Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Thoughts on Ecology

I've been thinking some about ecology lately. Well, not ecology, exactly, but nature and the care of the physical world around us. What is our responsibilty for the state of the planet? Should we care about things like global warming, or just keep doing what we're doing and try to recycle occasionally? How does what vehicles we drive and how much we consume affect us as spiritual beings?

One book I've read recently that wrestles with these kinds of questions is Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. If I were to describe it, it would probably sound kind of boring, but it isn't. It uses the ancient form of the dialogue, where two or more characters converse about something. There is usually a story, of sorts, but it mostly serves as setup for the conversation. Greek philosophers and other premodern thinkers used it often, but I think it kind of went out of fashion during the modern era. Now that postmodernism seems to be taking the foreground (for what postmodernism is exactly, look elsewhere. I'm barely getting a grasp on it myself), the dialogue is coming back. I think it's a better way to talk about an issue than simply straightforward opinion. It allows deeper analysis, back-and-forth, argument. And it's usually a bit easier to maintain the reader's interest, especially if the topic is kind of heady and pedantic. All of that is just my rough opinion, anyway.

Now then. Ishmael consists of a dialogue between the unnamed narrator and an apparently telepathic gorilla named, appropriately, Ishmael. The talk is mostly of matters ecological, how to keep the human race from destroying the planet. It's an important question that deserves serious treatment. The human race has generally been of the opinion that we can do what we jolly well please with nature. I don't exactly know how it plays out in cultures other than my own Western one, but people have often (in my opinion, wrongly) interpreted the Bible's story of God telling man to "be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it" as a kind of carte blanche free-for-all to exploit nature. In a moment, I will explain why I don't believe this is a right interpretation.

Ishmael fascinatingly expounds on one interpretation of the book of Genesis' story of the Fall, and of Cain and Abel that I thought was incredibly interesting. The gist of it is that the Fall has to do with agriculture, with the human race's need to control our own destiny instead of living in the hands of the gods or God. I'm unconvinced that this is all the story means (one of the features of mythology being that it can mean many different things) but I think there is much truth to this interpretation.

(As an aside, it is worth noting that although I believe wholeheartedly in God, follow Jesus as His Son, and take the Bible to be inspired by God, I nonetheless think of most of Genesis as mythology. Only because of modern concepts of truth does that seem incongruous. To say something is mythological is not to say it isn't true. C.S. Lewis described mythology as "truth refracted through the lens of human imagination." Ishmael explores much of this characterization of mythology, particularly the way evolution and Darwinism and science have created their own sort of mythology about human destiny. My point is, although I don't take much of Genesis literally, I take it quite seriously.)

While I certainly enjoyed the entire book, and recommend it to anyone with an interest in philosophy, ecology, theology, etc., in the end I agreed more with the first two-thirds than the last section. This is because most of the the book is spent exploring the problems with the ambient human philosophy of conquest, whereas the latter portion discusses solutions. I found this part less convincing than the first. For one thing, I don't quite buy Ishmael's analysis of so-called primitive cultures. I'm not convinced there isn't as much crime, hopelessness, etc. as there is in the civilized world, albeit on a smaller scale. I fully admit I haven't studied the matter in great detail, and am not an anthropologist of any sort but the most amateurish people-watcher. Still, I somehow doubt the Bushmen and Aborigines and South American tribes lead as idyllic lives as the book suggests.

There were many passage/ideas that I found to be quite interesting. Ishmael's conceit that we need to find a way to run civilizations the way we do planes is one of them. The idea is that we don't break the law of gravity when we fly airplanes. We take advantage of other laws of nature (aerodynamics) to fly. But we're still subject to gravity when we do so. In the same way, we can't run a civilization by breaking the laws of the animal kingdom (competition, survival of the fittest, finding an ecological niche, and whatnot). We may, however (clever monkeys that we are) be able to live within those laws but still have medicine, computers, Philly Cheesesteaks and all the other benefits of "civilization". At least, I think that's what he meant.

I've already written more than I meant to, and I'm kind of at work, so I'll break off here. But I'll publish more soon about what I think is a Christian response to the challenges raised in Ishmael. I don't want to argue with the book so much as add another voice to the dialogue. As a follower of Jesus, I think that the Church has been entirely irresponsible on the subject of ecology and nature. I hope we can correct that in the coming century.


Observer said...

How many concessions will you make for something before you call it what it really is, and not what you would like it to be?

The Bible might as well have been authored by the brothers Grimm, how many people do you see devoting their lives to the teachings of the honorable Dr. Seuss?

Your faith is what it is, and it is for you. Faith isn’t something we parade around so others can think we are better people. So you struggle to be what you think is a “real jesus person”…wow, what a hero…maybe someone should write a book about you.

Travis Greene said...

I'm not sure where your animosity comes from. I'm not trying to parade around my faith, I just really think the Bible has the truth that we are all in some way looking for. Maybe I'm totally wrong about that. But I think the chance that I'm not wrong is worth living for.

Anyway, we could do a lot worse than to follow the teachings of Dr. Seuss.

observer said...

no animosity, just trying to open your eyes brother.

Friar Tuck said...

And you are reading this on a vacation from school.

Smarty pants!

Curt said...

Dear Insomniacman,

Great write up about Ishmael. It always excites me to see that people are reading and writing about Ishmael.

You wrote:"The human race has generally been of the opinion that we can do what we jolly well please with nature."

I respectfully disagree with this. That's one of the points Ishmael makes. WE aren't humanity. And humans haven't always jolly well done what they please with nature. Whatever nature is.

If you're interested, there is a christian response to Ishmael here.

And, if you're ever intersted in seeking out other "like-minded" Ishmael readers please feel free to visit IshCon.

take care,