As readers of this blog are aware, I’ve been trying to get us to stop using the words “environment” and “nature” because they do not allow us to think clearly about the consequences of human manipulations of ecologies. (I admit that there is something funny about an environmental philosopher arguing against the use of the word “environment”!)
“Environment” is a bad concept because, projecting the “man dominates nature” assumptions of industrial capitalism, it presumes that (somehow) humans operate outside of ecologies; when, in fact, humans are alive only b/c they operate inside ecologies: the earth is our body.
“Nature” is a bad concept too because, loaded with eons of theological disputation about the source of our being, it carries an oppositional relationship with the God of the Biblical tradition. Though this antagonism begins as theology, it continues to manifest itself actually, in forms such as this and this.
“Bios” is a good concept to use to think about how humans fit into ecologies, because it doesn’t presume we (somehow) stand outside of these ecologies, and—since it means “life”—it carries no antagonistic relationship with science (biology) or with the God of the Biblical tradition, for example:
My soul longeth, yea, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord: my heart and my flesh crieth our for the living God.
And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
I’ve mentioned this before, but it bears repeating. Biblical theology maintains that life is the gift of God. The “eternal life” of Biblical theology cannot exist without the bios, this life we are living; for, Biblical theology says it is this life that survives death, and becomes “eternal.” That is why, a most basic tenet of Christian theology is that one’s behavior in this life dictates whether one’s eternal life will be in heaven or hell.
Perhaps I’ve offended some readers; my intention is not to denigrate religious traditions; my intention is that of an environmental philosopher who is trying to offer you concepts—words—that help to clarify, and not muddle, our awareness of how we behave, and how our behavior either enhances or damages our lives. I have found that the words we use to think about how we fit into the bios, our larger life, the earth, are insufficient.
I want you to think—and offer this to think about. A few years ago, I was flying to Cape Horn so I could help set up what is now the University of North Texas’s Sub-Antarctic Biocultural Conservation Program. I started at JFK, and flew to Atlanta, where I had to make a transfer for the international flight. It turns out that a little snow and ice had precipitated, and there was a short delay as the airstrips and planes were de-iced.
The short delay became a long delay—three days of sitting in Atlanta, due to ice that was nothing out of the ordinary for us New Englanders! Of course I tried to arrange for other flights and, when that failed, to get the free hotel room I believed I deserved. But, after waiting for hours to speak, and finally speaking, to a Delta manager, I was told that Delta was not obliged to do a single thing to help me because the 1/4″ of snow and ice was “an Act of God.”
I asked the manager what proof Delta had that God was responsible for the fact that Delta did not have the proper de-icing equipment. Or what theology had to do with the fact that I was missing a string of flights in Chile, b/c of Delta’s negligence.
I was told that “an Act of God” is a legal definition, and that it absolves Delta of having to get me to Chile, or pay for a hotel room. I was also told that I would be put at the end of the line, behind holders of tickets of more recent flights—the cherry on top!
So, unable to coordinate the resources to sue Delta for being unprepared for a 1/4″ of snow and ice, I waited for 3 days until the weather warmed up. I had plenty of time to consider how ridiculous Delta’s excuse was, and to wonder how often the “Act of God” excuse is used by pollution-spewing corporations to evade responsibility for willful negligence. I was also stunned to realize how deeply entrenched this reason-annihilating form of metaphysics is in our supposedly rational legal system. There’s something really cave-man going on here.
Ok: so that’s how an “Act of God” is a concept our culture uses to think about how we live in ecologies; given their relationship to their ecologies, Southerners looked upon a 1/4″ of snow and ice as a “supernatural” event.
Now, let’s compare the application of this concept to a similar application of the concept of “Mother Nature.” Last night, we experienced an apple bud destroying frost, and this is what an understandably distraught orchardist said:
At Mann Orchards in Methuen, the warm weather saw the apple buds grow into what Fitzgerald called “a tight cluster,’’ the stage just before the blossom shows. Temperatures in the high 20s will mean a relatively minimal loss, but a drop to 21 degrees could devastate his apples, and there’s nothing he can do but hope.
“Mother Nature’s got us,’’ he said. “She’s got us, and if she wants to take us, she will, and if she wants to spare us, she will.’’
Gov. Mitch Daniel of Indiana applied the same concept to convey his understanding of the tornadoes that swept through that state at the beginning of the month:
Daniels said that “Mother Nature has dealt harshly with Indiana” in a statement Friday. He says humans “are no match for Mother Nature at her worst” despite advances in disaster preparedness, warning systems and responder communications.
Now, my questions for you to think about:
Why didn’t these people use an “Act of God” to understand the apple bud killing frost and tornadoes?
Will they apply for insurance payments under the “Act of God” clause; and if they do will the insurance companies claim they’re not obliged to pay b/c the frost and tornadoes were an “Act of God”?
Can you see how difficult it is to understand and address the actual cause of the frost and tornadoes (anthropogenic global warming) when you apply “Act of God” or “Mother Nature” to the event?
By using insufficient concepts to understand how we fit into ecologies, we can not—as an organized culture—understand that the frost and tornadoes are a result, not of acts of God or Mother Nature, but of our fossil fuel economy.