Environmental Stewardship and Virtue

Courage is a virtue...

Wendell Berry said in The Unsettling of America that “the environmental crisis is a crisis of character” (thanks Aaron James, for the reference). That idea reminded me of a lecture I heard given by N.T. Wright, talking about the nature of virtues (at last year’s Intervarsity “Following Christ” Conference, audio files available) . As a prelude to talking about the Christian notion of virtue, he talked about the classical notion. It’s an important idea for the tasks of environmental stewardship, decisionmaking, and action, because we so often drift into following rules, or “getting in touch with our hearts”–weak and unreliable methods for getting to right actions. Wright began by talking about the virtue of courage:

Take one of the classical virtues, namely, courage. What does courage consist of? Some might imagine that courage, if you’re going in to battle, say, consists in taking a very large swig of a very strong drink and then charging off into battle waving your sword around you, yelling some awful war cry and hoping for the best. That’s not courage in any kind of classical virtue sense.

Courage as a virtue, is what happens when you take a thousand small decisions over a period of time, consciously to place the safety and security of someone else ahead of your own safety and security, so that on the thousand-and-first occasion, when suddently a real crisis or danger appears you act in that way as though by instinct.

It isn’t instinct–we humans are self-preserving animals–but if you train yourself by conscious mental and moral effort to practice in the little things the virtue you know you ought to be developing it can become second nature–second instinct, if you like. Virtue is a matter of acquiring habits the way you acquire tastes, by sustained practice.

Seen like this, the moral life is not a matter simply of learning and remembering rules. Rules can help while you’re on the way, they may well point in the right direction, we are foolish to ignore them, but we need to practice the virtues which will enable us to keep them by transcending them.

Nor is it a matter of being true to whatever impulses you find within yourself–it’s more like learning a language, practicing it so that eventually you can go to the country and speak it like a native. It takes time, there is vocabulary to learn, there are irregular verbs to master, there are nuances and metaphors and emphases that make a living language the lovely but difficult thing it is. You’ll often get it wrong, but it is worth persevering for the goal-the telos–of what lies ahead.

Or you might think of it like learning a musical instrument: you have to master the basic technique, the angle of the bow on the cello, the position of the shoulders for the brass player. You have to practice scales and arpeggios not so that you can go on stage and play scales and arpeggios, but so that when you are suddenly faced with a complex sheet of music, you will know, as though instinctively, but in fact by second nature, by force of habit, what to do. It will seem to happen automatically, but that automatic behavior will be the result of practicing things which certainly didn’t feel automatic at the time. Now that’s how virtue ethics works.

Knowing that, the thing that we can’t do is simply experience a “conversion” to the project of creation care–an awakening to the need to exercise environmental stewardship–and expect that we are equipped to respond to the “environmental crisis”. That’s true for the Christian church as much as it is true for any individual. We don’t automatically have the skills, the virtue, to act courageously or prudently or justly when faced with environmental issues. Neither do we, as a Christian community, possess the automatic ability to distinguish between sound and unsound environmental claims. Those virtues and abilities, like a foreign language or musicianship, must be cultivated. And that takes time.

Having ignored environmental issues for so long, we may wish we could simply look up some Bible texts, or trust our hearts,  to determine what to do–how to steward the earth well. We can’t. We wind up aping the ideologies and practices of the left and the right, without much to contribute ourselves, being either uncritically accepting or unreasonably dismissive of claims of environmental crisis. The way to learn a virtuous approach to creation care, is to begin with small, repeated, steps of faithfulness, knowing that we will make mistakes, but concerned more to develop a virtuous character than to “follow rules” or “follow our hearts”.

In the end, we will find that sometimes it will be right to act swiftly, sometimes to wait and learn more, sometimes to make peace. But we can’t discern that by being thrown in the deep end of a cultural debate we’ve ignored until now, simply “choosing sides” without training in interpreting both special and general revelation (more on that in another post).

The classic virtues are prudence, justice, courage, and temperance. The “theological” virtues are faith, hope, and love. I’ll be covering some of these ideas in more depth in the future. But for now, which virtues do you think will help us be better stewards? How can we cultivate them?

4 thoughts on “Environmental Stewardship and Virtue

  1. Thanks, Rusty, for your thoughts on the importance of character development and virtues that ought to be the focus of developing our character. In my estimation, your focus on virtues is extremely pertinent to the progress of biblical environmental stewardship. As we depend upon science and the media to inform us of environmental issues, it is easy to adopt the views of those who speak the loudest or are the most widely published. Often, we become, as you noted, “either uncritically accepting or unreasonably dismissive of claims of environmental crisis.” We fall into the trend toward “groupthink” and our focus is upon keeping our oar in rhythm others who are “rowing the boat” either with the current or against it.

    But, as I reflect on your blog, I believe that the health of our democratic society and the resultant proper care of creation depend upon each of us taking individual responsibility first to regularly examine our own character and values, and to pray for discernment during times of meditation in both the Scriptural revelation and the natural revelation. A culture that learns to exercise environmental stewardship would seem to depend upon the leadership and example of individuals who have the strength of character to “use their oar” in a rhythm that is different from the group if necessary– rowing in such a way that reflects a heart of discernment based on careful examination of both the scientific data (how the world works) and the ethical principles (what ought to be). Such leadership would resist the temptation to support policy that simply grabs for more power or a larger constituency of supportive voters. Instead, virtuous leadership recommends what is best for both our culture and for the Earth; and, would press for policies that encourage the development of character qualities and the virtues of temperance and prudence that are fundamental to spiritual and physical health, the health of families and communities, and along with these, healthy ecosystems.

    • Amen, John. I like especially what you say about the health of families and communities, and I think if our policies were to emphasize these things, that we’d probably get healthier ecosystems as a side-effect.

  2. “The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Character” is the title of the first chapter of Wendel Berry’s book, “The Unsettling Of America.” In that chapter he argues that the disease of character is modern specialization. He notes that from the perspective of the social system there might be some advantages to specialization, but that with respect to the person it leads to fragmentation, to a deep disconnect from what we say and what we do. Specialization ultimately leads as well to the disintegration of communities: “What happens under the rule of specialization is that, though society becomes more and more intricate, it has less and less structure. It becomes more and more organized, but less and less orderly. The community disintegrates because it loses the necessary understandings, forms, and enactments of the relations between materials and processes, principles and actions, ideals and realities, past and present, present and future, men and women, body and spirit, city and country, civilization and wilderness, growth and decay, life and death–just as the individual character loses the sense of a responsible involvement in these relations. No longer does human life rise from the earth like a pyramid, broadly and considerately founded upon its sources. Now it scatters itself out in a reckless horizontal sprawl, like a disorderly city whose suburbs and pavements destroy the fields” (21).

    Specialization in this sense is very much a vice (if not a ‘classical’ one), because it trains us (little by little over long periods of time) to overlook or ignore the relations Berry names above, and this becomes, then, our settled habit of interpretation. This is one of the reasons why (I suspect) the ecological crisis is simply a non-issue for many Christians–we have been trained by modernity to ignore the connections between our bodies and the earth, and the earth and our communities; and we ignore these connections because (for all of our insistence to the contrary) we dis-integrate faith from life. And also why when we think of ‘environmentalism’ we tend to think of recycling, and not the reshaping of the very patterns that constitute our modern, environmentally-destructive life–patterns of life in the suburbs that require us to drive and have big, energy intensive homes, and so on.

    • Aaron, thanks so much for your thoughtful comment. I am so entrained as an economist to look with approval on specialization, without considering the corrupting side-effects. But before that I was an ecologist, studying with H.T. Odum, one of the fathers of systems ecology, who taught his students to be rigorous generalists. I’m relearning from my children the joy of wanting to know how to do everything. They love to cook, to build things out of wood, to write poetry, to catch fish, to fight, and to sing. They’re not disintegrated, yet. I guess our job as parents is to keep them from disintegrating!

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