The past three centuries have witnessed the accumulation of unprecedented levels of wealth and the production of unprecedented risks. These risks include the declining integrity and stability of many of the world's environments, which face dramatic and possibly irreversible change as the environmental burdens of late modern lifestyles increasingly shift to fragile ecosystems, vulnerable communities, and future generations. Globalization has increased the scope and scale of these risks, as well as the pace of their emergence. It has also made possible global environmental governance, attempts to manage risk by unprecedented numbers and types of authoritative agents, including state and non-state actors at the local, national, regional, and global levels.
In The Gardeners' Dirty Hands: Environmental Politics and Christian Ethics, Noah Toly offers an interpretation of environmental governance that draws upon insights into the tragic - the need to forego, give up, undermine, or destroy one or more goods in order to possess or secure one or more other goods. Toly engages Christian and classical Greek ideas of the tragic to illuminate the enduring challenges of environmental politics. He suggests that Christians have unique resources for responsible engagement with global environmental politics while acknowledging the need for mutually agreed, and ultimately normative, restraints.
I might not be the target audience of this book and its scholarly conversation partners in global environmental governance, particularly, but I deeply enjoyed reading it and felt that doing so offers me (a regular old global citizen, Christian, and farmer) significant help. Most centrally, I loved reading it for the really usable and memorable concepts that explain (in a way I feel and recognize deeply) tragic human existence in the world (which is the founding condition (unrecognized, often!) of global environmental policy): scarcity, tragedy, and risk. Reading the descriptions of scarcity, tragedy, and risk, these qualities or aspects of life (as it were, under the sun), felt as comforting as wisdom literature to me-- life in time and in political communities made helpfully, even cathartically clear. Key in this comfort for me was the concept of ineluctable guilt (from Paul Ricoeur), and that of an alternative, in policy, for actions that seem to need self-justification (this from Bonhoeffer). It's so helpful. to have language for these feelings/states.
I will use these terms/markers for explaining and thinking about local actions (on our farm, in our town, to the extent that we have any power) but also in any situations in which we may have occasion to unburden others . The cruciform imaginary, the idea that one should take as a foundational image for ethics and policy the self-giving bearing of responsibility of the cross, is a natural one, given the Christian theological basis for this work. But, according to Toly (in another helpful thread), it is surprisingly usable in a religious century in which such religious motivators are already major (if sometimes unacknowledged).
Other significant virtues of this book that should gain it a wide audience are as follows: (1) it is remarkably short; (2) it demonstrates the power of living and working from a liberal arts community (as Toly does), richly relying on literature (Aeschylus, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and even Jack Gilbert!) and other subfields of ethics, political theology, urban studies, etc. to develop ideas, illustrations, and arguments.
I am grateful for this work, and say, with Aeschylus, "but still some god. . ."
This was a surprisingly thoughtful book. Surprising because, as I began to read it, I thought it would be a fairly straightforward book on ethics, perhaps one that pushed the need for a little more sense of tragedy and a little more some Bonhoeffer in our reflections, but not much beyond that. As I got into the book however, I found some of my most basic convictions about sin, finitude, and our alienation from God brought into an at times genuinely arresting discussion of climate change. Basically, Toly wants to make the argument that climate change is, if not a blessing in disguise (he never says that, and probably would deny it), then at least a kind of vital revelation: it's a problem so large, so structural, so entwined with systems upon which our whole civilization (or at least the last 150 years of it) has been built, that the uselessness (indeed the idolatry) of efficiency and utility--the "technology will fix climate change!" mentality--is fully revealed. Maybe this ultimate result of our "benign alienation" from God will be the one limit we will not be able to ignore, and attempting to live responsibly in such a damaged world, which will require a huge diversity of localized responses, will finally impress upon us the possibility of having a hope which does not falsely regard itself as a final solution. Anyway, a very good book. More thoughts here.