I was recently invited to bring a greeting from the Faith and Environment Network (FEN) to the opening of The West Central Convergence, whose subtitle was “a convergence of ideas and people to promote neighborhood resiliency through sustainable food, water, energy exchange and transportation systems in inner-city Spokane.” I had three intentions for the presentation. First, I hoped that the presentation would reflect FEN’s commitment to re-thinking our human place in nature, or in natural systems, and so contribute to an honoring of the natural world. Second, I intended the presentation to be a clear statement that humanity is part of larger systems, and should define itself in the context of those systems, i.e. as part of them, rather than as a system unto itself, i.e. as the systems’ center and defining reality. We must “find our place” in nature or the universe rather than trying to alter or control nature to suit our desires and perceived needs. Third, I wanted to imply that we or any other part are determined/controlled by the system more than we or any part can control the system they are a part of. I think this last intention is very important though due to time constraints it is not adequately fleshed out here. (See the presentation below.)
Anthropocentric orientations are not sufficiently systemic to address our current environmental challenges. Efforts at sustainability and resilience, while important and commendable in most any form, will ultimately fail to accomplish either enduring or wide-ranging system change if they don’t ground their thinking and energies in the natural systems of which human beings and our cities are only a part.
In 1978 psychiatrist Dr. Murray Bowen wrote about the societal emotional regression being experienced in the United States and other developed countries. He said, “man’s increasing anxiety is a product of population explosion, the disappearance of new habitable land to colonize, the approaching depletion of raw materials necessary to sustain life, and growing awareness that ‘spaceship earth’ cannot indefinitely support human life in the style to which man and his technology have become accustomed. Man is a territorial animal who reacts to being ‘hemmed in’ with the same basic patterns as lower forms of life. Man tells himself other reasons to explain his behavior while important life patterns are the same as non-thinking animals.” He challenged people to think of themselves as part of larger natural systems, and to mend the “cut-off” of humanity from nature that he thought pervasive in his time, and which we know continues in ours.
Initiatives like the West Central Convergence are important and hopeful, as are the efforts of local governments to develop ecologically sound, sustainable, resilient projects and systems. But they will only succeed and endure if they are based on a new orientation to nature and natural systems, a new way of thinking with nature at its center. Think systems. Think natural systems.
FEN’s Greeting to the West Central Convergence – May 13, 2012
The Faith and Environment Network (or FEN) engages people of faith in caring for Creation. FEN both salutes and congratulates those of you who have worked hard to put this initiative together. Many more such efforts are necessary if we are to address, however inadequately, the environmental and humanitarian crises faced by the inner-city in particular and the whole city in general. Promoting neighborhood resilience through sustainability is key in moving toward a healthier life for cities.
While I think every effort taken now and in the future at addressing global warming, species extinction, and environmental health in general is too late to avert the societal and cultural degradation that has already begun, much less to reverse the wrenching environmental transformations that are coming, it is never too late to reclaim our responsibility for ourselves and to our children, our fellow creatures (i.e. the slitherers to the four-legged, the thousand-legged, the winged, the swimmers, as well as to the trees and grasses that sustain us all). It is never too late to discover, or rediscover, our place in the universe, no matter how much damage our ignorance in that matter has already caused. Despite the fact that the natural world will not be as rich and diverse for millennia as it was only one hundred years ago, it is not too late to trust and to glory in and to live as part of the power of nature to continue its inexhaustible evolutionary march toward beauty, what Alfred North Whitehead called “the harmony of contrasts” or the “ordering of novelty,” or what this convergence might call “the building of community based on and valuing diversity.”
But let me suggest that all such good efforts will fail if they continue to issue from an anthropocentric orientation, from an orientation that has human beings at and as its center. And I am not suggesting that a “faith”perspective with “God” at its center is necessarily any better, at least not in the way “religion” has usually characterized God in the past, i.e. anthropomorphically. As long as our religion, the human attempt to orient ourselves toward the mystery of life, places humanity at the center, as long as religion or sustainability initiatives, no matter how well-meaning, base their efforts on such grounds—the decay of humanity and human community as we know them will continue. So, for the most part, religion and ethics have failed us. An anthropocentric way is not sustainable.
Many wise people have made this point over the past century, Teilhard de Chardin, Alfred North Whitehead, Rachel Carson, Thomas Berry among them. Rachel Carson’s ethical philosophy was “non-anthropocentric”: “Respect nature.” “Know nature.” and “Place yourself in proper perspective.” Thomas Berry said, “The universe is a community of subjects, not a collection of objects.”
Nature, the way things are in the universe, the way life happens is at the center of everything. That is true because the universe is rooted in a mystery however we may name it. Our calling is to find our place in that universe together with all the other creatures who quite naturally find their place there.
However you may think about “God”—or if you think about something like mystery, or the “yet-unknown,” rather than God—it need not and should not be separate from nature. The Christian theologian Paul Tillich spoke of God as the “ground of being”; Jesus and Lao Tzu spoke of “the Way.” Whitehead called God “a tender care that nothing be lost.” Nature is the expression of that Way, Nature’s Way (or God’s Way in nature, if you will)—however you name it—that moves toward beauty, which consists of maximum diversity and the ordering of novelty, that razor’s edge between chaos and monotony.
This convergence will have enduring meaning only if it is driven by or contributes to a new orientation to nature as the Way, or to the Way of nature (which some, as I said, may wish to call the Way of God—fine, as long as it is a way in which human beings are “one part of” it, not its center). It is a way both vulnerable and adaptable in the face of the enemies of life and beauty and diversity and novelty. If we can disengage from our anthropocentrism and engage this orientation to the way of life expressed in nature, then we may find the health and beauty and community offered everywhere.
What if this convergence reflected that new orientation for us, and so for the wider world? What if religious and environmental organizations would help us focus on that new orientation to beauty and novelty and health? The most enduring contribution of this convergence could be our thinking differently, our cultivating a new orientation to life with nature at its center. Anthropocentric orientations are not sustainable—we have and are proving that. Nature’s way is sustainable, and we will find the promise for the future there.