Carol Wayne White
April 22, 2020
COVID-19, a new virus against which humans have no immunity, is now raging through the world. Threatening human life and livelihood, the pandemic will upend life as we know it, a life that has become precarious due to the massive anthropogenic eco-crisis. The pandemic did not cause the eco-crisis, but it lays bare the truth about it. The pandemic exposes the social ills accentuated by the eco-crisis: social inequalities, weak health systems, food insecurities, economic and racial disparities, incompetent governments, and fragile democracies. Today, the abrupt and radical change of human conduct, including physical distancing, curtailment of travel, reduction in extraction of oil and gas, and slowing economic activity have disrupted our life, but have also proven a boon to the natural world. Bird chirping can now be heard, air pollution has radically declined, seismic vibrations have been reduced, and even the ozone layer has been somewhat restored. As the human world shuts down to defend itself against the novel virus, the natural world might recover from the damage humans have inflicted on it.
The pandemic will bring untold human suffering, compelling us to reflect on humanity’s relations with the natural world. Instead of declaring “the end of nature,” critiquing environmental activism, and hailing technoscience as our path for a “post-natural” phase, now is the time to honor the interdependence of humanity and nature and recommit to religious environmentalism. The Hebrew Bible grounds Western religious ethics, spelling out the values, norms, and attitudes toward the natural world. The Bible does not give humans license to exploit nature but teaches the ethics of care and responsibility. Created by God, the world does not belong to humans, but the human who is created in the “image of God” is obligated to protect God’s creation. Biblical environmental legislation speaks against greedy exploitation and harmful overconsumption and instructs us to treat creation with loving care and responsible concern to ensure the flourishing of creation. The well-being of the created world depends on us and requires us to cultivate the personality type that can treat other humans and all other creatures with compassion, solidarity, empathy, connectedness, kindness, and gratitude. Our health care workers on the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate the virtuous character necessary to save not only other lives but the future of the created world.
The pandemic accentuates the need for virtue ethics, namely, the cultivation of a personality type that cares about protecting and preserving all aspects of the created world (biotic and abiotic), a personality type that cares for the thriving of all forms of life (humans and non-human) since their well-being is intertwined and interconnected, and a personality type that takes care of the environment (physical, social, climatic) so as to ensure the ability of future generations to thrive in God’s created world.
Caring for creation does not require the articulation of new virtues; traditional religious virtues—humility, modesty, temperance, and simplicity—are conducive to creation care. Humility, for example, enables us to contemplate the diversity, complexity, and beauty of Earth’s biodiversity. Humility facilitates an ecological consciousness that leads to guilt and shame about the diminishment of the Earth’s fecundity. Contrary to the vice of arrogance, humility fosters awe of and reverence to the mystery of life and the feeling of respect and gratitude for what is given. Related to humility is the virtue of modesty, namely, avoidance of extroverted, self-centered behavior that causes so much environmental damage. The modest person avoids carelessly exploiting the gifts of nature or pretending that we know all there is to know about the workings of nature. Humility and modesty require self-control and moderation. The virtue of temperance counters overconsumption and self-indulgence, especially regarding food. Simplicity is an environmental virtue because it curtails human desire for luxury, thereby preventing over-consumption of the natural world. As much as religion is inherently ecological, religious virtues are environmental virtues.
The cultivation of environmentally virtuous character is an educational project. It requires a commitment to truth and truth-telling without which education is no more than brain washing or propaganda. We must tell the truth about our anthropogenic climate change and its wide-spread ramifications, and we must tell the truth about the pandemic, its fatalities, and its potential long-term impact. To cope with these challenges, we must “dare to know,” sapere aude, as Immanuel Kant called us to do in 1784.
But the pursuit of knowledge does not belong exclusively to the secular Enlightenment Project; it is also a religious imperative, since truth is one of the attributes of God (Ps. 59:63). By being truthful, we imitate God; we sin when we lie, deceive, or distort the truth. To tell the truth about climate change, we must integrate science and religion, realizing that alone neither of them exhausts what we must know. The current pandemic already teaches us one truth: humans cannot control the created world, though they can and do harm its proper functioning. By cultivating humility, we may recognize not only the limits of human control of natural processes, but also the limits of technoscience. While technoscience will eventually develop a vaccine to end the pandemic, technoscience alone will not save us from climate change through geoengineering, synthetic biology, or gene editing. Only if these technoscientific accomplishments are entwined with ancient religious wisdom, we might be able to pose the right questions, use the appropriate metaphors, and properly understand the place of humans in the created order.
We are still in the beginning of the pandemic, and it is too soon to predict what will happen when it subsides. As we face an unknown future, we should not be deluded by technoscientific hubris to believe that we can design the future. What we can do is act rightly with care, concern, and loving-kindness, ensuring the well-being and health of other people, other creatures, and ourselves. To flourish, creation (in Hebrew, beriah) requires health (in Hebrew, beriut) of all creatures (in Hebrew, beruim). A healthy human society requires investment in health systems as well as investment in the health of all ecosystems, the foundation of human life. Environmental health is always local, always place-based, but globalization, a major process that has contributed to the environmental crisis and the pandemic, has led us to ignore the local and give up traditional knowledge.
The pandemic compels us to reexamine our life, reaffirming the basic truths about land, food, embodiment, social relations, and the natural world. By turning our gaze to the suffering Earth and all its inhabitants, we can hear the “cry of mute things,” as Hans Jonas put it, asking us to take care of them so that they can in turn take care of us. Permaculture, community gardens, civic activism, reduced consumption, and awareness of limits to economic growth are some of the ways in which we might restore the health of our wounded planet. The pandemic confronts all of us, tutoring our bodies and schooling our souls. May we learn the right lessons that will enable us to build a healthier, more resilient, and more just world.
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