Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 95 (August/September 1999): 63-67.
The Virgin and the Dynamo: The Use and Abuse of Religion in Environmental Debates. By Robert Royal. Ethics and Public Policy Center/Eerdmans. 262 pp. $25.
Reviewed by Thomas Sieger Derr
Most religious writing about the environment, whether from traditional and mainstream religions or from some new consciousness, tends to treat nature as a steady–state paradise, a self–regulating harmony where balances temporarily upset are smoothly restored. From this assumption it follows that humans are unwelcome intruders or at best a life form that has exceeded its natural limits. Having trashed Eden, then, we are obligated to find a way to restore it.
Robert Royal understands these views as sentimental foolishness. In The Virgin and the Dynamo, he presents the natural world in all its dramatic variability over time, where the alleged "balances" are only relative, and, even so, never endure. Terrible things have happened to and on the earth, unpredictable things quite outside of slow natural evolution, from collisions with asteroids to volcanic eruptions to ice ages, which have destroyed many species and made life for the rest precarious. Realism about earth’s history should thoroughly disabuse us of those ill–conceived environmentalist fantasies about the planet’s natural hospitableness to human life, provided we leave it mostly alone. That is simply not the law of life, and science will not support it.
Royal is careful to honor the work of scientists throughout this lucid and sane book, respectfully integrating his theological judgments with their work. In an ambitious, very useful, and blessedly clear chapter, he moves beyond the realm of environmental science to sketch the current state of the conversation between science and religion, paying special attention to physics and cosmology. This is a reach not usual in books on environmental ethics, but is used appropriately and suggestively to round out a theological discussion of the doctrine of creation. It is done with admirable modesty and a healthy regard for the uncertainty of many scientific judgments.
From his survey of the applicable science Royal draws the inescapable conclusion that the universe and life within it develops and changes, so that no one place or moment can be considered scientifically or theologically normative. There is little sympathy here for either a fundamentalist reading of creation or the secular nature–romanticism characteristic of so much of the environmental movement, really a kind of pantheism where nature "herself" is God(dess). I was reminded of the difficulties raised by the motto "the integrity of Creation," used by the World Council of Churches and others to signify the ecological standard. The phrase comes close to being scientifically meaningless, suggesting as it does a picture of unity and harmony, wholeness and completeness in nature that does not exist. Royal’s realism is better, truer, wiser.
We in the biblical tradition who hold a theological doctrine of creation do, however, need to confront the problem of what appears from our human perspective to be evil in nature—floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, diseases. The problem is almost manageable within a worldview where nature is harmonious, balanced, fecund, and good, save for the depredations wrought by human sin. But when scientific realism shows us a natural world that is anything but harmonious and balanced, a world full of nonmoral events and of entities that intend us harm, the problem of natural evil becomes much less theologically tolerable. Leibniz gave it the name "theodicy," and the term has endured. He thought this really was "the best of all possible worlds," and solved his problem by thinking of natural evil as merely the dark shadings in a picture, there to bring out the good.
But Royal would hardly subscribe to such optimism. Candidly, bluntly, he writes,
Nature itself and the God who created it show little in common with today’s usual environmental view of the world as a constant, benign, and nurturing place except when foolish or outright evil human acts disrupt it. . . . The notion of nature as our Mother, as a being greater and better than ourselves, is—and always was—mistaken. . . . Our concern for nature has to acknowledge the imperfection of the world even as it recalls the biblical assurance that creation is good.
Royal also provides a sharp and wholly decent rejoinder to the "real and open callousness about human beings" among some environmentalists that surfaces in the wake of their critiques of human behavior toward nature. The movement criticizes human activity as "the cancer upon nature," forgetting that human energy in agriculture, commerce, and industry has made life more tolerable for ordinary people. But of course the environmental movement is driven not by ordinary people who have to wrest their living from the earth, Adam’s descendants all, but by those who have the leisure and the economic privilege to enjoy their "natural" surroundings. The movement’s traditional answer is thus to limit population so there will be fewer of the common people to pollute the earth and consume its finite resources. Some contemporary environmentalists, to their credit, see the immorality of this elitist position, and, angered or shamed by it, have responded (not very helpfully) by promoting "ecojustice," the simplistic notion (which Royal quite properly rejects) that sound ecology and human justice are mutually reinforcing practices.
Royal’s view of ecology, then, is human–centered—"human survival ecology," as it has been called. We must find a way to make room for humanity while safeguarding the natural environment that makes our life possible. We have to "decide what is good for human beings and the things they most value and try to fit those as well as possible into a biosphere that, properly managed, we may hope to preserve and enhance even as we know it will both nurture and threaten us."
Public environmental policy, therefore, ought to be driven by an activist, interventionist mentality. Our intelligent adaptability is what has enabled us to survive the many natural environmental changes the earth has produced, and we will surely need to adapt again in the future. The human race, with its technology and science, is not an alien presence after all, but a part of nature’s way of creating new and more complex life forms. We are not the enemy of nature, operating outside and against it when we create our modern civilization, but a part of natural processes that have been going on "forever," the quite expectable extension of what has always been happening.
Will such vigorous human creativity lead to ecological disaster? Royal thinks not. Rejecting the apocalyptic scenarios of environmental doomsayers, he sounds notes of cautious optimism. We are getting better about controlling environmental damage and don’t face extinction any time soon, and maybe not ever. He devotes some time to optimists who think science and technology will indeed solve most of these problems, that on balance they are hopeful forces. His survey of specific "hotspots" shows a pattern of exaggerated fear and over reaction from all too many prominent environmental writers. Royal concludes instead that "there is probably no environmental problem on the radar screen at present that is intractable," although we ought to keep up our guard and push "strenuous efforts to produce more with less and improve environmental effects of human activity for a long time to come." "Entrepreneurs, engineers, and inventors will be the salvation of the earth in far more concrete ways than most environmentalists."
Despite this general criticism of the movement, Royal is not unappreciative of the good it has done in alerting us to real dangers. The result is that, thus warned, we have bent our science, technology, and industry to quite successful correctives. (His attitude is similar to my own reaction to the anti–nuclear movement: it should not succeed, lest we lose a technology that may one day solve our energy problems; but neither should it go away, lest the industry get careless about its real dangers.)
Royal is actually more charitable to ecologists, no matter how alarmist they are, than he is to religious writers who want to jettison modern industrial civilization and substitute for it a vague "ecocentric" spirituality. He has no patience for claims that our alleged environmental crisis is driven by our prevailing religious, or quasi–religious, arrogance toward nature. These theories are usually blamed on the biblical tradition, our greed, or other faults that require a whole new outlook, a conversion to some new (or recovered) mysticism. These people, he says, are irrelevant; they have simply put themselves "outside the conversation of mature, democratic people."
Still, they are loud voices that come in many varieties, and so deserve extended commentary. The heart of the book is a discussion of current thinkers on the relation of religion to ecology, including Thomas Berry, Frederick Turner, Arne Naess and the "deep ecologists," Matthew Fox, various ecofeminists, Leonardo Boff, and Al Gore, among others, ending with the present reviewer. He finds fault with most of them (although—let there be full disclosure—not the last one), skewering some for sloppy science, others for wild exaggeration and fanciful invention, still others for callous antihumanism. Although he is careful to give praise where it is due (particularly to Turner), his assessments are sobering; and anyone who has found these people at all persuasive ought to read his critiques.
Against them Royal offers his measured realism, his theological traditionalism, his restrained optimism, and his hope. We are entitled by our religion to hope, as long as we remember that we do not and cannot control our destiny completely. Human intelligence and creativity are part of nature’s story, and properly used may yet find their way to a new glory for all of creation. We have to remember, though, that the story never ends, and only God knows our ultimate destiny. "We do not have all the answers—about anything. We are not the Creator, and the best we can hope for in a world that by its very nature exceeds our mastery is a reasonable hope about the human future."
Thomas Sieger Derr is Professor of Religion and Ethics at Smith College.