An Emancipation Proclamation for Nature

Scarcely anyone today thinks the planet Earth is the center of the solar system and that the sun rotates around it. Once upon a time, however, almost everyone thought that it did. Then the Scientific Revolution along came and put the kibosh on the idea. Now we know that even our entire solar system isn’t the “center” of anything.

Of course, back in the days when the Scientific Revolution was first unfolding our hubristic species had a hard time accepting the heliocentric idea. The Catholic Church, in particular, disapproved, and to make its point banned scientific books that proved the idea (such as Copernicus’s Revolutions), forced scientists who advocated the idea to recant it (such as Galileo), and burned scientists at the stake who wouldn’t recant (such as Giordano Bruno).

Eventually, after a couple of hundred years of opposition, even the Catholic Church bought the idea that the planets revolve about the sun. In 1992, the Vatican formally and publicly cleared Galileo of any heresy. (Giordano Bruno, however, is still considered a heretic.)

Now, having cleared that matter up, let me ask you this: is there anyone alive who thinks the human race is the pinnacle of natural creation? Oh, dear, I fear so — probably millions of people do — even though this idea runs counter to what we know about evolution and how the universe functions.

The latest research indicates that there at least 65 billion planets in the universe that might, like Earth, sustain some form of life. If this is true, it’s unlikely that the Creator has placed all His bets on us. The Australian environmentalist John Seed makes the point. “Ecology critiques the idea that we are the crown of creation, the measure of all being: that the world is a pyramid with humanity rightly on top.”

The vanity of humans viewing themselves as the pinnacle of natural creation is compounded by the assumption that the rest of creation exists primarily for human use and exploitation. Many humans even think that this is somehow our privilege. We are entitled.

This view is countered by Aldo Leopold (1887-1948), author of A Sand County Almanac. He’s the great ecologist who’s regarded as the founder of the science of wildlife management. Leopold called for “a land ethic that changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.” Leopold objected to an ethical system wherein the land was considered only as property, occupying a role analogous to slavery in earlier societies that permitted the ownership of people. Slavery?! Yep, slavery.

This brings me to Theodore Weld. How shall I introduce this odd character to you? Let’s try this. Dear Reader, have you heard of Abraham Lincoln? Yes, of course, you have! Lincoln was the President who freed the slaves. But have you heard of Theodore Weld? No, I didn’t think so. But you should have. Weld was the guy who enabled Lincoln to free the slaves. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine Lincoln freeing the slaves in 1864 without the groundwork laid for emancipation by Theodore Weld and his fellow abolitionists.

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Theodore Weld (1803-1895) was a principal organizer of the American movement to abolish slavery. He may be the most influential American you’ve never heard of, in part because he had a passion for anonymity.[1] Toward the end of his long life a friend asked him why he was so little known when he had played such a great part in the nation’s history. Weld replied “That’s because I was too proud to be ambitious.” (I told you he was odd.)

It took guts to be an abolitionist. In those days, they were scorned and despised throughout the country – in the North as well as the South. Weld often had his meetings broken up by pro-slavery protesters. Once in Troy, New York, he was stoned by a mob.

In defending slavery, slave owners relied heavily on economic arguments. And, in fact, these arguments held water. Slavery was hugely profitable for the slaveowners, and it was then perhaps the single most important factor in the nation’s economy. In opposition, Weld put his anti-slavery case simply and plainly. “Every man knows that slavery is a curse. Whoever denies this, his lips libel his heart.” Weld argued that morality trumps economics always.

Now, let’s shift gears. This is where the morality of environmental protection comes in. I argue that environmentalists should take a page from the abolitionists’ game plan. The greens’ first line of attack should be this: It is a sin to desecrate natural creation and an affront to God. Let’s make this the starting point of the debate. Sure, economics and science can enter the debate — but later, and as an adjunct to the lead and central proposition that morality trumps economics.

Here’s the political case I make to environmentalists on behalf of nature’s emancipation. Strategically, you making a mistake when you abandon the high ground of morality and descend into the lowlands of quantification to battle our foes. Don’t let the issue be defined as “economics versus environment.” That’s a flawed supposition which discounts and trivializes the superior claim that morality has on us. And — please— bear in mind the old adage that says figures don’t lie, but liars can figure.

[1] Weld is best known for his co-authorship of American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses, published in 1839. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who was one of Weld’s converts, partly based Uncle Tom’s Cabin on Weld’s text.