Double vision: prophets, tribalism, eugenics, and the environment

As I dog-paddle through the sea of books threatening to drown not just me but the overwhelmed shores of my bedside table, I found these sentences: “For those who draw near and offer themselves before God, satisfaction of hunger is neither an end in itself nor a wholly ‘secular’ event…. [E]ating is a worshipful event, even revelatory; it engenders a healthful knowledge of God.” When I read this, I thought, “Ah, I am a member of the tribe that believes this.”

I briefly met Ellen F. Davis, author of Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible and professor of Bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School, when she spoke at our church about ten years ago, and I immediately developed a helpless intellectual crush on her. The crush is not diminished by the fact that Our Hero Wendell Berry wrote the foreword to the book and is quoted at the beginning of each chapter.

Davis’s basic claim is that the fertility and habitability of the Earth—and particularly of Israel—are the best indices of the health of the covenant relationship between God and his people. She writes beautifully about that stickiest of words in Genesis 1, when mankind is given “dominion” over the earth. Made in God’s image, we are meant to exercise dominion as God does, and in Genesis 1, the way God exercises dominion is to exclaim in delight over the goodness of his work, and then to declare a day of rest for his delightful creation. Reckless topsoil depletion, toxic pesticides, and Confined Animal Factory Operations, among many other current agricultural practices, would probably not pass the Delight Test.

I read all this with a double vision: on the one hand, I underline passages, write notes, and spray exclamation points in the margins. On the other hand, I think about my neighbors in the Hill Country, many of whom are very conservative Christians, and I wonder how they would react to Davis’s scathing comparison of pharaonic agricultural and economic policies (the ones that made God really, really mad) with the practices of American agribusiness. I’m not sure the book will get a lot of traction here. (Well, or anywhere; the book’s title is so unsexy it might as well be wearing a suit of armor.) And yet it seems to me so clear that Davis’s analysis is Right and needs to be broadcast.

So how do you convince someone you’re right? Well, here’s how not to do it: the way the American conservation movement sounded its earliest notes, at least politically. The current issue of Orion magazine carries a feature story entitled “Conservation and Eugenics: The Environmental Movement’s Dirty Secret.” Charles Wolforth, the author, links Teddy Roosevelt’s New Nationalism, with its emphasis on patriotism and conservation, to the propagation of “higher races,” as opposed to Native Americans, Eskimos, and other “lower races.”

Wolforth writes, “These ideas had been developed at Ivy League and other universities, at museums of natural history and anthropology in New York and Washington, in learned societies and in scientific literature. When… world’s fairs focused on the West, the link between natural resources, morality, and racism was drawn ever more explicitly.” Pointedly, Wolforth quotes from Roosevelt’s New Nationalism speech, arguably the launching of the modern conservation movement:

Of all the questions which can come before this nation, short of the actual preservation of its existence in a great war, there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us, and training them into a better race to inhabit the land and pass it on. Conservation is a great moral issue, for it involves the patriotic duty of insuring the safety and continuance of the nation.

It also, apparently, involved practicing eugenics.

Awash in my sea of books, I am a descendent of this tribe. No wonder it’s hard to convince many people I’m right.

When I walk through my beloved Austin neighborhood, I’m often beset with the same double vision I have when reading the prophetic environmental writing I’m prone to read. I walk through my neighborhood pleased—delighted—with my wonderful neighbors and their well-tended homes and gardens. As I have mentioned before, walking a couple of blocks can take forty-five minutes or more, depending on who else is out and about and what news needs to be exchanged, which dogs need to be admired, whose children are doing fabulously or exasperatingly nutty things. How can this be a bad thing? And yet I can’t help but be aware of the multitudes of cars, the endless whir of air conditioners, the trucks bearing pesticides that fertilize lawns, the lights that are on all night, the sprinklers running even as it rains. (We, too, are guilty of some of these.) How do you convince people without double vision that the goodness they’re seeing in their way of life is resting on something destructive?

In the fruit of the American environmental movement there is a noxious worm: a sense of righteousness that often gnaws its way into self-righteous tribalism. The ways in which we eat and live are often markers of who we are; when told (or bullyragged) to change these ways, it can seem as if something essential in us has been condemned, most particularly when judgment comes from outside the tribe. Like triumphalist Christians who refuse to acknowledge the ugliness and violence that comes bundled with the hope and beauty of Christian history, triumphalist environmentalism will foment ill-will from people whose health and livelihoods could be enhanced or saved by its message.

Every movement must have its prophets. Traditionally, prophets haven’t been the sort of people you want to invite home for dinner; they eat locusts, dress in skins or nothing at all, sit in cisterns, moan a lot—that sort of thing. The true prophets get listened to not because they’re scare-mongering but because they always have an accurate sense of their tribe’s history, an acute awareness of when it has fallen away from its original goodness. They include themselves in their judgments. Despite their very visible eccentricities, there is an essential humility to them. When I pull up behind a pickup truck with a bumper sticker that says “Drill Here Drill Now Pay Less” (along with a Rick Perry sticker) and my first impulse is to jump out of my car and bash in the windshield, I know I’m no prophet. We’re both driving, after all, and I need that gas as much as the other driver does. I’m not passing that humility test.

So where does that leave my tribe, the irritable non-prophets of the environmental persuasion? As an oldest child, I always like to have the right answer to pass on—and enforce, whenever possible. My tribe is frequently stymied. But here’s one thing: invite someone over for dinner, someone not of the tribe. Feed them something that’s beautiful, that’s grown in accordance with the revelatory economy of food kindly produced. And think about this passage from one of Wendell Berry’s Sabbath poems:

Leave your windows and go out, people of the world,
go into the streets, go into the fields, go into the woods
and along the streams. Go together, go alone.
Say no to the Lords of War which is money
which is Fire. Say no by saying yes
to the air, to the earth, to the trees,
yes to the grasses, to the rivers, to the birds
and the animals and every living thing, yes
to the small houses, yes to the children. Yes.

What we’re reading
Thomas Perry, Strip
Martin: Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America

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2 Responses to Double vision: prophets, tribalism, eugenics, and the environment

  1. Joybells says:

    My Geiger Counter of Delight is clanging, buzzing, smoking, and skittering across the floor.

  2. Jan Jarboe Russell says:

    This is one of those posts that actually inspires me to do something different. I am not inspired enough to go as far as asking Rick Perry to dinner, but I vow to ask someone slightly less challenging to dinner soon and take the Heather challenge: Kill them with the kindess of good food and shared responsibility for the good earth. Thanks for this one. Jan

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