Valuing and the Environment

Culture, Value and Nature

It was the historian Arnold Joseph Toynbee who said that the socio-political and economic systems of civilizations are manifestations of culture. For him, the core of civilizations is culture or people's values, beliefs and worldview.

Culture proceeds from the cultivation of nature. According to Robert P. Harrison, culture is the "mode by which human beings organize their relation to nature." [1] The interaction between humans and nature is such that humans shape nature and, in turn, nature influences humans. There is no arguing that we use the resources of the planet to stay alive. We drink water to quench our thirst. We eat food to nourish our bodies. We use trees to build our houses. But the environment is not merely a passive supplier of our needs. It also limits our activities. Thus, we cannot put up fruit processing plants in areas where there is no water. We cannot build houses or buildings in locations that are not suitable for such constructions. We cannot establish farms, which are the impetus for the formation of civilizations, in places that have neither natural nor artificial irrigation systems. In other words, we sustain our lives and build our economic and political systems through our relationship with nature. And it is through culture that we nurture ourselves in nature.

The core of society is culture. And the core of culture is a value system, which is ultimately rooted in a religious or spiritual consciousness that results from the human encounter of the manifestations of the divine. A brief discussion about ancient philosophy would help in unfolding this theme.

Ancient philosophy was cosmocentric and the Greek civilization revered nature. Kosmos is the Greek word for the order of things. The term later evolved into the meaning "world" or "universe," which is associated with the notion of a "perfect order." [2] Deisidaimonia, on the other hand, is the Greek word for "young humanity's inborn habit of seeing the hand of God in every aspect of nature and reading spiritual or mystical significance into every fact of life." [3] It literally means the fear of demons, fear being identifiable with the English word "dread" that connotes reverence and awe. This worldview, however, was supplanted by the scientific paradigm, which "saw the rational human observer separate from nature." The scientific paradigm "has generated a vast amount of knowledge, but it also marginalized a spiritual, emotional or holistic perception of the relationship of humankind in nature, as had been common in earlier civilizations. Nature now became a realm of impersonal objects, to be studied, then 'conquered' or exploited by man." [4]

Reverence to nature is not alien in the Christian tradition. It is said that the "utterance of God is the world, thus the world is His message." In the Book of Genesis, God created the world through words. He commanded "Let there be light" and then came light. In the Gospel of St. John, it is written: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Thus, God or the Word created the world through words. Clearly, the world is a message from the Word. It is a gospel in the sense that it enlightens our finite minds about something higher than ourselves, about somebody higher than our being. Because the world is a message, it has to be shared with all our fellow human beings. A professor at the Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Dr. Florentino Hornedo, once said: "The world is an external manifestation of an inward grace." Here, the world becomes an embodiment of God's loving mercy towards mankind. There is no doubt about it. For after the God in Christianity created the world, He created human beings in His own image and likeness, after which He rested, thereby making humans the apex of His creation.

The world is God's gift to His people. Again in the Book of Genesis, God told His people to go to the world and multiply and have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves upon the earth. This biblical passage, however, has to be understood as a commandment of stewardship rather than as an authority to subdue the earth. For nowhere in the Holy Book did God say "go to the world and overpopulate it" or "go to the world and pollute it" or "go to the world and extinguish the animals of the land, the birds of the air and fish of the sea." Because the world is a gift, humans have the duty to take good care of it. Humans cannot destroy the Planet Earth without insulting Him who bestowed it. Being a gift, the world has a value. Such value is ultimately grounded in God's meaningful act of giving it as gift to human beings.

Value of Nature

Since the rise of the environmental movement in the middle of this century, a lot of discussions have been made about the proper place and role of human beings in the planet. The discussions have a global extent and involve people from the human, social and natural sciences. Expectedly, various theories on environmental ethics have been proposed and debated. These theories cover topics or issues such as animal rights, human duties to endangered species, deep and shallow ecology, among others. However, due to the limited space, this paper will not attempt to examine these theories. In lieu of a theoretical analysis, this paper will briefly present two general views about nature: (1) the aboriginal worldview or the earlier civilizations' way of ascribing value to nature and (2) the contemporary worldview brought about by the recent rise of environmentalism in western civilization. The twin goals of this presentation are: First, to discuss the key features of the two worldviews; and second, to show that they are not alien to each other. To aid this discussion, a brief discussion about the meaning of the term "value" is presented.

Meaning of value [5]

A value is chosen and acted upon. It makes a person happy because it is necessary for his/her own authentic development. In the language of metaphysics, every being is true, good and beautiful. Necessarily, a value is true, good and beautiful. A value is true because human intellect perceives it as real. A value is good because human will desires for it. A value is beautiful because the perception of beauty follows after an awareness of the truth and goodness of being. [6] Thus, value is grounded in being itself, i.e. in reality. [7]

In the Christian tradition, a person seeks what is good by nature, at least good for himself/herself. It is a natural want for humans to seek something that is good. We seek water to quench our thirst, food to satisfy our hunger and shelter to house and protect our bodies. The movement towards good is inherent in the structure of the human personality. But since humans are not perfect, they are prone to commit mistakes or errors in judgment. Such mistakes happen when, for instance, a person confuses an apparent good as the real good.

Good may defined as that which satisfies a natural want or need. Water, for example, is good because it satisfies human thirst. But what is in good that satisfies? The answer is happiness. Good satisfies because it gives happiness. In our example, water is good because it satisfies human thirst, thereby making a person happy. The relationship between good and happiness is such that a real good gives real happiness and an apparent good gives apparent happiness.

It is clear that humans value something or treat something as valuable because it satisfies a natural want or need. [8] In the same vein, humans value nature or the environment although the expression of value depends on their view of nature and their understanding of its laws. The aboriginal mind, for instance, ascribes value to nature based on a generalist and synthetic consciousness. The modern scientific mind radically altered the aboriginal worldview with its specialist and reductionist approach to the study of nature. Now, as contemporary society feels the pangs of a global environmental crisis, the contemporary mind is rethinking the human place in nature and is recovering the wisdom of the aboriginal consciousness.

The aboriginal worldview

Mention was made about the early Greeks' attitude of reverence and awe towards nature. This outlook produced an approach that did not aim at mastery of the forces of nature. Instead, the objective was to harmonize human activities to the rhythm and harmony of nature. A letter from Chief Seattle, chief of the Squarmish Indians, to the American Government in 1854 in response to the offer by "The Great White Chief" in Washington to buy Indian lands expresses this worldview.

How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?

Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clear and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people. The sap which courses through the trees carries the memory and experience of my people.

... The white man's dead forget the country of their birth when they go to walk among the stars. Our dead never forget this beautiful Earth, for it is the mother of the red man. We are part of the Earth and it is part of us. The perfumed flowers are our sisters, the deer, the horse, the great eagle, these are our brothers. The rocky crests, the juices in the meadows, the body heat of the pony, and the man, all belong to the same family.

... The rivers are our brothers, they quench our thirst. The rivers carry our canoes and feed our children.

... The air is precious to the red man, for all things share the same breath - the beast, the tree, the man, they all share the same breath.

... Teach your children what we have taught our children, that the Earth is our mother. Whatever befalls the Earth befalls the sons of the Earth. If men spit upon the ground, they spit upon themselves.

This we know - the Earth does not belong to man - man belongs to the Earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family. All things are connected.

Whatever befalls the Earth - befalls the sons of the Earth. Man did not weave the web of life - he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself. [9]

The early Filipinos, like the American Indians, harmonized their ways with the natural forces. Hornedo says: "The traditional Filipino lived with nature. The forests and rivers were his 'brothers.' Their preservation and conservation was his life. Their destruction, his destruction. When he told his children that divine beings prohibited the desecration of the forest, he was speaking with the authority of life and in the name of life... [10] He explains this aboriginal outlook in terms of the generalist and synthethic mind of the earlier peoples, which is in stark contrast to the specialist and reductionist attitude of the scientific mind. The aboriginal mind considered nature as mysterious, thus s/he was at the mercy of the forces of nature. With this condition, his/her natural recourse was to live with nature rather than subjugate it. In contrast, the scientific mind has a vast amount of knowledge about natural processes. Nature is no longer a mystery to him/her. The scientific mind has "unraveled," so to speak, the cause and effect of the world. Nature is now at his/her mercy. But the aboriginal mind, Hornedo observes:

... transcended the mere level of cause and effect to the human quest for meaning, which involves a fascination with purpose and final causes. His science, therefore was concerned not with the control of nature, but with the making sense of phenomena and protecting his consciousness from the threat of absurdity. Thus, the aboriginal or traditional consciousness is not concerned with the conquest of natural forces, but with harmonizing his ways with it. Nature, he tells himself, is sovereign, and it is from the bounty of this sovereign reality that he feeds himself and his children. The noblest relation he can have with nature is expressed in terms of the familial-'brother' or 'mother', and such other effective symbols of a fruitful relationship. [11]

In his study of ancient science, Ludwig Edelstein observes that the ancients did attempt "to give a consistently rational picture of nature, to classify phenomena systemically and to explain them, to establish a limited number of principles and to deduce their consequences." [12] He said that the science which developed during the pre-Socratic period "undoubtedly aimed at understanding, at contemplation of the truth, of the essence of things." [13] In fact, "explanation, classification and systematization are not foreign to Homeric or Hesiodic mythology. The epic knows well that what is truly seducing in the song of the Sirens is 'their professions of knowledge." [14] However, ancient science "was not a mere knowledge nor was it a mere technique; it preserved an awareness of the meaning of the universe and retained a place for values within the world of facts." [15]

The traditional notion of nature, however, was marginalized by the paradigm of an empirical and reductionist science. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) initiated the tradition of experimental empiricism in Britain. Rene Descartes (1596-1650) propounded dualism, the theory of reality that separates res cogitans or mind from res extensa or matter. Galileo (1564-1642) combined the experimental empiricism of Bacon with the rationalism of Descartes resulting to a material and mathematical theory of reality or the scientific method. Isaac Newton (1642-1727) went further and claimed that science should separate the human observer from nature being observed. This approach made nature a "realm of impersonal objects, to be studied, then conquered or exploited by man." [16] As Thomas Berry puts it:

This mechanistic view of the world encouraged the growth of technological invention and industrial plundering, culminating in the 1880's when the electronic and chemical research centers were established, scientific technologies were advanced, and the modern commercial corporations were formed. The objective was to make human societies as independent as possible from the natural world and to make the natural world as subservient as possible to human decisions. Nothing was to be left in its natural state. [17]

But perhaps we humans have discovered our own folly when the negative consequences of science and technology have started to pile up and threaten human lives and the integrity of Mother Earth. The recent environmental movement, which started in the 1950s, is now challenging us humans to rethink our place in the cosmos.

Contemporary environmentalism

The 20th century environmental movement began with the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in 1962, which cautioned the world about the "dangers of such recently developed agricultural chemicals as DDT, sending the world very specific warnings about the risks of postwar technologies that were producing artificial pesticides and other new chemical products." Carson's book inspired others to write about other threats to the quality and integrity of the environment. Some of these writings include Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb (1968), Barry Commoner's The Closing Cirlce (1971) and the Club of Rome's Limits to Growth (1972) written by a research team from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. These writings stirred awareness among westerners about the urgent need to protect the resources of the planet from overexploitation and degradation. In the United States, increased awareness was notable among the students. The first Earth Day celebration held on April 2, 1970 was largely a campus-based activity. And it is said to be the apogee of the early years of the environmental movement.

In 1972, the United Nations held a Conference on Human Development in Stockholm. The discussions that ensued "placed economic justice at par with the concern of many industrialized nations for environmental protection." [18] Eight years later, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) published the World Conservation Strategy: Living Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development, which claims that:

A new ethic, embracing plants and animals as well as people, is required for human societies to live in harmony with the natural world on which they depend for survival and well being. The long-term task of environmental education is to foster or reinforce attitudes and behavior compatible with this new ethic. [19]

In 1982, the UN adopted the World Charter for Nature which recognizes that "every form of life is unique, warranting respect regardless of its worth to man". A few years later, the UN's World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) published its report Our Common Future in 1987. In this document, WCED recommends the adoption of the sustainable development paradigm to ensure the continued co-existence between humans and nature. It describes sustainable development as one that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

Link of the two worldviews

A link between the aboriginal and contemporary worldviews can be established through a historical analysis of the term progress. Progress, which pervades in the western intellectual tradition, is the nineteenth century term for development. The term basically involves the idea that the present is superior to the past and the belief that the future will be, or can be, better still. [20] A necessary constituent of the idea of progress is the notion of a perfect social order, which is the ultimate goal of progress itself. And the earliest description of a perfect social order is the Garden of Eden as depicted in the Book of Genesis. Now, the idea that "Nature is Eden" is pervasive in the western civilization through the Judeo-Christian tradition. [21] In fact, humanity has always looked for ways to reestablish the Garden of Eden. [22] Following this train of thought, the notion of sustainability is seen as embodying the attempt to recover the wisdom of the aboriginal worldview in terms of human-nature relationship. As Carolyn Merchant says:

"Sustainability is a new vision of the recovered garden... Environmentalists who press for sustainable development see the recovery as achievable through the spread of nondegrading forms of agriculture and industry. Social ecologists and green parties devise new economic and political structures that overcome the domination of human beings and nonhuman nature... The regeneration of nature and people will be achieved through social and environmental justice. The End Drama envisions a postpatriarchal, socially just ecotopia for the postmillenial world of the twenty-first century. [23]

Concluding Remarks

One of the main insights of this topic is based on the philosophical notion that what we do is a function of what we know. Obviously, worldviews are informed by the quality of human understanding about nature and how humans behave within a "shared habitat." The aboriginal worldview seems to have a mythic understanding of science, while contemporary environmentalism appears to have a scientific understanding of myths. The space where the two worldviews fuse constitutes the shared understanding about human-nature relationship by several generations of people.

It should be borne in mind, however, that an ecologically sustainable development can only be achieved by the species and not by the individual, to paraphrase the philosopher Immanuel Kant. This means that the task of making sustainable development operational is a function of the collectivity, i.e. based on the decisions and actions of people at various levels in the socio-political and economic spheres. Sustainable development is a collective project, thus there is a need to develop a collective consciousness that can make the project succeed. Such consciousness is akin to what Paul Ricoeur calls "planetary consciousness" or the awareness that we belong to "a single human experience." [24] For unless we recognize that "we are each other's keeper," we cannot build a humane society.

Hence the urgent need for a sound environmental ethics for the present generation of people -- an ethics that is not human-centered but one which is derived from the "ecological imperative.". For as Thomas Berry stressed:

The ecological community is not subordinate to the human community. Nor is the ecological imperative derivative from human ethics. Rather our human ethics is derivative from the ecological imperative. The basic ethical norm is the well-being of the comprehensive community, and the attainment of human well-being within this comprehensive community. The Earth is not part of the Human Story, the human story is part of the Earth Story. [25]

Endnotes

[1] Robert P. Harrison, "Toward a Philosophy of Nature" in Uncommon Ground. Rethinking the Human Place in Nature ed. William Cronon (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, c. 1996), 426.

[2] Ludwid Edelstein, "Motives and Incentives for Science in Antiquity" in Scientific Change. Historical Studies of the Intellectual, Social and Technical Conditions for Scientific Discovery and Technical Invention from Antiquity to the Present (New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1963), 15-41.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Michael Carley and Ian Christie, Managing Sustainable Development (London: Earthscan Publications, Ltd., 1992), 63.

[5] Axiology is the study of the theory of values.

[6] Mieczyslaw Albert Krapiec, Metaphysics. An Outline of the History of Being (New York, San Francisco, Bern, Frankfurt am Main, Paris and London: Peter Lang, 1991), 3.

[7] Wilton D. Hunnex, Chronological and Thematic Charts of Philosophies and Philosophers (Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, c. 1986 by Milton D. Hunnex), 22.

[8] According to Manfred Max-Neef, there are ten fundamental human needs: subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, idleness, creation, identity, freedom and transcendence. See David Reid, Sustainable Development. An Introductory Guide (London: Earthscan Publications Ltd., 1995), 83.

[9] Web Publication by Mountain Man Graphics, Australia in the Southern Spring of 1995. Thomas Berry, in his address to the Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values at Harvard University on April 9, 1996 explained why the indigenous peoples are capable of such an "environmental language" in contrast to contemporary peoples. He said: "Indigenous peoples are capable of such statements because they live in a functioning universe, in a cosmos. We no longer live in a universe, we live in cities or nations or civilizations or cultural traditions. We do not live in a significant manner with the wind or the rain or the stars in the sky. We recognize the dawn and sunset and the seasons of the years, yet these are only incidental to the major concerns of life. Our laws are the laws of human or of divine origin, they are not laws primarily of cosmological origin."

[10] Florentino H. Hornedo, Pagmamahal and Pagmumura Essays (Quezon City: ADMU-Office of Research and Pub., c. 1997), 37.

[11] Ibid., 4.

[12] Ludwid Edelstein, "Motives and Incentives for Science in Antiquity," 15.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 16.

[15] Ibid., 22.

[16] Carley and (1992), 63.

[17] Ethics and Ecology, A paper delivered to the Harvard Seminar on Environmental Values, Harvard University, April 9, 1996

[18] J. Ronald Engel, "Introduction: The Ethics if Sustainable Development" in Ethics of Environment and Development. Global Challenge and International Response eds. J. Ronald Engel and J. Gibb Engel (London: Bellhaven Press, 1990, 1-23.

[19] IUCN, The World Conservation Strategy: Licing Resource Conservation for Sustainable Development (Gland, Switerland: IUCN, 1980) cited in Engel and Engel.

[20] Scott Gordon, The History and Philosophy of Social Science (London and New York: Routledge, 1991), 69.

[21] William Cronon, "Introduction: In Search of Nature" in Uncommon Ground. Rethinking the Human Place in Nature. Ed. William Cronon (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1996, 23-56.

[22] In this recovery narrative Greek philosophy served as the "intellectual framework," mechanistic science and laissez-faire capitalism provided the "master narrative of enlightenment" and mathematics encourage the "unification of natural laws into a single framework of explanation." However, cultural feminists and environmentalists reverse the plot of the recovery narrative "depicting a slow decline from a prior golden age, not a progressive ascent to a new garden on earth." See Carolyn Merchant, "Reinventing Eden: Western Culture as a Receovery Narrative" in William Cronon (1996), 132-159.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Paul Ricoeur, Political and Social Essays (Ohio University Press, 1974), pp. 134-137.

[25] See Ethics and Ecology

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