Shortly after reorganizing itself in 1934, the National Audubon Society adopted a promising credo, stating intriguingly that, “We believe in the wisdom of nature’s design.” I was headquarters biologist for the society from 1958 to 1977, but at no time were any of us challenged to spell out the implications of that motto. It was essentially forgotten.
This is tragic, because neither did the rest of American civilization have any inkling to the guidance such a credo might have provided. Rather, we transplanted Europeans continued hell-bent on developing every acre we had wrested from the original Amerindians. Our national parks are now called “The best idea America ever had,” but that brief epoch of park creation, mostly in early 20th Century, was the work of a small minority, pursued over the objections of a vociferous majority. North America’s central prairie is the largest patch of deep black soil on the planet, a chernozem, but we have yet to agree to preserve a sample of its grasslands and biota in a suitable national park.
The threat of global warming that now hangs over us is a byproduct of centuries of such neglect of the rest of The Creation. Our notions of special creation almost obliterated awareness of the fact that we are just one more recent product of a continuing evolutionary process of species creation. Every species is essentially an experiment in more creatively using the same building blocks of nature, the atoms and molecules, each in its time. Evolution progresses by innovation. We are, in a sense, embroiderings of the stardust of the universe! We should, therefore, as a primary obligation of cosmic piety, safeguard the natural systems that produce such marvels. This is what Nature is: a set of processes and their products. The design we detect in nature is the patterning we see in the processes. So, as participants we must not truncate systems, nor their varied, tentative accomplishments: what we call biodiversity. This cumulative diversity is the potentiality of the future. We know no destinies, not even our own, so we must learn to live in concert.
Having first evolved in southeast Africa, we became strangers to one another by dispersing to all the continents while still pedestrians. Newly aware of this, we must now, as fellow humans, forge social systems built on mutual respect; in time to join in limiting our numbers to leave room for other created things. This is the most sincere way of expressing a collective appreciation of the creative process itself. In less than ten thousand years of civilization we of course accumulated lots of amateurish misinterpretations. Time changes things, so what seemed appropriate a thousand or a hundred years ago may need reinterpretation.
Because we venerated them so, our early religious ideas may need more recasting. Our more recent scientific notions tend to be self-correcting, since we argue them from the beginning. And we abandon them more readily, since they are obviously of our own making, Religious notions seem so ancient that we have forgotten what inspired them. Having experienced two major economic depressions in one life-time, I consider the early Church’s ban on usury a wise constraint we should have maintained against our more greedy compatriots. We let them obfuscate issues by chattering about “animal spirits.”
Indeed, it is high time we recognized that in the 20th Century, at least in the U.S.A., the economy became our religion. Paul Tillich warned of this in mid-century when he reminded us that, functionally, our ultimate concern is our religion, no matter what other we profess. Reasserting such awareness may help our churches update their views and provide the leadership we need in creating a new sense of natural togetherness.
To untangle the false commitments we were talked into, especially since World War II, let us place our economic system in historical perspective. It helps to remember that the system is only about 500 yeas old. It dates from The Reformation, when The Church’s control over domestic affairs was cast off. We cannot say that “we’ve always done it this way.” The price of this “freedom” was high because The Church had at least insisted on a wage sufficient to maintain a family. More than a minimum wage, or even a living wage.
Economists, however, have often wanted to believe that they dealt with complex economic behaviorisms in an atomic fashion, like real scientists. This leaning, often called “physics envy,” caused them to develop an acute form of reductionism, i.e., focusing on parts of the puzzle rather than the whole. All things are indeed so complex that beginning with the parts is often a necessary methodology. But it poses the problem of not forgetting that parts don’t constitute the complex things we’re trying to understand.
For example, to make Economics seem more objective, the complexities of the natural processes referred to above were discounted, and economists considered all non-human things mere “natural resources.” Such resources are said to have no innate value (ends) of their own. The morality of exploiting such resources is thus elided. Should you quibble, the economist will say that there is no way of agreeing on the value of anything except by measuring your willingness to pay for it. No one asks whether you have the ability to pay. A sort of put-up-or-shut-up stance.
Mainline economists then became enamored of mathematics, another form of abstraction, since numbers are poor substitutes for the complexity of real things. But they called theirs the real world. Finally, thanks partly to the triumphal afterglow of “winning the Cold War,” many economists endorsed the efficiency of moving production abroad to take advantage of cheaper wages. But this undermined our own consumption levels and aggregate demand fell. Corporate managers, grown too big to constrain democratically, reduced production and invested in an orgy of financial speculation instead. Granted deregulation by compliant, ideologically-inspired regulators and politicians, they invented fictitious (dishonest) credit money which they called financial innovation (junk bonds, securitization, credit default swaps), and thus built the credit bubble that burst in late 2008, dragging the world into depression.
Western civilization has thus embarked on a 21st century with problems of formidable complexity, almost all of them problems of its own making.
(1) Our numbers now exceed the planet’s carrying capacity: there is no sustainability. This is a consequence of sheer numbers;
(2) of inequities of wealth and income which “dumbs-down” a majority of the population by excluding people from adequate education ; and
(3) of the misapplication of destructive technological inventions, many of them mistakenly considered blessings of our civilization. For example, the internal combustion engine is disrupting the climate (not just warming it), and after World War II heavy draglines and bulldozers initiated large-scale drainage of wetlands and all kinds of other disruptive landscape alterations. And
(4) a defunct but still politically dominant economic system. These problems interact as positive-feedbacks, so it is likely that no one of them can be solved by itself.
Having learned a lot about our deep history in just the last century, however, we may be almost ready to reintegrate ourselves into the evolutionary scenario. It would take imaginative leadership, but our religions might reinvigorate themselves by adopting the new, scientific creation story, and keep it open this time. We would need to agree on reducing human population so that it can be accommodated by natural surpluses, but be wise enough to realize that this would first require a much more egalitarian support system, so that all people would feel advantageously involved. We may wish to retain the price-setting functions of capitalism, but would otherwise build fences to prevent abuses of free-market entrepreneurship. We would zone the uses of Nature, both terrestrial and marine, so as to preserve biodiversity and more general ecological services. We would take Adam Smith’s neglected advice to keep the firm small, so as to make it serve the public interest, not just profit-making. It wouldn’t be Heaven-on-Earth, but a lot better than what we now struggle with.