And God Said it was Good.
Growing up Catholic, one of the first tangible elements of my faith I can remember learning is the creation story, as portrayed in the book of Genesis. Going through the progression of the seven days of creation, I always anticipated the day humans were made--the creation through which God recognized it was time to stop and admire all His work and the ways in which the elements would interact with one another. I was taught to believe that the world was incomplete without humans--even through God’s eyes. Though I will certainly not speak for all Christians, let alone Catholics, I will say that this anthropocentric lens through which to view our relationship with nature on Earth can serve as a gateway to the destructive behavior we see in society today. This behavior wreaks havoc on natural resources like water bodies, forests, and mountains, as well as their animal inhabitants.
It is my belief that a culture or society’s “creation story” informs the ways in which its people interact with and think about the environment. Though the technology and scientific discoveries of today put many creation stories in the myth realm rather than fact, the sentiments and relationships between humans and nature extracted from these stories are very much alive. For the Abrahamic religions of Judaisim, Islam, and Christianity, creation stories detail a dominion-like relationship between people and nature. Water, terrain, and entire ecosystems are subject to human rule, while humans are also charged with protecting their domain.
On the other hand, religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism detail creation stories (of which there are many) that convey an eternal cycle of creation and decomposition, rather than a start and an end as products from one omnipotent God (How Did the World). Further, many indigenous traditions take a converse approach compared to the Abrahamic religions when it comes to viewing nature. Many indigenous communities view biotic and abiotic elements on Earth as sacred, where in eco-theological terms, their relationship with nature is classified as immanent; these entities are not worshiped but are recognized for their indivisibility with the Sacred. In addition, many indigenous traditions practice Pantheism, meaning they believe that the Sacred lies within all of nature (alive and abiotic). Notably, many Atheists place their faith in scientifically-proven Evolution and the power of nature that can be seen through natural selection over millions of years.
Put within the context of today’s many environmental crises such as climate change, global warming, and deforestation, correlations can be drawn between a people’s creation story and their interactions with nature. In the United States we find an economic system of capitalism that procures success from exploiting resources; this system was put in place two centuries ago by white, Christian men of means, who, among other calamitous sentiments, believed they were entitled to the land and the use of its resources. This instrumentalism fostered the cultural belief that can be seen through capitalism today: nature is only as valuable as its significance to humans.
Contrastingly, many indigenous communities operate on ecocentric values, where entire ecosystems (alive and abiotic) are valued not only for their role in human life but also for their intrinsic value. An example of this ecocentric belief interacting with an instrumentalist society can be found in recent legislation, where countries around the world have made laws giving personhood to natural entities like rivers, forests, and mountains. A recent example that occurred in 2017 was the personhood of the Whanganui River in New Zealand. There, the indigenous Maori tribe of Whanganui fought for years to reclaim their sacred river from exploitation that stemmed from the colonization of their land centuries ago. Ultimately, Parliament established legislation that gave personhood to “Te Awa Tupua”, which is classified as “the river and all its physical and metaphysical elements”, making the statement that it “is an indivisible, living whole, and henceforth possesses 'all the rights, powers, duties, and liabilities' of a legal person” (Warne, 8). Though this ground-breaking legislation brings attention to conservation-based community values, the majority of natural entities stand defenseless, at the mercy of a consumer-based society that operates on exploiting resources that have no power in the courtroom.
No matter the religious tradition you believe or inherited (if any), now more than ever is the time to realize that humans need to treat the environment with dignity and respect for its intrinsic as well as anthropocentric value. Regardless of your learned creation story, we know that life on Earth existed far before the human race and will likely adapt and continue living far after the age of humans. It would certainly be a transhistorical error to believe that aspects like the climate and biosphere existed and functioned millions of years ago according to the same way as we experience it today. As humans, it is in our best interest to act now and create a sustainable future for generations of us fleshy, intelligent creatures to come; the Earth won’t wait up.
How Did the World Come into Being According to Hinduism? 15 Sept. 2017.
Warne, Kennedy. “This River in New Zealand Is a Legal Person. How Will It Use Its Voice?” Culture, 22 Apr. 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/2019/04/maori-river-in-new-zealand-is-a-legal-person/.
“Love and Death: Thinking with Plato and the Bible.” The Tikvah Fund, https://tikvahfund.org/tikvah-online/love-and-death-thinking-with-plato-and-the-bible/. Accessed 21 Oct. 2020.
“The Whanganui River (Te Awa o Whanganui).” Official Tourist Site For Whanganui, NZ, 3 Dec. 2015, https://www.visitwhanganui.nz/whanganui-river/.