A video on YouTube promotes a liberal mindset by framing contemporary America in the Jewish concept of Al Tirah, meaning fear not. The premise of the short film is that people consciously choose whether to respond to life’s challenges with fear or empathy. Reason does not always guide our decisions and because of that fear and empathy are two emotions with important impacts on our lives and relationships. Moreover, pundits and even the public promote their ideas through messages of fear or empathy to motivate others to respond in a certain way. For example, the Bush Administration manipulated fear in press conferences to justify the Second Gulf War. Advertisements from the Humane Society, on the other hand, use empathy to encourage pet adoption. The video suggests that a viable society lives in balance between the two cultures. There are times when each or both are necessary.

Environmental films like Gasland, An Inconvenient Truth, and even Avatar were effective partly because they adeptly balanced fear with calls to compassion to deliver a message that was grounded in reason and science. It strikes me as though 24-hour or even local news, on the other hand, is much more sensationalist and concerned with offering entertainment by delivering messages charged with fear and conflict.

The makers of the video suggest, and I agree, that modern day America has lost that critical sense of balance with dangerous consequences. Today, fear is the primary language of politics and marketing, oftentimes supplanting empathy and even reason. Even though American households reliably demonstrate their empathic nature through giving, John Birchesque figures like Glen Beck characterize popular culture. The nation in 2010 witnessed hateful and destructive rhetoric and actions targeting Muslims, immigrants, gays, and progressive politics.

Fear is an effective media, but it can and has been used to dangerously jumble our moral landscape and interfere with our capacity to distinguish right and wrong. Cultures dominated by fear propagate anger, contempt, cynicism, and hatred. It has been responsible for racial tension and religious intolerance including as demonstrated by the Westboro Baptist Church. Fear has come to characterize popular American politics and society. Though the limited and just use of fear to deliver ideas can be good, its abuse and overuse can make it ineffective and dull our sense of compassion.

Empathy is the foundation of ethical passion, purpose, and direction. Fear can compromise our sensitivity, as can privilege, power, compassion fatigue, boredom, and bombardment by marketed messages. Those things undermine our identification with suffering and blur our direct responsibilities and affirmative obligations to love our neighbors.

Environmentalists should remember that fear is one valuable tool for delivering messages, but should only be used limitedly. Moreover, they should be willing to challenge opponents on fear mongering and for a lack of sensitivity. Foremost, environmentalists like all other people are obligated to demonstrate empathy. That means approaching potential opponents with openness and understanding while defending victims of injustice. Ultimately, its more important to people with strong environmental consciousness that others share their consciences than their fears. Empathy is a foundation of environmental ethics.

Over the holidays, vegetarianism was a topic with my girlfriend, Krista, and her family. Her sister, Melissa, talked about restraining from eating meat to achieve personal purity and enlightenment after taking a Buddhism class. Similarly, Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin suggests in his book “To be a Jew,” that one explanation for Jewish Kashrut laws is that it makes even the act of eating holy. Restraint and distinction ingrain control over even the most primal instincts, substituting a deeper consciousness.

Moreover, eating less meat can protect our own health. Kosher has been connected to avoiding diets that could be dangerous or harmful. Americans suffer health consequences of eating a diet high in meat and low in other nutrition. I added that eating less meat also protects the planet. Livestock outnumber humans five to one, half of US water consumption is dedicated to livestock, and the nation’s rivers and streams are polluted with farms’ waste. Of course, animals usually suffer most from our eating habits. Cattle, for example, suffer confinement and countless other unnatural conditions. To me, compassion is the best reason to eat meat in moderation.

The important issue to me wasn’t whether or not I eat meat or even how it is killed but how much meat I consume and how that is raised. Melissa, who has been a prolific carnivore at least until now, wouldn’t kill a deer and encouraged my girlfriend not to either. She considered it too cruel. I would much rather eat a deer that spent its life in ferns and cornfields than a chicken that’s been bred into a painful shape and crowded in a dark cage for its short life. Krista’s uncle is an avid hunter too, but expressed he has no reservations about eating any animal that tasted good. Farm animals are a crop, he said. His words reminded me of an excerpt from the September 1976 issue of Hog Farm Management, in which a contributor advised, “Forget the pig is an animal. Treat him just like a machine in a factory.” I disagree with that mindset, which has been embraced by the meat industry. Pigs and other animals are sentient and whether or not they can reason or talk, they can suffer. Moreover, unlike a machine they are G-d’s creation and as His gift, deserve respect.

There is something schizoid in Krista’s cousins’ relationships with animals that sentiment and brutality exist side by side. Though their dogs received Christmas gifts, the ham, which was probably many times more intelligent, was referred to as only a crop. Uncle Steve was dismissive of whatever cruelty or conditions it endured in its short life.

I think that one of the best things about faith is that it calls us to higher consciousness and compassion. That should extend to our food and to the rest of creation, too. I was hoping the OU and other kosher certifications would mean that animals were treated humanely. Instead, I was upset by stories about cruelty in the world’s largest glatt kosher slaughterhouse in Postville, Iowa. Ultimately, Jewish Environmental Ethics did increase my consciousness of food and sensitivity to its production.

Recently, Michael Ableman visited Dickinson College to advocate sustainable agriculture. Ableman made suggestions for ways that the country should change, many in dramatic and costly ways. I thought, though, that he did a poor job of supporting why we ought to change because he did not share the values that drove his decisions. The audience heard Ableman’s ideas but was not given the opportunity to understand or defend them.  

Michael Ableman is respected as someone who thinks beyond spreadsheets, yet even he seemed unpracticed in sharing his values. For example, his audience may include greens, sprouts, and browns- people ranging from very to not environmentally conscious. Greens may readily relate to Ableman’s message because they’ve developed the same values. Sprouts, however, need to hear rationales for why erosion or industrial agriculture is bad and small scale farming is good, even though the first may be more profitable. For sprouts to really bud and become greens, they need to weigh the ethics. Finally, browns may not be environmentally conscious, but they may relate to Ableman’s presentation if it included how it connects to other values including healthy lifestyles, fulfilling spirituality, or a good inheritance for future generations.

I’m afraid Ableman’s faults demonstrate a broader unwillingness among environmental professionals to make judgments rather than calculations and open themselves to criticism for imposing beliefs. Oftentimes, after all, the same people who may denounce environmentalists for imposing beliefs will preach society’s obligatory respect for liberty and property. In my view, environmentalists have an obligation to share their values. That way society can consider them, making informed moral tradeoffs, and balancing them with countless others.

Environmentalism, unfortunately, is much less mature, less embraced by the population, and less enshrined in law and institutions than liberty and property. On the other hand, that makes sharing them even more important than these exceptional times demand. Environmental ethics is in a catch twenty-two situation because they are considered less legitimate to the population because they have a second or third class place in law. Concurrently, the ethics will only become law so long as they are supported by the population. These already glacial processes are only delayed by environmentalists’ and scientists’ unwillingness to discuss right and wrong by thinking outside the spreadsheet.

I sometimes feel like we haven’t made much progress since the 1960s, especially in sharing our values. Littering is an exception as one example of a dramatic success in shifting attitudes. As I understand, people used to drop trash all the time but most wouldn’t think of doing so today because their ethics limit them. However, when we have been successful, I think we’ve achieved narrow gains. How many people relate to the understanding that littering our towns with junk, strip-mall retail space is equally unnecessary and more permanent and damaging to values including sustainability and aesthetics?

Doctors, lawyers, politicians and researchers have ethical guidelines- it is only appropriate for environmental scientists to embrace ideas of what is right and wrong. Moreover, they ought to deliver those concepts to the popular consciousness so that other people, and society, can adapt and embrace them too.

The Necessity of a Land Ethic

December 20, 2010

In a Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold articulately presented the case for a “land ethic.” He identifies as an ecological and sociological necessity the extension of ethics to  include nonhuman members of life, collectively referred to as “the land.” His basic principle is, “a thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Leopold argues homo sapia needs to show respect for fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such. He hoped that man would use his sense of right and wrong to change his role from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it.

While arguing to enlarge the boundaries of the ethical community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, Leopold wrote that land “is still only seen as property” and the “land-relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.” His words still ring sharply true today. In fact, writing in the 1940s, Aldo Leopold probably didn’t foresee new, more destructive transitions in land use that took shape in the second half of the 20th-Century. He likely didn’t imagine the ubiquity of suburban sprawl. He’d been hurt to know the ways that the soil conservation movement would be eclipsed by an explosion in use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. He might have been terrified of the way mining, always dirty and dangerous, levels mountains, fills valleys, and leaves nothing but destruction in the place of productive land.

Without a land ethic, described so well by Aldo Leopold, we couldn’t understand why just the knowledge of these things can emotionally hurt some people. For people with strong values and compassion, these manmade and often fruitless ecological tragedies are touching in the same way human tragedies or injustices sometimes are.

Moreover, people with strong landsense, or environmental awareness, are conscious that these tragedies also strike mankind, especially in the long-term. We are not separate from but reliant members of the land community. Practices that destroy its integrity or obliterate hundreds of acres of productivity diminish man’s potential.

People without compassion for the land but who empathize with future generations will recognize that, even if technology replaces the resources we exploited at extraordinarily unsustainable rates, some things can never be replaced. Those things include, for example, ecosystems free of persistent bioaccumulative toxins and carcinogens that we rely on for drinking water. The modern bottled water phenomena demonstrates, in part, people’s cynicism about potentially polluted water but willingness to condone continued environmental destruction.

Future generations, like our own, will depend on ever shrinking non-replacable resources to nourish growing populations. Oftentimes, it is the simplest unadulterated things which may be missed the most including water, open space, prime soils, species, quiet, beauty, and dark. Future generations will also be constricted by the choices of previous earth inheritors and enjoy much less natural flexibility in where and how they live.

Man should show gratitude for creation and treat it with respect. Aldo Leopold argued not only that a Land Ethic is right, but that it is necessary. The destruction we continue to inflict harms partner members of the land community and will ultimately be a burden on successive generations.

Tensions between faith and the environment seem evident in Glen Beck’s recent attack on the Tides Foundation for sponsoring a 6-part curriculum that encourages Christian teens to “explore the relationship between their consumption, their faith, and the health of the planet.” The political commentator, by no means a religious authority, went on the promote “Resisting the Green Dragon” from the Cornwall Foundation. That video defines the “multifaceted environmentalist movement” as “one of the greatest threats to society and the church today.”

An abridged three-minute preview can be viewed on Youtube. A twelve-minute preview is available on Vimeo (password RESIST). But both are only teasers for the twelve-part DVD lecture series released November 10. Lectures include “Putting Out the Dragon’s Fire on Global Warming,” with Dr. David R. Legates; “How ‘Going Green’ Impoverishes You, Your Church, and Your Society,” with Honorable Becky Norton Dunlop; and “Ravaging the World’s Poor” and “A Biblical Guide to Genuine Creation Stewardship,” with Dr. James Tonkowich. “Resisting the Green Dragon” also includes discussion materials and a book to share in church and school.

The package, sold for $50 to Evangelical churches and schools, was released in November by the “Cornwall Alliance for Stewardship of Creation.” An alliance of clergy, theologians, religious leaders, scientists, economists, and policy experts,” it isn’t evident how much influence or buy-in the think tank has actually won since establishment in 2005. Nonetheless, it attracted a couple well-known organizations to criticize environmentalism in the video, like Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins and Focus on the Family’s Tom Minnery. Cornwall declares its principles in the Cornwall Declaration on Environmental Stewardship. It seeks to promote those principles in the discussion of various public policy issues including population and poverty, food, energy, water, endangered species, habitat, and other related topics.

Though the Cornwall Alliance espouse its foundations in Judeo-Christian heritage and the theological and anthropological principles of the Bible, Its “Aspirations” in the Declaration do not connect at all with theology, but instead a political agenda via a lean neo-liberal economic dogma. Cornwall’s publications have more references to Thomas Hobbes than Jesus. Consequently, though some people have forged links in their political and religious ideologies, the video and organization are critiques of environmental economics and have little to do with Christian or Jewish environmental ethics.

The material has attracted far more criticism in video comments than approval. Comments suggest that many people, including the faithful, feel the video lacks intellectual and theological rigor. It has been widely criticized as propaganda and fear-mongering. Nonetheless, an inadequate understanding of its origins may develop animosity and hostility between environmentalists and the religious. Realistically, Evangelicals and other faith groups have connected environmentalism with social justice and creation care to become more progressive (see flourishonline.org, careofcreation.net, plantwithpurpose.org and renewingcreation.org). The Cornwall Alliance represents diehards, like Glen Beck, and Republicans worried by political defection of the religious from their tenuous coalition. “Resisting the Green Dragon” is  weak and poorly representative of both the Bible and faithful people’s views.