Ecological Virtues for Facing our Environmental Crisis
If the dimensions of the crisis are even close to what I outlined yesterday, what virtues need to be cultivaed to help us live faithfully and responsibly? I suggest nine (9) virtues that are especially needful for an era in which humankind’s powers to destroy are great and God’s Creation is fragile and vulnerable to that power–virtues to allow us to live as caretakers of Creation instead of negligent destroyers.
- Humility. This is a difficult virtue for Westerners who think of themselves as “worldbeaters.” Yet this is the key to all. In an ecological context, humility means not overestimating human importance in the natural order, nor overestimating our ability to control events and outcomes. Humility will make us cautious about genetic engineering new species because of the ease of destroying an entire ecosystem. Humility means that, while technology may provide some of the answers to global warming or ozone depletion, we resist seeking a “magic bullet” that solves everything withohut any changes in lifestyle (especially consumption) in the West. Humility means that our wants and desires may sometimes have to give way to the survival and flourishing of others–including other species and their habitats.
- Sustainability. This virtue means that we live and work in ways that do not rob future generations of the ability to flourish. Sustainability is the virtue of keeping faith with future generations– raising crops and livestock in ways that do not harm the environment, rather than with poisonous pesticides or petroleum-based fertilizers. Seeking sources of energy that are renewable and do not harm the environment–along with patterns of housing, transportation, and manufacturing that are not destructive, but viable over the long haul.
- Adaptability. All lifeforms must adapt or go extinct, but humans have been able not just to adapt to our environment(s), but to adapt the environments to our needs. This is not a bad thing in itself, but we need to recover the humility that leads us not to overreach in adapting the environment around us–lest we destroy it for future generations or other species. We need to recover the ability to adapt to changing conditions ourselves. We need to build flexibility into our societies so that we can respond to changing conditions wisely.
- Relationality. Too often in the West, humans have thought of ourselves as completely separate from our environment, seeing it as only a stage for the drama of humanity’s fall and redemption. We need to regain a sense of being part of the whole, of being connected to each other and to the other lifeforms with which we share the planet.
- Frugality is a virtue that our grandparents knew well, but which has fallen out of fashion in a global economy organized by massive overconsumption and greed. In such a context, frugality is a subversive virtue, allowing us to “live lightly on the earth,” to “live simply that others may simply live.” Frugality is consuming only our needs and not our most extravagant wants. Frugality includes comprehensive recycling, not just as individual families, but as companies, cities, countries.
- Equity or justice. Here I define this virtue as simply dealing fairly with both other people and other species. It resists the maldistribution of resources and patterns of production and consumption that sacrifice other habitats or other cultures in the name of corporate greed.
- Solidarity. This virtue realizes that “we’re all in this together,” that our lives and flourishing are intertwined with all humans and with all species. Together with equity, solidarity rejects attitudes that ignore ecological threats to other nations or species with the belief that our species or nation or class will not be affected–that we can buy or bomb our way out.
- Biodiversity. Throughout the history of our planet, biodiversity has simply been a fact: life exists in myriad varieties. But in a time of massive species extinction (and the endangerment of the rest), biodiversity is an ecological virtue–valuing that diversity. It rejects turning forests into monocultural tree farms or breeding out the variants that lead a species to survive under less than optimal conditions. Biodiversity is the opposite of the desire for “designer children” or designer species. This virtue values the riot of varieties that, in God’s grace, have evolved to populate this planet.
- Sufficiency. The virtue of “enough” is not only about consumption (reinforcing frugality), but about bringing about an adequate response to the ecological threats of our time. Half-measures are not enough.
An adequate ecological ethic will involve more than the cultivation of the proper virtues. It will need proper principles, cost-benefit analyses, theological reflection (re-reading Scripture from an environmental viewpoint), and public policy proposals and advocacy. But to live out such an ethic will require people of character, shaped with the proper virtues for facing the environmental crisis of our times.
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