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Spirituality, Economics and Nature

The United States lags the world in responding to climate change. Guardian columnist George Monbiot points out that as the scientific consensus grows, skeptics gain ground. Though I find the consensus persuasive, science probably won’t win this argument. Social and religious values play a big a role.

Environmentalists’ precautionary principle suggests that if there is dispute as to the cause of global warming we err on the side of caution by reducing carbon emissions. Some critics pose a challenging response: President Bush could have cited the principle to invade Iraq as the prudent response to murky evidence.

Of course, Bush’s perception of Iraq was filtered through his ideological-religious lenses. Nonetheless, all of us understand threats in terms of some fundamental perspective. If one is convinced that free-market-driven growth solves any problem, that government bureaucrats seek power or screw up, then taxes or regulation entail disproportionate risk. The cautious course is not to intervene.

As environmental tragedy unfolds, the tendency may paradoxically be to cling all the more to the conventional course. The Exxon Valdez brought us only double-hulled tankers to import oil more safely. The gulf crisis may effect only modest rig regulation.

For much of mainstream culture, a quasi-religious perspective also colors this debate. Following sociologist Ernest Becker, Monbiot suggests: “The fear of death drives us to protect ourselves with ‘vital lies’ or ‘the armour of character.’ We defend ourselves from the ultimate terror by engaging in immortality projects, which boost our self-esteem and grant us meaning that extends beyond death.”

Belief in a nature that can be fully understood as lawlike and manipulated to serve growing prosperity reinforces and is reinforced by market fundamentalism. Together these have constituted our predominant immortality project.

Some today reject treating nature as mere things. Many young evangelical Christians now view “dominion” over nature as demanding responsible stewardship. Some Greens regard nature as a realm of providential harmony to which we must accommodate ourselves. These are valuable interventions, but for me the views are too static, make too little contact with modern science, and fail to provide and encourage sufficient motivation for ethical action.

What if our world is enchanted, not in the sense of God acting in and through nature or merely in terms of our cultural attitudes toward nature? In “Vibrant Matter,” Jane Bennett defines enchantment as referring “to a mood or current circulating between human bodies and the animal, vegetable and mineral forces they encounter. Enchantment is associated with the feeling of being simultaneously fascinated and unnerved in the presence of something truly wild or Other. The point here is that enchantment is not so much a belief as it is an energetic current produced by the encounter between two sets of active materialities, one set congealed into a ‘self’ and one into what is often called the ‘objects of experience’ but is better described, I think, as a set of nonhuman ‘actants.’”

Bennett never denies the existence of regularities at certain times and across certain domains. She does reject our hubristic assumption that all of nature all the time serves us through such discoverable regularities. Her perspective, like belief in a lawlike or providential nature, cannot be proved. Nonetheless, she adduces much respected science, including complexity theory and evolutionary biology, that can be read in this light.

Nature itself may not be fully amenable to our purposes, but attunement to its capacity for agency is an already latent sensitivity that can be nurtured in many of us. It can enhance our lives. We become more alert to tragic possibilities. Complex, maxed-out electric grids that depend on electrons always behaving or far-flung energy technologies demanding intricate human skills, predictable tides and weather, and full knowledge and control of oceans and their rocky floor may induce more wariness.

Attunement to nature’s vicissitudes has a positive register as well. It can make us more attentive and responsive to such mundane artistry as rainbows, distinctive crystal formations, and to the miracle of human life itself. Such experiences can give us the motive and the energy to limit destructive growth. An adequate response to climate change may need to address not only science but controversial political and spiritual issues as well.

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