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Responsibility for Earth…It Is The Only Home We Have!

Responsibility for Earth...It Is The Only Home We Have!

Responsibility for Earth…It Is The Only Home We Have!

Responsibility for Earth...It Is The Only Home We Have!

Responsibility for Earth…It Is The Only Home We Have!

I spent the day yesterday in the wilderness of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison in Western Colorado. Set in the Western Rockies, quite near the San Juan Range, the Black Canyon is a magnificent example of untouched wilderness (except that the Gunnison River runs with less force and less water than ever because of dams up river). Driving just the day before, through the center of the Rocky Mountains, through the Vail Pass on I-70, I cringed at several examples of strip mining that simply level magnificent mountains by stripping away the whole mountain to find the small deposits of ore that bring the mining company a profit. I couldn’t help but think about the film Treasure of Sierra Madre when the gold mine ran out and the old miner insisted that before they left the mountain the three partners put the mountain back to its pristine condition. The whole idea was that the mountain was good to them so they had the responsibility to be good to the mountain. That responsibility meant that greed could not out strip the ethical action was forgotten; to the contrary, it was paramount in the mind of at least one of the partners and the others saw the wisdom in the action.

Comparing the beauty found in nature against the strip mining operations that pillage the natural beauty of the land for profit is something we all should do. The question is simply this: Does earning a profit outweigh the ethical responsibility to destroy the very land we must live on and with? I suggest that making a reasonable profit, one that is based not on greed but on an ethical responsibility to preserve the beauty of nature. In addition, the ethical responsibility extends to people in the sense that there is an important responsibility to those from whose labor served to produce those profits. In short, there is no excuse for strip mining a mountain to oblivion, paying miners low wages, and earning obscene profits other than greed.

The image in the upper right was shot at an overlook at the Black Canyon’s South Rim. The canyon, carved over a 2-million year period, is a pristine wilderness preserved for people around the United States and the world. Once one leaves the confines of the National Park, however, the land no longer pristine or preserved. Fenced in pastures, rusting cars in yards, dammed rivers and streams, broken down barns, buildings and equipment all serve to remind one of the importance of the preservation of wilderness as a reminder of our responsibility to do no harm to the world we live in. Just because one can strip mine or clear-cut forests or despoil the oceans or spew pollutants into the atmosphere doesn’t mean we should. In fact, the shortsighted pollution of the only place we call home is without honor or morality.

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Modernity and Ethical Engagement

Modernity and Ethical Engagement

Modernity and Ethical Engagement

Clearly one of my most sacred concerns is the idea that ethics precedes ontology, that moral behavior is more important than the quest for understanding of what it means to be. I learn this from Emmanuel Levinas who measures what it means to be as an encounter with the other, a face-to-face simulacrum of the Absolute (unknowable) Other. This fundamental ethical obligation, the duty to be responsible for the welfare of the other without reservation or expectation of reciprocation is the foundational aspect of Levinasian ethics. While this formula holds for dyadic encounters, it fails to respond to Levinas’s greatest fear: the reduction of the self into the same, a reduction to the universal, the politically defined normative behavior expected of good citizens. While it is difficult for reduction to occur during face-to-face engagement, it is likely to occur in situations of mass audiences, of entire populations. Two philosophers take this into account as they describe the process of reduction of the self into the same, Giorgio Agamben and Zygmunt Bauman.

Both Agamben and Bauman find the bureaucratic dependence of Modernity to be the focus of the process of reduction. Agamben, quoting Foucault, writes, “For the first time in history, the possibilities of the social sciences are made known, and at once it becomes possible to both protect life and to authorize a holocaust.” Agamben’s argument is that the rise of Modernity as depicted by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, coupled with the rise of Mercantilism followed by the ubiquity of Capitalism, created conditions for the state to define what normal would look like, to define what it means to belong to or be labeled apart from the body politic of the state itself. Bauman goes a step further by suggesting that the real culprit is not only Modernity and the idea of the social contract along with the rise of Capitalism, but it lies in the administration of Capitalism through the bureaucratic apparatus that manages the entire system, creates the regulations for and thereby defines belonging. The bureaucrat as defined by Weber lies at the heart of the reduction to normalcy yet this bureaucrat is anonymous, representing only his or her direct superior, knowing only what is needed to perform the job asked of him or her efficiently and economically.

Bauman carefully analyzes the potential of the functioning bureaucracy operating in Nazi Germany arguing that the Nazis took advantage of the already efficient German bureaucracy by infusing a singleness of purpose and then by defining what it meant to be German and what it meant to be other (than German). Then the Nazi power structure simply allowed the bureaucracy to find the most economical and efficient process for eliminating those who were other, those who were not Germans and must be isolated and later eliminated from Germany and existence altogether. While Capitalism played a role, if anything, that role was to create a private sector bureaucracy to run the economic powerhouse that was German industry. The same could be said for the rise of public bureaucracy in the 18th and 19th centuries; growing out of a need for efficiency and economy in providing for the welfare of the population within its borders, the state bureaucracies learned how to be efficient through a model of normative behaviors.

In our own postmodern era, Bauman suggests, it is the obligation of the self to break these ties to what is or is not normal. By seeking out others of like minds, one is able to better address the failings of the bureaucratic malaise that defines just who belongs and who does not. In fact, what he is suggesting is that we examine the taken-for-granteds that define what it means to be a normative member of society; to explore what it means for the state to define some people as less than and, therefore, are defined out of the mainstream, held hostage in poverty, in prison, or institutionalized; by exploring these taken-for-granteds, Bauman suggests, that the grip of the bureaucracy may be broken and a new, more moral, structure may emerge. In brief, Bauman, heavily influenced by Levinas, is arguing for a society in which the dyad of the face-to-face expands into something where whole groups can engage in the fundamental ethical obligation without reservation or expectation of reciprocation.

Part of the Bauman approach is that diversity, the absolute uniqueness of the other (human being or human beings as a class), must be embraced without reservation. In short, what is good for one is good for all with the caveat that each individual within the larger social order be treated fairly and not equally. Equality simply levels the playing field allowing those who are clearly advantaged rise to the top at the expense of those disadvantaged human beings. Advantage and disadvantage, normative and abnormal, are definitions enforced by bureaucratic intervention. Being treated fairly, on the other hand, is a process whereby we all cooperate as an ethical political unit and care for the disadvantaged among us in order to help them gain an advantage to compete. By embracing diversity, by truly understanding that each human being on this planet is unique, with hopes and desires, with dreams to fulfill, and that uniqueness include the self, you and I, for without including the ‘I’ in the mix of diversity it is too easy to think that everyone else is (or should be) just like me. What a boring world that would be (already is).

Communal ethics is not out of our reach as a species. It begins with eschewing selfishness and embracing the other without reservation.

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