A Memory of Paradise

Rachel Carson—biologist, wri­ter, conservationist, Presby­ter­ian, and founder of the modern U.S. environmental movement—never lost her sense of wonder and awe in the natural world. She instinctively rooted for life and was ferocious in its defense. She sought out suppressed narratives in nature, such as the silencing of songbirds by industrial pesticides described in her 1962 classic Silent Spring. She cultivated an affectionate ethic for the natural world and the humans who worked most closely with it. Carson was driven by some “memory of paradise,” as playwright Eugene Ionesco put it.

Carson understood that human dignity was protected by social justice and had its own kind of natural beauty. Though Silent Spring focused on songbirds, Carson also flagged the danger pesticides posed to farm workers. Her research, along with immigration policy changes, gave Chicano leaders Dolores Huerta and César Chávez the climate they needed to mobilize for the rights and safety of farm workers, leading to the formation of the United Farm Workers union.

In a 1963 letter to Carson, Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote that Silent Spring contributed an “essential piece of evidence” for diagnosing the ills of our technological civilization. “The awful irresponsibility with which we scorn the smallest values,” wrote Merton, “is part of the same portentous irresponsibility with which we dare to use our titanic power in a way that threatens not only civilization but life itself.”

Both Merton and Carson had what can be called a “religious imagination.” They were aware of a greater reality than what is immediately at hand or that can be perceived through individual consciousness. Religious imagination, as W.S. Di Piero describes it in his book Out of Eden, requires a rigorous study of “the real” while always seeking its connection with its Creator, with the transcendent, with the mystery and awe beyond human understanding. Exercising a religious imagination requires a practice of humility.

THE SPECIFIC “TITANIC power” Merton refers to in his letter to Carson was nuclear weapons and, more broadly, the modern thinking and economy that undergirded such weapons. But the same reasoning can be applied to the titanic power of expansionist, growth-based capitalism, formulated on a 19th-century notion of inexhaus­tible natural resources—timber, petroleum, coal, topsoil, and water, to name a few. That system is now falling down around our ears. Where once our economy raised up a middle class out of poverty (albeit imperfectly), now it’s crushing the poor in its lumbering collapse and bringing that middle class down with it—all the while chomping through the planet’s protective layer with exponentially increasing speed.

Physicist and climate expert Joe Romm sums up the real picture. He calls our economic and ecological situation since the late 1980s “the grandest of Ponzi schemes, whereby current generations have figured out how to live off the wealth of future generations.”

“To perpetuate the high returns the rich countries in particular have been achieving in recent decades,” explains Romm, “we have been taking an ever greater fraction of nonrenewable energy resources (especially hydrocarbons) and natural capital (fresh water, arable land, forests, fisheries), and the most important nonrenewable natural capital of all—a livable climate.”

In searching for solutions to a collapsing economy and environment—with the “green economy” being one expression of that search—people with a religious imagination have an essential piece of the puzzle.

First, we can warn against fixes that are expressions of the fundamental illness itself, efforts aimed only at superficial symptoms. Second, we can recall for the larger society a “memory of paradise.” We can point to the deepest values that our economic and environmental solutions need to strive toward—the inherent goodness of the natural world, the fundamental rights of human dignity, an economy that serves all with equity.

“The whole world itself, to religious thinkers,” wrote Merton to Carson, “has always appeared as a transparent manifestation of the love of God, as a ‘paradise’ of [God’s] wisdom, manifested in all [God’s] creatures, down to the tiniest, and in the most wonderful interrelationship between them.”

Rose Marie Berger, an associate editor of Sojourners, is a Catholic peace activist and poet.

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