Gerard is thirty-two years old. He lives in a cottage in a small timber town in Gippsland. Though he was born in the city, he dreamed of making a life for himself in the bush and he made this dream come true. Almost as soon as he left school, Gerard moved to the country and made his home there, doing whatever jobs came to hand to survive. All of these involved tramping the bush tracks and learning the ‘lore’ and the law of the bush.
He loved the magnificent stands of eucalyptus with their understoreys of acacia and fern and the rich variety of animal and bird life that made their homes in them. But he also listened to the stories of the old-timers. He saw the sadness on their faces as they spoke of the old days and he shared the difficulties suffered by the townspeople as the forests were progressively closed. First the mills shut down, then the shops, the post office, the school, the banks and the bush hospital. Churches consolidated in larger towns, the police left, the pub closed.
When Gerard visited old school friends in Melbourne they were right behind the conservation movement and spoke derisively about the ‘rednecks’ who wanted to plunder the forests. Back in the bush the townspeople, deprived of their livelihoods, despised the ‘greenies’ who were condemning to death the only life they knew.
What ought he say to his friends in the city, and to his friends in the bush?
Finding The Facts
To help Gerard find out some facts and figures about the decline of the forests in Australia since European settlement, he could visit the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
To help him understand the point of view of the ‘green’ lobby, he might look at the site of Environment East Gippsland an organisation devoted to saving forests in East Gippsland, which makes a strong case against logging the forests backed up by action.
To keep some balance he might check out a forest industries site such as VicForest which contains substantial useful information and look at the Victorian Government’s Sustainability Charter which briefly outline’s State Government policy on the management of forests.
If he wanted to get a feel for how some other country people are responding very personally to the decline of rural Australia, he could look at an article by Gordon Forth, ‘What is the Future of Australia’s Declining Country Towns?’ This essay offers a well-considered discussion of the difficulties of life in country Australia. But decline in country towns is not only a modern phenomenon. Gerard might get a sense of perspective by reading the very interesting chapter Local History and Decline in Country Victoria part of a whole book on the subject which shows that historically towns have developed, served a purpose and then declined, their populations moving on to find work elsewhere.
- How might Gerard account for the very different pictures of the forestry industry painted by the VicForestsite and the Environment East Gippsland site? Use the Stop, Look and Listen technique to evaluate the claims of both groups.
While Gerard might now be more aware of the facts, he is likely to be still uncertain about an ethical approach to the problem
In an effort to broaden his perspective, he may be interested in the site Greenfuse which explores concepts like deep ecology, social ecology, earth-centred spirituality and ethics. This site discusses some of the ethical issues we face when we think of the relationship between human beings and the natural world.
A longer essay by William Grey, ‘Anthropocentrism and Deep Ecology‘ explores the tension between so called ‘deep ecology’ and ‘anthropocentrism’ (that is, regarding human beings as the focus of the universe) and argues in favour of regarding human beings and their needs as central without acceding to their unqualified right to exploit the natural world. Unfortunately the complete article is no longer on line unless you are a subscriber to the Australiasian Journal of Philosophy but an abstract and quotation conveys some an idea of Grey’s position.
The human right to work and to a humane infrastructure
Gerard might scan Articles 23 and 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which proclaim the rights of people to work and to a decent social infrastructure. Along the same line, he might also review a speech entitled ‘Why Human Rights Matter for Everyone‘ by Sir Ronald Wilson, President, Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Australia. The opening paragraphs of this speech refer especially to society’s long-term recognition of the rights of human beings and our mutual interdependence.
- Explore the concept of deep ecology. Read some views of both its supporters and its critics. What view of the place of human beings in the cosmos does the concept envisage? What questions does it provoke? What would a ‘deep ecologist’ say to the people in Gerard’s township? What would Roland Wilson say?
- Are there limits to the rights of human beings in relation to the environment? If so, what are these limits? Would you yourself be prepared to accept them? You could explore the question using the Tug for Truth thinking routine.
Exploring Sacred Texts
Inevitably as he pursues the question of the nature of the human person, Gerard will encounter the rich tradition of religious thought on this topic. As Christianity is his own tradition, he might look in a Bible, particularly at the book of Genesis to see how the relationship between the human being and the earth is imagined there. The website of the Catholic Conservation Center contains many quotations from both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures that could be a helpful guide to discovering what is there.
The insights of Genesis
In his exploration of the first three chapters of Genesis, Gerard would discover that according to the Judaeo-Christian conviction, the earth is created as a place of extraordinary beauty and richness. Human beings are created of the earth and though they are given stewardship of all that exists, there is no suggestion that this permits them to ravish the natural world. He would read of the disruption to creation symbolised in narrative of Genesis by the disobedience of Adam and Eve: how this sinfulness dislocated human relationship to the earth, so that from then on human beings have had to earn their living from the earth by the sweat of their brow.
The Prophets of Israel and Social Justice
Dipping into prophets like Amos and Isaiah, Gerard would discover a passionate defence of those whose livelihoods are taken away by the greed and self-interest of others. He would have to weigh their words against the situation in his own town.
The New Testament and the Natural World
Reading on into the New Testament, he would be moved by Jesus’ sensitivity to the natural world. He couldn’t miss how constantly Jesus illustrates his teaching by references to the rhythms of the natural world. At the same time he would realise that, for Jesus, the human being is of paramount importance. He might like to read Sean McDonagh’s paper, ‘Ecology and Religion‘ for a brief appraisal of Jesus’ teachings about living lightly in the world.
- Many people consider that the Judaeo-Christian Scriptures condone human exploitation of the earth. Undertake a critical reading of Genesis, Chapters 1 & 2, with the help of a commentary such as The New Jerome Biblical Commentary and a dictionary of the Bible. See if you agree.
- What is the ethic behind the Beatitudes? That is, what do the Beatitudes suggest about how people should live? Describe someone you know who makes an attempt to live like this. What is their environmental impact?
Understanding the Catholic Tradition
The teachings of Christ have been mediated through the centuries by the Church. To a certain extent, with its emphasis on the spiritual dimension of human life, the Church has sometimes seemed to devalue matter and the created world. Gerard might read the book review of Paul Santmire’s The Travail of Nature, which summarises diverse Christian attitudes to nature.
‘Matter’ matters in the Christian world view
Christianity exists because ‘the Word was made flesh’. God, in the person of Jesus took flesh, became part of the natural world/matter and part of human society as well. So side by side with the other-worldliness of the spiritual quest, there has always been concern in the Church for dealing with the flesh and blood realities of people’s lives and also been an ongoing relationship with the natural world. Nature as God’s creation was often understood and experienced as the locus for intimacy with the divine. Many of the saints and mystics of the Christian tradition withdrew to the desert, the mountains or the woodlands to be in closer union with God. St Francis of Assisi is the saint best known for his love of the natural world, and is the patron saint of the ecological movement.
The Church’s Vision of Economic and Social Life: Vatican II
Gerard would also be well advised to have a look at Gaudium et Spes (The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World). One of the documents of the Second Vatican Council, it contains, in Chapter 3, a summary of the Church’s vision of economic and social life.
A Just and Peaceful Land
A collection of quotations on Human Dignity would assure Gerard of the Church’s concern for the individual. Also of interest to Gerard would be the 2001 Australian Catholic Bishops’ statement, ‘A Just and Peaceful Land‘ which addresses the problems of rural and regional Australia.
Should Gerard want to track recent Church teaching and opinion on environmental matters, he could visit a Jesuit Theology Library, which contains a large collection of official and unofficial documents and articles pertaining to the environment.
- Read the book review of The Travail of Nature. It quotes St Augustine: ‘I desire to have knowledge of God and the soul. Of nothing else? No, of nothing else whatsoever’. Perhaps Augustine wrote these words not so much because he rejected what was human or earthly but because he was convinced that ultimatelynothing else mattered but God. What do you regard as ultimately most important to you?
- Read paragraph 35 of Gaudium et Spes. What might this understanding of the relationship between human activity and society say to ‘greenies’ and to ‘rednecks’?
Respecting Other World Views
A general website which contains abstracts of many presentations concerning the attitudes of world religions to ecological questions is the site of Harvard University Center for the Study of World Religions.
The Earthsangha site introduces some key attitudes of Buddhism, such as wisdom and compassion, and shows how these affect the Buddhist approach to the environment. An essay by Nick Wallis, a Western Buddhist, also conveys a Buddhist view of the relationship between human beings and the environment. It avoids seeing humans as somehow apart from, or superior to, nature. On the other hand it does not sentimentalise the natural world.
A thoughtful assessment of the Jewish attitude to the environment is contained in ‘How Green is Judaism? Exploring Jewish Environmental Ethics‘. Though this is a long article, it is a very accessible outline of the development of Jewish thought about the natural world and humanity’s relationship to it. Another fine essay by Daniel Fink, Judaism and Ecology: A Theology of Creation looks especially at the significance of the book of Genesis in determining an ethical response to environmental matters.
‘Islam and Ecology’ is an essay which examines the underpinning principles of an Islamic approach to the environment and also discusses some practical issues. ‘Sustenance and Accountability: Islam’s Views on the Environment’ is a shorter paper by an Islamic woman.
‘An Introduction to Hinduism’ by Christopher Chapple contains a paragraph entitled ‘Hinduism and Ecology’ which explains the relationship between the Hindu religious tradition and care for the earth. The East is Green by Laxmi Mall Singhvi gives a brief outline of the approach of the Jain, Vedic and Buddhist traditions to the earth.
On issues which concern the land, Australian Aboriginal spirituality has a unique voice, which is well worth listening to carefully. Sites such as Aboriginal Art and Culture Centre, Lore of the Land and the Gunditj-Mirring Partnership site provide some details and practical examples.
- Drawing on information provided in the recommended sites above, and from any other sources you have access to, prepare a list of the attitudes to nature/conservation and ecology held by the world religions.
- Explore Aboriginal belief about relationships with the land and living things. What can immigrant Australians learn from the Aboriginal approach? How might we apply this learning?
Examining Personal Experience
Gerard is likely to have an ethical approach of his own based on his upbringing, his family and his communal background. He might reflect on the attitude of his family to the land and countryside – his paternal grandparents were farmers, and his maternal grandfather worked for the Forestry Commission. What does his own particular set of experiences suggest to him about the interaction of humankind and the earth?
Articulate a response.
After going through the process with Gerard of establishing his response, identify and articulate your own response.
- Find out the facts.
- Broaden your perspectives.
- Explore the sacred texts.
- Understand the tradition.
- Consider other world views.
- Review your personal experience.