Thursday, May 15, 2008

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

Jeremy Beer has called my attention to these lines from T.S. Eliot, in "The Idea of a Christian Society," written in 1939, nearly 70 years ago.

"We are being made aware that the organisation of society on the principle of private profit, as well as public destruction, is leading both to the deformation of humanity by unregulated industrialism, and to the exhaustion of natural resources, and that a good deal of our material progress is a progress for which succeeding generations may have to pay dearly. I need only mention, as an instance now very much before the public eye, the results of ‘soil-erosion’—the exploitation of the earth, on a vast scale for two generations, for commercial profit: immediate benefits leading to dearth and desert. . . . [A] wrong attitude towards nature implies, somewhere, a wrong attitude towards God, and . . . the consequence is an inevitable doom. For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanised, commercialised, urbanised way of life: it would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet."

Why was it possible for a renowned conservative to write such a thing over half a century ago, and now for such a statement - were it written today - doubtlessly to be reviled by conservatives who are deeply wedded to "organisation of society on the principle of private profit"? Certainly the Cold War was the intervening event that made possible, even necessary, the coalition - or fusion - between traditionalists and economic libertarians. Even as we can agree that Communism was a malevolent, pernicious, and false political dogma, can it be that one of its most enduring and lamentable legacies was this coalition in the West - in particular, the ascent of economic individualism over a healthy culture? If so, can we be so certain that we really did "win" the Cold War?

Certainly not if it turns out that Eliot was right - and growing evidence suggest that he was. We are indeed confronting alarming levels of topsoil erosion across the world, the result of the very efficiency of industrial production. Possessing the "wrong attitude" toward nature, we ultimately strip the world of any respect and sanctity, reflecting ultimately - as Eliot suggests - "a wrong attitude towards God." Or, as Berry has written, "if we understand that no artist - no maker - can work except by reworking the works of Creation, then we can see that by our work we reveal what we think of the works of God" ("Christianity and the Survival of Creation"). Our work today is one of profanation and ingratitude.

We are literally on the path to starvation because of the plenty we are producing. For starters, we will need to change our basic paradigm, as the assumptions of the above-linked article reveal:

"Organic farming methods also can reduce soil loss. [Such methods] have shown a marked increase in soil health, water retention and regrowth when organic methods are used rather than the traditional methods."

That is, organic farming is considered a new-fangled alternative to "traditional methods," i.e., industrial farming. I don't think I have to explain what's wrong with this formulation.

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