Not-So-Sacred Earth

I wrote recently about our tendency to reduce such things as art and athletics to something that can be measured and counted in dollars and cents. I drew on some of the things Robert Heilbroner wrote in his book The Nature and Logic of Capitalism. There is much to be learned from that remarkable book, and one of them has to do with our attitude toward the earth we are rapidly destroying in the name of “progress” and “profits.”

Heilbroner is convinced that the Judeo-Christian religion combined with modern science to engender an attitude toward the earth that encourages exploitation. He calls it the “desacralization” of the earth. If we loved the earth and regarded it as something sacred, or truly believed the earth is our Mother, as many cultures do, we could not possibly treat her the way we do. It’s an interesting thesis, though some might find it unsettling. In any event, what we have here is a serious type of reductionism indeed: reducing the earth to an inanimate thing to be exploited for our creature comforts.

To be sure, the Judeo-Christain religion teaches us that the earth is there to serve our purpose, whatever that purpose happens to be. Early on there were restraints, of course, as the New Testament taught that wealth in itself is not necessarily a good thing, that the love of money is the root of all evil. But these restraints gradually loosened and there was nothing in our religious tradition to suggest that the earth is sacred: it is there for us to do with as we might. By the time the exploitation of the earth became possible on a grand scale, thanks to a science that reduces reality to “an uncomplaining grid of space and time,” and great wealth became available by exploiting the earth, there was no moral compass in Western culture that allowed us to see that the direction we were taking would be both harmful and wrong. Heilbroner thinks that moral compass disappeared completely when John Locke insisted late in the seventeenth century that “unlimited private acquisition, for centuries the target of the most scathing religious and philosophic criticism, was in fact compatible with both the dictates of Scripture and the promptings of right reason.” Locke was of course simply aligning himself with John Calvin who had argued a century earlier that great wealth was a sign of God’s favor. As science led to the industrial age the way was being paved for capitalist exploitation of both human beings and the earth that supports them. It has now become a fait accompli.

The role of science in Heilbroner’s view is especially interesting. As he put it, the ideological aspect of science “lies in the function played by its deepest conception — an indifferent and inert matter as the ultimate stuff of reality. It thus provides a world view compatible with, and needed by, that required for the limitless invasion of the world for the purpose of surplus [capital] accumulation.” This translated in a remarkably short time into a technical explosion that made it possible to exploit the earth and take from it anything that might increase our wants and needs. Lacking any restraint from our religious tradition the cry went up to take and keep from the earth as much as possible. The result of this thinking was unfettered capitalism, greed with a capital “G,” and an earth that suffers from relentless exploitation, air and water that may not sustain us much longer, and multinational corporations that blindly rush after profits with no thought for the morrow.

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4 thoughts on “Not-So-Sacred Earth

  1. When I ponder how I feel about what we are doing to our planet, I pull in my reins and inspect my own little world around me. Presently I am perched on a hand-painted stool – painted with love and a happy creative heart, although the wood from that stool most likely came from a massive tree that recently shaded a large amount of woodland. I look further and note that the floors, walls, beams are all made of wood, wood that came from felled trees long ago that opened areas for cattle. I think of the vegetables I purchase that come from those fields where the massive trees once stood and where the wildlife was abundant. The farm products arrived via trucks via modern roads, while presently more trucks are raping upriver materials to build even-better roads. The monkeys are gone from many areas; the jaguars and ocelots have moved on as well. the rain clouds tip around the barren areas and cling to the virgin tree-shrouded protected zones. My biggest concern is how to stop that merry-go-round or find a solution that mankind will embrace.

    • What a wonderful comment! Thanks, Z. If there were more like you we wouldn’t be in the fix we are in. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that people will wake up before all the beauty is lost.

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  2. Great post. Whie the respective Nero’s fiddle, Rome is burning. In lieu of the long term eco-energy planning that is sorely needed, we are seemingly having to live with a conferederation of smaller or easier to pass ideas. On the former, most solar initiatives are relatively smaller but very effective – 16 – 20 MW sites. On the latter, the President did get the MPG requirement passed which has made and will make a difference. I think we could all make small changes that keep adding up – walking more, watering less, buying local produce, eating less meat, solar powered water heater, hybrid cars, etc. Yet, as I look at the list I just made, I only do three of those things. Thanks, BTG

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