The joy of belonging
One of the key figures in shaping a modern
educational movement to end the lonely,
often desperate, isolation of Homo sapiens from the other species was the American
Joseph Wood Krutch (1893-1971). "We are all in this together," he concluded in 1949,
not long after he finished writing a biography of Henry Thoreau. Once a rather
melancholic humanist, Krutch now became a kind of pantheist or ethical mystic, caught
up in the joy of belonging to "something greater than one's self."
Reading Thoreau again and again was partly
responsible for the radical change in
Krutch's outlook. The other chief stimulus was a self- education in ecological principles.
"Every day," he observed, "the science of ecology is making clearer the factual aspect
as it demonstrates those more and more remote interdependencies which, no matter
how remote they are, are crucial even for us." Krutch's tutoring in science confirmed him
in an organismic sensibility, partly pragmatic, but more fundamentally ethical.
We must be a part not only of the human
community, but of the whole ecological
community. We must acknowledge some sort of oneness not only with our neighbors,
our countrymen and our civilization, but also some respect for the natural as well as the
man- made community. Ours is not only "one world" in the sense usually implied by that
term. It is also "one earth." It is abundantly clear that our species requires behavioural
adaptations for long term survival, based on the political and economic interdependency
of the various sections of the civilized world. It is not a sentimental but a grimly literal
fact, that unless we share planet Earth with creatures other than ourselves, we shall not
be able to live on it for long.
Science has led directly to a moral awakening:
a new sense of biological relatedness
and communalism. However, Krutch perceived that ecology, "without reverence or love,"
could become naught but "a shrewder exploitation of what it would be better to admire, to
enjoy, and to share in." His own approach to the science helped turn him from the
pursuit of self toward a "sense of the community of living things." Spirituality makes the
connection. To the Hindu bhakti yogi, compassionate love is the highest vehicle to union
with creation. In pursuing creation in this way one becomes more god-like, and from this
inner source comes an outward manifestation of selfless love for all creation.
The persistence of this moral undercurrent
in ecology as an increasingly quantified
discipline means, for one thing, that mid- twentieth- century ecology belongs to the lay
mind—to the amateur naturalist and the conservationist—as much as to the scientific
establishment. Like Thoreau in his time, it is important that collectively we do not wholly
surrender this science to academic experts.
Ecology has always been unusual among
the sciences in its accessibility to the ordinary
student of nature,-throughout its history it has been shaped by and responsive to the
everyday life of all sorts of people: farmers, gamekeepers, foresters, bird watchers,
travellers. More than this, it has consistently appealed to many who are otherwise hostile
to scientific explanations: As long as ecology has a lay input, it can continue to teach the
gospel of organic community, whether or not this is subject to empirical validation.
In practice this means endorsing conservation
as one side of the coin of political
economy. The problem is that a culture that tends towards conservation management of
its natural resources could be a dying culture if others around it do not adopt the same
constraints on consumption.
The hope that nature will show humanity
the way to sound moral values is part of
Krutch's faith, and certainly that of the 'Age of Ecology'. But this view has long been a
beacon for Anglo-American culture, at least since the eighteenth century. Indeed, few
ideas have been recycled as often as the belief that the factual "Is" of nature must
become the moral "Ought" of man.
Many have contended that a pronounced
pattern or observed direction in nature provides
man with all the guidance he needs for "should- ness." If nature is found to be a world of
interdependence, then human beings are obliged to consider that characteristic a moral
dictum. But if we have to first follow nature, which road do we take? Whose map do we
use? How can we keep to the road?
The perennial hope has been that science
will show the way. In the case of the
ecological ethic, its proponents picked out their values first and only afterward came to
science for its stamp of approval. What is really required is a deeper sense of integration
between man and nature, a more-than-economic relatedness—and to let all the
appended scientific arguments go. "Ought" might then be its own justification, its own
defense, its own persuasion, regardless of what "is."
With the decline of religion and its moral
tradition in our own time, science has become
the universal standard, and for many, it maintains an aura of absolute sanctity. It is seen
as an oracle of objective truth, located well above the shaky ground of moral choice, and
therefore a perfectly trustworthy source not only of knowledge but of value. Others,
noting how often scientists reflect their cultural milieu, are more sceptical of science's
claim to detachment; the quality of trust is strained. But even the sceptics look to
science for the validation of certain truths. If science cannot, by itself, save society,
neither can society be saved without it. The moral values inherent in scientific models
cannot be accepted without examination, but the guidance such models provide is
indispensable. To judge which of these attitudes is the most valid requires presenting
them within an educational framework where "Is" and "Ought" are distinct and unique
concepts, but which demonstrates that any attempt to rigidly separate them is probably
The idea of truth or fact outside the
moral context has no meaning for the human mind.
Whether imperialist, arcadian, organismic, or something else, values have always been
woven into the fabric of science. So much so that when scientists most firmly insist that
they have screened out everything but demonstrable fact, the rest of us should
nevertheless anticipate moral consequences. In his thoughts about his homeland of
Concord Thoreau was beginning to assemble a guide to attaching moral values to our
various uses of the environment. These web pages are a development of Thoreau's
secular breviary to guide personal actions of atonement that lighten the guilt of
humankind for initiating metamorphoses that have been more destructive than creative.
Imagination and place
As early as 1806, John Forster in his
Essays in a Series of Letters to a Friend, trying to
define the essence of the romantic had written:
"Imagination may be indulged till it usurp an entire ascendency over the mind,
and then every
subject presented to that mind will excite imagination instead of understanding to work; imagination
will throw its colours where the intellectual faculty ought to draw its lines; imagination will
accumulate metaphors where reason ought to deduce arguments; images will take the place of
thoughts and scenes of disquisitions. The whole mind may become at length something like a
hemisphere of cloud scenery, filled with an ever-moving train of changing melting forms, of every
colour, mingled with rainbows, meteors and an occasional gleam of pure sunlight, all vanishing
away, the mental like this natural imagery, when its hour is up, without leaving anything behind but
the wish to recover the vision. And yet, . . . this series of visions, may be mistaken for operations
thought, and each cloudy image be admitted in the place of a proposition, or a reason; and it may
even be mistaken for something sublimer than thinking."
Forster's fears of the predominance of
imagination over judgement in the evaluation of
place were not a problem to later writers. Kingsley's Alton Locke the Chartist poet,
discovers the work of Tennyson and is overwhelmed by the pleasure of imaginative
... he has learned to see that in all Nature, in the hedgerow and the sandbank, as
well as in the alp-
peak and the ocean-waste, is a world of true sublimity — a minute infinite —
an ever fertile garden
of poetic images, the roots of which are in the unfathomable and the eternal, as truly as any !
phenomenon which astonishes and awes the eye. The description of the desolate pools and creeks
where the dying Swan floated, the hint of the silvery marsh mosses by Mariana's moat, came to
me like revelations. I always knew there was something beautiful, wonderful, sublime, in those
flowery dykes of Battersea Fields; in the long gravelly sweeps of that lone tidal shore; and here was
a man who had put them in words for me. This is what I call democratic art —the revelation of
poetry which lies in common things. And surely all the age is tending in that direction; in Landseer
and his dogs — in Copley Fielding and his downs, with a host of noble artists — and in all
who have really seized the nation's mind from Crabbe and Burns and Wordsworth to Hood and
Dickens, the great tide sets ever outward, towards that which is common to many, not that which
is exclusive to the few . . ."