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Human beings find other human beings really depressing. Even when we are quite fond of the ones in our vicinity, we frequently despair of humanity as a whole. If you don’t believe me, go to church.
I drive around my state a lot, and one of my little enjoyments is to note the sentiments on church marquees. My favorite recent example is this one, from the Reformed Church of Something-or-Other:
Services 9 & 11
Sunday School 8-9
CASUAL, UNCOMMITTED CHRISTIANS MAKE JESUS VOMIT.
It’s like some kind of surrealist poetry, isn’t it? I had to turn around and go back for another look, just to make sure I wasn’t hallucinating.
I think we can agree that this diagnosis of divine bulimia has more to do with the pastor’s tummy than with Christ’s, can’t we? But apart from its sheer weirdness, it serves as a nice example of a basic sociological principle.
As a species, we tend to take our own human problems and Writ Them Large upon the vault of heaven and make them into cosmic calamities.
“Human beings are the worst,” my friend Mike said the other day. “We are a disease. We are cancer.”
Mike is not a Reformed Something-or-Other. He’s not even a casual Christian. He is a nice, well-educated policeman who claims to have no religion at all. Still, he is an environmentalist. And at that moment, he was expressing his environmentalism in traditional, religious terms. He was speaking as an apocalyptic.
“The planet,” he concluded sepulchrally,” would be better off without us.”
“The planet would be better off without you? Without me?” I asked. “Without your kids?”
“Better off without my kids, then? Without Ellie? Peter? Zackie?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“So maybe we should just knock off the Anti-Retroviral drug treatments and let AIDS take its course. Maybe world hunger is just the planet trying desperately to heal itself. Maybe we should hope that weapons of mass destruction go right ahead and proliferate, since they could be the planetary equivalent of radiation and chemotherapy?”
“That doesn’t follow at all…!” Mike was getting angry. (And he is armed.)
But just as a fundamentalist can’t assert, “Non-believers are going to Hell!” Without expecting to offend actual people, an environmentalist can’t describe humanity as a planetary virus akin to AIDS without suggesting that the planet would be better off without…well, you.
Genesis describes human beings as the most important, most God-like things in God’s creation.
In its religious form, environmentalism describes human beings as similarly God-like and important: no mere worms writhing blindly on the crust of an uncaring earth. We are the destroyers of worlds, we are legion, we are the living end! The story of the world, the story of the cosmos, the story of life itself ends up being our story.
Environmentalism carries the same risks as any other religion. It offers the false comforts of moral and intellectual superiority. Apocalyptic pronouncements from the true believer tend to discourage action. And because, like any religion, this religion likes to divide the sheep from the goats—the enlightened us from the dull, unknowing them—it does nothing to further the sorts of conversations we could be having if they gave up this attitude of noble sorrow and admitted that it is humanity, and not the planet, that is sick to its stomach and in need of saving.
Look, I’m an environmentalist. Okay, I’d like to make a few, small improvements to the environment. It’s okay by me, for example, if AIDS and smallpox go extinct. But for the most part, I think the environment is awesome. The aesthetics are agreeable, the amenities are good. I like a planet with a temperate northern hemisphere, a toasty equator and a couple of nice, clean polar ice caps. I like having a few snowy spots as well as tropical rain forests, and diverse ecosystems are entertaining even as they contribute to our material well-being. By now, we know how to take this planet’s offerings and turn them into poetry and crayons, Merlot and pastry, music, democracy and love.
“Don’t worry,” I told my friend Mike (lovingly). “We aren’t cancer. We’re more like a bad case of acne. And—there will be a cure.”
Mike didn’t seem comforted.
“And when we are gone,” I continued. “The sun will rise and set above the waters and the wind will whisper through the branches of the trees. The lion will feed upon the haunch of a still-living lamb. The baby cuckoo will casually kick its doomed nest mates over the lip of the nest it has usurped from them, the ichthumanid wasp will insert its egg into the soft and helpless body of a caterpillar, and a baboon who finds an infant antelope in the grass will scream in excitement and tear it to pieces. If there is life, there will be suffering and there will be death. But without us, there will be no witnesses.”
“That doesn’t cheer me up,” said Mike.
I know. But what can you do?
If nothing matters more than life… well, each life and all life ends. If nothing matters more than the earth, well, with or without us the sun shall cease to shine and the earth shall one day cease to be. If nothing matters more than love? Then we should try to survive as long as we can, because as far as we know, we are the only creatures who know how to love our neighbors as ourselves, even if we aren’t nearly as good at this as we would like to be.
We have spent so much time—human time, that is—creeping ever so slowly along the moral arc of the universe, willing it to bend toward justice. If we blow it now… if we cure the planet of ourselves as if we were a bad rash instead of an astonishing miracle…well. I’m telling you: Jesus will vomit.