If asked to state the goal of the environmental movement, a participant in it would probably say something like: “to promote a sustainable relationship between human beings and nature.”
How could one possibly object to such a formulation? Yet hidden in it is a set of assumptions that may paradoxically lie at the root of our present environmental crisis.
There is a close resemblance between this stated goal and a much older idea from the rationalistic theology of the modern West: that the goal of the moral life is to promote a sustainable relationship between human beings and God. This God is the God of Christian theism, Who is eternal, transcendent, perfect, and unchanging. Obedience to Him is true happiness. We human beings are by nature fallen and wicked in part, and thus a caste of priests is necessary, themselves under discipline by an ecclesiastical organization, to discipline the population in the correct beliefs and religious practices.
A remarkable human culture flourished under the Christian theism of the West: whether it can survive the effects of democracy, technological progress, and intercultural exchange, all of which it helped to foster, is presently in doubt. It was itself the heir of a religious world view that was less abstract, less transcendent, more a matter of ritual and performance than what succeeded it, in which God, the angels, and the saints (and before that, the gods) were more immanent; less perfect, less absolute in knowledge and power, more a process, more a story than a theology. Christianity has periodically regretted its departure from that ancient religious milieu, a milieu much more appropriate to the life and thoughts of Jesus Christ himself
But the point here is that the environmentalist ethic has in effect replaced God with nature. As the phrase goes, “It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.” James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis, which argues plausibly that in some sense the planet Earth is a sort of superorganism, perhaps like a giant polyp or colonial animal or coral reef, maintaining its own atmosphere, climate, and chemical environment, has supplied its more religious followers with a personal name for the new deity. But the fact that the name and sex of the deity have changed does not mean that the new cult has not inherited many of the fundamental problems implicit in Western Christianity.
Many contemporary environmentalists would probably accept without much question a set of assumptions, derived from modern Christianity, that if examined might prove to be problematic. They would include the following:
That the essential feature of nature is homeostasis: that is, there is a natural balance that is restored when it is disturbed, and a natural harmony.
That happiness is doing the will of nature.
That happiness is essentially stasis, an unchanging and secure state in which the future is more or less predictable (this is an unpacking of the central term sustainable).
That human beings are different and separate from, and subordinate to, a transcendent nature. That human beings are no better and no more important than any other species (i.e., the Christian doctrine of the equality of souls before God has been translated into a doctrine of the equality of species before nature).
That an (unelected) community of environmentally conscious, morally refined, sober, devout, humble, and self-denying ecological Brahmins should interpret to the masses the will of nature and direct them accordingly, chastising the merchant/industrial caste, humbling the warrior caste, and disciplining the farmer caste.
There are four main problems with this set of assumptions.
The first is that nature is not and has not ever been static. It is easy to demonstrate that nature is a process of irreversible changes at every level of the microcosm and the macrocosm, both in the living world and in the world in general. Among living organisms, the number of species has pretty steadily increased from the origin of life about four billion years ago until now. The complexity, hierarchical organization, and neural development of the most highly organized species has increased over time.
In the universe at large, there has been a steady and irreversible increase in several crucial measures. They include its size (it has been expanding since the Big Bang), and its age (this is not a trivial measure, since the universe at any moment includes its own history: we are receiving light from the first-kindled stars; and the very continuity of time has been increasing over time, as more and more coherent organisms, capable of recording their own past, have evolved). The thermodynamic entropy of the universe has increased. The complexity of the temporal Umwelt—the region of sensitivity and degree of freedom of a given organism—has increased; the definition of time required to describe a photon (which preexisted all the more complex forms of matter) is much simpler than that required to describe a crystal, a cabbage, a giraffe, or a human being. The amount of feedback or self-reference in the universe has increased irreversibly (we will return to this issue later). The amount of information in the universe has increased. The universe has cooled down and will continue to do so. Even the rate of all these changes has been changing irreversibly; some of them also unpredictably.
Thus the idea of “sustainability” and general homeostasis is a profoundly unnatural goal. The universe does not, except in certain temporary periods and places, sustain or maintain: it changes, improves, complexities. Sexual reproduction, to take a good example, consists of a sophisticated and powerful mechanism to ensure that the genetic inheritance of a species changes irreversibly: it is a system to subvert and disrupt sustainability and maintainability. We human beings may still want the security of sustainability: but we should not invoke the authority of nature to do so.
Another problem with the idea of sustainability is that human happiness cannot consist in stasis and obedience. Elementary psychology tells us that we are sensation-seeking animals, and that oui” brains work upon a principal of habituation and fatigue; if we encounter the same stimulus for a period of time (say, a ticking clock) we very quickly discount it and cease to notice it. Stasis is thus sensory deprivation, which is the most subtle and severe form of torture we know.
There now exists a more sophisticated version of the environmentalist position, which abandons the usual praise of natural homeostasis and asserts that it is only in the wild, the wilderness areas, that nature can find its true freedom to evolve and develop, in its naturally irreversible and unpredictable way. This argument reverses the usual complaint against human culture, that it changes things too fast, and asserts that human culture by taming and domesticating nature robs it of its creative powers of metamorphosis. This is a serious and interesting argument, and clearly holds some truth that should be incorporated into the wiser environmentalism that is the goal of this essay. But its imagination is limited. For is not the disturbing, horrifying, unpredictable, dangerous, and protean character of human culture and technology the wildest thing of all, the true wilderness that lies beyond the edge of the tamer, more serene and self-maintaining fields of the terrestrial ecology? Is not human culture as compared to the rest of nature, like a sexually-reproducing species as compared to an ambient ecology of clones?
This reflection leads us to the second major objection to the cliche that is serving us so usefully as a straw man. That is, that the distinction it draws between the human and the natural is patently false.
We are descended in a direct evolutionary line from natural animal species, and are ourselves a natural species. Our nature, certainly optimistic, transformative, activist, and bent on propagating itself, is not unlike that of other species, only more so. We are what nature has always been trying to be, so to speak. Nor can it be objected that it is the speed at which we transform ourselves and the world around us that is unnatural. Higher animals evolve faster than do more primitive organisms, as they in turn do so faster than non-living systems. If we take flexibility, complexity, hierarchical organization, and self-referentiality as the measure, we may define nature as acceleration itself. For us to slow down would, if we take nature to date as the model of what is natural, be an unnatural thing to do.
Not that I am necessarily advocating a continuous indiscriminate acceleration of our activities; but any moratorium we call cannot honestly be claimed to be in the name of nature. Nor am I denying the human fact of evil actions, both against other human beings and against the rest of nature. In the old religion which serves as the tacit model for some aspects of current environmentalism, that evil was explained by the Fall. But in that old religion there was also a wisdom that called the Fall a felix culpa, a happy fault. The good of knowledge, freedom, and the possibility of divine redemption came with the darker lapsarian consequences of death, guilt, and the propensity to sin. My claim is that nature itself, like ourselves, is fallen, is falling, and has always been falling, outward into the future from the initial explosion of the Big Bang; onward into more and more conscious, beautiful, tragic, complex, and conflicted forms of existence, away from the divine simplicities and stupor of the primal energy-field.
Thus for good and ill we are in solidarity with the rest of nature; and thus though there may be a vaguely good moral intention to the injunction that humankind should live in harmony with nature, the idea is essentially incoherent. Perhaps one might take it as a slightly stretched metaphor, as one’s doctor might advise one to live in harmony with one’s kidney or liver, or that our brain should live in harmony with our body.
The third objection is to species equality. It should not really be necessary to argue whether a human being or an AIDS virus is more valuable, but we are forced to such measures by the assertions of some of the more extreme Deep Ecologists. These latter question our right to consider ourselves more important and valuable than other species, and thus to affect their destiny. This point looks reasonable if we think about whales, bears, and other animals with whom it is easy to identify. But it leads to deep absurdities. Why should such theorists draw the line at living organisms? Are, they not guilty of vitalist chauvinism, in not giving equal rights to crystals, clumps of amorphous matter, atoms, photons?
One of the fundamental principles of nature is hierarchy: the food chain, the neural delegation of control, and the branched subordination of functions within a given living organism amply illustrate the principle. Though interdependence is indeed another basic principle of nature, it does not imply equality. The brain and the kidney are interdependent, but medical ethics would rightly insist that the kidney is subordinate to and less valuable than the brain. Any surgeon would rightly sacrifice a kidney to save a much smaller volume of brain tissue.
Although the combination of ideas can cause cognitive dissonance in some minds, we human beings are both part of nature, and superior to and more valuable than any other part; while at the same time we are essentially dependent on the rest of nature, and the loss of any of its unique and beautiful forms is an absolute loss to us.
The final objection to the cliche with which we began is political. Any attempt to impose Brahminical control over the masses—over the merchant, warrior, and farmer castes, so to speak—is doomed to failure. In Eastern Europe the Communist Party was just such an enlightened and refined elite, and indeed, as we are finding, it did help to keep down such atavistic tendencies as ethnic hatred. But all over the world those masses have sacrificed themselves, suffered and died, to escape or overthrow that Brahminical control.
So to sum up, the formula, “a sustainable relationship between human beings and nature” is profoundly misleading. Nature does not sustain, but changes cumulatively, sometimes preserving earlier states of it while inventing new ones, and integrating old and new together in a more reflexive and self-observing way than before. There is no “between” the human and the natural, unless there can be a special relationship, not between one thing and another, but between the most characteristic and quintessential part of a whole, and the whole of which it is the privileged part, privileged because it is the most developed product of its whole process. Human beings are not equal to, but superior to, other species. And the complete injunction to the sustainable relationship as formulated is politically impossible to enforce.
Nevertheless, there is a residual wisdom in the call for the sustainable relationship. It might be worth our while to try to reformulate and rescue this goal, by providing for it a sounder philosophical (and theological) basis. It may seem odd to cut our theology to fit our environmental ethics, but let us, in a playful spirit, do so anyway. Perhaps afterwards we can see whether the result makes sense philosophically and morally, and discover if it has any significant continuity with the best of our religious traditions.
Let us begin by following the Gaia hypothesis in its theological implication that the divine is immanent in the world, not detached from it. This is not necessarily to adopt a pantheist position. If, by analogy, we assert that the mind and soul are immanent in a brain and body rather than detachable from them, we are not committed to believing that the mind and soul are only the brain and body. Thus the first axiom of a natural theology would be: THE DIVINE IS IN NATURE.
If, then, the divine is in nature, how might we find out the nature of the divine? Surely by examining and listening to nature itself, just as we find out about a man’s or woman’s soul by examining the tendency of their bodily actions and listening to what they physically say. That is, we should pay attention to the process, the story, of nature, if we wish to know its divine soul. And nature, as we have already seen, includes us as its acme and quintessence; so we must look especially at ourselves, the most characteristic part of God’s (or the gods’) natural body. The way we find out, the process of knowing, the attempt to come to know the story of things, is called science. Thus our second axiom might be: WE KNOW THE DIVINE BY MEANS OF THE SCIENTIFIC UNDERSTANDING OF NATURE AND OURSELVES.
A story is an irreversible process of events that are unpredictable beforehand but apparently inevitable and obvious once they have happened., The, very possibility of story implies that time is essentially asymmetrical, that truth can be a different thing prospectively than retrospectively. There are fixed truths, or we would have no points of reference by which to know; but the newly-emergent truths include most of what we consider valuable, good, and beautiful: all the exquisite forms of matter, life, and mind that have evolved over the history of the universe. If nature has no story, then we can conclude that God is (or the gods are) fixed and eternal, forever unsurprised and undisturbed. If nature has a story (or many stories), as it most manifestly and emphatically has, then we must conclude that the divine has one, too. Thus, the third axiom of our natural theology would be: THE DIVINE CHANGES; THE DIVINE HAS A STORY.
If we do examine nature and ourselves we discover both that there are underlying unities under the variety of things—the mathematical forms, the constants of physics—and also that nature is an evolutionary drama, a competitive/cooperative dialogue among its parts, species, levels, and principles. Thus if nature is the body of the divine, we may infer a fourth axiom: THE DIVINE IS BOTH ONE AND MANY. It is one in its most remote, abstract, timeless, impersonal, simpleminded, and passive aspects, and many in its most immediate, concrete, changing, personal, intelligent, and active aspects. In deference to our own monotheistic tradition I shall from here on refer to the divine as “God,” but it should be understood that the polytheistic description of the divine as “the gods” is in many ways superior; I prefer it myself, but others might find it distracting.
The transformation of the gods of change is not exclusively random, reversible, and meaningless; as we have seen, the evolution of the universe is progressive, irrevocable, and dramatically meaningful. There is a one-way process of increasing feedback, reflexivity, self-organization, and freedom as the world evolves. Elementary particles have polarity but no shape. Atoms, more reflexive than particles, have simple geometrical shapes that are symmetrical in many dimensions. With molecules—which could not exist until the universe had cooled enough to permit them—we see the first asymmetrical shapes and the birth of individuality. Molecules have complex feedback systems, many degrees of freedom, and the capacity to organize in periodic structures such as crystals. Living organisms are yet more asymmetrical, free, and capable of organization, and they contain a recording of their own structure in the DNA language. Mind continues this story into the most complex forms of consciousness,, self-determination, and communication. Thus the fifth axiom: THE STORY OF GOD IS ONE OF INCREASING INDIVIDUALITY, MEANING, AND FREEDOM. Progress is not a human invention, but a divine one.
If the universe is God’s body, then we—and by “we” I mean all the intelligent species in the universe—are the most sensitive, most aware, most self-organizing of its parts. Though we are not the whole, we are that which increasingly has some knowledge of and control over the whole. Thus the sixth axiom: WE ARE THE NERVOUS SYSTEM OF GOD.
But this nervous system is still very rudimentary, and has penetrated and innervated only a tiny portion of the universe up to date. We stand at the first trembling moment of the history of the universe, the flash of a dawn that is a mere twenty billion years old, the dawn of a ten-trillion-year day. Thus a seventh axiom: GOD IS STILL ONLY A FETUS. From this follows an eighth: WE SERVE GOD BY HELPING HIM TOWARD GREATER SELF-AWARENESS.
As organisms evolve, they develop more and more complex chemical, electrical, and mechanical systems, known as bodies, in order to control and be controlled by their environment—to act and to sense. All bodies are prostheses, that is, they are in their elements, before they are used by an organism, not part of the living organism itself, but pressed artificially into service by that organism. For instance, the carbon atoms that my body uses to construct its protein and enzyme factories are exactly the same as they were before I commandeered them by eating them in my asparagus. Likewise, the coat of tiny sticks and bits of gravel that a caddisworm constructs for itself is part of its body, though in itself not strictly alive. The body of a termite colony includes its nest, that marvelously air-conditioned residence containing nurseries, storehouses, factories, and farms. Likewise a beaver colony. The nest of the male blue satin bowerbird is not even used as a nest at all, but as a communication device to persuade a female bowerbird to mate, a piece of advertising. Yet in a strong sense that nest is part of its body. Plants and animals use probes, crutches, shelters, tools, vehicles, weapons, and other prostheses that do not need to be directly connected to their flesh or nerves, but that are essential parts of their bodies. All living organisms do so at the atomic and molecular level, even the crudest microorganisms; the more advanced an organism is, the larger and more organized in themselves are the outside structures that it is able to use and transform into its synthetic body.
Artificial systems of investigation, control, and communication, as these are, have a name: technology. The body of a living organism is its technology; the technology of an organism is its body. Our life is, after all, only the pattern of information spelled out in our genes: a pattern that survives any given atom in our bodies, except for the ones we have not yet metabolized at our death. Our own technology is an extension of our bodies; but our bodies are nothing more than such cumulative extensions. Biological evolution, and arguably even pre-biological evolution, are in this sense precisely the increase in the complexity and power of technology. Nature is technology, then. Thus if nature is the body of God, then we may formulate a ninth surprising axiom: GOD IS THE PROCESS OF INCREASING TECHNOLOGY.
If our moral function is to serve God, then it is to help God change from a fetus into a fully-developed being, to realize God’s future growth and self-awareness. The way to do this is to continue to innervate the universe by knowledge and control, and thus to extend our own bodies, the region of our own technology, throughout the universe. Thus the tenth axiom: TO SERVE GOD IS TO INCREASE THE SCOPE, POWER, BEAUTY, AND DEPTH OF TECHNOLOGY.
Our logic has brought us therefore to an astonishing and perhaps shocking conclusion, utterly at odds with the prevailing mood of our culture. How can we redeem this statement, and make it fit what we feel about our role in the world?
The answer must be that we need a thorough reevaluation of what technology is and what we mean when we use the term. We know there is such a thing as bad technology; but the theological implications we have discovered make it essential that we define what is good technology, because without good technology, we cannot adequately serve God. It will no longer be sufficient for us to attempt to get away from or to dissolve our technology; to do so, if it were even possible, would be to deny our divine duty and to commit a sin against the Holy Spirit. However, our investigation of what is good technology may have the virtue of clarifying what is bad technology, bad service of God, and thus constitute a powerful if gentle critique of society.
Good technology, first of all, increases and does not decrease the organized complexity of the world. The science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin has a lovely phrase for this: the purpose of the Ekumen, the loose confederation of intelligent species she describes in her novel The Left Hand of Darkness, is “to increase the intensity and complexity of the field of intelligent life.” Perhaps there is a little bio-chauvinism in this formula—we might also want to encourage beautiful crystals and sculptures—but it will do very well. Bad technology is technology that destroys technology, whether in the form of the bodies of animals and plants, or in the form of our own rich material and mental culture.
As a direct implication of the injunction to increase the organized complexity of the world, good technology preserves earlier stages and products of its own process. It will, therefore, pay special attention to the preservation of chemical complexity, to the preservation of the richness and variety of life, to the preservation of the higher organisms in particular, and to the care and reverence of human life. This is the natural order of our increasing concern, because life, higher organisms, and human beings are closer and closer approximations to the emerging nervous system of God. Likewise within an organism, we give preference to the higher functions, especially the nervous system, over lower vegetative functions. This hierarchy of concern is really common sense; it is the automatic assumption of any good surgeon—or any animal caught in a trap—in making decisions about which part must be sacrificed to save the rest. Indeed, it will be necessary to slow down or renounce certain environmentally unsound technologies, and to isolate what are misleadingly called “wilderness areas” from the natural interference of other species, such as ourselves and the pantropic weeds, in order to promote the richer evolution of the rest. This is exactly what some environmental radicals have demanded, though on other grounds. But we do not necessarily have to yield to an antihuman and anti-technological ideology in order to make such choices.
The theology outlined here would suggest that we embrace an activist, restorationist environmentalism, that goes with, not against, the natural inclination of humanity toward greater experience, self-awareness, mutual feedback, and technical power. It is not our job to leave nature alone nor to coexist peacefully with it; we are it, we are its future, its promise, its purpose. We must actively continue its project. But if we are to do so we desperately need more knowledge and research.
For a start, we need to know much more about how ecologies work. We particularly need a better bacteriology, and a better understanding of the subtle interplay of plant, animal, and human societies, gene pools, and the climatological and geological feedback loops they involve. We need to bring together evolutionists and ecologists, who sometimes do not seem to talk to each other, for a grand synthesis. The best way to do this is through the practical craft of ecological restoration itself. We best find out how ecologies work by recreating them.
We also need to know much more about genetic inheritance and genetic expression. It is beginning to look as if the 95 percent of the genome that is not expressed is actually a jumbled but fairly complete archive of a given organism’s entire evolutionary history. Like certain big old business computer programs, which have been patched and augmented so many times that the programmers themselves no longer know quite what might still come in useful one day, it is simply too expensive to clean out all the old material, and really very inexpensive to store it in a dormant state. Further, the bacteria and viruses of the world constitute a huge lending library of past genetic diversity from all other living species. Using recombinant DNA techniques (as bacteria themselves do all the time) it may be possible one day to reconstruct and resurrect extinct species from this “fossil” DNA, and to develop new species adapted to new ecological niches and even to other planets. In this work we may become the seed-vectors and pollinators of the universe, carrying life beyond the fragile eggshell of this planet, so exposed to sterilization by a stray asteroid strike or an extra-large comet. We will eventually be in the business of the ecotransformation of planets; in fact we are already, with this one. We need to start thinking in these terms.
Less obviously, we need to study the mind itself cognition, self-awareness, and all the other characteristics of sapient life. If we are the neurons of the divine, and charged, as fetal neurons are, with wiring up the divine brain, then we need to know how the neurons themselves work. Just as the best understanding of ecology comes from restoration and the best understanding of genes comes from recombining DNA in new forms, so our best understanding of the mind is going to come from the attempt to create artificial intelligence. We know by doing and making. Artificial intelligence should be not a distant and irrelevant field for ecologists; already the computer study of nonlinear chaos, artificial neural networks, genetic algorithms, and genetic, cellular, and ecological models are coming together into a super-discipline. The human brain seems to be an ultra-fast evolving and self-organizing ecology of competing and cooperating neurochemical and neurotopological organisms, an accelerated and more intense form of those external ecologies we call forests or oceans.
Finally, and most of all, we need a new aesthetic philosophy, critique, and theology, as humanistic as it is naturalistic, embodied in an art by which all these studies can be guided. The most ancient form of artificial intelligence is art itself. Beauty is finally our surest indication of whether what we do is in the most creative direction for nature as a whole. But our sense of beauty itself must be educated by an ecopoetics, to use a term coined by Tim Redman, that embodies all our new knowledge of the oikos or household of nature.
Nature has not died, as some recent commentators have complained. It is only now awakening, and we are its eyes, its ears, and its tongue.