Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Francis Schaeffer on Ecology

In 1970 Francis Schaeffer published Pollution and the Death of Man in which he attempted to construct a Christian approach to the arena of ecology.  Much of what Schaeffer wrote over forty years ago is still relevant today.  Part of the genius of Schaeffer was his ability to see his time with an understanding of where the current ideas were going.

Pollution and the Death of Man contains two appendices of historical interest.  The first is "The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis" by Lynn White, Jr. which appeared in Science magazine (March, 1967).  The second is "Why Worry About Nature?" by Richard Means which appeared in Saturday Review (Dec. 2, 1967).  These essays were important in the late 1960's and Schaeffer accurately grasped their significance.  These articles articulated the importance of how world views shape our understanding of ecology.  Later in the early 1980's when Schaeffer was re-editing this book for inclusion in his Complete Works he would add these words:
In ecology in the 1980's there is not much writing or discussion on the basic philosophies underlying the consideration of ecology.  This is parallel to the lack of philosophic pornography, philosophic drug taking, philosophic films, etc.  However, in ecology, as in these other areas, the thought-forms of the 1980's were laid in the earlier period of the 1960's.  At that time there was much serious consideration, writing, discussion and expression concerning the world-views underlying all these areas.  (Complete Works--vol. 5, p. 5)
What Schaeffer saw in the writings of the 1960's was a move toward pantheism in the ecological movement's philosophical writings.  Schaeffer predicted that this call to embrace pantheism would become more pronounced.
There was a conference in Buck Hill Falls, Pennsylvania, called "The Conference on Environment and Population."  There was a light-show presenting the modern problems of ecology.  Then the proposition was made that the answer must be in the direction of pantheism.  We are going to hear more of this.  Pantheism will be pressed as the only answer to ecological problems and will be one more influence in the West's becoming increasingly Eastern in its thinking.  (p. 13)
Schaeffer shows himself prescient with these thoughts.  Confirmation of this comes from an article by George Sessions in 1987.  Sessions' article is entitled "The Deep Ecology Movement: A Review" (Environmental Review, vol. 11, no. 2) and, as the title suggests, he covers the history of the ecology movement.  Sessions mentions the importance of Lynn White, Jr's article that was reprinted in Schaeffer's book.  
Lynn White, Jr., brought the anthropocentrism issue into dramatic focus as the basis for the environmental debate.  White argued in a 1967 article that orthodox anthropocentric Christianity must assume a large share of the responsibility for the environmental crisis as a result of desacralizing nature and producing a world view (metaphysics) that sees humans as separate from and superior to nature.  (p. 106)
White's 1967 essay reached a large audience as Sessions points out:
White's essay reached a wider audience when it was republished in the "Sierra Club Bulletin" and discussed approvingly in Paul Ehrlich's The Population Bomb.  Along with other deep ecology classics of the 1960's, White's article was reprinted in several anthologies.  (p. 106) 
Sessions also recognizes the increasing interest in pantheistic ideas as forming the philosophical base of the ecological movement.  Sessions documents the many and varied theorists in the realm of philosophic ecology writing in the 1960's and '70's.  Over and over again these theorists are seen looking for philosophical inspiration in variants of pantheism--or, as Peter Jones would say, "one-ism."  Here is a sampling of the thinkers Sessions covers in his essay:
Raymond Dasmann, who wrote influential books from a broad social perspective, was advocating a move to the "future primitive" and "ecosystem people" ways of life by the 1970s.  According to John Milton, a self-professed Zen Buddhist, Zen taught that "there is really no distinction between the organism and the environment."  And Frank Egler proposed a new world view called Human Ecosystem Science: "I look to Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism...as the womb from which a humanitarian-oriented Human Ecosystem Science may yet arise."  
Paul Shepard's essay, "Ecology and Man," was another landmark in the critique of Western anthropocentrism.  Influenced by the Zen Buddhist views of Alan Watts, Shepard discussed the different metaphysics resulting from an ecological perception.  (p. 107)
Sessions documents how some of these thinkers were influenced by Western versions of pantheism found in Spinoza and Alfred North Whitehead.
The Spinoza scholar, Stuart Hampshire, later faulted contemporary Western ethical theory for its anthropocentrism.  That is, states of mind (feeling, consciousness) are considered to be the only intrinsic good; the rest of nature is valued only to the extent to which it contributes to essentially human states of consciousness.  Modern ethics, Hampshire thought, belittled and diminished humans and also involved a kind of arrogance in the face of nature--"an arrogance that is intelligible only if the doctrine is seen as a residue of the Christian account of this species' peculiar relation to the Creator."...Hampshire proposed instead a more cosmic Spinozistic world view in which ecologically destructive acts would be prohibited by exceptionless norms.  (p. 110)
It is to his credit that Francis Schaeffer was reading and attending to these currents of thought in his day. He accurately saw the underpinnings of the ecology movement that was developing in his day.  He clearly saw the clash of underlying world views and sought to speak to this dynamic.  His writing is still relevant for us today.  These same world view tensions roil beneath the surface in debates about environmental philosophy and policy.