It may seem, especially to those wary of 'radical' environmentalists, that all the fuss about the mountains of garbage we produce is just so much propaganda by extremists. As someone who has visited actual landfills, I beg to differ.
Before my first visit to a landfill, we treated trash like everybody else. We put it into black plastic bags and then into the trash can for pickup. It thereafter went, so we supposed, to a magic, hidden destination where it disappeared for good. Out of sight; out of mind.
Things changed when, having moved out to rural southeastern Ohio, we tried to make a go of a more agrarian way of life, to which I would add my writing for financial support. This, I quickly found out, was not the way to become rich. We had to be very careful with our money, which fit well with my wife’s frugal character.
Garbage collectors charge extra money for throwing away large items, like rolls of old wire, hopelessly broken press-board furniture, dead appliances, and seedy couches. So, we threw the junk in the bed of my beloved Ford F-150 truck, and off I went with my eldest son to the local landfill.
If you have never been to an actual landfill—never seen the acres and acres of ugly and malodorous detritus daily cast off by our consumerism, never smelled the suffocating rot in the air, never ridden across a quarter-mile road of smashed bottles, decaying food, soiled diapers, and shards of particle board to get to the designated dump site, never hastily unloaded your own contribution to the wasteland, and never run your eye down the endless line of railroad cars filled to overflowing and waiting to unload—you really should. You really, really should.
It was difficult enough having to take that first safari through a landfill, but I remember that we soon got another angle on trash. Sitting out behind our log cabin one day, we smelled a particularly nauseating odor bathing our bucolic back yard. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I discovered the source when I came upon a one-hundred-plus car railroad train that was parked on the tracks about a mile from our house. It was resting there while the other similarly laden trains jostled for position to get into the landfill where I’d also dumped my own excess.
Then it hit me full-force! Those trains I’d previously seen at the landfill weren’t from around our environs. As I found out, with a little research, Apex Landfill was shipping these tons and tons of trash in every day, train after train, hundreds and hundreds of cars from all over the eastern United States. We were privileged to enjoy the rotting of New York City’s garbage in our own backyard—garbage that had disappeared like magic from NYC streets.
Garbage is big business, but it doesn’t magically disappear. It’s in someone else’s back yard. I know. I’ve had it in mine. It is not rendered invisible. It is deeply repulsive, and makes one immediately ashamed of having thrown out so much crap.
Nature is rather big. Can't it fend for itself? If it needs defense, who's attacking it?
Nature is not only big, but grand. Sadly, it is under attack from two opposing sides, which we might conveniently call the "Left" and the "Right." (And yes, I realize I'm about to engage in the intemperate use of caricatures, but such generalizations have a grain of important cultural truth.)
The Left is typically deeply concerned about the natural environment but often considers human nature to be an invasive if not evil presence in an otherwise paradisal garden, and is either indifferent or even hostile to 'traditional' morality. The Right is typically deeply concerned about human nature and morality, but is either indifferent or even hostile to concern for the natural environment. So, while the Left is obsessed with pollution of the natural environment, the Right is obsessed with pollution of the moral environment. The unpleasant and obfuscating result is that each refuses to see the other’s legitimate claims to truth because the other side seems to be tied inextricably to evident error.
This is a lose-lose situation, a cultural standoff that ensures that no progress is made in protecting either nature or human nature.
That's why I wrote In Defense of Nature: The Catholic Unity of Environmental, Economic, and Moral Ecology. My argument is very simple, at least in outline, containing four seemingly logical steps, to wit:
1. Just as there is an order of nature, which is good, wonderful, and beautiful, that we should both respect and protect, so also there is an order of human nature, which is good, wonderful, and beautiful, and we should respect and protect that too.
2. When we violate the order of nature in some way, we generally call that “pollution,” meaning by this that we have, by our actions, damaged nature—whether it is the air, the water, or some particular species
3. If human nature is indeed, as its name suggests, part of nature, then we should be able to call violations of the order of human nature, “moral pollution,” and for the very same reason, meaning by moral pollution, that we have in some way by our actions damaged human nature—whether it is our body, our sexual nature, some other aspect of our moral nature, or our capacity to freely choose what is good.
4. Therefore, our understanding of ecology should be expanded to include respect for and protection of both nature and human nature; we need to be equally concerned about environmental ecology and moral ecology, and whatever connections we find between them.
Hopefully, In Defense of Nature will help turn the cultural antagonism of Left and Right, into fruitful dialogue and cooperation. At least we can get the conversation started.
For those of you who have been stopping by, and wondering why my blog has been inactive for several months, the reason is quite simple--I've been too active. Or better, active in other areas, writing books and working on my EWTN series Saints vs Scoundrels. If that weren't enough to do, I'm also a Professor of Political Science at Franciscan University.
But now, it's back to blogging. I'll be telling you about my newest book, just out, called In Defense of Nature (Emmaus). And coming up in August, I'll have another book, 12 Things You Need to Know about the Reformation, just in time for the 500th anniversary of Luther's legendary nailing of his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church in 1517, the event that sparked the Reformation (Regnery).
Please see my book page for more about both, and keep your eye open for the arrival of new blog posts coming your way.