A Reflection on Environmental Destruction
Paul O. Ingram
Pacific Lutheran University (Emeritus)
According to Whiteheadian process thought, there is continuity between inorganic and organic structures, which means there exists a fundamental continuity between human and nonhuman life. Whitehead underscored this continuity by including “higher animals” in his definition of “living person.” That is to say, both human beings and animals are living persons characterized by a dominant occasion of experience that coordinates and unifies the activities of the plurality of occasions and enduring objects that ceaselessly form persons over time. Personal order is linear, serial, object-to-subject inheritance from the past in the present. Personal order in human beings and nature is one component of what Whitehead called “the doctrine of the immanence of the past in the present.” This linear, one-dimensional character of personal inheritance from the past is the “vector-structure” of natural processes. A similar picture of nature is ingredient in the Daoist concept of de (“power”) and Hua-yin (“Flower Wreath”) Buddhist interpretations of the doctrine of interdependent causation.
But the question is, “So what?” Why is it important that Whiteheadian environmental paradigms dialogically encounter Asian organic paradigms? Part of the answer is, I think, because what people do to the natural environment corresponds to what people think and experience about themselves in relation to the natural events surrounding them. This may seem obvious to philosophers, theologians and scientists. But it’s not so obvious when attention shifts from theoretical issues to empirical confirmation of our worldviews in actual human practice. Three facts require consideration.
First, the brute fact of global environmental destruction seems to imply that what people think does not substantially affect what they do and how they live. Second, in a world shrunken to a global village by communication and transportation technologies, multinational corporations, and nuclear weapons pointing to non-Christian views of nature as a means for resolving the ecological crisis may not even be an option. As the world is now increasingly organized, “development” and “progress” mean “industrialization.” Industrialization, even when pursued in a climate of anti-Western ideology, means becoming economically “Western.”
Third, technology is neither cultural-neutral nor value neutral. To adopt contemporary technology means simultaneously adopting the values in which that technology is immersed. Contemporary technology is grounded in a Baconian-Newtonian-Cartesian complex of ideas—science as manipulative power over inert lumps of dead matter.
But as brutish as these facts are, the present environmental crisis is also less a unique, unprecedented event than the continuation of events as old as pre-Occidental and pre-Oriental civilization. All life forms, plants and animals, modify the environment. Human beings are not exceptions. What is exceptional about the human species is that’s our stratagem for survival and adaptation—culture—has not only amplified the environmental impact of human beings on nature, but has to a large degree placed us in charge of our own evolution and perhaps our extinction. So it is imperative that we choose to live harmoniously with all sentient beings “before it’s to late,” as John Cobb has it.
This is so because even at the level of empirical confirmation of scientific theory, it seems evident that the destruction of the natural processes supporting all sentient beings is directly related to the psychological and spiritual health of the human race cross culturally. Culture and worldview, faith and practice, merge in human language and indicate perceptions in persons and in societies of persons. When we relate to nature as a “thing” separate from ourselves or as separate from God, we not only engender, but also perpetuate the environmental nightmare through which we are now living. The Christian word for our separation of from God and from nature is “sin.” The Buddhist word is “desire” (tanha). The Islamic word is “idolatry” (shirk).
Accordingly, quite apart from problems of cultural and theological redirection, our immediate goal should be to preserve whatever biological diversity we can. The human species need not be a blot on the environment or a burden to other sentient beings. For as Daoist and Buddhists views of nature and Whiteheadian process thought confirm, human beings can actually enhance the diversity, integrity, stability, and beauty of life on this planet. An irresponsible, technologically exploitative human civilization informed by a scientifically obsolete, reductionist, mechanistic worldview is not the only possibility, provided we give this planet a chance to cease rushing like lemmings toward global destruction.
But the environmental destructiveness of Western rationalism’s hyper-yang view of its own culture is still running full steam ahead. The ecological limits of the Earth are now stretched, and in some cases, broken. But dialogue with the Daoist and Buddhist Ways might foster a process of Western self-critical “consciousness raising” by providing alternative places to stand and imagine new possibilities. In the process, we just might understand that we neither stand against nor dominate nature.
But like any dialogue, a Daoist-Buddhist-Christian dialogue with the natural sciences as a third partner has an inner and outer dimension. Discussion of organic paradigms must not remain at the level of verbal abstraction. Daoists and Buddhists can understand and appreciate the language of Christian process views; process theologians can understand and appreciate Daoist and Buddhist teachings and practices. In dialogue, Daoists, Buddhists, and Christians may be creatively transformed. But this is an example of conceptual dialogue. Important as such dialogue is, it is incomplete if divorced from an interior dialogue about how Daoists, Buddhists, and Christians can personally experience non-duality between themselves and nature For to the degree we experience the realities to which Daoist, Buddhists, and process Christian concepts of nature point, to that degree we are energized to live in accord with the organic, interdependent structures of nature that conceptual dialogue reveals.
It’s like the union of lyrics with music in a great chorale: the “music” of interior dialogue “enfleshes” the abstract “lyrics” of conceptual dialogue. What interior dialogue teaches is that we can live any way we want. People take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience—even silence—by choice. People destroy the environment by choice, because they experience it as a machine. But choosing to experience nature organically is to stake our calling in skilled and supple ways, to locate the tenderest spot in nature we can find and plug into its pulse. This is yielding to nature, not dominating nature.
From a Daoist or Buddhist perspective transformed by encounter with Christian process thought, conceptual and interior dialogue means, to paraphrase Joseph Campbell, following our collective bless. Would it not be proper, and obedient, and pure to begin by flowing with nature rather than dominating nature, dangling limp from nature wherever nature takes us.
Then even death, where we are going no matter what, cannot us part. Seize nature and let it seize us up aloft, until our eyes burn and drop out. Let our murky flesh fall off in shreds, and let our bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields and wood, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles. Then we discover that there was never anything to seize, nothing to grasp all along, because we are nature looking at ourselves.
Or from a Christian process theological perspective transformed by conceptual and interior dialogue with the Daoist and Buddhist Ways: God does not demand that we give up our personal dignity, that we throw in our lot with random people, that we loose ourselves and turn from all that is not God. For God is the “life” of nature, intimor intimo meo, as Augustine put it—“more intimate than I am with myself.” God needs nothing, demands nothing like the stars. It is life with God that demands these things. Of course, we do not have to stop abusing the environment—unless we want to know God. It’s like sitting outside on a cold, clear winter’s night. We don’t have to do so; it may be too cold. If however, we want to look at the stars, we will find that darkness is necessary. But the stars neither require nor demand it.