The light that comes from an ecological conscience


How can we recognise our self-contradictions? Some are deeply personal, but others are imposed, ready-made by what Thomas Merton calls ‘an ambivalent culture’. In an essay called ‘The Wild Places’ written in 1968, Merton urges us not to accept a false unanimity of how things are just so as to give ourselves inauthentic psychic security and satisfy our fears. Becoming aware of the contradictions and lies about what we are told, and so being able to criticise and protest when we can, frees us up from some of those imposed contradictions. Merton looks at the American state of mind as still operating a frontier mythology, long after Americans have ceased to be a frontier or rural people, and where success as a pioneer depends on an ability to fight the wilderness and win.

The mind set of England as a ‘green and pleasant land’ is somewhat similar – the reality is rather that rail and road projects slice through the countryside destroying mature trees and the green and pleasant land. Both are about controlling and transforming any ‘wildness’ into a farm, a village, town, city – until we are, as we largely are, an urban nation.

The contradiction is that we all profess our love and respect for nature, and at the same time confess our firm attachment to values which inexorably demand the destruction of nature. When light is shone on this contradiction those who do so are seen as fanatical and counter cultural. Merton in his essay sees that this ambivalence toward nature is rooted in religion – the Biblical, Judeo-Christian form. The tradition is one of ‘repugnance’ for nature in the wild, where it is seen and hated almost as a person, an extension of ‘the evil one’ opposing the kingdom of God; the native Indians were associated with this too, and so decimated. Fighting the wilderness and nature then became a moral and Christian imperative. Superimposed on this was later the idea of nature as beautiful, so Henry Thoreau living in the woods saw that balance was needed – an element of wildness was necessary as part of ‘civilised life’.

There exists then this contradiction internally as well as externally of the mystery of nature and the wildness mystique alongside what Merton calls ‘the contrary mystique of exploitation and power’.

The light comes from an ecological conscience which is an awareness of our ‘true place as a dependent member of the biotic community’. Merton sees the ecological shambles created by business and profits as a

‘… tragedy of ambivalence, aggression, and fear cloaked in virtuous ideas and justified by pseudo-Christian cliches. Or rather a tragedy of pseudo-creativity deeply impregnated with hatred, megalomania, and the need for domination. … Money is more important, more alive than life…

An ecological conscience is also inevitably a peace-making conscience … Meanwhile some of us are wearing a little yellow and red button with a flower on it and the words “Celebrate Life!” We bear witness as best we can …’

Over 50 years later there are many millions of people who now have an ecological conscience, and so the light shines on in the darkness. As the campaigner and teacher Satish Kumar recently reminded us:

‘Realists say they are practical, but they are bringing havoc. We inherited such a beautiful world. … But what are today’s realists leaving for future generations?  … The time for realists is over. … It’s time to give idealism a chance.’