Being "Good Ancestors"

Each year the federal government and others kill tens of thousands of native wild carnivores: badgers, bears, bobcats, coyotes — especially coyotes, foxes of all stripes too — arctic, gray, kit, red, and swift — mountain lions, wolves, skunks, raptors, and ravens. They aerial gun, poison, trap, and shoot. They use dogs to chase down their quarry. Their brutality exemplifies why it is doubtful whether future generations will call us “good ancestors.”

Our native wild animals are killed in large quantity each year in a vain attempt to protect domestic livestock. While sustainable agriculture is an important concept, the American system has become so politicized, insensitive, and corrupt that we cause indelible harm not only to individual animals, but entire ecosystems. Yet, native carnivores provide balance.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services explain away their misdeeds using faulty rationale. They claim in Colorado, for example, their purpose is to “keep lamb losses below 5%” (USDA-WS, 2005). They claim but for their work, the livestock-producing industry would fail, and they claim that ecosystem health is beyond the scope of their jurisdiction — that duty belongs a host of other state or federal agencies.

These comments and attitudes illustrate principles that have governed the course of human actions for centuries; principles that represent a deep cultural pathology. The most fundamental of these principles is based on a dedication to the belief that only the lives of human beings are sacred. It is a belief that allows us to grant all intrinsic values and all rights exclusively to the human.

Geologian-theologian Thomas Berry, one of the most profound thinkers of the 20th century, says, “We’ve come to see the non-human world only as a collection of objects to be exploited solely for our purposes. We place value on non-human life forms only if they are useful to us; an arrogance that sets us above and apart from all other life forms of the planet.”

This belief has led to the plundering of the planet by good and even deeply religious persons for the believed spiritual and secular benefit of the human. On this continent alone, it allowed us to exterminate many species such as the passenger pigeon, or perhaps the ivory-billed woodpecker, to nearly wipe out bison, to put homes and businesses on land that is home to hundreds of non-humans, to hit an animal on the road and not stop, even when we’re able to, because it’s “just an animal.” The list goes on and on. For centuries, we’ve been “conquering” the natural world rather than honoring it for its sacredness. If we continue to hold onto this belief, we won’t grasp that the real basic concern for this century is not simply divine-human or inter-human relations, but our relations with planet Earth as sacred community.

Berry comments that in less than two centuries we have robbed future generations of “the right of access to the abundance and variety of life forms that provide not only the physical need but also the wonder needed by human intelligence, the beauty needed by human imagination and the intimacy needed by human emotions for personal fulfillment.”

Berry also notes something poignant that we seem to forget: “Earth is a one-time endowment and it is subject to irreversible damage in the major patterns of its functioning.” In his book “The Great Work,” Berry encourages us to recognize that as we humans go into the 21st century, our great work is to “move from a spirituality of alienation from the natural world to a spirituality of intimacy with the natural world, and from a spirituality of the divine as revealed in verbal revelation to a spirituality of the divine as revealed in the visible world about us. From a spirituality concerned with justice merely to humans to a spirituality of justice to the devastated Earth community.”

A new sensibility that extends the idea of sacredness, and out of that confers rights to the non-human community, one that stops our exploiting this beautiful blue-green planet in a harmful manner and instead encourages us to work to sustain its basic life systems and its biodiversity, will certainly lead to future generations being able to say that we were “good ancestors.”

If we continue using the old way of thinking as the primary guide in our relations with the natural world and non-human creatures, we will not be “good ancestors.” This way of thinking may have been acceptable in the past but it cannot continue to be. Thank goodness, increasingly it is not acceptable thinking!

I hope more people will embrace Thomas Berry’s perspective about the sacredness of the non-human and natural world and become involved in the Great Work. Perhaps then future generations will be able to say that we truly were “good ancestors.”

Rev. Jacqueline Ann Ziegler is a Unitarian Universalist minister who currently is specializing in Interim Ministry work. Her permanent home is located in Plymouth, Wisconsin.

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One response to “Being "Good Ancestors"

  1. Mary M. Ross

    If we continue using the old way of thinking as the primary guide in our relations with the natural world and non-human creatures, we will not be “good ancestors.” This way of thinking may have been acceptable in the past but it cannot continue to be. Thank goodness, increasingly it is not acceptable thinking!

    I hope more people will embrace Thomas Berry’s perspective about the sacredness of the non-human and natural world and become involved in the Great Work. Perhaps then future generations will be able to say that we truly were “good ancestors.”