Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Our Place in this World

I was reading TIME magazine today - it's an issue focused on actual policies that our politicians might talk about, if they ever talked about actual issues. In the environment section I ran across an interesting, albeit common, idea. "As a scientist, I am responsible first to humanity." I heard a similar sentiment a few months back, from the head of Zoo Miami, commenting on the killing of Harambe the gorilla. He said, essentially, "humanity comes first."

He actually said something like, "If the last endangered white rhino stood between me and the lives of my wife and kids, of course I'd kill it," which is a little over-dramatic for the point he was making - which is that human life comes before animal life. I suppose, in individual situations I don't disagree - I mean, if the gorilla had really hurt or killed that kid, they'd've had to put it down anyway.

I'm not so sure the sentiment hold true for me as a guiding principle, though - at least as it appeared in the TIME article.* I reject the notion that humanity is the primary concern of the world. Theologically it's all wrong - God created humans to care and tend to the Earth. Yes, one might say that the Earth can't be cared for or tended if it's caretakers are extinct, but this idea seems an extreme argument and, ultimately, someone else's problem. If God creates a universe, puts us in it specifically to care for that world, calls us to live sacrificially in service of creation, then also allows us to do so to our own extinction, that's either poor planning or part of the plan all along.

I tend to think our science and theology pushes us to see humanity as something different than what's been before. Humans are really the only creatures capable of analyzing our own instincts and rejecting our natural inclinations. We're capable not just of making choices, but analyzing those choices, even before they're made. I'd say we're different enough to really affect the whole of creation, either positively or negatively.

Of course, as the "pinnacle of creation" (or evolution) it makes a lot of sense for us to think this way - and we'll probably continue to think this way right up until some other, more evolutionarily advanced creation takes our place and makes us irrelevant (and if you scoff at that, ask your friendly, neighborhood neanderthal what they think... oh, right).

Now I'm not going to argue that we're NOT responsible for humanity - after all we're a big part of this world in which we live - but I would argue that we're more responsible for making the whole work well than we are for maintaining any part within it. Creation is a system - one Christians especially believe humans play an integral part in maintaining - it should be understood and approached that way.

This is sort of what I was saying the other day: are we merely a collection of individuals, or are we individuals who've submitted ourselves to the whole? It sounds like simple talk, but it makes a real difference in how we view our purpose in the world.

Yes, if the world's last remaining white rhino somehow stood between me and my family's life, I'd probably kill it. I hope not, but let's be honest (although I have no real clue as to how one might go about killing a white rhino, especially in an emergency - I don't usually carry around high powered hunting rifles and somehow I don't think my bare hands are going to cut it - or a knife; I'm not sure a knife would cut it -rhinos have very thick skin). Would it be the right thing to do? I doubt it.

Like any issue of life, the question, though, isn't about one moment, it's about setting up a system that addresses the issue well beyond any individual moment. So, as an example, we could say sacrificing acres of rainforest is worth it if lives are saved - some would even argue that faith in science and progress leads them to believe we'll figure out solutions down the road. I'd prefer to figure out the best solution now.

Yeah, I'd rather sacrifice my own life over someone else's - at least then I'd get a choice - but I think the idea of sacrificing our lives for something more noble than just an individual life is pretty important to the way the world works. I believe in non-violence, but making a stand for non-violence usually means suffering violence - often for quite a while - before the message takes effect.

I'm not sure the big issues of environmental stewardship are really life or death for too many of us just yet, but they do call for sacrifice, for giving up pleasures or conveniences or things we might've otherwise considered needs, to create a world that's ordered and sustainable for all.

There's nothing wrong with making humans a big part of our sacrificial environmental actions, but we need to make sure we've got a more generous end in mind.

*It was called "Engineered food holds our future" by Hope Jahren, but it doesn't appear to be online anywhere yet.

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