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Volume 14, Issue 4: Poetics

Antithesis in Trees

Douglas Jones

Simplicity can cleave, especially in the hands of novices. It's all connected. Ecocentrism and Islam. And it all goes back to the Trinity.

Stan Rowe, a prominent ecocentrist, laments that professional botanists regularly "shy away from the subject of beauty in the plants they study." He correctly notes that "the rational mind of [modernist] science has a terrible failing. If it cannot cope with aspects of experience that are unmeasurable, it declares them meaningless, unimportant. . . . The better humanity becomes at science and its kind of rationality, the less room remains for noncognitive things of the spirit. . . . Truth-in-science is a peculiarly denatured form of the real thing." The objection here is to the sort of scientific abstractionistic generalization that embraces the measurable and ignores the rest—science "leaves out too much of what is real, vital, and believable in their lives."1 A fine objection, if it came from a Trinitarian who could hold on to both wholes and parts. Instead, Rowe fights abstraction with abstractionism; he fights scientific unitarianism with Gaia unitarianism.
He wants to reintroduce beauty into scientific knowledge by invoking a kind of tribal eco-oneness: "An attractive belief in the importance of Nature is resurfacing. Tribal cultures and those of our ancestors have conceived humanity and the world as organically one. Today, ecological insights are buttressing the credibility of this ancient faith."
The key to what he (and J. Lovelock) call the "Gaia Hypothesis" is "to conceive the Earth as the creative centre," a shift that "removes the focus from people and places it on their Home Place, the planetary Ecosphere." Praise Be Unto Her Name. Thus, "a greater than human reality would then revolve around the Earth, recognized as the source of creativity, life, and health."2
This focus on creativity and brute life becomes the foundation for valuing the ecosphere as a special whole. Whatever gives life is valuable. As the father of environmental ethics and an open Christian, Holmes Rolston explains, "Trees use water and sunshine. . . . [O]rganisms value the resource they use instrumentally because they value something intrinsically and without further contributory reference: their own lives. . . . Nonconservation is death."3
But what sort of life? Nature is full of death. Rolston begins with particular higher animals like bison and bighorns. These animals, he argues, obviously value life because they defend themselves. Then he moves to a more general level: organisms. They too are "axiological, evaluative systems"—"The organism has something it is conserving, something for which it is standing: its life."4 Thus they have intrinsic value all on their lonesome. But individual trees and horses die, of course, so the argument has to carry over to the more general species: "The species too has its integrity, its individuality, its `right to life'. . . . and it is more important to protect this vitality than to protect individual integrity."5 But he can't stop with the life of species; he has to get to more general wholes, ecosystems: "Species increase their kind; but ecosystems increase kinds. . . . [T]he really conservative, radical view sees that the stability, integrity, and beauty of biotic communities is what is most fundamentally important to be conserved. In a comprehensive ethics of respect for life, we ought to set ethics at the level of ecosystems alongside classical, humanistic ethics."6 Thus Rolston moves from individual higher animals to organisms to their species to general ecosystems, increasing generality, and Rowe ends up calling for the most general Gaia Oneness.
In the end, Rowe and Rolston use the abstractions of the now traditional Pro-Life arguments against human abortion to talk about whole ecosystems: "In practice the ultimate challenge of environmental ethics is the conservation of life on Earth. . . . A shutdown of the life stream is the most destructive event possible. The wrong that humans are doing, or allowing to happen through carelessness, is stopping the historical vitality of life."7
Notice, though, the standard at work that makes life an intrinsic value: defense of life. Because something defends itself, therefore it values life; hence, life is a value. But what happens when we substitute something wicked into this formula? An attacking rapist and a serial killer also defend their lives in a struggle with their victims, but that doesn't overrule the victim's right to kill them. Or conversely, what if someone doesn't defend his or her life? Does the value of life vanish? Can there be no martyrs? Was it right to kill Christ? Christian pro-life rhetoric and ecocentrism both fail to draw the antithesis. Preserving all life can produce injustice.
The ecocentrist answer to all these questions is to move to greater abstraction: well, no, we are permitted to kill individual life-threatening organisms but not a full ecosystem. Wholes are more valuable than individuals. Exactly. A prejudice for the abstract over the individual. The rationalistic science they object to cuts off the unquantifiable, and the ecocentrists favor just a single number: one. Science cuts out beauty, and ecocentrism does the same by devaluing individuals. Islam, egalitarianism, and ecocentrism are all unitarian. They all privilege the one over the many.
It was too predictable then, when the following unitarian sort of claim showed up on a recent small-town discussion list: "I say anyone knowingly and willingly destroying an ecosystem is the real ecoterrorist." How abstract. How typical.

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