Spirituality, Ethics and Natural Resources I

Vision of the Earth Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)
Vision of the Earth Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

It’s hard to believe that I didn’t put Bob Berwyn up to this.. but Spirit moves in mysterious ways, especially where this blog is concerned.

Anyway, Bob sent me a message with three questions about this yesterday and wanted to hear from you all in NCFP-land.. I’m going to take each of questions and make a separate post since I think they build on each other. But this whole topic is fundamental to the discussions and perhaps the disagreements we have, and it should be fun to dive in and see where we go.

I’ll start with his first question and my thoughts to kick it off.

Question 1. Are there any spiritual values associated with natural resource management?
If not, should there be?

Yes, there are many spiritual values associated with natural resource management.

A major spiritual value is that we are all one.. connected and connected to a Higher Power (no, not the WTO). This is basic in our nature traditions, in many religions and certainly in Christianity. So I am Matthew and Matthew is Gil and that Best Ferret Forever, and the prairie dog it is eating, and the ticks on the prairie dog, and the viruses on the ticks on the prairie dog, and we are all a part of God and God is a part of all of us (this is a simplification, if you are interested in a theological morass, check out Wikipedia on panentheism here).

A second value, related to the first, is compassion and love. As mushy as this sounds. For people who want their homes protected from wildfires, for fish, for people working in fire suppression, for wolverines, for loggers. Natural resource management has tended to be run by a male-dominated culture (let’s be frank here) so this probably will not be articulated in quite the same way (love) in most of the natural resources literature ;).

There are others.. justice, for example. But take, Jesus for example, if we used KISS theology (thanks, Andy), it’s always about loving your neighbor. And your neighbor can include creatures other than humans.

Spiritual values slide over into ethics, so here are my Ethics and Natural Resource Management Helpful Hints (from when I taught Environmental Ethics at Virginia Tech).

1. Ethics is (are) not a sledgehammer to be used to attack people when you disagree with them. This violates the principle of compassion. I have seen this way too often as a drive-by attack. One reason I decided to learn about it was that, in my experience, people can use it to justify things that don’t make sense on any rational or other basis. And if they’re academics, they can wrap it in a cloak of impenetrable verbiage, but it still doesn’t make sense.

2. Ethical discussions about NRM need to take into account the environment AND people. At the same time. Otherwise, frankly, it’s not very helpful and separates (what Gaia has joined together, let no ethicist put asunder ;)). I think that’s one of the reasons that academic environmental ethics can make practitioners’ eyes glaze over.

3. If you look at the literature, you will find lots of talk about the below values in a) but very little about those in b) and c). I don’t know why. Except that perhaps people who spend their time analyzing can imagine outcomes ,but not so much the details of how these things come about.

a) There are spiritual values associated with outcomes on the land..positives and negatives for different species including humans.

b) There are spiritual values associated with how decisions are made (for example, whose voices are heard?)

c) There are values associated with treating people well who do the work on the land, people in the office, and people who use the land and care about it, and of course people who live in communities on the land.

So there is Bob’s first question and my responses.. your thoughts?

5 thoughts on “Spirituality, Ethics and Natural Resources I”

  1. I think a lot of foresters cam from families who had a parent as a minister. I know the three Hoefer brothers did. I think one or two former USFS Chiefs were that way. Just an interesting observation which Sharon could comment on.

    • I don’t know about the Chiefs.

      I know folks from the FS have taken up a second career in ministry (including readers of this blog), but then I know of journalists who have, as well, after the print journalism diaspora.

      I do think if your soul is inclined to nature mysticism, and you want to provide for a family, you could probably do worse than employment at the Forest Service.

  2. Good land management is clearly spiritual. Or at least you get that feeling. Why do farmers go to church so often? Why do people freak out about “cathedral forests?”
    But that feeling is a human feeling above all. It’s either right, acceptable, or wrong and our “spirituality” and orientation tell us that.

  3. Spiritual wholeness comes increasingly closer as we increase our understanding of God’s will and do our honest best to follow it. In scripture we find that God’s first priority is that we understand that He is in charge and that we must love and obey Him above all else. His second priority is that we must love and respect all that He created for His good pleasure.

    In terms of Natural Resource Management, scripture makes it abundantly clear that mankind is to husband / manage all of creation within the confines of God’s first two priorities. Scripture also makes it clear that all of creation has been made for the good of mankind. To husband / manage nature, mankind must know and obey the will of God. The will of God is defined by the rules which He put in place to control everything. His rules are, in effect, established science. Some of that established science has been discovered by us and we are in the process of discovering the rest of what He established for the governance of all things.

    Given all of that, mankind’s spiritual integrity in the realm of natural resource management depends on mankind’s ability to discover what God has established in the way of science and obey that science. When we fail to act as good husbands/managers of His creation, we sin. When we ignore established science and choose wishful thinking instead, we sin and are spiritually encumbered whether we recognize it or not.


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