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Put aside the calculator: we must fall in love again

12 October 2018

A utilitarian approach to the planet promises doom, warns Claire Foster-Gilbert

USPG/Leah Gordon

Krishna holds fresh vegetables by the herbal garden at CSI Kellett High Secondary School, Triplicane, Chennai, on the Green School Programme, diocese of Chennai, Church of South India

Krishna holds fresh vegetables by the herbal garden at CSI Kellett High Secondary School, Triplicane, Chennai, on the Green School Programme, diocese ...

THE litany of damage to our planet can be recited as a lamentation of the spheres.

The atmosphere, whose gases maintain a balance between them to make cool breathable air, is threatened by greenhouses gases and other pollutants.

The hydrosphere, which waters and washes us, is menaced by effluents, plastics, and dams.

The lithosphere, which supports us, is assaulted by mining.

The pedosphere, which feeds us as a topsoil, faces sterility.

And the biosphere, in which all life dwells, is threatened by the wholesale destruction of habitats.

These are developments that endanger everything we know and love, and the consequences are upon us. As circumstances force the political and administrative classes of the UK to bury themselves in insularity and national self-interest, the ecological challenge commands the human family to look up at the horizon, at one another, and at its home: the earth.

All of it. Never has it been so necessary to realise our common humanity and work together; never has it seemed less likely that we will.

We have a technological mindset, Pope Francis has said, and Martin Heidegger before him, and it is the mindset, not the technology, that is the problem. Heidegger called it Gestell: the worldview that turns everything into an object to be used, whenever it is wanted. A river must be dammed, to produce hydroelectricity consistently. A forest must be felled, to produce fuel, or furniture, or paper. Land must be levelled, to produce speedy travel. Creatures and the soil must be packaged as if they were machines, and enhanced, injected, sprayed, and transported to produce food, whenever and wherever it is wanted.

Everything is in standing reserve; everything is utilitarian. And, Heidegger argues, what must follow is the turning of humanity, too, into standing reserve, as we serve the production line and become, ourselves, as interchangeable as the machine parts we handle.

PERHAPS the rise in identity politics and populism is a reaction against being treated as units of production whose primary function is to serve a tyrannical economy.

Even as we acknowledge that there is a serious ecological problem to face, we continue to think Gestell. We think that we can calculate our way out of the problem with utilitarian attempts to maximise happiness for the greatest number. But, if the atmosphere is lost, not one of us will be able to breathe. We think that we must wait until we are all rich enough to afford the “luxury” of green living, but rich nations do not behave more ecologically: the greater the GDP, the greater the ecological footprint. Look at how the United States reneged on the Paris agreement.

We think that humanity will finally go green when things get really bad. But, after big disasters, people restore their nests, discover a distinctively local neighbourliness, and attend to their real and present needs. They do not have the capacity to look beyond to the wider causes of their distress.

And, then, ecological “services” are given a monetary value to make them palatable to our short-term utilitarian calculations. We declare the cost to ourselves and our livelihoods of the loss of biodiversity, clean water, and breathable air in dollars. The numbers are preposterous: pollination, $131 billion; coral reefs, $375 billion; rainforests, $5 trillion. Yet we continue to think of the earth as some sort of invaluable tool that is breaking down and that we must mend.

BUT the earth is not a tool, nor a backdrop for our merely human dramas, nor a larder of provisions on which we hope to draw endlessly. Nor are we merely users and consumers.

No: we need to fall in love again. We need to see again how both we and the earth together are a wondrous, intermingled, dynamic gift. We do not stand apart from the earth: we grew up with it. “Other worlds are not in our genes,” as the biologist E. O. Wilson said. The earth is as it is, and we are as we are, because of each other. And precisely because of this deep, ancient connection, the environmentalist Michael McCarthy argues, nature has the capacity to awaken joy in us, and refreshment, solace, restoration, and bodily and spiritual health.

And so we must love nature with a fierce love; an engaged love; a love that pierces our souls and changes us; a love out of which harming the planet becomes unthinkable; a love that harnesses all humanity’s energy, ingenuity, and dexterity towards designing ways of living that do no harm. “Let this new love be expressed; let it be articulated; let it be proclaimed,” Mr McCarthy says.

Dr Claire Foster-Gilbert is director of the Westminster Abbey Institute. She will be in dialogue with Michael McCarthy at Westminster Abbey on 23 October as part of the Institute’s autumn programme Embracing Global Challenges. To book (free) visit www.westminster-abbey.org/institute.

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