Living ethically means understanding that our actions have consequences, taking responsibility for how those consequences ripple out across the web of life in which each of us is irrevocably enmeshed and working every day to ease what suffering we can. Living ethically means limiting our desires, respecting the deep interdependence of all things in nature and honoring the fact that our existence on this planet is a gift that comes from nowhere and may be taken back at any time.
I can’t protect my daughter from the future and I can’t even promise her a better life. All I can do is teach her: teach her how to care, how to be kind and how to live within the limits of nature’s grace. I can teach her to be tough but resilient, adaptable and prudent, because she’s going to have to struggle for what she needs. But I also need to teach her to fight for what’s right, because none of us is in this alone. I need to teach her that all things die, even her and me and her mother and the world we know, but that coming to terms with this difficult truth is the beginning of wisdom.
I share the author’s concern about climate change (though I’m not sure the future for our children is quite as dire as he’s making it out to be), but what I think is more important is the way that he summarizes our ethical approach to the environment. It seems to me that calls for “limiting our desires, respecting the deep interdependence of all things in nature, and honoring the fact that our existence on this planet is a gift” is both a very good general approach to teaching our children and an extremely unpopular way of life.
One might even say that health (individual, corporate, or ecological) is the discipline or limiting of our desires — personal and individual or corporate and communal. Individuals have to discipline themselves so that their desires don’t destroy their bodies and their relationships; communities have to discipline themselves to not abuse the land, hoard resources, or cement their own advantage at the expense of the weak. This is not easy to do, by any means, and the only answer is for human communities to embrace and strengthen the institutions that allow us to be disciplined.
The sad part of this essay, of course, is the end of the clause I quoted: “our existence on this planet is a gift that comes from nowhere and may be taken back at any time”. No gift comes from nowhere, and while any of us may die at any time, that is not a rescinding of the gift. Rather, death is part of the world we live in and the step that we must all take towards the everlasting gift, the world which will never be destroyed. We trust and believe that the world we know and love now will be transformed as our bodies will be transformed.
In the meantime, the earth is ours to take care of, and I do not know any way to discipline one’s desires but to submit to him who gave us the gift of life. My own desires are too unruly and too insatiable; I only know that I can submit them to Jesus, who experienced the same temptations as I did and yet stands faultless as my Redeemer. This song says it better than I can:
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org