"It has not yet been disclosed what we are to be." 1 John 3:2
"The whole creation waits with eager longing to see the children of God coming into their own." Romans 8:19
A workshop on "Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Out Responsibility" is to be held at the Vatican, 2-6 May 2014. It will be a joint meeting of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, with an impressive list of distinguished scholars scheduled to participate. As the program states, "there should be no question that Humanity needs urgently to redirect our relationship with Nature so as to promote a sustainable pattern of economic and social development." The workshop will focus on three basic human needs -- food, health, and energy -- and the human-nature interdependencies that these needs entail. The fruits of the important meeting will be reported in this journal as they become available.
Based on preceding analyses (1,
6) it seems reasonable to infer that human redirection of our relationship with nature will require a significant cultural evolution. Consumption and pollution mitigation options are failing miserably, and will continue to fail as long as money and power are the main incentives for human behavior. Given perpetuation of the same dominant incentives, it is hard to imagine that voluntary human adaptation to ecological deterioration will be any more effective in attaining ecological balance with regard to food, health, energy, or any other human need. The task is then to reformulate the prevailing incentives for social and economic action so as to attain the transition in a civilized manner. But what kind of cultural evolution will be required?
It is proposed that the patriarchal culture of domination and competition that has prevailed since the agricultural revolution, only to be exacerbated by the industrial revolution, must be superseded by a more solidarian culture of collaboration for the common good. Given that patriarchy is not intrinsic to human nature, it should be possible to attain this transition, and therefore it should be possible to foster the transition without resorting to violence. A technological breakthrough that would allow infinite material growth in a finite planet is not forthcoming. But the planet is not the problem. Nature is not the problem. Humans are the problem, and humans must be the solution. It follows, that fostering a cultural evolution from patriarchy to solidarity is the only sensible option.
Solidarity in the Anthropocene
What is a "sustainable humanity"? It is, basically, one that ensures balance with the human habitat in terms of resources extracted and resources replenished. Just as a water reservoir is sustainable as long as water inflow is the same as water outflow, so it is with humanity in relation to natural resource availability to meet human needs. A sustainable humanity is therefore one that chooses to extract from nature no more than what can be replenished, be it water, food, energy or any other natural resource. It is human choices, individually and collectively, that determine whether or not humanity is sustainable.
Human choices are driven by human desires. There is a hierarchy of human needs but, beyond basic necessities, there is no limit to what humans can desire, so it is the responsibility of humans to choose to desire what is good, socially and ecologically. It is not enough to know what is good for humanity and nature. In conscience we would always choose to desire what we know is good, and act accordingly. Why is it then, that we keep indulging in our addiction to fossil fuels? Isn't it clear by now that they cannot be replenished within any reasonable planning horizon? Even if reserves were infinite, isn't it clear by now that burning them releases emissions that are harmful to both humanity and nature? Why is it that governments are utterly unwilling to calculate the total costs of the carbon footprint? Why is it that we are all unwilling to escape our addictive dependence to a fossil-fueled way of life?
Rene Girard's mimetic theory is helpful in the search for answers to these questions. The term mimetic theory comes from mimesis, meaning imitation or mutual imitation. According to Girard, who developed this theory based on critical literary analysis of biblical texts and comparable texts from many other cultures worldwide, the primary cause of all human behavior and all cultural norms is mimetic desire: we desire what others desire (e.g., wealth, power, honors) and we desire to be associated with those who think and act the way we do. Cultural change, or transitions from one mindset to another, requires a change in mimetic desire. The process of cultural change unfolds as a succession of desire, conflict, violence, and peace cycles. The violent phase often includes the victimization of scapegoats to attain some semblance of collective peace. Granted that we should follow conscience rather than desire, how many "body-persons" actually follow conscience rather than desire?
"It has not yet been disclosed what we are to be." (1 John 3:2) According to the biblical tradition, full disclosure of what we are will come only in eschatological time. But we must keep advancing in self-knowledge one step at a time, and it may well be that the ecological crisis will be the tipping point to take one more step forward, from a culture of patriarchal domination to a culture of collaborative solidarity. Just as in biblical times religion evolved from sacrifice (Old Testament) to mercy (New Testament), it is neither utopian nor unreasonable to think that the common assumption about humans being "patriarchal by nature" is a false certainty. A cultural evolution from patriarchy to solidarity is possible, and may be inevitable if the ecological crisis is to be followed by a new cultural synthesis of sustainable humanity and sustainable nature.
Solidarity entails both social cohesion and ecological cohesion. Social cohesion is an internalized recognition of the dependence individuals have on each other, and ecological cohesion is an internalized recognition of our collective dependence on the human habitat. "Solidarity is not a matter of altruism. Solidarity comes from the inability to tolerate the affront to our own integrity of passive or active collaboration in the oppression of others, and from the deep recognition of our most expansive self-interest. From the recognition that, like it or not, our liberation is bound up with that of every other being on the planet, and that politically, spiritually, in our heart of hearts we know anything else is unaffordable." (Aurora Levins Morales)
Ideas have consequences. Consider, for example, the issue of cross-gender relations. It is indisputable that the emergence of the "woman question" is a sign of the times and a new response to millennia of patriarchal discrimination that is rooted in "original sin." (Genesis 3:16) The original unity of man and woman, clearly explained (albeit in mythical language) in Chapters 1 and 2 of the Book of Genesis, debunks any notion of gender hierarchy as being intrinsic to natural law. And yet in both the Jewish and Christian traditions, as well as in most other religious traditions, it was the prevalent mindset until rather recently. There should be no resentment against the patriarchs personally, for they have been prisoners of the system like everyone else. Patriarchy is the problem. Patriarchy-induced violence in cross-gender relations, no matter how subtle, is the most universal obstacle to human development, pitting 50% of humanity against the other 50%.
If we are to muddle through the ecological crisis together, and if we are to attain the next plateau in human development, a new mindset of solidarian relations (including cross-gender and cross-creation relations) will have to be internalized to the point in which people actually desire to think and act in solidarity because they see others desiring to think and act in solidarity. Conversely, the solidarity mindset must be internalized to the point in which it becomes emotionally repugnant for the average citizen to make choices that fail to balance self-interest and the common good. The nuclear family is the "domestic school" of social and ecological justice, and is the best place to get this cultural evolution started so that it gradually radiates outward to the entire human family. A sustainable humanity will come to pass when the human family becomes a universal school of solidarity.
Sustainability in Solidarity
What is a "sustainable nature"? Various definitions of sustainability are well documented. Basically, it is a matter of using natural resources without irreversibly exhausting them and destroying the human habitat. Nature is sustainable when humanity is solidarian. Else, neither nature nor humanity are sustainable.
"The whole creation waits with eager longing to see the children of God coming into their own." (Romans 8:19)
We have a long way to go to come into our own as children of God, but the ecological crisis is making clear that the next step is to live in harmony with the entire community of creation. "What we are experiencing in the degradation of the Earth, is a soul loss, a loss of meaning in life itself that calls for a recovery of a sense of the sacred. The Earth must be seen, not as a collection of objects for our use, but as a communion of subjects of which we are all a part. We are all part of a single community that will live or die together." (Thomas Berry)
Just as it is not good for either man or woman to be alone (Genesis 2:18), it is not good for either humanity or nature to be alone. The details of how Homo sapiens emerged from nature are lost in evolutionary prehistory, but such details are not essential to resolve our current predicament. What is essential is to recognize that our mission to exercise dominion over nature (Genesis 1:28) must be tempered by our responsibility to till it and take care of it (Genesis 2:15). This recognition must be internalized in the "domestic school" of the nuclear family, by word and example, to the point that it becomes an ingrained repugnance to ecological abuse and an equally strong desire to "help" nature.
New technologies may be helpful. Policy adjustments may be helpful. But neither technological breakthroughs nor political maneuvering will make ecocide sustainable. What we need is a cultural breakthrough that, starting in nuclear families, overcomes patriarchy and propagates solidarity to the point that the entire human family becomes a "helper" of nature. In all human institutions, roles of authority are to be assumed based on capability and willingness to serve rather than gender, ethnicity, or any other human attribute. In a solidarian culture, hierarchies of governance must function according to the principle of subsidiarity, with authority at each level commensurate with capability and responsibility.
Some Examples of Practices and Policies
Cultural evolutions don't just happen. They are engendered by the cumulative effect of many concrete actions. The desired cultural evolution from patriarchy to solidarity can be fostered by many practical initiatives. While keeping in mind the patriarchal absurdity of unlimited population and consumption growth, the following are some examples of initiatives that could be analyzed and imitated:
FOOD -- The planet's capacity for food production is not the problem. Distribution is the problem. How can we make food and water accessible to all people? Consider systemic projects such as Sustainable Table and Sustainable Food.
HEALTH -- Natural biology is seldom the problem. Extreme poverty, lack of education, sexist abuse, and exposure to artificial pollutants are the most frequent problems. How can we make disease prevention and health care services accessible to all people? Consider the CRS-IHD and HD-CA guidelines.
ENERGY -- Commercially viable renewable energy technologies are already available, but their deployment is resisted and even suppressed. How can we make usable energy accessible to all people? Consider institutional initiatives such as the United Nations' SE4ALL and India's MNRE.
It is noteworthy that, in each of these three key areas, nature is not the problem. Individual humans are not really the problem either, and looking for scapegoats is not helpful. So what is the problem? The problem is the patriarchal culture of domination pursuant to insatiable accumulation of wealth, power, and honors. The following are some cultural evolutionary threads (with links to current projects) that need reinforcement so as to peacefully deconstruct the patriarchal system:
There is no silver bullet that can kill all the heads of the patriarchal beast. Humanity will have to ride the beast until it dies. The beast is mortally wounded, though, a victim of millennia of victimization; what goes around, eventually comes around. Humanity is already pregnant with new life to be born in the form of a new civilization of solidarity and sustainability. The entire community of creation is willing to assist humanity during this pregnancy. It is not a matter of killing the beast by resorting to more violence. Rather, the task is to enable humanity to ride the beast as peacefully as possible, staying healthy and avoiding all manner of scapegoating; and twin babies, a boy and a girl, will be born in due time, and a bit more of what we are to be will be disclosed, and the whole creation will exult like a mother who sees her children for the first time. Others beasts may emerge in the future, but future generations of God's children will be able to deal with them. At the moment, our responsibility is to show that we are no less than the Christian communities were when they had to face the Roman empire.
Sounds melodramatic? Oh well, when you run out of ideas, why not cleave to apocalyptic hope? Are we lesser children of God than the Christians who had to face the Roman empire? Let us keep praying and working for the next installment of the "new creation"!
"The whole created world is longing for Homo sapiens, the creature that dares to call itself 'wise,' to become fully human." (Duane Elgin)
In the long term, sustainability is a mathematical impossibility unless the prevailing culture of patriarchal domination is superseded by a culture of practical solidarity. Infinite growth in a finite planet is an oxymoron. The planet is not the problem. Nature is not the problem. Human irresponsibility is the problem. Responsibility without authority is bound to be futile. Authority without responsibility is bound to be abusive. Structures of authority that are gender-based, or power-based, must give way to those built on capabilities and a solid commitment to serve the common good.
A cultural evolution toward a new civilization of solidarity and sustainability is possible. It is, in fact, inevitable if humanity is to survive in the Anthropocene. All human institutions, both secular and religious, have a role to play and a choice to make: either solidarity or patriarchy. Feminism is intrinsic to solidarity; not the kind of feminism that is patriarchalism in disguise, and therefore hostile to both humanity and the human habitat, but the kind of feminism that fosters unity and mutuality between humanity and nature. After the agricultural and industrial revolutions, a restoration of the original unity of man and woman, and the original unity of humanity and nature, is the only way to go.
"If we are going to see real development in the world, then our best investment is women." (Desmond Tutu) If we are going to see a sustainable humanity and a sustainable nature, then our most important responsibility is to fully integrate women into structures of authority and governance in both secular and religious institutions. The patriarchal family is passing. The patriarchal culture is passing. In all the major world religions, nothing is more important than giving up the god of patriarchy, no matter how "benevolent" it might seem, and embrace the God of Love. Today, more than ever before, the biophysical and social sciences need liberation from all idols made by human hands.
The Jewish Encyclopedia, Cyrus Adler et al, New York, 1906. See Apostoli and Education of Women.
A Theory of Human Motivation, Abraham H. Maslow, Psychological Review, 1943.
The Human Phenomenon, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Harper & Brothers, 1955.
Silent Spring, Rachel Carson, Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
The New Catholic Encyclopedia, Catholic University of America and Gale Group, 1967, 2002. See "Woman," Volume 14, page 991: "Reason teaches that the identical human nature appears in the male and female in two different forms." Cf. Woman: "The female sex is in some respects inferior to the male sex, both as regards body and soul." Catholic Encyclopedia, New Advent, 1912.
The Limits to Growth, by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers, Potomac Associates, 1972. Subsequent updates by the same authors: Beyond the Limits, Chelsea Green, 1992; and The Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, Chelsea Green, 2004. For more recent analytical models of the world system, see 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years, Jorgen Randers, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012, and Human and Nature Dynamics (HANDY): Modeling inequality and use of resources in the collapse or sustainability of societies, Safa Motesharrei, Jorge Rivas, and Eugenia Kalnay, Ecological Economics, May 2014.
Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That Is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich, Duane Elgin, Quill, 1981.
Original Unity of Man and Woman: Catechesis on the Book of Genesis, John Paul II, St. Paul Editions, 1981. See also The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan, John Paul II, Pauline Books, 1997.
Our Common Future, Report of the UN World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission), 1987.
The Scapegoat, René Girard, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989. For a general overview of mimetic theory, see René Girard, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. For more resources on Girard's work, see Colloquium On Violence & Religion, and The Raven Foundation. Specifically on current social and ecological violence, see What Is Occurring Today Is a Mimetic Rivalry on a Planetary Scale, transcript of an interview with Henri Tincq, Le Monde, 6 November 2001.
A User's Guide to Integral Human Development (IHD), Catholic Relief Services (CRS), Baltimore, 2009.
Human Development and Capability Approach: Freedom and Agency, Edited by Severine Deneulin and Lila Shahani, Routledge, 2009.
The Dream of the Earth, Thomas Berry, Sierra Club, 1988, 2006. See also The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-first Century, Thomas Berry, Columbia University Press, 2009.
Peace with God the Creator, Peace with All of Creation, John Paul II, Message on the World Day of Peace, 1 January 1990.
Medicine Stories: History, Culture and the Politics of Integrity, Aurora Levins Morales, South End Press, 1999.
The Human Being: Jesus and the Enigma of the Son of the Man, Walter Wink, Fortress Press, 2002.
Ideas Have Consequences, Mimi Haddad, Priscilla Papers, Winter 2012. This article is reprinted with permission in this issue. See also Male and Female: One Image, One Purpose, Mimi Haddad, Mutuality, Spring 2014.
Solidarian Responsability for the Future of the Human Species, Leonardo Boff, Servicios Koinonia, 25 May 2013.
Ecology and Religion, John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Island Press, 2014.
Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Elizabeth Johnson, Bloombury, 2014.
Health, Inequality, and Public Policy, Angus Deaton & James K. Galbraith, 2014 Leontief Prize Lectures, Global Development and Environment Institute (GDAE), 4 April 2014.
Gender equality key to sustainable development framework, Terri Robinson, Anglican Communion News Service, 8 April 2014.
Sustainable Humanity, Sustainable Nature: Our Responsibility, Workshop of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, Vatican, forthcoming 2-6 May 2014.
Current series on the family and integral human development:
- Gender Balance in the Post-Patriarchal Age, Mother Pelican, November 2013.
- On Gender Groupthink, Solidarity, and Sustainability, Mother Pelican, December 2013.
- On Gender, Family, and Integral Human Development, Mother Pelican, January 2014.
- On Families and the Human Family, Mother Pelican, February 2014.
- Sustainable Development of the Human Family, Mother Pelican, March 2014.
- Sustainable Development of Body-Persons, Mother Pelican, April 2014.
- On Sustainable Humanity & Sustainable Nature, Mother Pelican, May 2014.