On Aldo Leopold :: Scattershot

In response to a thesis that I tossed out on twitter yesterday (“Aldo Leopold’s ‘Sand County Almanac’ outweighs at least 16 volumes of what passes for ecotheology in insight, analysis, and foresight.”) A.P.S. introduced me to Liam Heneghan, who has been thinking about Leopold undoubtedly much longer and in greater depth than have I (caveat lector).

Liam directed me to a rather critical post on Leopold that he wrote a while back. What follows is, in part, a response to that piece.

The sharpest edge on Liam’s critique is that Leopold is too quickly dismissive of philosophy at points within his thinking where he implicitly relies upon discourses and concepts with lengthy histories of rigorous philosophical discussion. So, for example, Leopold dismisses the philosophical history of ethics in order to develop a new “land ethic,” and again, Leopold works toward a broader sense of “community” in which the land and its creatures are regarded as a “valued” members (not monetary value here), yet  without putting forward any nuanced account of value.

I think that Liam is overstating Leopold’s disjunction between philosophical ethics and an ecological ethic. Here is the whole passage where Leopold introduces the distinction:

The extension of ethics, so far studied only by philosophers, is actually a process in ecological evolution. Its sequences may be described in ecological as well as in philosophical terms. An ethic, ecologically is a limitation on freedom of action in the struggle for existence. An ethic, philosophically, is a differentiation of social from anti-social conduct. These are two definitions of one thing. The thing has its origin in the tendency of interdependent individuals or groups to evolve modes of co-operation. The ecologist calls these symbioses. Politics and economics are advanced symbioses in which the original free-for-all competition has been replaced , in part, by co-operative mechanisms with an ethical content. (202)

I read Leopold a little differently in this passage and in what follows. Rather than wresting ethics away from philosophy in order to “extend” its consideration to the land, I see Leopold here trying to set philosophical ethics back into the context of ecology (that is, evolutionary/geological history). He is pretty explicit that he’s offering two definitions of what he considers to be one thing. And rather than seeing ethics primarily as a set of conventions that govern the human community, which need to be reconfigured in the face of ecological degradation, I see Leopold’s emphasis falling on a recognition of humanity’s place (for better or worse) within the larger ecological community. The concern, then, is less about extending the operation of human ethics, politics, economics, etc. to “cover” the land (in more positive ways than at present, of course) and more about getting human beings to recognize their always-already-situatedness in relations to living and non-living beings—relations which are every bit as political and ethical as relations between human beings.

Leopold’s language is not consistent, he does indeed talk quite a bit of “extending” ethics to the land, but this way of speaking (it seems to me) cuts against the grain of his stronger argument that humanity is always embedded within a biotic community, even if it seems to be the most radically disruptive member. Leopold also overtaxes metaphorical references to the land (and the natural community) as an “organism” that maintains balance, harmony, and equilibrium, but for all that he does not think of the land in static timeless terms, nor does the “community” that he refers to necessarily have to be an irenic one. These inconsistencies seem superficial to me, easily worked around.

Furthermore, I’m not convinced that philosophical ethics or a more nuanced theory of value is actually the point at which Leopold’s project most needs supplementation. In fact, Leopold himself seems to recognize that the root of humanity’s tendencies toward destructive behavior is not primarily a deficiency in ethics, but a delusional self-understanding. Or again, the faulty ethic that validates ecological degradation derives from a faulty self-understanding. It is a theme repeated at length:

“In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” (204)

“No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change in our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched these foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it. In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial.” (210)

“In all of these cleavages, we see repeated the same basic paradoxes: man the conqueror versus man the biotic citizen; science the sharpener of his sword versus science the searchlight on his universe; land the slave and servant versus land the collective organism.” (223)

But if a “land ethic” contains the correct “role” for human beings to comport themselves in a more ecologically sensible way, we are nevertheless left without a clear sense for the means by which people are supposed to adopt the land ethic and be changed from “man the conqueror” to “man the citizen.” If anything (as Liam points out) this is the work that is supposed to be done on someone by a “vision of the land” (that is, all the interdependencies of the biotic pyramid). I’d agree that Leopold is too optimistic on this point.  I would guess that Liam’s project working at a theory of value is one effort at finding a way to draw people into embracing environmental ethics (and I look forward to reading Jordan’s book, which I’ve got on my desk as I write).

I regard the identity-construction of what Leopold calls “man the conqueror” as an ideology deeply embedded in the fabric of our day-to-day lives, reinforced by our interactions within political and economic systems, and underwritten in the West by the bulk of the philosophical and theological tradition. For that reason, I’m more or less convinced that the best point at which to address ecological degradation is not a theory of value which leaves the subjectivity of the “value-er” (the one who registers and perceives value) relatively untouched, but instead, by exposing the ideology that reinforces our own self-identification as some form or another of “man the conquerer” for the constructed, arbitrary, and malleable pattern that it is, and pushing toward a framework in which it is feasible for people to sincerely and coherently self-identify as citizens and members of the ecological community.

Again, the ecological “community” (likely a poorly chosen word) need not be irenic; but the major cause of ecological degradation will not be addressed, in my opinion, so long as we maintain the ideological machinery by which we are convinced that we human beings are creatures categorically different than all the others. Positing a fundamental, unbridgeable difference between being-human and being-lizard, or leopard, or lemur enables us to disregard the basic interests of these creatures even where we understand those interests quite plainly (and much worse where we do not). Human progress, time and again, trumps the interests of every other creature.

Sand County Almanac is an amazingly prescient text for having been written over 70 years ago. There is plenty to disagree with, plenty of points at which we should go further, but Leopold’s unique combination of insight and analysis is, in my opinion, pulls its  philosophical/theological weight well enough.

Avatar and Eco-Theology :: Body and Mind

Below are the substance of the comments I gave to kick off the conversation as a part of a panel with Monica Schaap Pierce and Elizabeth Johnson on Avatar and ecological theology:

Two rhetorical questions:

How many of the nearly 7 billion people in the world would you say don’t know that the earth is in ecological crisis for which humans are largely responsible—that is, don’t know about extinctions, pollution, and unprecedented major changes in the oceans, atmosphere, and soil?

[Not many]

How many, on the other hand, don’t care, or at least live as if they do not care?

[A considerably larger number!]

If it is true that many, many more people know about the ecological crisis than care enough to change, then the problem is not a matter of a lack of information—though new and better information always helps. The problem is much more a matter of the will and of a moral failure. And this failure is where Avatar and ecological theology meet—in pointing out that too many of us are living with our moral vision grounded in the wrong story. Both Avatar and ecological theology are concerned with the story we are living in—a story centered on consumption and self-fulfillment—and both are concerned with proposing an alternate story, a different way of living. Living in the frame of a different story leads to a different way of seeing the world, and a different way of seeing leads to a different way of acting.

Before we go deeper into Avatar using the thought-tools that theologians use to think about the Christian story, I want to take a look behind the story of Avatar.

So far, my favorite critical comment about the movie points to a deep irony: “Only in America is it possible to spend $400 million dollars producing and marketing a film that denounces the evils of capitalism and the neo-colonial political economy.” That is to say, that while Avatar’s story may open a few hearts and minds to our ecological crisis, in many ways the movie is also a symptom of the very disease it diagnoses. The $250 billion dollars people have spent to see the movie (and I’ve contributed twice in preparation for our conversation) indicate that a lot of people have driven to the mall and spent $12 to huddle together for three hours wearing cheap pairs of petroleum-based 3-D glasses assembled and shipped by people working long hours for little pay. Many of these viewers munched popcorn and sucked down soda made mostly from corn-products grown in endless square miles of mono-culture fields where other species have been driven out by the use of millions of gallons of petroleum-based fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides, which subsequently drain off into the rivers and oceans. In short, both producing and consuming Avatar looks a lot like digging deeper into the very unobtanium mine we’re supposed to deplore. And the vast majority of us are willing to ignore that material backstory because we are all addicted to our way of life. Yes, every connotation of the word addiction is intended.

Ok. That was a little heavy. But our ability to entertain our minds with a story projected on a screen, all the while ignoring the material backstory of the whole scene is exactly what I want to focus on. The story of Avatar relies on a deep division, what theologians call a dualism, between mind and body; that is, it relies on the notion that minds and bodies are separable in some way.

When Jake Sully climbs into the pod and the link is forged between his broken human body and the Na’vi avatar body, his mind or soul (for this talk, I’m going to equate the two) leaves one body and travels to another. And the way we see the story, when Jake’s mind leaves one body and goes to another, he leaves one body and goes to another. But it is not just the space-traveling human beings who have this technology. The movie ends with Jake permanently moving out of one body and into the other by traveling “through the eye of Eywa” by means of the ritual and prayer of the whole Na’vi people on his behalf. Jake is thus born again, and he discards his broken, scarred, and polluted earthly body in order to take up residence in a pristine, ecologically sound Na’vi body. In this story, Jake’s mind can occupy either body, but it can only occupy one body, and therefore, somehow it is separable from both bodies.

I’m not going to spend my time criticizing Avatar for this mind-body dualism; not only is most religious criticism of movies unproductive, it also ends up sounding kind of whiney. Instead, I want to use Avatar as a mirror. The focus of my comments is to ask why the story of this dualism is the story that James Cameron wants to tell us, and why we find the story both compelling and plausible. I am more interested in why this story works for us, why we are convinced without even a second thought when we see this mind-body dualism. I think that the fact that Avatar works so well as a story for us reveals something about us, something about the way that we think about minds and bodies and the connection between them. Now, it’s time for two surprising suggestions:

1)     Avatar works for those of us who live in late-capitalist Western culture because we inhabit one of the most dualistic human cultures that has ever existed.

2)     Christian theology has the resources to address and overturn this dualistic thinking, even though it is partly responsible for it in the first place.

We like to think that we who are living today—especially we Americans—are realistic, well-educated about the way the “real world” works in contrast to the superstitious and unscientific people of history. Are we really less dualistic, however? We live in a world where the domain of the mind is (for better and for worse) is further and further divorced and abstracted from the domain of bodies. Two relevant examples:

1)     Today, while we may not worry about ghosts or spend time keeping evil spirits from bringing the plague, we live in fear concerning the movements of a different spirit, whether it is going up or down, where it is strong, where it is weak, whom it favors, whom it does not. We call this spirit “the Market,” and it is amazing how people will leap into action when they think that the Market is on the move. There are many people (and many Fordham grads) whose job it is to anticipate the movements of the market in order to decide about where millions of dollars should go—into Euros, Yen, Dollars, or Deutschmarks; into stocks or bonds. And when this money flies all over the globe, no one sees it, no one touches it, no one has a handle on it. Yet, the consequences of these decisions, of sending this invisible money to one place versus another, (consequences, by the way, that are never visible to the person making the decision) might be hundreds of people losing or finding jobs, thousands of acres of forest cleared for a new “development,” or millions of gallons of water used in the manufacturing process of another device or trinket. The point here, is that the material level (the level of bodies, dirt, water, and trees) and the mental level (the level of minds, souls, decisions, etc.) are almost entirely invisible to each other. They almost never meet directly. We have a really hard time thinking about the material level and the mental level at the same time. And because we don’t see the Market and the forest at the same time, we often end up sacrificing the forest to the market, which is why one theologian argues that “Economics supasses theology as a docetic [that is, a dualistic] science” (Rasmussen, 116).

2)     For a second example, isn’t the internet the perfect paradigm for our dualism? Here is an endless domain of the mind, a mental playground where very important things are always happening. Who is friending, de-friending, re-friending, or changing their relationship status now? What new snarky comment is appearing on someone’s blog? Do I have new email? I’m not claiming special righteousness here, not presuming to be a judge. What I do want to note, however, is how much the mental playground of the internet is totally abstracted from the material level that supports it. In order to sustain this perpetual phantasmagoria of the mind, a huge material investment is required, and that material investment remains largely invisible to us. The electricity to run these computers comes from coal mines, oil wells, huge hydro-electric dams, or nuclear power plants. The metal bits in your computer and in the telecommunications cables come from mines like the one in Avatar, and end up in huge toxic heaps. And most obviously, there are hours upon hours of time in which our bodies sit passively (at most, munching or fidgeting) while minds flit here and there through the ether. And while our minds are occupied flitting and flirting on facebook, another creature—the last of its species—breathes its final breath, another thousand gallons of industrial run-off pours out into a river, and what little ecological integrity remains stands vulnerable without political protection. Again, the level of the mind (the level at which we interact with the internet) and the level of the body (the material story behind the internet) are almost entirely separated, almost entirely invisible to each other.

And so, I would argue, that in our culture, the interests of bodies (using the term “bodies” very loosely here) are almost always subordinated to the pathologies of our minds. Our mind-body dualism is the reason that the mind-body dualism essential to the plot of Avatar doesn’t even make us bat an eye. It’s not odd to us because we live in it and we live it out every day. Avatar is our fantasy. But our dualism, the ability to hold minds and bodies apart, is proving fatally toxic to God’s creation.

My second suggestion is that Christian theology has the resources to respond to and overturn this dualism, despite a long history of emphasizing souls over bodies, and separating the spiritual from the material. Unfortunately, I can only give the briefest sketch of these resources. Take a theology course, or become a major to learn more.

Whenever the Bible talks about the place of final redemption—what Christians have come to call “heaven”—it uses very earthy pictures—feasts, parties, rivers, mountains, gardens. In fact, perhaps the clearest description is found in Revelation 21, in which “a new heaven and a new earth” is the place where perfect fellowship is finally restored. But this “new heaven and new earth,” quite clearly is not some perfect planet light-years away like Pandora. It is this very earth under our feet redeemed and changed, to be sure, but this very earth on which God intends to dwell with God’s beloved creatures. For this reason one theologian says, “heaven is great, but it’s not the end of the world!” (N.T. Wright).

Likewise, and closer to my central point, the very clearest picture of redemption is the resurrected body of Jesus—which Christians have always held dear as a promise of the resurrection of these bodies (redeemed and changed, to be sure), but these bodies. What I want you to notice, though, is that Jesus’ wounds aren’t gone. The resurrected body of Jesus is not the mind of Jesus in a new, blue, 9 foot tall, 115 pound supermodel’s dream. No, Jesus carries his wounds, body and mind together, into redemption; the body is made new, made whole, but not in such a way that the old scars are left behind, or forgotten.

And so, I suggest, that for Christian theologians, the way that we wound and scar the planet we live on matters profoundly. God may redeem these wounds, it is true, but we will continue to live in them, and live with them in the life that is eternal. Christian salvation, then, is not the end of the material story in the final triumph of the souls over bodies, but the final marriage in which the dualism between bodies and souls is overcome.

Avatar and Eco-theology

On Thursday of this week (the 25th) I’ll be sitting on a panel discussion of Avatar with Elizabeth Johnson and fellow graduate student Monica Schaap Pierce. We’ll be talking about the religious themes in the movie and about intersections with contemporary ecological theology.

I’m planning on drawing out the mind-body dualism that is essential to the plot of the film (i.e. Jake Sully, or Jake’s mind/soul, spends the entire movie traveling in between two different bodies). Rather than simply criticize the movie on this point—like shooting fish in a barrel, to use a decidedly un-ecological metaphor—I’m going to suggest that the fact that this plot works so well most of us don’t even bat an eye reveals more about us than about James Cameron. From day to day, we live in and live out a mind-body dualism at least as pronounced as the one depicted in the film. So, I’ll draw out some of the negative consequences of this dualism for creation, and suggest that Christian theology—while complicit in many ways as a source of this dualism—has the resources to respond to and overcome modes of thinking  that privilege minds/souls at the expense of bodies.

The event is intended to attract interest for undergraduate theology courses and to push those students considering a theology major over the brink. There will be free discussion after our comments and free pizza to nourish the hungry. I’m quite curious to see what direction the conversation will go. If you are on campus, consider dropping by Keating Hall, room 124 at 12 pm.

I’ll post the text of my comments after the event.