Ask Dr. Cobb

February 2007 Question

What does process theology have to say about inconvenient truths?

Dr. Cobb's Response

I have asked my own question this month. Sadly, few questioners bring up the question of the fate of the earth. Yet it remains the overarching one, the context in which we should consider all the others. Process thought supports, if it does not require, this view that all other issues are subordinate to this one.

The dominant worldview of the modern world has been dualistic. It has separated nature from the distinctively human. The organization of knowledge in the university expresses this view, carrying the boundaries further into extreme fragmentation. This dualism and fragmentation play a pervasive role in blocking thought and action appropriate to the planetary crisis.

Since the university has accepted Darwinian evolutionary thinking, this dualism makes little sense. For a Darwinian there can be no such separation of the human from the natural. But dualistic habits are deep, and the university and Western thought generally have ignored the contradiction between acceptance of Darwin and ignoring the fundamental implications of such acceptance. What we know from the natural sciences still has only the most indirect influence on the humanities and even on the social sciences.

There are exceptions. A good many philosophers now explain human phenomena by reducing them to expressions of physical phenomena. And a good many scientists, especially evolutionary biologists, argue that in fact we humans are nothing but part of the material, mechanical nature of nineteenth century physics. But although this materialistic reductionism overcomes dualism, it is hardly a helpful response. It abolishes all questions of value. Although in principle this kind of scientism might teach how threatened the world is by human actions, it provides us with no reason to care.

Process thought is one form of an alternative that hovers around the edges of the university and plays a somewhat larger role in Western culture generally. In this view, humanity is part of nature, a very distinctive part. But nature is not composed of matter in motion. It is composed of organisms that have reality and value in themselves and for one another. What happens at one point has effects elsewhere. The extraordinary increase of human population and the extraordinary power humans have attained to manipulate other parts of nature and even themselves pose extraordinary threats to the whole of the biosphere.

As in the case of evolution, some of these facts are not denied by scholars in many fields, but they are ignored. Business as usual means acting as if they were not true. Remaining in well established disciplinary ruts supports the business interests that also act as if these facts were not true. However, if one’s view of the world is shaped by process thought, it is much harder to ignore the degradation of the biosphere.

In the late 1960s it seemed that a breakthrough to basic change might occur. Earth day 1970 was a wake-up call of great promise. The national government was affected. Good legislation was passed. It seemed that even the university might change.

But this brief time of promise passed quickly. Within a decade popular pressure to respond to the crisis faded and the country was firmly under the control of those who were determined to act as if the problem did not exist. They did not deny that problems existed, but these were to be dealt with piecemeal in ways that did not disturb our “way of life.” The university returned fully to the ruts that had briefly been challenged. Environmental concerns became one specialty among others or were located at the margins or a variety of disciplines. The fate of the Earth was no longer studied.

In the churches, to the long list of ethical concerns, the evil of environmental destruction was added. This addition was important. But the overwhelmingly anthropocentric character of our liturgies and preaching was not changed except on one Sunday each year many churches turn their attention to the Earth. This concern plays little role except when someone reminds others that it should not be forgotten.

My own awakening came in 1969. When I realized that the future of life on the planet was threatened, all other concerns seemed secondary. Under that impression I said and did some things of which I am not now proud. I have not changed my mind, but I rather quickly came to see that efforts to respond to the crisis of the natural world that displayed, or seemed to display, insensitivity to issues of justice, were wrong in themselves and would only make matters worse. The only hope was a more holistic approach to the world’s problems. The term eco-justice, widely used by Christians in those days, pointed in the right direction. This was also a better fit with process thought.

I soon decided that the little I could do fell into two related areas. First, I could work harder to promote the nondual vision of reality. Since I believe that the most fully developed and profound version of this vision is that of Whitehead, I identified myself and my work more fully as the promotion of his thought and its Second, I became convinced that the place where overcoming dualism was most important was in economic behavior. The dualistic behavior was supported by dualistic theory. I hoped that exposing the profound inadequacy of the assumptions on which the world’s economy was based might help to slow the headlong rush of humanity to self-destruction. Unfortunately, because those inadequate ideas prove so profitable to the rich in the short run and are so deeply entrenched in the university, they play am even greater role in the world now than then.

There has been some progress. More and more people reject dualism and seek to view reality in nondual ways. The promotion of Whitehead’s thought has contributed to this improvement. Also, more and more people recognize the damage done by the present form of economic organization and actions. Many of them recognize that standard economic theory has proved a bad guide. More and more people and groups, at the periphery of government, of business, and of the university now describe an alternative way of organizing that world that could be just and sustainable. They affirm that “another world is possible.”

Thus far the alternative vision has had virtually no effect on the basic patterns of global activity and planning. It has, however, won enough popular support in some parts of the world to slow down the destructive juggernaut. It has blocked the advance of the FTAA, Free Trade Area of the Americas, and of the WTO. It has also led much of South America to refuse the continuation of U. S. domination and exploitation. These are real gains.

But as overall human activities have become more destructive of the planet and opposition has slowly mobilized, the crisis has grown and become more imminent. In 1970 I wondered whether it was already too late. Computer predictions of disaster tended to indicate 2020 as the time when collapse would begin. That gave us fifty years to change our ways. Three fourths of that time has past, and we have not adopted better policies.

Perhaps we have decisively squandered our chance. James Lovelock thinks so. His new book, The Revenge of Gaia: Earth’s Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity, opens with the words: “Now is much too late.” He compares the view that we could now save the biosphere, including the human population, from collapse by stopping our destructive activities with the idea that a lung cancer victim can be cured by stopping smoking. Like the predictions of Limits to Growth, decades ago, he foresees a drastic reduction of the human population.

Lovelock’s analysis should not be dismissed lightly. He has often been right in the past. But even he does not advocate that we simply plan how to respond to the total disaster we face. He hopes we will “get real.” For example, whereas I and many other environmentalists have opposed nuclear power because of its enormous long term dangers, he advocates it because, in the short run that should now concern us decisively, it has the best chance to reduce the use of fossil fuels and thereby to slow global warming. Perhaps he is right. To the current threat we cannot seek good solutions. There are none.

Perhaps Lovelock and others can awaken us to the extreme urgency of drastic action. Perhaps we will be prepared to compromise with respect to what that action should be. But at this point our deepest convictions will come into play. If humanity faces catastrophes of dimensions never known before, what are the implications for us?

The first implication is that responding to this overarching danger takes priority over almost all other considerations. Liberals and Christians have too often opposed needed actions on moral grounds. For example, in China drastic action to slow population growth was of critical importance, and the government responded intelligently. But American liberals and many Christians expended more energy in pointing out the infringement of personal liberties and increased abortion of female fetuses than in supporting the basic policy. To this date the Catholic Church and many Protestants do not support even moderate efforts to reduce population growth, believing that these conflict with moral principles or divine laws. Yet any objective analysis shows that the vast increase in the human population in the past century contributes importantly to hastening the impending catastrophes in which billions of people are likely to die.

Second, the Office of Net Assessment of the Department of Defense published a study responding to this question of implications in October 2003, An Abrupt Climate Change Scenario and Its Implications for United States National Security. It foresees a time in the not distant future when weather changes cause billions of people, to struggle over the remaining resources and to seek refuge in still habitable places. Accordingly, we should be militarily equipped to protect what we have and secure more, regardless of the number of people we have to kill in the process. The response of the Department of Defense to the prospects of global catastrophe is a military one. What about ours? Is there an alternative? If our remaining resources are sparse, can we advocate sharing them with those who have still less? Would anyone survive such sharing?

These are morally unanswerable questions. The alternative is to think in a quite different way. Since the problem is global and not national, the reflection should also be global and not national. What can be done globally to reduce the coming disasters and mitigate their consequences? How can we prevent the wasting of resources in military conflicts and mutual slaughter? How can we work for a decent world for the survivors?

We Americans, or at least our leaders, are those who are most resistant to genuine discussion and decision at the global level. Accordingly, those of us who believe that our behavior is profoundly damaging to the prospects of a livable world have a special responsibility to all humanity to do what we can to change our government’s priorities.

Does process theology offer a word of hope? Yes, a very conventional one: God. But process theology does not hope for supernatural intervention. God acts only by calling creatures to act. Our hope is that key people at key times will respond to God’s call so that God can work through them to save what can still be saved of the beauty and glory and habitability of this planet. Since leaders cannot effect redirection of policy and action without followers, we can all be responsive to God’s call now, and again and again, to think and act in light of the reality of our planetary situation. That call is always particular to the particular situation of the one who is called. That God can break through our all-too-willful blindness and the hardness of our hearts is the hope that sustains us.

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