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A view from North America: Eating the earth

17 March 2011

Photo credit: www.chrismadden.co.uk

Gregory Kennedy, SJ

“He who has a why to live,” aphorized Nietzsche, “can bear with almost any how.” Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl got good mileage from this compact insight. Frankl, pace Freud, argued that the most primal of human urges are not sexual in nature, but rather existential. At our most basic level, what drives us is our need for, and will to, meaning.

The most formidable challenge to the ecological sanity of North Americans, both Jesuit and otherwise, is appreciating the power of Nietzsche’s aphoristic engine in Frankl’s “logotherapy.” A major reason that we, in open defiance of all counter-evidence, blithely carry on as if the world is going to heaven in a hot-air balloon comes from a deficiency in meaning. We are semantically malnourished. And, as sometimes happens in cases of starvation, we, in desperation, have taken to eating Earth.

Frankl had the hard opportunity to test empirically his novel psychological theory in the hellish laboratory of the Holocaust. As a prisoner of Auschwitz, he discovered the common denominator among those surviving its incessant brutality. Any life that retained some purpose and meaning, regardless of the state of physical health that it embodied, tended to continue. Husbands lived for wives, mothers for children, the faithful in hope of God. Should the battered believer lose her faith, the husband his beloved, the mother her last daughter, their lives would soon follow.

The fact that we North Americans not merely survive, but poshly thrive off the present ecological onslaught suggests we possess a very robust “why to live.” Climate change, extreme weather, soil erosion, universal pollution, peak oil, mass extinctions, scarcity-induced conflicts — nothing, it seems, can keep us down. We go on buying and selling like there’s no tomorrow. Given this disturbing connection between a truncated future and our consumer habits, how is it that our “how” of living has not touched our “why?” Or conversely, why has our “why to live” created such a harmful “how?”

These questions sweep us under the carpet of contemporary values. For all our talk, both Jesuit and otherwise, of preferential options, right relations, social and ecological justice as constituent elements of our faith, most of our functional values — the values that drive our everyday decisions and actions — remain consumerist to the core.

Convenience, speed, avoidance of physical effort, tacit fidelity to a materialist notion of progress: these mostly covert, mostly unquestioned “whys” invest us with the uncanny (in every sense of the word) power to endure the emotional, spiritual, social and moral hardships of a culture literally anti-biotic (against life).

Surely our souls and consciences suffer grievously, if unconsciously, at the inequalities, oppressions, and destructiveness that our style of being perpetuates. We manage to survive this trauma by clinging ever more zealously to our questionable, driving values.

Consequently, we face a “consumer challenge” immense in magnitude. It requires much more than switching from diesel to bio-fuel. We have to take the entire engine apart in order to examine and replace all the worn out gaskets and pistons that keep us burning oil, among other things combustible.

So far, we have approached our consumer challenge mostly from the avenue of “hows”. Little wonder, then, that our motivations and hopes of success go up in smoke. Our consumptive industrial-military system, ever more globalized, ever further entrenched, feels too colossal to budge.

Indeed it is, given our present “whys” to live. For if convenience, avoidance of physical effort and individualism stand as our guiding ends, we shall protect, come inner hell or outer high water, whatever presumed means will get us there. We bear with the perditions of consumerism, because, qua consumers, we have, a priori, already lost our way.

If our “whys,” our deepest, driving “whys to live” were to change, we would of necessity find the vim, faith and intelligence to bear with all the unaccustomed “hows.” Says Paul: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1Cor. 10:13).

If carbon justice, for example, became an operative value, we would naturally, unconsciously go to lengths to avoid air travel and private automobiles. This strikes us now as impractical, if not impossible, and most probably unapostolic. True enough, our present “whys” hardly allow us to bear the thought of it. Our consciences have Atlantean shoulders to carry a global burden of acidifying oceans, mass human starvation, desertification, extinction of species and of coastal cultures, plus all the other perfidies of climate change; yet the notion of walking to work, or passing up an overseas conference, or staying home for the holidays simply seems too much for us.

Members of the Ignatian family may feel themselves, in light of the above, caught in an awkward cognitive position. After all, according to our First Principle and Foundation, everything is permitted us so long as it aids our praising, reverencing and serving God.

We have the magis to drive us, and nothing is too good for the apostolate. Here we must tread cautiously, for often we can grow Jesuitical in our justifications of actions that may end up serving idols rather than God.

In the twilight time of ecological integrity, God comes to us in unexpected ways. Our manner of duly praising, reverencing and serving the God of life in an antibiotic era may not at all resemble what was previously appropriate. Emphasis on personal redemption gives way to interest in creation salvation, where all that is, and not just the human contingent, is called into Christ’s saving glory.

Our magis, therefore, might well mean less jet-setting, less production, less celebratory consumption of the earth’s wild and diverse beauty. Creative demonstration of how less is more may be our magis today.

Editor’s note: Gregory “Greg”Kennedy is from the English Canada Province and has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Ottawa. Greg worked on organic farms and was a cook in a vegetarian restaurant. He has particular interests in agriculture and ecological preservation. This is a shortened version of Greg’s article previously published in Promotio Iustitiae, in English and in Spanish.

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One Response to A view from North America: Eating the earth

  1. Amene on 14 April 2011 at 11:18 pm

    Dear Greg,
    I’m pleased to read your beautifull article ‘Eating the Earth’, a concern in polluting and consuming ‘mother earth’ by her children. Clear signs are visible that we are on the way to mass destruction as a result of climate change for which human beings are responsible. We have the option to recognize the ‘less’ – the medicine which heals our ecological inbalace. You, Jesuits, are the hope of the world to discern the evil spirit rooted in the human action that caused ecological disharmony.

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