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A Review, by Rabbi Julian Sinclair

I am really not the right person to be reviewing “Nature’s Due.” It is based on some quite complicated biology, a subject that I haven’t studied formally since I was 14. James Murray-White from Green Prophet sent me the book in September, and I’ve only just finished it now, after several tactful reminders from James. As you can infer from that, it’s been a bit of a struggle.

However, I’m really glad that James stayed on my case about his, because “Nature’s Due” is a fascinating and important book. It’s one of those books that can furnish you with a couple of serviceable building blocks for a worldview.

Goodwin’s guiding question is: what would it take for our culture to interact with the world in a mode of engaged, evolutionary participation rather than in a mode of dominance and control?

He lists the familiar litany of environmental failures engendered by the dominance and control model (GM crops, degraded food supply, ugly, dysfunctional cites etc.) and asserts that the root cause of this cultural attitude is dualism: our predilection for seeing nature as inert stuff to be acted on and transformed for our benefit through the agency of human will and subjectivity.

Sometime shortly after the Renaissance, claims Goodwin, we disenchanted the world. Consciousness, intelligence and freedom were arrogated to the human realm, while the physical world was conceived as a mere machine.

So far, this is all fairly standard green cultural criticism. Cartesian Dualism has always placed in the top three of any list of the usual suspects in Western thought for creating the spiritual conditions that have allowed us to wreck our physical environment. Goodwin’s originality is to propose a reframing of our worldviews based on cutting edge research in biology that has emerged over the past 5-10 years.

Brian Goodwin

Brian Goodwin

The first prop of his argument is a body of work that has attempted to bring the study of qualities, including human affective and emotional responses within the domain of scientific study. For example, it turns out that there are high degrees of agreement when you ask people to ascribe emotional states to a pig. Intersubjective consensus can provide a basis for studying qualitative phenomena that cannot be measured. One small blow against the subject-object division.

Much more interesting, and central to his argument, is the work that Goodwin surveys in contemporary genetics. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, most biologists thought of DNA as a sort of computer program. It was the code that instructed organisms how to grow. This belief drove the development of the epic genome mapping program that was finished in 2001.

However, as the genome project neared completion, biologists realized that it was not so much fulfilling their expectations as transforming them. It turned out that genes do not condition the structure of living things in any deterministic way. We now know that a gene can be “read” (my quotation marks) by a cell in hundreds of different ways, each one resulting in a different protein. “For example, in the hair cells of t

he inner ear of a chick there is a gene that can be translated into 576 different proteins each one altering the tuning of cells to sound frequencies.” So if genetic structure does not allow us to predict morphology as we had hoped it would, what then have we learned from the whole genome project?

Goodwin argues that a different metaphor for the genome is emerging from the work of biologists like Evelyn Fox Keller and Anton Markos. Rather than understanding DNA as a computer program, we should instead conceive it as a kind of a “text” containing a range of developmental possibilities that is “interpreted” by cells through interaction with their environments. Cells “read” their genes so as to realize the possibilities of growth that will tend towards the creation of complex, efficient, coherent and aesthetic biological forms (beauty being a characteristic of efficiency, complexity and coherence.) He ascribes the term “meaning” to the object of organisms’ search for such elegant solutions to the problems of survival.

Thus Goodwin claims that other living things may be said to possess language and culture of a kind that is analogous to ours.  Their cultural resources are an inherited stock of genetic information that enables them to “choose” effective ways to live and grow through interaction with their environments.

If this is true, Goodwin concludes, then not only are we wrong to believe that language, culture and the search for meaning are uniquely human attributes; we should alsorecognize what a lousy job we are doing of utilizing those gifts in comparison to other creatures. “Compared with our biological cousins, we have become extraordinarily clumsy in the creation of our artifacts. We do not use resources and energy efficiently as organisms do, and we often fail badly in the aesthetic quality of our artifacts.” As Goodwin puts it, “the human is the only creature who doesn’t know what he is supposed to be doing.”

So Goodwin’s prescription for change is that we should be humbly willing to learn from the rest of creation, which does seem to know what it’s supposed to be doing.  Through bio-mimicry, natural design, architecture and city planning based on natural forms, we may return our culture and its artifacts to harmonious balance with the natural world.

My main criticism of this thoughtful and well-written book is that, if biology is not my area, then it seems probable that philosophy is not Goodwin’s. He himself alludes to the problem of early educational specialization based on the dualistic division of knowledge into “arts” and “sciences.” It appears that we have both suffered from it!

I have placed “text”, “interpret” and “culture” in quotation marks where they are applied to the activity of genes and organisms, but Goodwin doesn’t. The analogy, though plausible and thought-provoking, is nowhere near proven. It would take a far deeper discussion than Goodwin offers of what human “texts”, “interpretations” and “cultures are to justify removing the inverted commas.

Indeed the places where he does offer a philosophical basis for this view of science are the weakest in the book.  Chapter 6 proposes that the little-known scientific work of the great German writer Johann Wolfgang Van Goethe prefigured a way of doing biology that can

John Wolfgang von Goethe

John Wolfgang Von Goethe

integrate quantitative and qualitative facets in a holistic and spiritually inspired vision.

Again, Goodwin offers enough to make this idea intriguing but not nearly enough to render it convincing. Bizarrely, almost half of the chapter is devoted to Goethe’s biography, and in particular, to his extravangant romantic life, (with extensive quotations describing one lover’s “large black eyes of the greatest beauty”, and her “easy Zephyr-like movements.”) Discussion of the philosophical basis of Goethe’s thinking is thin. This is a pity. The German Idealist tradition of philosophy to which Goethe contributed, with its non-dualistic merging of nature and spirit and its evolutionary conception of consciousness seems to be a potentially fruitful source for grounding an ecological vision of science.

One of the many problems with Goodwin’s swift elision of the differences between human culture and potential biological analogues is that it ignores the healing possibilities inherent in the immensely greater complexity of human culture. Suppose we accept Goodwin’s analogy and conclusions: the very fact that human culture can become so massively dysfunctional in its modes of adaptation to the physical world, in a way that other organisms appear not to be able to match, is itself tribute to the sophistication of human thought.

The immensity and ingenuity of the cultural and scientific information that we have amassed in printed and digital forms has created the technological instruments with which we are degrading the biosphere. The human capacity for reflection on, development of, and conscious selection from our cultural resources is surely unique, even if one agrees with Goodwin that other organisms undergo analogous processes. And it is just these capacities for extremely rapid cultural evolution that give us hope that we can change course in time.

Survival is unlikely to lie in simply admitting what pathetic evolutionary failures our creations are in comparison with, say the elegant, functional beauty of the honey bee’s. It will also come from our ability to reach deep within our cultural memories, including our religious and spiritual traditions, and to rapidly actualize the wisdom that lies there for how we may live beautifully in an interconnected world.

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

What are the stories that we tell ourselves to make sense of such a mind-bogglingly, epically huge challenge as climate change?

Which are the narratives with the depth and resonance to inspire action? Are those stories all ultimately drawn from the sources of myth and religion? Are we telling the right stories?

If not, which one’s should we be telling instead?

That’s the fascinating conversation that we’ve been having with Michael Shellenberger since we reviewed his and Ted Nordhaus’ book “Breakthrough,” a couple of weeks ago.

We were dead chuffed (that’s an English expression – it means “gratified” or “appreciative”) to get this warm response from Michael to our review.

Thanks for this very thoughtful review of our book. I really appreciate the comparisons and contrasts you drew between DOE and Break Through, and your admonition that we take the ties between religion and politics seriously…

Michael Shellenberger

Michael Shellenberger

As for religion, we support a secular politics, not a religious one… We also think that gratitude toward creation, reverence, and awe are powerful motivators for a progressive politics. This is perhaps the least developed part of book, but it may also be, as you suggest, the most important one.

You ask, ‘Will a secularized version of this narrative, built around clean tech investment, have the mythical power to move America to act on climate change? Or will a deeper and even more resonant story be needed, say of the earth as the God’s wondrous Creation that we are bidden to cherish and love?’ I hope it’s both. To date the religious discourse greens have used has overwhelmingly been one of a fall from nature that ends in apocalypse.”

The question Michael asks raises something we’ve thought about quite a bit at Jewish Climate Initiative. I wrote back:

…Yes, I too hope it’s both. It is uncanny how many secular environmentalists have reached (perhaps unwittingly) for a narrative of climate change in which future hellfire and damnation are the wages of sin; a story rooted in religious myth and a completely unhelpful one for inspiring action. The stories that we tell about this, the good ones and the bad, tend to be
traceable back to spiritual narratives. One of the things we’ve learned from your book is the importance of finding those religious stories related to climate change that can empower and inspire. I too very much hope we’ll continue the conversation.”

It really is uncanny. I have a Google Alert set up to search for articles containing the words “climate change” and “religion.” The results from Europe are almost all news stories about religious groups mobilizing to combat climate change; the articles from the US, on the other hand are usually near-identical opinion columns by climate change skeptics decrying belief in global warming as “the new religion.”

Annoying as these pieces are, the grain of truth within them is that many climate change activists have structured their case along mythic-religious lines. Whether consciously or not, they have borrowed a canonical, and readily available myth of Western culture to tell their story.

This is strikingly evident in the books of two very good recent writers on global change, George Monbiot and Mark Lynas. Both use medieval reworkings of the Christian myth of hell-fire and damnation to add a dash of literary panache and moral urgency to their writings. Lynas in his “Six Degrees” quotes liberally from Dante’s “Inferno,” while Monbiot in “Heat” spins a nice little allegory of climate change based on Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus:”

“Faustus is humankind, restless, curious, unsated. Mephistopheles… is fossil fuel. Faust’s miraculous abilities are the activities fossil fuel permits…And the flames of hell – well, I think you’ve worked that out for yourself.”

Even in post-Christian Britain, where Tony Blair recently admitted that he had kept quiet about his strong religious beliefs while Prime Minister, for fear of being branded a “nutter,” images of fire and brimstone are present enough in the national psyche to be irresistibly handy for global warming writers. Unfortunately, these myths provoke widespread paralysis, denial and despair and are generally not helpful to the public discourse on climate change.

Myth might be described as the deep, structuring narratives of human experience, and their primary source is in the great religious traditions. They are “the music we dance to even when we cannot name the tune”, as Bill Moyers put it, summing up the work of the greatest twentieth century mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell. Like Campbell, when we say “myth” we don’t mean “untrue”; rather we are talking about the deepest levels of psychic and spiritual truth.

Human beings need myth to make sense of the world. However, it is highly questionable whether the myth of hellfire is a helpful one in the climate change context. The implication that we are all sinners, and that we are therefore heading for damnation, may shake up some people, but no doubt pushes many more into despair or denial. We need to draw on all of the world’s great spiritual traditions to articulate different, more hopeful and empowering mythic understandings of climate change.

As a mere starting point, let us look at the most obvious biblical narrative of climate change, the story of Noah and the flood. This is sometimes thought of (for example by the Christian eco-feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether in her book Gaia and God) as an apocalyptic end of the world myth. The rabbis, however read it as a story of human moral empowerment.

Noah heard a warning from God. His world was about to be inundated by catastrophic climate change. This threat was a result of systemic ethical failures. “The earth was corrupted before God, and the Land was filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:11.)

God commanded Noah to build an ark. The midrash asks why this was necessary. Couldn’t God have simply borne Noah up to Heaven? The answer is that the whole purpose of the ark was that it took a long time to build. First Noah had to plant cedar trees, which take a long time to grow. God wanted Noah’s contemporaries to see the construction, take heed of what was to come, and avert the decree by changing their ways.

Unfortunately, the response of Noah’s generation during the hundred and twenty year construction period was to scoff, deny the threat and refuse to change. The flood came, Noah and his family was saved, the rest of humankind perished.

Yet the Torah is implicitly critical of Noah for not having done more to save others. In the Torah text, he is silent. In the Midrash, he tells others,” God intends to bring a flood on the world, and told me to make an ark, so that I and my household may escape.” Noah’s passivity is compared disparagingly to the activism of Abraham, who took responsibility for the fate of his generation.

At the dawn of the twenty first century a new warning has been sounded. Today, there is no ark except the earth, and no prospect of salvation apart from the entire global family. We must hear the call and repair Noah’s mistake of indifference to his neighbors. Climate change challenges us to act like Abraham, and work with the rest humanity to save our common home.

For more on climate change ethics, we invite you to visit our ethics page at JewishClimateInitiative.org.

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