E. O. Wilson expresses much the same point in his celebration of biodiversity.26 Life is to be valued precisely because of its endless and fascinating heterogeneity, of which we ourselves form a part.
Thus far biocentricity contains no great ethical or political surprises. The radical step in the argument follows from the claim that what distinguishes living things from non-living things is that each living thing has inherent worth. Worth is different from value. Value implies somebody doing the valuing, whereas worth inheres in the thing itself. In the light of its own nature, it is claimed, every form of life pursues its own good in its own way, and its worth lies precisely in this individual pursuit. We are not far at this point from Aristotle's much derided description of life in terms of purpose. Whatever the scientific propriety of this description, in a discussion of ethics the notion of purpose is surely both proper and relevant, as is Aristotle's insight that each living thing strives to fulfil its purpose. It would thus seem to follow from the claim that each living thing is of worth to itself, that it not only does, but also has a right, to pursue its own goals. What might this mean in practice? If our own subjectivity provides a valid clue to what living things as a whole are like, it may well be that even in the simplest forms of life there is a kind of inwardness which gives the idea of an organism being’ of worth to itself some meaning. This need not imply consciousness, still less self-consciousness, except in the more intelligent animals, but it does give some content to the word ‘struggle’ in the phrase ‘struggle for existence’. Life in its broadest sense is about self-preservation, a notion which implies that there must in some very rudimentary sense be a self to preserve. A plausible case can thus be made for taking seriously the claim that each living thing is of worth to itself. In addition, to acknowledge this worth powerfully restores a sense of the sheer givenness and otherness of the whole web of life in which we are involved.
The final step in this argument is even more radical and controversial. If all life is of worth to itself, whose point of view should be adopted when the worths of different manifestations of life are compared? The most radical answer is—nobody's. Biocentrism in its extreme form requires that within the community of life all should be respected for what they are, and human beings should have no privileged position. Its logical conclusion is that since we have done more damage to the world than any other species, and are now its main predator,27 the web of life might be better off without us, or at least without so many of us.
This is not a solution to environmental problems which is likely to commend itself, but the challenge of this way of thinking highlights the crucial significance of our evolutionary relationship with one another, and forces us to ask what it is that makes us think we are superior to all other forms of life. Thoroughgoing evolutionists these days no longer talk about the evolutionary tree, with ourselves as the topmost branch, but prefer the analogy of the evolutionary bush on which all branches are equal but different. A bush does not have a leading shoot, so why should nature? Nor is it enough to point to our distinctive human qualities. Other animals have their own distinctive qualities. Birds fly better than we do, a dog's sense of smell is incomparably superior to ours, cheetahs run faster, insects are more numerous, bacteria survive better in hostile environments. Our powers of reasoning give us a versatility other animals lack, but within the community of life why should this quality, in contrast to all other qualities, give us a title to superiority, particularly when it has also given us the dangerous freedom to multiply excessively, and to destroy environments outside the normal constraints of competition between species?
It is a question which can only be answered, I believe, within a more comprehensive vision of why there is a world at all, and what our place in it might be. These are theological matters, to which I shall be returning in the final chapter. My immediate purpose has been to illustrate a range of attitudes towards the natural world, and their implications for the way we treat it.
As we have already seen, those who regard themselves merely as detached observers, standing as it were outside nature or above it, are likely to think of it in purely instrumental terms, as a set of objects to be used, manipulated, and changed at will. I have pointed out the connection between knowledge and power in the origins of science, and the consequences this has had for the kind of world we now inhabit. But there were implications too for the way scientists themselves behaved. My own subject, physiology, had a barbarous history in its early years, with dreadful experiments performed on living animals before the days of anaesthetics, and apparently without much thought given to what they might be suffering. It is easy to understand the moral outrage which eventually gave birth to more humane procedures—still not humane enough in the eyes of many. But the scientists were not unique. What they were then doing was only one example among many of an essentially callous attitude towards non-human nature, which in the Western world was rooted in a sense of detachment from it.
The extension of an instrumental attitude towards nature to include human nature itself, can have equally dire results. To treat people as objects ripe for manipulation is to dehumanise them, the first step towards destroying them. The power of (reasoned objectivity may be our greatest gift as human beings, lot to exalt it over every other human quality is a disaster, as the Romantics were never tired of pointing out. Remove a sense of intimate relationship with the world of nature, remove feeling and instinct, remove an awareness of one's own bodiliness and sexuality, and one is left with half a person—and a dangerous half at that. To believe that one has conquered one's own nature creates a strong temptation to try to do the same for everyone else. One kind of domination leads to another, and we are back to the idea of a rationally managed world, which so attracted the thinkers of the Enlightenment.28 To express such misgivings is not to denigrate reasoned objectivity. In many respects the world could do with more of it. But there are consequences to detaching it from its wider context in nature as a whole.
To go to the opposite extreme, and see ourselves as participants in nature on an equal footing with every other form of life, would also have unwelcome consequences. Human life as we now know it can only be sustained by the massive exploitation of other life forms. A simpler and less destructive way of life could only be feasible if there were to be an enormous decrease in the human population. Unless it happened as a result of some major disaster, this, like the policy of rational detachment, would require a degree of central control and management on a planetary scale which would be deeply destructive of other human values.
It is also doubtful whether human beings, apart from a few exceptional people, can realistically think of themselves as in no way superior to other life forms. Jainism provides an example of some who do. It professes extreme respect for all life as an article of faith, a moral imperative which is closely linked with belief in the transmigration of souls. If in different reincarnations souls can inhabit different life forms, there is a clear case for not discriminating. So seriously is this policy adopted that a Jain monk, so I have been told, will not travel by air for fear of inadvertently causing the death of insects swept into the jet engines. But the ordinary follower, though vegetarian, has no such inhibitions because the religion itself acknowledges that its highest standards could not be made universally applicable. As the basis of an environmental policy, therefore, even this most radical of all religious forms of biological non-discrimination is limited in its effect. Jainism and in a less extreme form Buddhism, are interestingly explicit examples, though, of the extent to which a religion can govern its followers’ perceptions of, and attitudes towards, the natural world.
The sensible middle ground, which I suppose most people occupy, tries to hold together, both the givenness of the natural world in its otherness from us, and also our responsibility towards it as those who are part of it, and who increasingly possess the power to make it what it is. Innumerable practical policies try to hold the balance between these two poles. For any of them to work without submission to planetary management, the crucial necessity is to identify adequate and appealing motives for self-restraint. I have already indicated the large role played by self-interest, and I accept that for viable political policies to succeed an element of self-interest is inescapable. But there is also vision, the need for a way to thinking about nature and about ourselves, which pays equal attention both to respect for what is given, and to sense of responsibility for what might be. The holding together of such themes is a familiar task in most religions, which is why religiously inspired respect for nature need not be limited to those who believe in reincarnation, but should have profound resonances with what is believed about Nature's God, the subject of my final chapter. Meanwhile to conclude this chapter I shall anticipate the specifically religious interpretation of nature as God's creation, by considering a few Christian attempts to inspire workable enviromental policies.
Nature as Creation
In his 1984 Gifford Lectures on God in Creation Jürgen Moltmann promised ‘An ecological doctrine of creation.’ His starting point was that God limits his own transcendent powers and enters into fellowship with his creation. He described nature as creation in the making, as needing liberation, and as having a huge unfulfilled potentiality. In the phrase ‘creation of heaven and earth’, earth represents the here and now, while heaven symbolises the openness of creation to God as the source of endless new energies and possibilities. With God at the centre, neither anthropocentrism nor biocentrism can adequately describe our place in the world.
The human being is not the meaning and purpose of evolution. The cosmogenesis is not bound to the destiny of human beings. The very reverse is true: the destiny of human beings is bound to the cosmogenesis. Theologically speaking, the meaning and purpose of human beings is to be found in God himself, like the meaning and purpose of all things. In this sense, every single person, and indeed every single living thing in nature, has a meaning, whether they are of utility for evolution or not. The meaning of the individual is not to be found in the collective of the species, and the meaning of the species is not to be found in the existence of the individual. The meaning of them both is to be found in God.29
Such an uncompromisingly God-centred vision, combined with an awareness of a global fellowship created to give glory and delight to God, might certainly help to inspire in believers a lively respect for the whole of creation. It can, however, like much theology, seem very distant from everyday concerns. The more is the pity, then, that Moltmann made no attempt to spell out any of its practical implications. In fact the book is notorious for its only concrete suggestion about environmental action—the proper observance of the Sabbath as a day of ecological rest for nature, ‘a day when we leave our cars at home’.30
By contrast the World Council of Churches has for many decades been prolific in offering practical advice on environmental issues, but less successful in providing a generally agreed theological rationale for it. I have some personal experience of this, having enjoyed 12 years of direct involvement in various bodies responsible for its environmental policies. In the immediate post-war period when attention was largely focused on reconstruction and the social problems created by rapid technological change, the ideal of a ‘Responsible Society’ under God proved to be both coherent and fruitful.31 But as environmental issues began to come onto the agenda in the 1970s, and as the WCC expanded, the picture became more complex. Its social ideal became the ‘Just, Participatory and Sustainable Society’—not a slogan to set the pulses racing, but an honest attempt to strike a balance between competing objectives in a world where more and more deprived people were becoming vocal about their needs. Social justice, however defined, is a sine qua non in a forum such as the WCC, which depends on the good will of its participants. Popular participation is equally necessary, if hearts and minds are to be changed and policies implemented. The idea of sustainability proved more controversial, mainly because it was the rich countries which stood in greatest need of it, but had enough power to resist it, while the poor countries needed and wanted growth. After six years of struggle the slogan was abandoned, and at the 1983 WCC Assembly there emerged by some mysterious process the formula, ‘Justice, Peace and the Integrity of Creation’. It was this formula, particularly the notion of the integrity of creation, now fortunately dropped from it, which the committee I chaired during the 1980s was charged with turning into practical policies.
I cannot say that we succeeded. Not the least of our problems was the fact that ‘integrity’ has different meanings in different languages, as well as several meanings in English. Thus while it is clear that in some sense the created order is an integrated whole, and needs to be respected as a whole, it is not clear that it has integrity in the sense of being complete, sound, and wholly good. Indeed traditional Christian doctrine has repeatedly stressed the opposite, namely that it needs redemption, alongside its human inhabitants. Moltmann's description of creation as a process, as being inherently incomplete, and of heaven (also part of creation) as symbolising its open-endedness, further underlines the theological difficulties in trying to base coherent policies Ion the notion of integrity. It could be said in defence of the slogan that it expressed a hope rather than a state of affairs, but even as a hope it tended to perpetuate what Ronald Preston has castigated as ‘romance ecology’:
A kind of homeostatic situation is being suggested in which everything in nature is so related to everything else, that to ‘interfere’ with it at any point is to upset the whole and create disorder; it is an expression of the hubris and anthropocentricity of twentieth-century humans.
In another incisive essay Preston disposed of some ‘ecological fables’, among them the beliefs that ‘Nature is benign and harmonious’ and that ‘Indigenous people are superior conservationists’.32
As a source of inspiration, therefore, the idea of the integrity of creation had its limitations. What provides motive enough, I suspect, for most Christian believers is a much more diffuse sense that, because God cares about creation sufficiently to redeem it at huge cost, we should care about it also. In my committee we expressed this concern, not so much by deducing principles of action from abstract concepts, but by applying the lessons learnt through sharing in local endeavours to tackle specific environmental problems. We were able to use the prestige of the World Council to arouse local enthusiasm, and then to use these local success stories to inspire others. A project on deforestation in Costa Rica was typical of the kind of work which could be done in this way, and which left in its wake some much better informed and more enthusiastic environmentalists.33
The reasons for being concerned, say, about deforestation in a particular part of the world are likely in large measure to relate to its impact and consequences in that area, though they almost certainly gain force by being seen as part of a global movement. In terms of motivation, therefore, it is probably unrealistic to try to be too fussy. Any or all of the motives I have discussed in this chapter may play their part. Human actions are usually fairly muddled. There was a time, for instance, when the best psychotherapists did not have to decide whether they were Freudians, Jungians or Adlerians, but used whatever techniques and insights seemed best to suit the needs of individual patients. Nature is protean in its complexity and variety, and needs a similar complexity and variety of care. Though it is surely right constantly to remind ourselves of its interconnectedness, there is perhaps no need for environmentalists to take a position on such concepts as stewardship, sustainability, ecological management, biocentricity, theocentricity, and even integrity, as all in their right contexts may provide useful guides to action. The process of negotiating between different needs, hopes, desires, insights and commitments, continues indefinitely. It is also worth observing that while the strongest motivation is frequently the threat, or memory, of disaster, the constant message of the Christian gospel is that there are alternatives to the blindness, greed, mutual suspicion, and ruthless competitiveness, by which many human disasters are precipitated.
Finally, and perhaps most directly relevant of all, it is possible to observe in many cultures, and to draw on, a deep reservoir of affection for natural things, even for quite unlikely ones.34