By Father Bud Grant
Recently I received a letter that made me suspect that I have succumbed to a condition known as “Environmentalist’s Gloom.”
Certainly the statistics we use to prognosticate the future health of the planet are bleak: population growth, consumption rates, global warming indicators … But something more specific irked the writer: I had written about unjust inequalities between those who benefit from and those who suffer from ecological degradation. It was the imputation of “collective guilt” for environmental problems that triggered the letter.
“Collective Guilt” is a psychology term that describes how one group might react once becoming aware that it benefits more than another simply because of its privileged status (rather than, say, harder work or better judgment). So collective guilt can be good, if it inspires the privileged to recognize injustice and correct it.
“Although guilt is an unpleasant emotion,” say the authors of one article, “it can result in socially desirable outcomes” (“Inequality as Ingroup Privilege or Outgroup Disadvantage” by Adam Powell, Nyla Branscombe and Michael Schmitt).
Even so, we can shift the emphasis from collective guilt to corporate responsibility, that is, from a negative imputation to a moral claim. Guilt might drive people to action in order to dig out from under uncomfortable shame, so good for that, but responsibility might encourage good people to act for the common good. Hans Jonas, in his important book, “An Ethic of Responsibility,” argues that we have a corporate moral duty to ensure the quality of life for future generations, and that means saving the earth and its resources. Catholicism and other mainstream Christian denominations contrast what some call “evangelical” Christianity by insisting that faith is never about “me and Jesus,” but always about our (collective or corporate) relationship with God … and thence with one another and, by extension, with the rest of God’s creation.
Subsidiarity means that moral problems ought to be managed at the lowest level that they can reasonably be solved: we don’t need the National Guard if public works personnel can handle flooding. “Community” is that unit-size of humanity equipped and empowered to solve crises. We speak about being members of a family, neighborhood, parish, diocese or nation. We sometimes overplay the romanticized role of the heroic lone individual solving his or her own problems. Most problems are best handled together, in intentional communities, including most important environmental problems.
Recently I had the extraordinary experience of participating in a preservation and restoration effort. One of my best friends, a county land manager in the Loess Hills, invited me to join a “tribe” (their word) to burn a 300-plus-acre remnant of virgin and reconstructed prairie. Prairies once covered one-third of the U.S. from Ohio to the Rockies and from Canada to Texas. In Iowa, once the heart of the Tall Grass, 0.001 percent of that prairie remains.
Two county crews, The Nature Conservancy and private volunteers joined up. We worked in tight coordination with clear communication, looked out for each other, taught and even chastised one another. We spent a lot of time getting to know the lay of the land, literally. We noted the wind direction and speed, the dew point, locations of farms, fields, roads and exit routes. We burned a perimeter, nudging and coaxing flames like fire shepherds. Finally and suddenly we got the word to light the head fire. Driven by winds it took just minutes to sweep up the draws and terraces and clear the entire unit. Working with nature’s elements, we simply herded the winds to simulate the restorative work of a prairie fire.
This is God’s work, an important step in preserving and restoring a very threatened ecosystem. The folks who assembled to prescribe some healing fires lifted my gloom like a wind pushing a smoke-plume. They made me proud, inspired me, and gave me great hope that corporate responsibility, more than collective guilt, is how we all — together — will save God’s creation.
(Father Bud Grant is an assistant professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)