A society in which consumption has to be artificially stimulated in order to keep production going is a society founded upon trash and waste, and such a society is a house built on sand.

- Dorothy Sayers

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Ecology and the Virtues: The Role of Fidelity in the Struggle for Ecological Sanity

It has often occurred to me, when reading various works on ecology, and ecological matters in general, how seldom the virtues are mentioned. This seems to me to be a significant oversight. After all, the struggle against the ecological hubris of our civilization is, or at least ought to be, an ethical struggle if nothing else; a struggle to undo or at least ameliorate the damage that we have done to ourselves and to the natural world that sustains us. It is, to speak bluntly, a struggle between right and wrong, good and evil, and it is by means of the moral virtues that we gird ourselves for all such struggles. With such considerations in mind, I'm taking a break from Balaam's Ass to write a few short articles on the essential significance of certain virtues in sustaining our struggle to achieve ecological sanity. While this exercise is primarily for my own benefit, seeking to clarify the relationship between virtue and eco-justice clearer for myself, in the hope that I won't ultimately end up falling prey to a defect in my own writing that I find in so many otherwise excellent works on ecology and eco-justice, I will post them anyway, in the hope that someone else may find them helpful.

Rather than beginning with the traditionally enumerated cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, courage, and justice, I have chosen to start with a rather simpler, and less demanding subject: the virtue of fidelity, or faithfulness. This choice is partly a matter of procrastination on my part (putting off the harder and more difficult to analyze virtues for a later date), but it is also motivated by certain autobiographical reflections of my own. Over the last several months it has finally started to dawn on me that my own late-awakening obsession with matters ecological was not unrelated to a parallel reawakening of interest and reflection upon my own childhood in Africa, a reawakening that was sparked, in part, by reading several very good childhood autobiographies, Mukiwa, by Peter Godwin, and Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight, by Alexandra Fuller, each of whom had somewhat similar childhoods to my own, growing up white in South-East Africa. Reading these works filled me with a desire to dust off and examine that childhood, and to keep faith with the child that I was then, and inspiring me with a resolve to reincorporate those experiences more fully into who I had become in the present.

An important part of that childhood, though, was its domination by a natural landscape of relatively unspoiled natural beauty that few Americans now have an opportunity to experience. Unfortunately, though, that pristine natural world, so vivid in memory, had come to seem so distant from my current realm of experience, that it was almost as if I had become an exile from my own existence. Where had that child gone? And what had happened to the world – to the open land, the animals, the plants, and the wide embracing sky – in which I had the good fortune to ramble endlessly and happily as a child?

Like Dante, I came to myself - not so much in a “dark wood” - but in a gleaming, glittering, hard, and utterly disenchanted world of widgets, plastic bags, automobiles, concrete, and intellectual abstractions that seemed more and more artificial, meaningless and ugly every day. I discovered, belatedly, that I wanted to be faithful to the inchoate compassion and justice of the child I was then; the child who cried for hours on his first reading of The Lorax, that lovely little ecological parable by Dr. Seuss; who was alternately enraged and horrified by the poverty of his African playmates. I also wanted to be faithful to that glorious natural world that everywhere surrounded me in my youth, not only in Africa, but also, to a lesser extent, here in my family's furlough visits to an America that was considerably less urban and overdeveloped then than it is now. I wanted to be faithful to the beauty, rich fecundity, and natural rhythms of the rivers I had once fished that had since been dammed into ugly reservoirs surrounded by expensive houses in which, to the undiscerning eye, only automobiles seemed to live. I wanted to be faithful to the lakes and ocean shores on which I once played, where no tar washed up on the beach; where fishermen went out and returned with their nets full of fish. I wanted to be faithful to the fields and meadows and forests I once knew, many of which have since been paved over or ravaged by deforestation; and to the wonderful fruits and vegetables that came out of our family garden, enjoyed in their season, and remembered longingly during the long seasons in which they did not grow. I wanted to be faithful to the child in me who once knew that animals were beings in their own right, almost persons, with claims of their own upon the world, and a source of endless delight and joy.

Mind you, as a child I was neither naïve or sentimental about animals. I knew that many of them, like the village chickens and goats and cows that wandered about on the commons eating and drinking and cavorting and crowing in accordance with their own reasons and purposes, might, as a matter of need, end up being killed to satisfy my own and others' need for food. But I also knew something rather important then that I had somehow managed to forget on my adult excursions to the local supermarket to purchase battery-raised chicken and feed-lot fattened beef: No one but a complete jerk (like the sadistic teen aged ex-patriot brat who lived down the street from my family) would willingly injure or torture an animal for any reason; and not even he would do it for something as vague and inconsequential as utility or efficiency.

In short, my desire to keep in touch with who I was as a child started to get morally complicated. Not only did I find that I didn't much want to be complicit in cruelty of modern animal “husbandry”, but I also found myself wanting to be faithful to the wider and more ecumenical sympathies of the child I once was. I wanted to be faithful to the snakes and snails and chameleons and hedgehogs and hyenas and mongooses and sables and dik-diks and fish eagles and all the other creatures whose sudden appearance on a lonely ramble with my dog through the African veldt of my childhood and adolescence brought me up short in fear, curiosity, and awe; creatures whose existence in no way directly served my own, but which had, for all of that, an intrinsic beauty, and rightness of their own; animal existences at home in a territory that was theirs, not mine; a territory in which I was, and knew myself to be, the interloper. In short, in the process of rediscovering my childhood, I also uncovered within myself a desire to be faithful to all the good things of the natural world that I knew and experienced as a child – to the beauty of a world that had since been manipulated, misused, and misappropriated nearly into non-existence, and to whose damage and destruction I had become increasingly blinded and jaded.

In pursuing these autobiographical reflections, I have turned, again and again, to the traditional language of virtue, speaking of “faithfulness”, and “fidelity.” But what is this “faithfulness” - this fidelity - of which I speak? Is it genuinely a virtue, or, as one more unsympathetic might be inclined to suggest, little more than romantic nostalgia? Is there a difference? And if there is, if fidelity is a virtue, then how is it different from mere nostalgia, and how can the cultivation of this virtue assist us in our own struggle to achieve a more ecologically just and sane way of living?

To begin with, taking a wide view, fidelity, or faithfulness, is first and foremost a human characteristic, strongly related to our species' remarkably sophisticated capacity to recall and revisit the past in memory. That to which we are faithful must be capable of representation in our mind, and the contents of our minds are, inevitably, mostly the products of our past experiences. In emphasizing the human dimensions of this characteristic, I am not suggesting that animals have no memory. All such broadly anthropomorphic denials seem uncharitable on the face of it, as well as being absurdly hard to reconcile with the facts of experience. Certainly my dogs seem to remember me from day to day, and almost nothing in the animal kingdom seems to forget the instrument by which, or the circumstances in which they have been done harm. Nor do animals seem to find it difficult to “remember” where food is to be found or where their youngsters have been left. Not only do animals seem to remember, but they even seem to possess, in some manner of their own, the particular combination of commitment and memory that characterizes fidelity itself. The fact that the phrase “as faithful as a dog” is a cultural maxim is certainly suggestive, and the vigilant and courageous care that many animals have for their young seems to indicate their possession of at least something analogous to fidelity. In any case, all such denials are intellectually pointless, since we have so little insight into how the consciousness of animals is internally expressed and exercised. A certain degree of agnosticism on the subject seems warranted. Nevertheless, it remains the case that our apparently unique capacity to wield linguistic universals - our ability to talk to others (and ourselves) about our experiences – does seem to have altered the mnemonic capacity in humans in some truly fundamental ways, making of it a genuinely peculiar human experience that is in some ways unique to our species. Animals we are, of course, but something more than that as well.

Indeed, this introspected duality between that which is more purely animal and that which is uniquely species specific to ourselves is so self-evident that it has inevitably given rise to a wide variety philosophical dualisms, dualisms that seem at least as hard to reject out of hand as they are to accept uncritically. Our body is as it were, the present of the present; while our mind, as St. Augustine boldly proclaimed, is the present of the past. It contains that which the past bequeaths to us and all that remains of it within us, as memory. Indeed, it is arguable, that it was with memory - perhaps along with its more dubious imaginary analogue, concern or anticipation (of an always unknown and largely imaginary future) - that the mind itself began. Many have thus speculated, and if, indeed, memory and concern do represent the root sources of human mentality, then of these two it is memory that is by far the more useful and content laden of the two. How seldom we are misled or made fools by acting on the basis of our memory! How often by our fearful imaginings and hopeful anticipations!

I began by speaking of fidelity, and I appear to have been sidetracked into discussing memory instead. Unfortunately, getting a grip on memory seems essential for understanding fidelity as well. After all, fidelity is dependent upon memory. It is, as it were, a special kind of exercise of memory, an affirmed connection between our present selves and something presented to ourselves in thought. As such, fidelity is well grounded in the nature of what we are as humans beings, in our mode of existence as a unique type of animal who can call to mind, remember, and consciously reflect upon past experiences. And let there be no mistaking it; this human memory is a good thing. It helps us avoid errors, keeps us humble with the memory of our faults and failures, encourages us with the memory of our successes, and enables us to actively reconnect with our past experiences and accumulated knowledge to seek information as our need and circumstances demand.

Indeed, for all that forgetfulness may appear a benison at times, it is almost always so only as the salve of failure, a momentary reversion of animal need over the distress and complexity of fully human consciousness. A person suffering at the ragged end of Alzheimer's is recognized as human only by bodily form and charity, not by any evidence of the fact in his actual behavior - which is why the disease is such an agonizing tragedy for those who once loved the victim, who go on desperately trying to love him still, even as all that is recognizably human in him drifts away. In the light of such examples, one cannot help but think that those who celebrate forgetfulness and nescience have something to hide. And though the life of animals, almost wholly grounded in the present, does not seem bereft of joy, nevertheless, it is not a human joy. Nietzsche who once opined that “it is possible to live almost without memory, indeed, to live happily, as the animals show us, but without forgetting it is utterly impossible to live at all.”1 He was as wrong about this as he was about so much else. We are what we are, beings suspended upon a bridge of time, coexisting luminously in the past and present. To be less than this is diminution.

How is it, though, that we can co-exist in this way? Memory itself, as centuries of philosophical reflection in the empiricist tradition has taught us, is no guarantor of trans-temporal unity. To know something from the past, through memory, is not yet to know that we are the same being as the person who had those experiences. This is affirmed in experience not by memory alone, but by an act of will, by fidelity, by the deliberate acknowledgment of unity of our present existence and the experiences of the past. There have been those, like Montaigne, who have made an even stronger claim, that “the foundation of my being and identity is purely moral; it consists in the fidelity to the faith I swore to myself. I am not really the same as yesterday; I am the same only because I admit to being the same, because I take the responsibility of a certain past as my own and because I intend to recognize my present commitment as still my own in the future.”2 There is something to Montaigne's observation, but the claim seems too bold; the mystery of personal identity is not so easily dissolved. I am inclined, like Bishop Butler in his famous critique of John Locke, to believe that, in the ontological realm, identity proceeds both memory and will. It seems far more reasonable to suppose that the fact that we, for instance, do not experience the memory of others, but only our own, has a strong metaphysical basis in a factual personal identity across time that is simply occult and unexaminable. Nevertheless, the fact remains that any such purely essential metaphysical unity can have no bearing on the moral realm save by an act of will. Unless one, by an act of fidelity, affirms the unity of one's own being across time, one cannot engage in ethical action at all. Fidelity, then, is a sine qua non of the moral struggle.

That this is so requires but a moment of reflection. What would become of moral effort if it were not sustained through time? What would justice be, if the just were not also faithful? Who could be said to love that was not faithful to his love; or be a friend, who had no commitment to pursue a friendship in the present to those to whom he was a friend in the past? What would a promise mean to one who did not affirm his identity with the one who once made the promise? Who could be honest who had none but passing fidelity to the truth? The truth, no doubt, would continue to be the true, but it would have no practical influence on human behavior; it could not give rise to virtue. If, as Nietzsche suggests, sanity may, on occasion, be preserved by forgetfulness, it remains equally true that without fidelity, there could be nothing of the many virtues that give human life its purpose and dignity. “Fidelity is”, as Andre Compte-Sponville so rightly observes, “the virtue of memory; it is memory itself as a virtue.”3

Aristotle claimed, and rightly, that most virtues represent a mean between extremes, and this is as true of fidelity as it is of most virtues (with the possible exception of love). That which is less than faithfulness is fickleness; that which is more than faithfulness is pig-headed obstinacy (or its religious equivalent, fanatical fundamentalism). This is not to suggest, of course, that one can be “too faithful”, but rather, is simply to recognize fidelity for the kind of virtue that it is. By definition, fidelity is neither fickle nor obstinate, but rather, an expression of just the right degree of commitment. This “right degree of commitment” is determined by its object of the fidelity. To be faithful until death to the spouse one loves is rightly admirable. To be faithful unto death to one's soccer team, or to one's ill-informed and second-hand political nostrums is not; it is fanaticism. Fidelity is the virtue of willed commitment to that which is good, precisely to the extent, and precisely to the degree to which, that to which one is faithful has actually experienced as being good. Fanaticism is commitment beyond what something is worth. Stubbornness is commitment to that which was once thought to be good, but now can be seen (or for which one has the evidence to see, if one would but examine it) to not be so. Fickleness is the failure to commit oneself to what one knows to be good whenever this becomes painful, involves too much effort, or contravenes one's own personal and irrational passions. By definition, then, fidelity is one's on-going commitment on behalf of those persons, ideas, things, or projects – anything that can be said to exist – to whatever degree that one has reasons to believe, because of past or present experience, that those persons, ideas, things, and projects are truly good and worthy of one's commitment.

With this definition in hand, one can now readily grasp the difference between fidelity and mere nostalgia. Fidelity is faithfulness to the past, or to one's previously accepted commitments, beliefs or projects, not because they are past, per se, nor because they were mine, nor even because one would find them comfortable or comforting if they could be made present, but rather because they are perceived in one's memory, even through the veil of time, to have been good, true, beautiful, worthwhile and so forth. Another way of putting this is that a man moved by nostalgia alone is moved by his passions rather than by reasons. He longs for the things and activities of the past simply because he misses what he has been deprived of by time, rather than necessarily because these were intrinsically good, worthwhile or worthy of emulation. This is not to say that nostalgia is necessarily bad, any more than any other simple desire or its fulfillment is intrinsically immoral. Nor can it be denied that nostalgia and fidelity may quite often have the same objects. It is, however, to insist upon the morally essential distinction between “what I want” and “what is good” in this particular case. Nostalgia alone is simply desire separated from its current fulfillment by the passage of time, with no more moral significance than an itch in the absence of a free hand with which to scratch it. Fidelity, on the contrary, is a virtue, and like all virtues, is oriented toward the good.

The relevance of this virtue to the struggle on behalf of eco-justice and the environment should now, I hope, begin to be evident. The natural world is full of things that we have reasons to believe are good, beautiful, true, and worthy of respect. For those of us who are Christians, these reasons include, not insignificantly, God's own revealed affirmation that everything that He has made (and He made everything) is good, and worthy of His own loving commitment, much greater than our own. Unfortunately, a great many of these good things, human beings included, are now threatened by the wrongful behavior, avaricious lifestyles, false ideologies, technological hubris, indolence, stupidity and neglect of human beings.

To speak in religious terms, this is, to be sure, a situation of on-going fallenness into which we were born, and a product of centuries of mismanagement, rationalization, selfishness and greed, for which none of us currently are entirely responsible. Furthermore, it can be hard for us to extricate ourselves from the fact that it is precisely this antecedently existing set of circumstance that has largely shaped our own ideas, expectations, and desires, whether for good or ill. If some fortunates, like myself, were blessed in having a childhood immersed in and illuminated by the experience of a more or less natural world, many more were not. Indeed, for many modern American children, nature is simply experienced as a shadowy outside presence whose impact is experienced principally in negative terms, in the experience of unregulated temperature, insect bites, power outages, extreme weather, and boring mandatory camping trips in which they are unable to play video games or watch television. Each of us has been marked, for good or ill, by the situation into which we have been born and to which we have become acclimatized.

This sense of alienation from nature, however, and our culture's hubristic and patently false sense of technological transcendence over the natural world, is, for all of its apparent persuasiveness, manifestly a kind of forgetfulness. It forgets where food comes from, where fresh water comes from, and what kind of climatological conditions must exist for us to survive. It also forgets that our actions have consequences, whether intended or not. Our civilization's failure to acknowledge these fundamental dependencies, along with the necessary obligations that such dependencies entail, are the result of a complex political, economic, and ideological history, the effects of which have been perpetuated into and even aggravated in the present. In the present, however, the dangerous consequences of our improvident behavior, which were partially (though never entirely) hidden from us in the past by the vast surplus fecundity of the land and sea, and by our extensive use of non-renewable resources such as petroleum, coal, and so forth, can no longer be denied. Awareness of these consequences can, should, and have led many of us to critically reexamine much of the dubious cultural baggage masquerading under the banner of progress in the light of all the currently available evidence. The experience is bracing, and disturbing, since doing so reveals the degree to which virtually all of us are, in one way or another, are participants in this ecological tragedy as it continues to unfold.

In this light, ecological awareness is nothing more nor less than each individual's own personal recognition of this on-going destruction of the good things of nature for what it is, vicious. The struggle for eco-justice, on the part of those of us who have become aware of this viciousness in ourselves and in our own civilization, is simply a way of being faithful to all that which is experienced as good and vulnerable in the world – everything that makes a legitimate moral claim on our attention. It is a methodical commitment, first, to extract oneself, as far as one able, from a wrongful culture of waste and damage for which, even if it is not wholly of one's own making, one has chosen to take responsibility. It is allowing oneself to be moved by one's fidelity to the goodness of the natural world and to the humans which utterly depend upon it (whether they acknowledge the fact or not) to eschew participation in way of life that is fundamentally unsustainable, that will result in a greater and greater destruction of the natural world in each generation, and that will, if unchecked, terminate in a temporally uncertain but factually predictable collapse of the increasingly fragile eco-systems upon which human life depends. It is being moved by one's fidelity to the natural world, to one's self, to others, and to the factual truths about the world as one has, by education, study, prayer and conviction, come to understand them, to change the way one lives, to develop and support projects to ameliorate the damage humans have done to the natural order, to educate others of the damage that continues to be done and of the beauty that is being lost, and, finally, to resist those who perpetuate and defend the ongoing desecration of nature in the name of profit, lifestyle, ideology, or habit.

This is our task. Out of a sense of fidelity to all that is good, beautiful, lovely and true, to ourselves as moral beings, and to the God and Father of all things (who has instructed us in Scripture to “be not weary of well-doing!”) we must continue to advocate, defend, and commit ourselves to the goal of a just, harmonious, prudent, and sustainable relationship between genuine human need and the natural order. We should not be fickle in our efforts, nor should we be intransigently stubborn in our methods, but we must, for all of that, be utterly faithful in our resolve, a resolve that need not even be subject to our chances of success (although, to be sure, the chance of success of anything is always rendered more probable by its attempt). Indeed, in this sense, faithfulness is the moral spine of virtue, since as a virtue, faithfulness does not require one to consider whether or not one shall succeed, but only, and finally: “Where should my commitment lie?” And this is as it should be. A man's faithful devotion to his wife or dedicated service to his country is made meaningless by neither the death of his wife, nor the destruction of his country, whatever his detractors may suggest.

So, let us be faithful to the natural world. Perhaps, in the process, some of us may recover a little of the wonder and joy we once experienced in it, along with some of the gratitude that we once bore in our heart for the Maker of it all - renewing in ourselves a sense of faithfulness to the persons that we were before the sordid business of life tarnished the wonder of of our existence. It may even be – who knows? - that others, less fortunate in their own experiences, and moved to join us solely by the light of reason and our own example, may yet come to experience the beneficent goodness of creation for themselves. One can always hope...and that's a virtue too.

May it be so. Amen, amen, amen.

1 Friedrich Nietzsche, “History in the Service and Disservice of Life,” trans. Gary Brown, in Unmodern Observations, ed. William Arrowsmith, Yale University Press, 1990, p. 90.

2 Michel de Montaigne, Apology for Raymond Sebond, in The Essays of Montaigne, trans. George B. Ives, Harvard University Press, 1925, vol. 2, book 2, ch. 12, pp. 401-02.

3 Andre Comte-Sponville, A Small Treatise on the Great Virtues: The Uses of Philosophy in Everyday Life, trans. Catherine Temerson, Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 2001, p. 19.

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