July 25, 2013 at 10:55 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 8 Comments

The last few days I’ve been pretty much AWOL, reading an unbelievably absorbing book, Unearthed, by Kenneth Sayre, a philosopher at the University of Notre Dame. I’m not going to give you the subtitle, because it’s the kind publishers force on authors in hopes of increasing sales. The subtitle ought to be “Our Ecological Catastrophe and What We Can Do About It.”

I’m also not going to review Professor Sayre’s book today, though I hope to do so before long. Instead I want to share with you my reaction to his argument. But first, Let me tell you a bit about my environmental background, and then summarize Sayre’s argument.

I am basically an extremely urban person. I live in a densely populated section of a huge and densely populated US city and I adore it. When I was in my twenties I spent some serious time on two different farms, one outside Cincinnati, and one in rural Nova Scotia. While on these farms I heard quite a lot about the land and the environment, and I did learn some things. I have been washing and re-using plastic bags since 1975; I was a serious vegetarian for ten years, and even now, Keith and I eat a whole lot less meat than the average American couple. Then, in 2002, I heard the Canadian water activist Maude Barlow give a series of presentations on the world water crisis. After that I became a water activist of sorts, teaching and lecturing about it in churches and seminaries. Within the last few years, I have also been increasingly concerned about climate change. The Grail action group I belong to is working to prevent fracking in New York state.

But somehow, I just didn’t get it. Until Unearthed. I guess I thought there are all these environmental problems that are going to be really harmful unless we solve them. But in this book, Kenneth Sayre argues in an utterly convincing fashion that the entire way of life that we have led upon the planet since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution–1750, more or less– is fatal to the biosphere on which all living things depend. He does so through a whole succession of amazingly clear, rational, and unpoliticized arguments. Since forever, we learn, there has been a life-sustaining balance between the incoming energy on which the biosphere depends and the waste it produces (entropy). With our increasingly massive use of fossil fuels, however, as well as the destruction of the ecosystems that are fundamental to life, and the production of unrecyclable wastes like plastic, this equation is completely thrown off. The causes of this destruction of the biosphere are the values of pleasure, comfort, convenience, acquisition, and wealth that drive developed societies. Mainline economics, which is predicated on endless economic growth, underpins these values.

Professor Sayre goes into a lot more detail than this, of course. But there’s something about the evenhanded, descriptive way in which he lays out his case that convinces me completely. For me, nothing will ever be the same.

The really tough part, though, is that Sayre finishes with a chapter on the values with which we have to replace the negative, consumerist values that drive our environmental catastrophe and the actions we need to take to bring this value shift about. And this is where my whole life begins to come into question. I mean, I eat a lot of beans, don’t you know. But why on earth (no pun intended) do I wear make-up, which pollutes our water, and dry my hair with a hair-dryer that uses electricity the production of which gives off CO2 and helps to destroy the ozone layer?

And why do I ever by new clothes? I mean, the stuff in my two (!) Ikea closets could probably clothe several families in Tanzania. And all this without considering where the food Keith and I eat comes from. Do I really have to stop eating my morning banana, shipped in from Colombia? Yes. And then there’s my IPhone, my IPad, and my IMac.

It’s enough to make a girl feel totally unearthed.


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  1. Dear Marian, Thanks for your scary mini-review of Unearthed; our Bergen county library system does not own it so they are going further afield. I’ve sworn off buying books for awhile–no more shelves–and possible good for the environment.

    It is often a tough choice as to whether or not to preach on ecology topics, but I suspect that if Jesus had not been so busy with more basic values and if ecology had been a topic at that time, he would have done so. Any bible scholars got relevant Scripture for this topic?

    Henry Shaw, Commissioned Lay Pastor


    • Henry, thanks so much for your thoughtful response to my post. Please let me know what you make of “Unearthed.” And please do preach about the environment. I’ll share some info about sources of environmental exegesis in a future post.

      Sent from my iPad


  2. I found myself thinking about this post quite a lot after I read it. I really want to read _Unearthed_ now because I love testimonies about things that change smart people’s lives! Also, probably the being-in-the-world I admire most is the scholar-activists–you have done this for years, Marian. I was pondering all that admiration, versus another deep sense that everything’s somehow ok just like it is (environment, water, humanity, distressed as ever). I know that is very un-Christian! I wonder if the plainspeak of _Unearthed_ would cut through some of that ambivalence.


    • Thanks so much for this response, Julie. It means a lot.

      I am just now summarizing Sayre’s chapter on why renwable fuels alone won’t save us, for a Grail meeting. I am also trtying to buy all our food locally now. Sweet Jesus, it’s really hard to do.

      Did you get my email about going to see your sister’s play on whatever day it is that has the matinee?



  3. Thanks for sharing. This change in values is the constant subject of my prayer; we need help in transforming our consciousness.

    That’s what I was saying in the ecology paper I shared with you. Poverty, war the ecological crisis are all based on our value system. This idea that we are not all connected; this notion that I can do what I want, like, enjoy without thinking of the consequences for the rest of creation. That is why the basic theological teaching on salvation is right relationship with God, creation (humans included) and self – which, by the way, I am recognizing more and more as the definition of peace.


  4. I sure would like to read the last chapter every time I want to buy something. I think this concerns voluntary poverty which is sure hard to practice in our consumer era.

    I remember teaching “Wants/Needs in a social studies unit.


    • Thanks so much for your thoughts on this, Angele. And yes, we need something to help us to overcome our consumerism!


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