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Protecting of Life Forms Is a Moral Responsibility
Mar 1, 2010
Mary Evelyn Tucker: “Religions can offer a sense of hope, because more than anything, I think we all need to imagine a future that is sustainable.”

There is one moral law that forms the corner stone of all of the world’s religions: “Thou shall not kill.” But does this law apply only to human beings? What about our involvement in the steady decline and death of our ecology and its many plants and animals all of which contribute to our complex and interdependent eco system that sustains human life. Are we not morally responsible to protect the lives of all of these living creatures and systems and even the Earth itself? Is there a correlation between our environmental crisis and spiritual crisis? Matter&Beyond discussed this correlation with Mary Evelyn Tucker who is a Senior Lecturer and Senior Scholar at Yale University where she has appointments in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies as well as the Divinity School and the Department of Religious Studies. Tucker is a co-founder and co-director with John Grim of the Forum on Religion and Ecology. Together they organized a series of ten conferences on World Religions and Ecology at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School. They are series editors for the ten volumes from the conferences distributed by Harvard University Press.

M&B: What is the ecosystem? And when you say that the ecosystem is in trouble what do you mean by that?

An ecosystem describes the tremendous, intricate, complex relationship between all of the elements; literally the soil, water, air, and then the plant life and even the breathing of the plants. This includes the presence of insects pollinating, the soil being moved around by worms, and so on. Then you get into the mammalian life, and the bird life, which work within a complex system, and the parts of which we are only beginning to understand. We barely understand how migration patterns work; [e.g.] the sandpiper that migrates from South America to the James Bay region of Canada. This migration means that these birds are able to comprehend an ecosystem that stretches over thousands of miles. So ecosystems, we realize, have this microscopic dimension of complex elements; the flora and fauna interact with it. But at the same time, we can also see an ecosystem that is as large as the migration patterns of animals and birds. Thus, we begin to see that the way in which we read and understand ecosystems is the key to understanding this complex community of life.

M&B: What are some of the problems faced by ecosystems today?

The planet as a whole is facing a variety of environmental problems of immense proportions and complexity. We, as human beings, are only beginning to realize the full impact of our presence on the planet. The population has risen from 2 billion to 6 billion people in the last century; this population explosion, as well as the technological explosion, is grinding the earth into a pulp, destroying the forests and the life in the oceans …, with this enormous presence we could be compared to an octopus that has wrapped itself around the planet; in short, we have caused very serious environmental problems.

Right now, climate change is apparent to many, many people around the globe; this was not the case 10 years ago, nor even 5 years ago. We are profoundly changing the air and the atmosphere. This change is reflected in the ecosystems in shifting migration patterns, in fluctuating agricultural patterns, and in changes in the life of the seas. Therefore, there is one huge macro-scale problem that right now has an enormous presence, and we are aware that human beings are the primary cause; this was stated at the international panel on climate change in its report of January 2007.

M&B: You speak about visible problems, but aren’t there any deeper problems?.

20,000 to 30,000 species are becoming extinct every year around the globe. This era has been called an extinction period, and it is the sixth extinction period. Probably the last extinction period was after a meteor hit the earth, 65 million years ago; this ended the era of dinosaurs. And now we are the cause of a new extinction, because we are reducing the habitats, we are creating the pollution problems, we are using chemicals that birds and insects cannot deal with. Rachel Carson wrote about this in her book "Silent Spring" and alerted people to the decimation of birds and the ensuing silence because their songs could no longer be heard. This is a problem that we need to address, and we need to understand what such a loss means; there is a sadness for the voices of the natural world that are disappearing from our midst.

We can also talk about a whole range of problems in bioregions, such as the pollution of the Great Lakes or invasive species that are occurring in them and elsewhere. We can also speak about the loss of tropical forests in Thailand, for example. Even 30 or 40 years ago, 75% of Thailand was forested. Now the area is only 15%. Clear cutting is still happening in our own western forests. But we also have clear cutting in the oceans. Huge nets, some of them measuring 20 to 30 miles long in the Pacific and the Atlantic, sweep up not only fish, but all kinds of life, such as turtles, dolphins and life forms from the coral reefs. We must have not only a land ethic to preserve our resources, to preserve our water, and our air and our soil, we also need an ocean ethic, an ethic for the great waters. These two kinds of ethics need to emerge in the human community if the entire community is to survive into the future.

M&B: In your opinion, what are the underlying human problems that are the root cause for this environmental destruction?

Human beings have not realized how completely we are in nature. We go to the super market and we buy meat wrapped up in plastic, sitting on Styrofoam, or we buy apples that are out of season or peaches and oranges that are imported from elsewhere. We have lost our sense of connection to food, where it comes from, to all of these complex bioregions that support the life, of food and of agriculture. That’s just one example. But I think we have profoundly alienated ourselves by thinking we can dominate, we can control nature, or even that we can manage it. Sometimes we think we can manage forests or fisheries, and yet we still don’t understand how intricate and complex these systems really are. Earlier peoples had very primitive instruments, not huge machines that can go in and decimate a forest in a day. So, our technology has grown beyond our ability to set limits. We simply don’t know limits.

I think another factor here is that the growth mentality the economic driver, even of our capitalist system and our neoliberal economics says, economic growth is good. In growth we trust, so to speak. And this fetish with growth, this preoccupation that if we don’t grow our economy is going to falter, has set us on a course that is destroying communities, it is creating endless consumerism, is creating all kinds of alienation, sadness, even addictions of all kinds because the emptiness of modern consumer life is just suffocating the human soul, and the human spirit, that doesn’t know where to find itself in materialism gone mad.

M&B: When I look at the indigenous people in any tradition, these people had much more respect for food.

It is true that indigenous peoples had, and in many parts of the world continue to have, a profound sense of the interconnection in life systems that the human needs to carry out life. I don’t want to over idealize the indigenous peoples by any means, rather only in the sense that they are in a reciprocal relationship, that when hunting there was gratitude for the life of the animal taken, or when a bird was killed, there was a reciprocal sense of thanksgiving, of prayer, as part of their culture. Even in agricultural indigenous peoples, for example, with the growing of corn for the Hopi, there is a sense that you sing for the corn to grow.

M&B: Although the root cause of the problem still continues, there are certain things that we should be doing. Such as endangered species protection programs etc.

I think there is a growing sense in human beings that we have a new responsibility for the future of the planet, for other species and ecosystems. We know that many animals will only be preserved in zoos, or in nature preserves. If we’re talking about the right to life, the right to habitat, the right to be part of a larger community, are we the ones who are to determine this? And what does that mean? This is an extension of our ethical, moral sensibility to the larger community of life, with which we share this planet. So there is an immense sense of responsibility for this period when other life forms are undergoing extinction. And if this is not fundamentally a religious issue, I don’t know what is.

M&B: What is the reaction of the younger generation? You are also a professor who teaches at Yale and you've been to other universities as well. Can you tell us about your experiences?

There were two students as Bucknell University where I was teaching, and they exemplified, I think, what we’re all going through. In a class on religion and ecology, we were talking about the loss of species and the sense of wide-spread extinction that is taking place in our own lifetime. And one student turned to the rest of the class and said: Why should I care if 20,000 species become extinct every year? I’m going to Wall Street, I’ll get my job I’ll have my family and life in the suburbs around New York. Why should I care? This question sent a ripple throughout the class, and many, who were biologists and ecologists, immediately responded by talking about the intricacy of ecosystems and the web of life and the interdependence of life systems. But even that didn’t sway this student, and it was almost as if he was thinking, I can get my food from the supermarket, I just don’t care. This, to me, was a huge wake-up call. So there is this sense on the one hand of indifference, of disconnection, and even of denial.

On the other hand, there was a student who read some essays by Thomas Berry, who has been an immense inspiration and teacher to both my husband, John Grimm, and myself. This student read them over the weekend, and was so overwhelmed by the size, scale, and complexity of the environmental problems that we are facing, that he just had to close his door and couldn’t go out for the weekend; he didn’t want to see his friends. On Monday when he came back to talk to us, he said I am just paralyzed by these problems and I feel such immense despair.

We need to find a way forward between these two extremes of despair on the one hand and denial on the other. We need to find a way of empowering and inspiring scientifically grounded, ecologically sound, restoration projects that are in coordination with the ecosystems; we need to train people along these lines. But we need to ground them in a sense of wonder, hope, and possibility for a sustainable future; we need to teach them that their actions, that their lives, will matter, that they’re not just a speck in a meaningless universe, but rather that their actions and their life journey will contribute to a larger planetary civilization, which is emerging on the horizon; that is, a multi-form planetary civilization. That is the goal that we need to place in front of them.

M&B: So both science and religion can take on these issues?

Both religion and science can help us with this, but there have also been problems with science and religion. Science sometimes has objectified the natural world, creating a sense of distance with the scientific method that we use to study things, making them distanced from us. And yet, science is also helping us to recover both great knowledge about the environmental problems that we’re surrounded by, climate change and the extinction of species, as well as pollution issues. Scientists are studying these things and providing us with information on a daily basis. And many of these scientists are deeply committed to what are being called sustainability sciences; to have this at colleges and universities, and to be able to think through problems with a sense of creating solutions. So I think it’s an immensely inspiring moving, sustainable sense of well-being that is emerging from the sciences.

Religions hold a lot of promise for the area of ecology and sustainability, and even sustainable development. Religious people have been reluctant to get involved and they have been late in getting involved. Many religious people are often concerned with an other-worldly salvation, or with personal salvation, and not necessarily with involvement in the world, the environment, and issues of social justice. However, I think that one of the most exciting and promising movements within the environmental field is that the religions are awakening to their ecological aspect, to their commitment to life, its aesthetic beauty, and the intrinsic value of other species; they are taking on a sense of commitment for the future generations of all species. This possibility, that religious communities will awaken to an increased ethical sensibility to people in other countries, to species in different countries around the globe, as well as to future generations, is vital. This is something that religions can offer. Moreover, they can help to stimulate a critical component to our environmental and ecological sensibility, and that is a wonder; religions awaken us to a sense of gratitude and awe in the face of the great mystery of life. And that particular component of wonder, such as the wonder of the Monarch butterfly, the sense of beauty in these creatures, is something that religions can reignite for us, just as science can. And this is where they join, I think. Science awakens our sense of wonder, religion confirms the wonder with the great mystery of life systems. And finally, I think that religions can offer a sense of hope, because more than anything, I think we all need to imagine a future that is sustainable. We are interacting with the next generation who are dealing with their own sense of paralysis, with a lack of hope, even despair. And we need to acknowledge that this is a very critical moment for humans. We have never faced anything like this before; where is our sense of hope and the possibility for creating a viable, sustainable, and flourishing future for the planet? I think the religious communities that have dealt with loss, sorrow, death, and despair can help to regenerate this sense of possibility, of sustainable hope for the next generation, and even for ourselves, as we deal with this daily onslaught of saddening bad news. More than anything, I think we need these two components of wonder and hope to make it into the future.

Interview conducted by Mustafa Tabanli and MaryLynn Schiavi for Ebru TV for the Emmy Award winning television series Matter and Beyond. For more information and the full episodes visit http://www.ebru.tvenp.fullepisode.html