Monkeying Around with Nature
...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 7:25 AM [+]
I was recently recommended and lent a copy of an odd little book called "The Monkey Wrench Gang." It is, I was to learn, the sort of manifesto for groups like "Earth First!" and other eco-terrorists...or saboteurs or whatever anyone might wish to call them. The book itself is funny, but it's root philosophy is radically different than my own with regard to the environment. And not only because the characters involve themselves in wrecking private and public property in the name of the environment (which of course most would certainly discourage) but because their philosophy begins with the notion (perhaps characterized by the name "Earth First!") that nature is always best left untouched by man and that man's presence somehow lessens the ontological goodness and soundness of nature.
Pristine, as used to describe a forest, means that men have not in any way "disturbed" it. And for some reason we seem to naturally feel inclined to think this is necessarily a good thing. It is an odd sort of thing to see man as standing outside of nature. From the atheistic point of view, man's place in nature is no different than any other animal and plenty of animals make a bloody mess of things in nature...though a "bloody mess" is rather a judgment call. Consider a giant Marabou stork nest high in an African tree here and you see the mess they make all around (they seem to generate their own brand of garbage) and the feces they leave everywhere: amidst the branches, down the trunk, and all over the ground...it's not terribly pretty, but you'd likely give the birds a pass as they are part of nature. But less grace is given for a man living in said tree who was spreading his garbage (even biodegradable garbage) and feces all over the place. Ah, an extreme example for sure...but, in truth...for the atheist, man must be no more or no less apart of nature than the termites here which build ungodly massive skyscrapers up out of the earth and then go our to wipe out other animals' homes: like those belonging to humans.
Now, I understand the difference that exists: there is little to bring balance to man's place in nature: we have no natural predators that would keep our population in check. And so man has the ability to make massive impacts on our environment. But this isn't the issue...the issue is whether ANY impact on the environment by man is inherently bad. And I, of course, would argue no.
From a theistic point of view, man is both priest and caretaker of the environment. These roles I believe are beautifully laid out by authors like Wendell Berry and Victor Davis Hanson and I am sure many others. They ascribe to the notion that man may actually tame and manifest additional beauty from the environment. That the environment is a part of the FALLEN world (contrast with notions of "pristine") and thus we as Christ's priests on earth may both alter, invest, and be provided for by the environment. Doing so properly necessarily implies responsible behavior and forethought about the future and sustainability AND beauty...none of which exists in any aspect of nature outside the context of man. Anyone who has made their way through a nasty tangle of thorns or thistles in a ridiculously dense forest may make the observation that men are not the only species than may overpopulate a particular region. Is a pristine forest really made less pristine if it's image contains also a log cabin and bit of pasture and a garden? It's a judgment call.
I would suggest for those who wish to believe that the act of a man clearing a patch of forest to plant a garden or raise some animals is a bad thing, that they immediately return themselves to a nomadic life of hunting and gathering...err...ummm...or just gathering. But of course, hunting and gathering rather does retain a certain impact on the environment.
Moderation in all things. But living close to the land gives one a unique appreciation for it and I would suggest that those who actually live off the land know a tad more about their environment than the city-slicker activist living in a 1 bedroom apartment in downtown Seattle does - even as the latter seeks to enforce through legislation their "knowledge" of the environment on the former.