Earth Community: Earth Ethics
By Larry Rasmussen
(Review by Ron Sanders)
What do we do about the threat of the potential (actual) inability to sustain the earth? Larry Rasmussen argues that our most basic impulses and activities must be constantly measured by their contribution to an earth ethic and their advocacy for a sustainable earth community. He breaks his work into three sections: (1) Earth Scan—identifying the threat, (2) Earth Faith—marshalling theological resources to solve the problem, and (3) Earth Action—offering practices that encourage a sustainable earth community.
The thesis of his book is that our “beloved world is steadily being destroyed by cumulative human activities.” (xii) In part one (Earth Scan) he makes the case that our current course of human activity is unsustainable. Utilizing historical and scientific analysis along with more recent policy debates and proposals, Rasmussen concludes that the current trajectory of human activity is unsustainable. Important in his analysis is a critique of our understanding of “economic development.” He maintains that the three great revolutions—agricultural, industrial and informational—have progressed in such a way that we are extracting more from the earth than we are investing. Especially important to Rasmussen are the last two centuries of “progress” that have come at a great price to the earth and to the poor. He argues that the consequences of the damage done to the earth are felt more by the poor than by the wealthy. He cites several cases where minorities and the poor suffer the consequences of imbalance environmental policies and laws. For example, penalties under hazardous-waste laws were 500 hundred percent higher at sites in largely white communities than penalties at sites in minority communities. Rasmussen calls this eco-racism and a form of apartheid.
In part two, Rasmussen asks whether religion, especially Judeo-Christian religion can provide the framework and practices to stem the tide of unsustainability. Does religion have the resources to usher in a fourth revolution—an ecological revolution—that can roll back the negative consequences of human activity on the earth? Rasmussen maintains that religion (especially Christianity and Judaism) has the tenacity and the imagination to provide the theological resources necessary for a sustainable future. Religion puts the story in broader perspective, it gives power, it provides hope, it stirs the imagination and it provides meaning and symbolism for sustained action (Ch. 12). Two examples will illustrate the resources that religion offers for a sustainable earth ethic. First, in the creation story we find a narrative of the integrity of creation–“the integrity of creation refers to the value of all creatures in themselves, for one another, and for God, and their interconnectedness in a diverse whole that has unique value for God.” (99) Therefore everything created by God has moral importance. Second, in the incarnation of Jesus God demonstrates his involvement in, his identification (not ontological, but relational) with, and his redemption of the earth. Rasmussen is asking us to see differently. He draws on a certain brand of Luther’s panentheism to highlight the relationship between God and the earth and the example of Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a model for a sustainable earth ethic that draws from theological resources.
In part three—the briefest section—Rasmussen outlines some practices that will move us to a more sustainable earth ethic. This is a short section, guided by the overarching principle that “easier” and “simpler” is better (340). Much more needs to be said, especially about how Rasmussen details the dominance of the “economic development” paradigm that fueled expansionism and consumerism in part I. This is a detailed work that deserves more time and a careful eye toward what Rasmussen means by “panentheism.”