Vegetables are Food

So, I posted this entire quote 2 1/2 years ago.  However, I re-read the chapter containing it, from O’Donovan’s Resurrection and Moral Order, the other day and was just as mesmerized this time as I was the first time, so I thought it good enough to warrant sharing again:

Abstraction from teleology creates a dangerous misunderstanding of the place of man in the universe. For it supposes that the observing mind encounters an inert creation–not, that is, a creation without movement, but a creation without a point to its movement. Thus the mind credits to its own conceptual creativity that teleological order which is, despite everything, necessary to life. All ordering becomes deliberative ordering, and scientific observation, failing as it does to report the given teleological order within nature, becomes the servant of techne. Of course, man continues to eat vegetables; but he no longer knows that he does so because vegetables are food, and comes to imagine that he has devised a use for them as food. And so he looks for other uses for them, which will seem to him to have as much validity as that one which was, if he could only have remembered it, given in nature. That vegetables exist as food for other animals than himself will not impress him–unless, of course, the continued existence of other animals too falls within his deliberative purposes for the world, in which case both vegetation and animal life will continue to hold their value as a feoff from himself. Thus arises the irony of our own days, in which the very protection of nature has to be argued in terms of man’s ‘interest’ in preserving his ‘environment’. Such a philosophy offers no stable protection against the exploitation of nature by man, since he can discern nothing in the relations of things to command his respect. And, of course, this unprincipled domination must extend itself to include his own psychosomatic nature, all that is not itself the devising mind, so that humanity itself dissolves in the polarization of the technological will and its raw material. Man’s monarchy over nature can be healthy only if he recognizes it as something itself given in the nature of things, and therefore limited by the nature of things. For if it were true that he imposed his rule upon nature from without, then there would be no limit to it. It would have been from the beginning a crude struggle to stamp an inert and formless nature with the insignia of his will. Such has been the philosophy bred by a scientism liberated from the discipline of Christian metaphysics. It is not what the Psalmist meant by the dominion of man, which was a worshipping and respectful sovereignty, a glad responsibility for the natural order which he both discerned and loved. (52)


An Environmental Excursus (Good of Affluence #5)

Schneider’s second chapter, on the book of Genesis, naturally contains some interesting discussion of environmental issues.  Of course, I say “naturally,” but I was in fact pleasantly surprised, so accustomed am I to conservative doctrines of creation that simply dismiss the notion that we need to be environmentally concerned (perhaps this perception is a bit unfair, but it does feel that way at times).  Schneider’s discussion will not satisfy anyone who is convinced that our current lifestyle is simply unsustainable and is destroying creation, but he does at least face up to the issue.  Although he defends a robust theology of “dominion,” instead of pretending that the word doesn’t mean that, he is clear that our dominion is to image God’s dominion, and he has these fine words about how God rules his creation: “the God of power in Genesis is also a servant of his creatures. He rules. But he also serves with great passion and compassion. His rule empowers and magnifies his subjects. It does not oppress or diminish them. The spirit that moved Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet did not originate there and then. It goes all the way back to the first moments of creation.”  So we must rule creation for its good: “Whatever human dominion is in Genesis, then, it ennobles us for the purpose of ennobling everything else.”

The modern West, he acknowledges, does have a nasty track record of exploiting and raping the land, in ways that traditional, non-Christian cultures clearly do not–but he doesn’t think this can be blamed on Christianity, which rightly understood is against such things.  It must be rooted, he says, “in the metaphysics of some other, utilitarian sort of worldview.”  One would wish for a more thorough explanation and genealogy of our environment dysfunctionality, but understandably, Schneider considers this beyond his present scope.  He does acknowledge that the affirmation of capitalism might seem inherently in conflict with environmental concern.  So how is this to be resolved? he asks.  


He spends a couple pages on the Christian green solution that envisions “the existence of a kind of capitalism that is entirely different from what we have now.”  Unfortunately, throughout the brief discussion, he barely disguises his contempt for what he considers their “utopian fantasy.”  They contest, he says, “the modern economic dogma that societies must consume at high rates in order for economies to sustain growth and create wealth. One might have thought that this was among the safest assumptions anyone could make about the economic essentials of successful capitalism–for (as noted in the first chapter) it is the emergence of the consumer economy that has unleashed the wealth-creating powers of capitalism since the 1950s. There has never been a non-consumer form of capitalism that has managed to work.”  This is a rather hasty pronouncement, given that I’m not sure that a non-consumer form of capitalism has been tried before, so one can hardly accuse it of failure, and that Schneider has never really defined what he means by capitalism or consumer capitalism.  Of course, there is a question of fundamental presuppositions here.  If one supposes on theological and ethical grounds that a consumerist lifestyle is dangerous and ungodly (as I am tempted to think), then it will follow that there must be a workable way to live and prosper without consumerism, since God would not require of us a lifestyle doomed to failure.  

Schneider goes on to summarize what two representative Christian green thinkers, Walden and Cougar, call for: “a world in which energy sources are renewable, farming is all organic, recycling is the norm, manufacturers produce mainly durable products, the economy is decentralized to scale, and society adopts non-material definitions of success” (to which Schneider snarkily adds “this may be a good thing, because I think in this set-up there won’t be much of any”).  “In addition they pile on high tax rates for ‘resource depletion’ and tax reforms ‘to aid the restructuring process.’  We will also have to have ‘shorter work hours’ for ‘community purposes,’ a scientific understanding that society ‘cannot continue on its present course,’ and a social ethic that finds fulfillment in ‘living together’ rather than in separate units.”

Now, all of this, when you break it down, is not that ridiculous.  As a platform to try to vote into office tomorrow, it may be ridiculous, but as a long-term vision for where society needs to get, almost every one of these sounds prudent and desirable, and therefore, since I’m a postmillenialist, ultimately realistic.  Schneider simply dismisses it out of hand, however.  “Redesigning entire societies is fairly difficult under the best of circumstances. The likelihood of completely redesigning our own (as well as implementing the “new order” elsewhere in the world) is practically zero. Why would anyone seriously believe that anything like this could happen in the real world? I do not know. I only know I find this sort of thinking unrealistic, and, in its Christian form, messianic.”  

 

And I find this sort of thinking ironic, given that Schneider has presented to us in the first chapter just such a messianic vision of society being redesigned entirely–the birth of capitalism.  Remember that Schneider considers capitalism to be a very recent development, and one that took a conscious effort to implement, not as something that was simply inherent in the structure of human society that grew very slowly to fruition.  This being so, why should we consider an equally revolutionary shift away from current forms of capitalism inconceivable.  In this, as in so much else in his book, Schneider shows himself to be almost entirely void of imagination, unable to conceive of any way of enjoying and successfully using the world except by virtue of the latest technological toys and tools.  

And so his solution to environmental problems, given in a single sentence, “lies in the advance of both wealth creation and high technology.”  Now, it’s not clear exactly what he envisions, but the gist of it is that we can continue our current lifestyle of mass consumption, but control the harmful effects by means of smart technology–you know, cleaner energy, safer chemicals, etc.  This is essentially the American approach to health–it doesn’t matter how many harmful things you put in your body, since we’re getting better and better at the technology to keep you alive anyway.  While of course better technology may help us ameliorate environmental harm, it’s hard for me to see that we will succeed in the long-run if we refuse to address the underlying trajectory.  If part of our problem up till now has been the effects of technological addiction, then is recommending more technology as the solution really likely to fix our problem in the long-run, or will it simply perpetuate our arrogant posture to the natural world, too confident in the cleverness of our inventions to pay genuine respect to creation?