OUT OF THE EARTH
CIVILIZATION AND THE LIFE OF THE SOIL
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS 1991
Chapter 2: Man’s Role on God’s Earth
We live on a unique planet bathed in the light and warmth of a nearby star we call the sun. Alone among the planets revolving around that star, ours is endowed with the fortuitous – though ever tenuous – combination of conditions capable of generating and sustaining the miracle of life. And what a rich and abounding variety of life our earth has spawned! It includes millions of types of creatures, each unique in form and function, yet all engaged interdependently in an elaborate dynamic performance, like players in an enormous philharmonic orchestra. Altogether, the multitude of plants and animals coexist both competitively and cooperatively in a more or less stable community self-regulated by an intricate set of checks and balances.
Pondering the intrinsic mutuality of life on earth, one cannot but wonder at the discordant anomaly that has so recently intruded upon nature’s pluralistic harmony: How did one species gain such overwhelming dominance over so many others, indeed over the very processes that control all life? And how could the members of this clever species fail so utterly and for so long to realize the dire consequences of their carelessly exercised dominance?
For soil thou art
- The Hebrew Bible provides a profoundly symbolic account of the act of creation, the beginning of life on earth and the origin and role of humankind.
- The first two chapters in the Book of Genesis give not one but two accounts of creation.
Latent in one of the main founts of Western Civilization we have two opposite perceptions of man’s destiny. One is anthropocentric: man is not part of nature but set above it. His manifest destiny is to be an omnipotent master over nature, which from the outset was created for his gratification. He is endowed with the power and the right to dominate all other creatures, toward whom he has no obligations.
The other view is more earthly and modest. Man is made of soil and is given a “living soul,” but no mention is made of his being “in the image of God.” Man is not set above nature. Moreover, his power is constrained by duty and responsibility. Man’s appointment is not an ordination but an assignment. The earth is not his property; he is neither its owner nor its master. Rather, man is a custodian, entrusted with the stewardship of God’s garden, and he can enjoy it only on the condition that he discharge his duty faithfully. This view of humanity’s role accords with the modern ecological principle that the life of every species is rooted not in separateness from nature but in integration with it.
- Over the generations, it has generally been the arrogant and narcissistic view, implied in the first Biblical account, that has prevailed.
- It has repeatedly been cited and used as a religious justification or rationale for man’s unbridled and relentless exploitation of the environment.
- The question now is whether we have learned our lesson and are ready at last to accept the long-ignored second view of our proper role in relation to nature.
- The ancient Hebrew association of man with soil is echoed in the Latin name for man, homo, derived from humus, the stuff of life in the soil.
- This powerful metaphor suggests an early realization of a profound truth that humanity has since disregarded to its own detriment.
- Other ancient cultures evoke powerful associations similar to those of the Hebrew Bible.
- In the teachings of Buddha, not only the earth itself but indeed all its life forms (even those that may seem lowliest) are spiritually sacred.
Worship of the earth long predated agriculture and continued after its advent. The earth was held sacred as the embodiment of a great spirit, the creative power of the universe, manifest in all phenomena of nature. The earth spirit was believed to give shape to the features of the landscape and to regulate the seasons, the cycles of fertility, and the lives of animals and humans. Rocks, trees, mountains, springs, and caves were recognized as spectacles for this spirit, which the Romans attributed to their earth goddess, Tellus.
The cult of the earth spirit is perhaps the oldest and most universal element in all religions. The Australian aborigines and the African Bushmen, among the last to have maintained the pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer mode of life, have always sanctified and revered the earth as the great provider, the source of all inspiration and sustenance. So did the American Indians. In 1852, when the United States Government wished to purchase the land of the Indian tribes in the Northwest, their Chief Seattle sent back this eloquent reply:
How can we buy or sell the sky or the land? The idea is strange to us. If we do not own the freshness of the air and the sparkle of the water, how can you buy them? Every part of this earth is sacred to my people, every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. We are part of the earth and it is part of us. What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth. This we know: the earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. To harm the earth is to heap contempt upon its creator.
- Other cultures and religions did not consider agriculture to be a violation of the earth, but – quite the contrary – a way to make the earth happy and fruitful.
- The belief that agriculture is necessarily good, however, ultimately became self-defeating. The hillsides of Persia, like those of other uplands in the Near East and around the Mediterranean, were deforested and subjected to erosion, while the irrigated bottomlands, like those of Mesopotamia, suffered silting salinization.
- As soil is the material substrate of life, water is literally its essence. Our interest in how soil and water function in the biosphere and in how they can be managed or mismanaged, derives as much from necessity as from innate scientific curiosity.
- Superficial observers of history who ignore the role of environmental factors may ascribe the defeat of an empire to moral decay, cultural enfeeblement, lead poisoning, or lack of military preparedness – when actually the main contest had already been decided by the abuse and degradation of vital resources.
The failure to heed the lessons of the past is reflected in the Koran: “Do they not travel through the earth and see what was the end of those before them? They tilled the soil and populated it in great numbers. There came to them their apostles with clear signs, which they rejected, to their own destruction. It was not Allah who wronged them, but they wronged their own selves.”
Today there is clear and urgent reason for us to be concerned over the adequacy of land and water resources to satisfy the demands of our own profligate civilization. Our concern is not merely for the availability of these resources but for their quality as well. The encroachment of urban, industrial, transportation, and even recreational activities on the landscape, along with the application of “efficient” modern techniques of agriculture, construction, mining, and waste disposal, exert growing pressure on the limited resources of good land and water.
- Among the many nations abusing their natural endowment, America is not the least offender. This country’s fundamental strength depends on its great soil and water resources, and their wasteful and destructive exploitation is surely sapping the nation’s innate strength and jeopardizing its future.
We can take no comfort at all in the fact that the problem is universal. Absurdly, nations fight wars over every inch of their political boundaries while mindlessly sacrificing whole regions to environmental degradation. Their patriots salute the flag and take up arms to defend their country against external enemies, while neglecting its environment and ignoring the real attacks being waged from within on the land they purport to love. Thousands of years are required for a soil to form in place, yet this amazingly intricate work of nature can be destroyed by man, with remarkable dispatch, in just a few decades. We must understand that, on the timescale of human life, the soil is a non-renewable resource. So is a mature forest, a river, a lake, or an aquifer. They belong not only to those who are the titled owners at this moment, but to future generations as well. In an even more profound sense, both soil and water belong to the biosphere, to the order of nature, and – as one species among many, as one generation among many to come – we have no right to destroy them.
Can a greater awareness of our environment and of our place in it help awaken us from our narcissistic indulgence, and foster a more appropriate sense of humility toward nature? And can this sense bring us any closer to our common physical, biological, and cultural moorings? Can it reconnect us spiritually with our humble origins, from which we have for so long been separated yet never completely severed?
- Clearly something has gone wrong in our relation with nature, and it behooves us to ponder what it is and how it started.
- Just as a mature person must learn to consider the circumstances and needs of others, so a mature society must restrain its exploitation of resources and consider both the rights of future generations and the needs of other species.
A glimpse of earth from space should be sufficient to restore the true perspective. It shows the planet whole, without political or tribal boundaries. How beautiful, how colorful, how delicate is this ball of lapping waters, floating continents, and swirling clouds gliding in a thin veil of air. And how small, unique, and solitary is this one and only home of ours. We must listen to its signals of distress, for it is our parent and we are all its dependent children.
PART II: THE NATURE OF SOIL AND WATER