Wednesday, March 21, 2012


I came across a great used book for $1 at a book sale a few months ago.  The book is called AT HOME IN THE COSMOS,  by David Toolan and was published in 2001.  Toolan died from cancer, shortly after the book was published.  The book was well worth the investment.

Toolan separated the book into five parts:  The Biblical Version of Creation, The Development of Scientific Materialism, The State of the Earth, The New Cosmology, and Earth Ethics.  Throughout the book he explains how the state of the planet and how we treat it is related to the blended misunderstandings we have learned from science and religion.  In “The State of the Earth”, he summarizes the four principle driving forces behind the environmental damage that is occurring to the planet as follows:

1.    Population size and growth:  [...].  If environmental degradation is already apparent with today’s 6 billion people (note that we have added another billion people since the book was written in 2001), how will we accommodate the 11 to 14 billion expected in the next century without devastating the resource base of the planet?

    2.    Institutional arrangements:  In industrial economies, [...], the central dynamic is the pursuit of continuous economic expansion.  Competition makes higher profitability a key to corporate survival, and firms must constantly grow to attract investors and increase profits.  And the chief function of governments is to provide the political environment for such continuous growth.  Both orthodox economic theory and socioeconomic policy at the national and international levels assume that unlimited economic expansion is desirable, possible, and necessary.  Yet this ideology of growth depletes the stock of nonrenewable resources and often taxes the stock of renewable resources (fish, aquifers, forests) at a rate that far exceeds its replacement rate.  

3.    Cultural values and belief systems:  [...].  Western society has tended to view the physical world as inert, a meaningless scurrying of atoms whose  only value consists of the values human beings ‘add’ or impose through industrial processes.  By itself, in other words, nature is simply ‘raw material,’ of no value until human labor transforms it into commodities useful to human society.  Hence nature has no intrinsic value, only instrumental value.  This is the last word in anthropocentrism – and issues an open invitation for exploitation and abuse.  Materialism exacerbates the problem.  Consumerism, the incarnation of materialistic values, has elevated buying and shopping to a sacred ritual and civic duty in our society – precisely insofar as it maintains demand for ever-more goods and services, needed or not.
 4.    Technology enabling the human transformation of the environment:  In market economies, technology has assumed a major role in improving productivity, mainly by removing human labor.  Energy technology underlies all economic activity and growth, and more productive technology has offered new ways to exploit natural resources, hastening resource depletion and increasing pollutant emissions.  Our faith in and use of technology has been a Faustian bargain, trading current gain against long-term welfare and survival.

In the concluding part – “Earth Ethics” – he points out that if we want to change the trajectory of where we are taking our planet, we need to change our ethics.  We need to expand “our moral concern beyond the human circle to include the larger biological and ecological communities to which we belong.” 
Toolan answers the question, “Why behave this way rather than that?” as follows:

So that the earth can continue, so the air will remain breathable, so the seas will abound in fish and the rainforests flourish with millions of species as yet unnamed, so that the land will continue to be fertile, so time will continue to flow and life will keep on propagating.  So the causes of things will continue to give rise to their results.  These things are now our tasks, our moral duties.  We can no longer pretend that we do not know why or how all these wonders happen, or why they cease to happen.  The difference we can make in the creative, generative process – or the cessation of the process – is crucial.  From now on, the categorical imperative will reside in objective scientific laws, which it will be our duty to honor, promote, and keep.  This is the new social contract with the natural world, which will continue to thrive only with our active cooperation and support.  As Serres put it, “We have become the authors of ongoing creation.” 

The challenge seems to be how to instill this ethic of respect into our lives that have been misguided for so long by economics.  But on the other hand, how can we not? 

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