Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Value and Values
distributed 9/21/07 - ©2007

This week, let's get back to basics. How do we relate to the natural world?

There are many technical and complicated answers to that question, of course. Much can be learned, though, by keeping it very simple. What are some of the core-level assumptions about how humanity relates to the rest of creation?

Those often unquestioned presuppositions about what is important in the world, and why, are very powerful in shaping how we live and act. They determine what value we assign to the natural world, and the shape the moral values from which we live.

I'm stimulated to go back to such a very basic question because of some wildly diverging views that I've encountered recently. Several sources have raised thoughts about the status and meaning that we give to other species.

To stimulate our thinking about value and values, let me touch briefly on four examples.

  1. A few weeks ago, I attended a 3-day seminar that brought together religious leaders and economic professors. It was intended to introduce us religious folk to principles of free market economics as strategies for addressing climate change. The advance readings were from academic fields and perspectives that I don't normally encounter.

    In that economic world, I found statements like this, from the book, People or Penguins: The Case for Optimal Pollution, by William Baxter:

    My criteria are oriented to people, not penguins. Damage to penguins, or sugar pines, or geological marvels is ... simply irrelevant. ... Penguins are important because people enjoy seeing them walk about rocks ... I have no interest in preserving penguins for their own sake.
    In this human-centered economic view, wildlife is seen as an amenity, a tourist attraction. We'll preserve them as a matter of "private altruism" if people choose to pay for penguins instead of buying a new washing machine. The value of species is their market value, how much some set of people is willing to pay to keep them in the wild.

  2. A more ecological view comes from Oxford University entemologist George McGavin. He is worried about the growing wave of extinction.
    The truth is that we simply do not know how many species can be safely lost. In effect, we are all aboard a plane that is flying blind. Losing species has been likened to taking rivets from the plane at random. Many are redundant, and, so far, the plane has managed to stay in the air. But it is a situation that cannot continue forever. The challenge today is to stem the tide of species loss, before we, too, become endangered.
    In McGavin's utilitarian view, those other species are valuable because they are part of the complex web of life. If extinction becomes too widespread, the whole thing falls apart. We care because it is a matter of our own survival. He wrote:
    Imagine setting up a colony on another planet similar to Earth. What ecosystem 'goods and services' would we need to bring along to ensure our survival? ... The interactions of large numbers of species are needed to produce stable ecosystems. But how do you put a value on their 'work'?

  3. A long-time reader of Notes, "Russell", wrote recently with a very different view. He lifted up the theological principle of "natural revelation", that God is made known through nature. In that view, the variety of species is an expression of the divine.
    Most Christians value their Bibles and would be horrified at the thought that, somehow, all the Bibles in their home could gradually have words, phrases and chapters randomly deleted, or that pages could be torn out. It seems to me that this could be an effective analogy for the loss of biodiversity.

  4. At an opposite extreme from the objectifying principles of market economics, there is the theological principle of the integrity of creation -- that each species has inherent worth. Ultimately, it does not matter whether we value them as cute, as essential for survival, or as a means of revelation. They are valuable in their own right.

    The classic biblical expression of the integrity of creation is found at the end of the book of Job. God runs through a long list of creatures that serve no human function, and that exist on the fringes of human contact. Job may not care about them, but God does. God asks Job:

    Is the wild ox willing to serve you? Will it spend the night at your crib? Can you tie it in the furrow with ropes, or will it harrow the valleys after you? Will you depend on it because its strength is great, and will you hand over your labor to it? Do you have faith in it that it will return, and bring your grain to your threshing floor?" (Job 39:9-12)

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These four perspectives on other-than-human species challenge our thinking, and our behavior. The contrast between them makes us ask if we operate primarily from theological or spiritual values, or if we pay more attention to economic and practical valuations. It is likely that many of us mix aspects of the utilitarian and the religious.

I confess to being horrified by some aspects of the "free market" writings. I was astounded that these highly respected scholars had no grasp whatsoever of basic ecological principles, or paid no heed to intrinsic worth. But I also had to admit that their questions of relative valuation do have to be addressed in allocating scarce resources.

How do we relate to the natural world? How are we tied into the web of life? What assumptions and values seem to be central to the way you view the world?

The theological notion of eco-justice affirms "the well-being of all humankind on a thriving Earth." Human needs and the functioning of the rest of creation are intertwined. We seek a thriving Earth, not one which is just barely holding together.

As people of faith, we must see more than economic values. This good and Godly creation needs healthy ecosystems, and is filled with creatures that exist in covenant relationship with God (Genesis 9:9-13).

May our ecological and theological values be strengthened, so that we are not only "oriented to people", but to all of creation.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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