Genesis, Chief Seattle and the World's Ecology


And God said, "I will make man in My image, after My likeness. They shall rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the cattle, the whole earth and all the creeping things that creep on earth. . . ."

God blessed them and God said to them, "Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky and all the living things that creep on earth."

Is the miserable state of the world's ecology today traceable to these two passages from the Book of Genesis? Is this blessing of the Lord, in which He ordered man to dominate the earth and its other inhabitants, responsible for the pollution of our air and water, for the dust bowls and creeping deserts, for the beginning of the demise of the Amazon rain forests?

Several times in recent months I have attended discussions at which people said they believe this so. "Here's where it all started," people said. "Genesis unfortunately gave man permission to be master of the earth and to despoil it. It put man outside of nature and not within it. And that's the root of our present ecological catastrophe."

The opposing viewpoint is attributed to the American Indian Chief Seattle, supposedly made in a statement in 1852 when the United States government wished to purchase land from some Indian tribes:

"Every part of this earth is sacred to my people, every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every meadow, every humming insect. . . . We are part of the earth and it is part of us. . . . What befalls the earth befalls all the sons of the earth.

"This we know: The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. To harm the earth is to heap contempt upon its Creator."

People seemed to perceive an inevitable dichotomy in these two attitudes -- you had to choose one or the other. Many wished our society had gone along with Chief Seattle rather than with those graybeards of the Old Testament.

I can't help wondering. This discussion was being held on a cold dark winter's night in a modern stone building heated by oil and lighted by electricity. Most people had arrived in cars powered with gasoline engines which were now temporarily parked outdoors on a stone slab covering over a large chunk of the face of the earth.

Was there a single person in that room who could doubt that our meeting together was made possible by man's dominance of the earth and its creatures?

From what perspective, then, were some of us holding up the nature creed of the stone-age Indian as a whip with which to flog our modern society? Was this simply a re-emergence of the belief in the Noble Savage -- now that we've virtually wiped him out so there's little chance we will ever be asked to return to that state?

Anyone who has ever farmed or gardened, whether he thinks of Genesis or not, can have little doubt about who is the dominant creature on that portion of the earth's surface of which he is the steward. Of course, over and beyond all human efforts is Nature, and the divine mystery of existence -- the miracle of the seed that grows into the green plant that sustains all life on earth.

But given the mystery and the miracle, for the farmer or the gardener, there is never any question of who is in charge. The farmer milks his cows, and not vice-versa. The gardener decides whether she will plant hollyhocks or daisies, cabbages or corn; and unless she tills, fertilizes and waters, she doesn't expect much to grow.

I doubt if many farmers or gardeners would dispute the quotation from Genesis.

Those Biblical passages should be read as myths -- not as prescriptions for how the early Hebrews were to deal with nature but as justification for a settled, agricultural lifestyle they had already adopted.

It is that settled lifestyle that gave rise to cities and what we call civilization. How many of us would want to live without civilization -- without cars, roads and parking lots; without warm buildings and electric lights; without theaters, schools, museums or the printed word?

If the advocates for Chief Seattle -- these opponents of Genesis -- were themselves Native Americans living their traditional way of life as an intimate part of nature, I would be less disturbed by their viewpoint. But the ones I have encountered are comfortable middle-class Americans, and I protest.

I protest because their attitude may be harmful. It implies that we should adopt a laissez-faire attitude toward nature because to dominate it is necessarily to misuse it.

That is not the case. In fact, in today's world, it is the reverse of the case. We need to acknowledge our human domination of nature, for that enables us to manage it for the health of both nature and ourselves.

Some of the best farmers in America today -- the best conservationists and the most productive -- are the Amish, in nearby Lancaster county, Pennsylvania. The Bible plays a strong role in their lives. There is no question in their minds about the benefits of dominating nature.

For many endangered animals, our zoos have become refuges and conservancies. Without this form of nature domination, many species would vanish from the face of the earth.

The world's ecology is in pretty bad shape, but we're not helping it by decrying the fact that we've followed Genesis and not Chief Seattle. We can help it if we acknowledge the mandate of Genesis. Whether we like it or not, we're in charge -- which means we have the responsibility for turning things around.

Isaac Rehert is a retired feature writer at The Sun who was at one time a farmer.

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