Monday, July 30, 2012

It's a sin

"To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God's creation, for humans to degrade the integrity of the Earth by causing changes in its climate, stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands [...] for humans to contaminate the Earth's waters, its land, its air, and its life with poisonous substances - these are sins."

- Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Does anyone want to dispute this? Can we really silence the voice of countless species, shift the global climate to a less hospitable state, pollute the air and water that our neighbours breathe and drink, plunder the oceans of their bounty, irreversibly transform unique ecosystems into much less complex states, cause animal suffering on an industrial scale through cruel and unnecessary treatment - and do all this largely for the sake of unnecessary luxuries - and yet maintain a clear conscience before our Creator?

When was the last time you heard such blasphemies against the Spirit of Life mentioned in a sermon? When were you last exhorted to turn to the One through whom and for whom all things were made in order to seek forgiveness and to find a new way of being human in a groaning world?


Gordon Cheng said...

Brother Byron, should I ever meet the last cane toad alive, I'll be stepping on it. But hard.

And if smallpox can be counted as part of this world's grand biological diversity (depending on how you categorize viruses) I'll be cheering the scientist who deletes that from their laboratory collection as well.

Do you think God will forgive me if I refuse to repent of that attitude? ;-)

Kathy Bader said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kathy Bader said...

Eliminating the cane toad and smallpox can hardly be compared to destroying life-giving eco-systems for personal greed/gain!

Gordon Cheng said...

Hi Kathy,

How true it is. But Pope Bart I must have chosen his words deliberately.

'For humans to cause species to become extinct' was his leading sentence.

My answer was, cool, let's do it to the 2 examples mentioned.

So again I ask, is that a bad thing?

Simon said...

When I read it I think I took the spirit of the words to be in the context of current environmental degradation. Dealing with invasive species or deadly diseases doesn’t really sit within that context.

byron smith said...

Gordon - If you're looking for a comprehensive theology of extinction and biodiversity from three lines of quote, then you'll always be disappointed.

Cane toads are an invasive alien species (indeed, perhaps one of the most infamous examples of such) and so seeking to eradicate them for the sake of the numerous native species they are decimating is not particularly controversial, not least because the goal is not extinction, but only local extinction (i.e. in Australia).

And as you well know, the smallpox virus (as you note, debatable as to whether it is alive let alone a species) has already been eradicated "in the wild" - one the truly great achievements of the 20thC - but was not sent into complete extinction for various reasons, good and bad. It is now down to two samples and debate continues over their fate.

But even so, look again at the quote and note that the Patriarch is talking about a large picture of human interactions: not just to cause a species but species (thousands and thousands of them, probably heading into the millions before too long if we don't radically alter course, according to most biologists). The correlate of "cause species to become extinct" is "destroy the biological diversity of God's creation". Removing one strain of virus does not constitute destroying the biological diversity of God's creation. Compare this to "stripping the Earth of its natural forests". This is not a critique of cutting down a tree. It is a broader scale picture than that, looking at the overall impact of human activities on the created order, in which deforestation has removed roughly half the world's tropical forests since WWII, and huge tracts of temperate forests over the preceding centuries.

But you highlight something that is indeed part of what makes giving an account of ecological wrongdoing more complex. Very often it is not the individual act that is wrong per se (though there are plenty of instances where cutting down a single tree can already be an obvious evil), but the cumulative effect. In some ways, it is akin to drunkeness or gluttony, which are vices that consist of taking an otherwise good activity, and pursuing them to a destructive excess.

And so this highlights an interesting feature of our moral world: acts are not always good or bad considered in isolation, but their full meaning is only disclosed by attention to a broader horizon of their place in human life and indeed within a social and created order.

Of course, I suspect you are well aware of such distinctions and merely raised your examples to give me a chance to clarify for others. Thanks!

Gordon Cheng said...

No worries my friend. :-)

Here's a bit more fuel for your fire.

byron smith said...

Pielke's barking up the wrong tree here (and you're just throwing in irrelevant troll bait that has basically zero to do with this post). Each of his five illustrations misrepresent Prof Field, the IPCC or are simply sidestepping more recent research.

byron smith said...

SkSci: Longer response to Pielke's post.

byron smith said...

Fascinating piece documenting the history of the participating of animals in legal trials and then exploring the philosophical implications.