Tuesday, June 9, 2009

“Sustainable Living?” Not Without Christian Civilization

by Raymond E. Drake

“Imagine building a house out of discarded tires and aluminum cans... to create a dwelling that lives with the land, not on top of it.”

Ecologists promote straw bale homes not just to prevent pollution and save trees but to revive pantheistic notions of man’s “oneness” with the earth.

Upon seeing this statement I thought my speed-reading had tripped me up again. What followed, though, only increased my consternation. I had stumbled into a brave new world built on the postmodern gospel of environment-friendly “sustainable living.”

Unlike the good news of the four Evangelists, “sustainable living” cashes in on the doomsday scenarios hawked by ecologists. The only way to avoid cosmic catastrophe, they tell us, is to change man’s lifestyle. This cannot be done without changing his beliefs and ways of thinking.

In this war of lifestyles, a crucial step in drawing contemporary man away from the high ground of civilization toward the abyss of neo-barbarism consists in pressuring him into accepting “eco-homes” and “sustainable living.”

Earthships—trash homes

Another type of earthship, built largely underground. Although such “homes” may have practical advantages, these advantages are solely for the body, while the needs of the soul– beauty, dignity, and so forth – are forgotten.

“Earthships are more than just innovative ways to build with our old ‘garbage.’ Earthships are a new approach to living that involves interfacing with the earth—peacefully coexisting and thriving in nature.”1

Living in an earthship is “like living in the marsupial pouch of Mother Earth.” This holistic structure is “not just environmentally friendly, but in sync with the nature that surrounds it.”

The structure’s load-bearing walls are made of earth-filled tires, while other walls are made of tin cans and glass bottles held together with cement and covered with stucco.

No need for utilities in this dream home! Light and heat are free, at least when sunshine reaches the angled glass panes on the structure’s southern side. Water comes from heaven. Every drop of rain falling on the roof is directed to a can and stucco cistern. For the more radical water conservationists, extravagant superfluities like personal hygiene and domestic cleanliness quickly become passé.

Dirt-filled tires piled up to make walls and eventually a home: one type of “Earthship” conceived to “take care of you whether you work or not”

“Gray wastewater” (the word dirty is judgmental) from cooking and whatever cleaning that survives is recycled, not discarded. It can be used to flush “composting toilets” and irrigates the indoor vegetable garden sprouting under the glass panes.

For those not prepared to live without hot water and other comforts, solar panels or generators can be installed. Their output makes for “efficient” energy use and allows the “crew” of this postmodern home to remain wired to the rest of the world.

Earthships are not science fiction. They are the brainchild of architect Michael Reynolds, the founder of Solar Survival Architecture of Taos, New Mexico. Reynolds has written extensively to extol their merits and explain their intricacies.

Back to basics: Earth One domes

Reynolds is not alone in promoting “sustainable living.” Nader Khalili, an Iranian-born philosopher-architect, makes homes out of sandbags and barbed wire plastered with stucco. Khalili moved to California because he was convinced that global housing attitudes would first have to change in America. This self-proclaimed visionary sees his sandbag Earth One structures as a low-budget solution for Americans fleeing from high-consumption lifestyles.

For Khalili, “building with earth is a spiritual journey.” Tree-huggers love his tree-free Superadobe technology. It consists in filling brick-shaped and long, snake-like sandbags with earth. The bags are then stacked to form a modern wigwam. Stucco-covered barbed wire reinforces the bags. A week’s training is all it takes to acquire the skills needed to build an Earth One dome.

Khalili bases his “earth architecture” on the philosophy of Rumi, a thirteenth-century Persian mystic-poet, and uses a holistic approach in teaching his techniques to others. A U.N. consultant on Earth Architecture, he has received several architectural awards and has expounded on his vision in four books.

Straw-bale homes

The ecological movement has hijacked the straw-bale construction method developed by late nineteenth-century Nebraska pioneers. These brave settlers were not moved by the ecological movement’s philosophical tenets, but by a harsh reality: the shortage of building timber. In typical “necessity is the mother of invention” fashion, they cleverly innovated with sod and straw bales. Ecologists, however, see straw-bale construction as a useful tool for pushing their agenda.

Books and articles in environmental magazines have created a straw-bale movement. One of these books, The Straw Bale House, published by the “sustainable living” Chelsea Green Publishing Company in Vermont, has sold almost 100,000 copies. Because of this ecological publicity drive, more and more people are turning to straw. The building technique is easy: The bales are stacked and allowed to settle for a few weeks, then covered with wire mesh, and finally stuccoed inside and out.

Ecologists argue that using straw instead of burning it prevents pollution and saves trees. While these advantages ensure favorable press write-ups, the ecological movement’s fundamental goal is to change people’s thinking.

The 1997 Contra Costa County (California) Earth Day festival, for example, featured the construction of a straw-bale structure by volunteers who then explained “how this and other appropriate technologies to provide shelter interact with Gaia forces.” Gaia is the Greek goddess of the Earth adopted by ecologists.

Everything depends on the spirit

What makes “eco-homes” revolutionary is not so much the building materials per se, but the spirit behind their choice and use. Our forefathers used earth, stone, bricks, wood, and straw thatching in homebuilding. The spirit that infused their construction, however, was not that of the “green revolution,” but man’s understanding of his dignity. This human dignity is natural, but becomes supernatural with Christianity.

This contrasts with the Freudian spirit underlying the ecological movement, which emphasizes man’s “oneness” with Gaia. Ecological thinkers tell us this “oneness” was lost through individualization and civilization.

The Freudian view:
Civilization was a disaster...

According to Sigmund Freud, history is the story of an evolution gone awry. Localizing the point of error, Freud states: “The fateful process of civilization would thus have set in with man’s adoption of an erect posture.”2 Thus, when man rejected his place among quadruped animals and affirmed himself superior to them and nature, he deviated from evolution’s proper course.

Jeremy Rifkin, a renowned ecological thinker and a Freudian, believes that in the Paleolithic period man did not differentiate between himself and others, or between himself and nature. Man was immersed in an oceanic feeling of “oneness” with nature and his fellow men; he was totally unconscious of his individual existence.

Disaster struck when man discovered the usefulness of polished stone implements in the “neolithic revolution.”

Individuality ruptured the “oneness” of being

This first step towards civilization is the ecological equivalent of Original Sin. “With mastery over nature came increasing detachment and the embryonic development of individuality and self-awareness.”3

This sense of individuality broke the “oneness” and, according to Freud, engendered both religion and civilization. Rifkin deplores this, writing, “Humanity, then, has passed from the life instinct to the death instinct,4 from oceanic oneness with the earth to separation, control, and domination over the planet from a distance.”5

While this Freudian ecological catastrophe seems to be lost in the mists of history, Rifkin seems particularly disturbed with the Christian period. “For the past two thousand years, and especially in the modern age, Western man and woman have been increasingly absorbed by the ‘death instinct.’”6

For Rifkin, man does not have real individuality. His concept of man excludes the notion of an immortal and individual soul. He claims that “our being is part of the earth’s being” and “the idea that we are somehow independent and autonomous forces, separate from nature, is pure fiction.”7

Ecological man rejects his superiority over nature

Rifkin sees mankind on the verge of an historical threshold. By consciously reintegrating himself into Nature, man today can make amends for the disaster that begot civilization and enter a new age. “Reintegrating ourselves...will require a leap of human consciousness, a fundamental transformation of our sense of self and our relationship to the world around us.”8

“Today, the third great stage of human consciousness opens up before us: to make a conscious self-aware choice to reparticipate with the body of nature,” Rifkin writes. “The implications of such a leap in consciousness are obvious and far-reaching.9

“Today, it is ours to choose.... To take the leap.”10

“Sustainable living” intensifies the revolt... and the frustration

Using “sustainable living” as a battle standard, the ecological movement is rallying large sectors among the profoundly unhappy masses, urging them on to total rejection of modern society. Most of these people, however, are completely oblivious to the philosophy behind ecological thinking. Others are simply overwhelmed by their personal troubles.

Ecologists correctly argue that many aspects of today’s industrialized society are unsustainable. Their solution, however, is worse than the problem. They throw the baby out with the bath water and destroy not only industrial society but all civilization.

* * *

No sensible person who loses his way continues walking pointlessly. As soon as he realizes his predicament, he stops, thinks, and tries to retrace his steps or find a way back to the right road.

We need to do as much today. We have wandered from the right path and find ourselves now in a dismal neck of the woods. We need to stop, pray, think, and find our way back to the right road: the principles that inspired Christian civilization.

Taking hold of these principles, loving them, and incorporating them into our lives, we will soon be on the right road again.

Man’s place in the order of the universe

One of these principles is man’s dominion over nature. This dominion derives from the natural order itself. Man’s reason, which elevates him above the animal, plant, and mineral kingdoms, also gives him dominion over them.

This dominion is consecrated in Scripture: “God blessed them [Adam and Eve], saying: Increase and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it, and rule over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and all living creatures that move upon the earth.”11

This natural dignity of man as lord of nature was taken to a most sublime height when “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us.”12 God so loved men that He gave us His Only Son. “Behold a virgin shall be with child, and bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel,13 which being interpreted is God with us.”14 The Incarnation of the Divine Word dignified the entire human race.

God is also with us in the Most Blessed Sacrament. He is with us in the mystery of grace, by which we share in His divine life, and He is with us in the Catholic Church, His Mystical Body.

Christianity raised man from a natural dignity to a supernatural one.

Individuality as affirmed by Saint Thomas

To these sublime considerations we can add others made by Saint Thomas Aquinas, which the ecological movement also rejects.

The Angelic Doctor maintains that God, in creating, had no alternative but to create countless beings, for no single being could possibly reflect His infinite perfection. God grouped these beings into orders ranging from that of the angels to that of the minerals. Within each of these orders He established major groups, then subgroups, and species upon species, until finally we come to the individual being, each of which is entirely distinct from others.

A harmonious hierarchy governs this immense universe of created beings, forming a Creation so vast, so marvelous, and so full of variety that it somehow reflects God’s beauty and infinite perfection.

The variety among men: no two men are alike

Two realities emerge from this. First, there is not just one being in Creation, but an almost infinite number of them. Each is itself and has its proper place in the order of the universe. Second, within Creation each human being is unique within the master collection of beings that is mankind. God creates no two men alike. Each one reflects God’s perfection in a unique way.

God is the Creator of man’s individuality. This individuality is not an ecological disaster. It is the basis of Christian civilization.

The general happiness in Christian civilization

Not much is left of Christian civilization today, but there was a time when it flourished.

Man then understood and loved the unique treasures God placed in his soul. He safeguarded them as precious stones entrusted to his care. More than this, he aimed to perfect them. He labored his whole life to cut, polish, and transform these gems into magnificent jewels. He wanted to hear the consoling words of the Master to the good and faithful servant who did not bury his talents.

Looking at his fellow men, a Christian also saw the gifts they received. He was not envious, but rather loved and admired their gifts. The predilection shown by God to others was a joy for him. He felt dignified, not crushed by their good fortune.

As a result, the Christian man was happy: happy seeking the perfection of his own gifts, and happy admiring the gifts bestowed by God on others. This joy overflowed from millions of hearts and filled the Christian world with innocent mirth and color. Society was transformed into a kind of paradise compared to the drabness of our days. Having first sought the kingdom of God and his justice, Christendom was rewarded abundantly.15

If we, as a nation, would but stop and think about that glorious past, we would soon find the wisdom and strength to forge our way back to the right road again. If we do so, the future we can build will be much better than anything ever seen, for we will have learned from our mistakes.

Then yes, we will find peace, Christian peace, and the only form of living that is truly “sustainable.”

1. “Earthships,” www.slip.net/~ckent/earthship/, 6/24/99, p. 2.
2. Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents (New York, 1961), p. 46, n. 1.
3. Jeremy Rifkin, Biosphere Politics: A Cultural Odyssey From the Middle Ages to the New Age, (New York, 1992), p. 324.
4. The life and death instinct Rifkin refers to here are the Freudian concepts of Eros and Thanatos.
5. Ibid., p. 325.
6. Ibid., p. 322-323.
7. Ibid., p. 278.
8. Ibid., p.319.
9. Ibid., p. 325.
10. Ibid., p. 326.
11. Gen. 1:28.
12. John 1:14.
13. Isaias 7:14.
14. Matt. 1:23.
15. Cf. Matt. 6:33.

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