By Peter Sawtell
In his important book, Earth Community, Earth Ethics, Larry Rasmussen calls dichotomized thinking separating people from Earth as an “apartheid mind-set.” It is a way of thinking and living which identifies all else by what it is not. “Nonhuman” is not us, which in turn usually means that it is “less than” us. Such apartheid thinking leaves us imagining that we are an ecologically segregated species.
Rasmussen challenges us to find a new mind-set, a new way of thinking. “We could learn to speak, for example, not of humanity and nature, but of humans in and as nature. … We could acknowledge that humans never rise above nature, never transcend it.”
..I have heard that biblical Hebrew has no word for “nature” — no single word that lumps together the non-human parts of creation. Hebrew has some wonderful collective terms — the creation, the earth — to speak of all that is. But it has no way to speak of — no way even to comprehend the idea of — a collective reality from which humans are separated.
Biblical Hebrew gives linguistic voice to a culture that did not experience a human/not-human dichotomy. Those folk who are the early heritage of our faith tradition simply understood themselves to be part of the creation.
So it is that we find the record of God’s message to Noah after the flood: “I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.” God did not form a covenant “with you and with nature,” as two separate entities, but with a collective whole.
It is wonderful when we “experience nature,” when we get a chance to bring ourselves into relationship with the rich community that is creation — whether in wilderness areas, parks, or even prisons. But our experience of that community is likely to be enhanced when our language and our mind-set avoids the collective “otherness” of the word “nature.”
So, too, our ethics are changed when we recognize that we are part of the entire Earth community. The destruction and exploitation of “nature” is harder to stomach when we see ourselves in relationship with the world around us. The policies of the current US administration — which delight in extracting resources, and which do little to foster environmental protection — are a frightening illustration of what can happen if we see the natural world only as objects to be used.
Many people that I’m in touch with find it helpful to use different words, and speak of “humans” and “the rest of creation.” That language reminds us that we, too, are part of the complex web of God’s creation. It acknowledges relationship, not otherness.
For the next week, why don’t you try out that shift in language and perception?