Birthing a New Ethic for Ecological Justice

By Citizens for Public Justice

Job 12:7-10
“But ask the animals, and they will teach you; or the birds of the air and they will tell you; or speak to the earth and it will teach you; or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In His hand is the life of every creature and the breadth of all mankind.”

How do we honour what God creates? Do trees have rights? Do the oceans, fresh water streams, rivers, wetlands, lakes and glaciers, the lifeteaming soils, and the birds and animals who depend on the plants have rights?

Whether we are thinking of trees, waterways, airways, salmon, salamander or otherwise, this question presses into our evolving human consciousness – do these others have rights? Many will dismiss the question as ludicrous. Yet others already sense a different response, locked up in the recesses of a slumbering consciousness and can feel it stirring like a long-dormant seed sprouting to the surface. Some are beginning to hear the subtle yet profound changes in their own words: from ‘globe’ to ‘Gaia,’ from ‘the environment’ to ‘the Earth community,’ from ‘objects’ to ‘subjects,’ from ‘resources’ to ‘gifts of earth.’ All this suggests a growing felt relationship and deeper integration with the being-ness of all creation, our inseparable oneness embedded in the great web of life. As we awaken to a new day, a few more words are changing, a few more ways of thinking are shifting, a few more acts of gentleness and protection are chosen, an inner sense of the ‘law of love’ stretches a little wider.

While some still sleep, and others awaken, we know too that there are cultures that have not ever fallen asleep in the arms of worldviews that objectify and ‘divide and conquer’ nature. For millennia they remained faithful to a sacred sensibility and sustainable relationship governed by the laws of balance from the Earth community. For example, the Dheevar caste of Bhandara district of Maharashtra, India, never catch fish swimming upstream during the spawning migration, even though the fish are exhausted and easy to catch. There we find entire sacred groves and ponds in which no plant or animal is damaged; they are regarded as sacred and protected widely in many parts of India.

Within the last twenty years I have been profoundly influenced by the teachings of Thomas Berry. His writing has awakened me to a much deeper sense of place and purpose within the ongoing creative processes of cosmos and Earth community. He points to the critical importance of developing a comprehensive ethic and of broadening our sense of justice from a narrow human preoccupation to a creation-inclusive one. ‘Law,’ which I once understood as limited to a human-centered context for justicemaking and governance, is opening up to ‘Wild Law’ that governs the whole of nature’s Commons and our existence within it. It is inclusive of the life context which, as Chief Seattle expressed, ‘humans are but a strand in the web.’

Berry writes explicitly about a spirituality that is not merely appreciation of the Earth. Rather, Earth itself is endowed with an innate spirituality. Earth possesses a maternal and nurturing quality that is the source of our existence and our spirituality.

In light of his mystical awareness of Earth’s innate spirituality and his profound understanding of the science of a new cosmology, Berry outlines overarching principles for understanding ecological jurisprudence. Here are a few:

Rights originate where existence originates. That which determines existence determines rights. The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects. As subjects, the component members of the universe are capable of having rights. The natural world on the planet Earth gets its rights from the same source that humans get their rights, from the universe that brought them into being. Every component of the Earth community has three rights: the right to be, the right to habitat, and the right to fulfill its role in the ever-renewing processes of the Earth community. All rights are species specific and limited. Rivers have river rights. Birds have bird rights. Insects have insect rights. Difference in rights is qualitative, not quantitative.

Berry’s vision of an Earth community, in which the rights of all subjects are respected, involves an enormous paradigm shift from our present exploitative ways of thinking about the Earth. Earth is not merely a collection of raw materials or natural resources to be exploited, but rather an ultimate good in itself, irrespective of how humans may benefit or profit from it.

What we need now is an awakening spiritual sensitivity to the Earth community as sacred, and a commitment to protect the rights of the larger Commons. Our survival depends on it.

Scripture is filled with references to how we should treat the earth. In Leviticus 25:23-24 we read: “The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants. Throughout the country that you hold as a possession, you must provide for the redemption of the land.”

Who are we to destroy it and to limit God-given rights only to ourselves? Imagine giving birth to a new day that dawns a species-wide commitment to choose life (Deut. 30:19)!

Sister Maureen Wild, SC, M.Ed, is an international speaker, writer and retreat guide who, for twenty years, has focused on themes of a new cosmology and deep ecology, and their interface with topics of spirituality, healing, justice, ethics and Christianity.

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