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The Philosophy Of Environing


Dichotomy, artist unknown

Ed Darrell points out at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub an interesting 2008 exchange between Speaking of Faith’s Krista Tippett and Cal DeWitt, professor at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies of the University of Wisconsin at Madison on the history of environmentalism. According to DeWitt, it would seem that human beings stopped viewing themselves as part of their environment, in order first to conquer it and then to protect it. I’d love to learn more about this philosophical fork in the road given that it involves more than us seeing ourselves as separate from the creator; this is divorcing the human self from the rest of creation.

Cal DeWitt tells an interesting story about the origins of the word environment. It emerged, he says, from a term coined by Geoffrey Chaucer: environing. This became a linguistic way of distinguishing our human selves from the world around us. Previously, DeWitt avers, human beings had thought of themselves as part and parcel of the same creation. At best, this implied a certain responsibility and relationship that has been absent in the modern Western approach to the world.

Western Christianity itself has, ironically, been a potent historical driver of enmity between humanity and nature. But after careful study, Cal DeWitt found the Bible to be an “ecological handbook.” And he has long put it into practice in this way, beginning with the marsh beneath his feet.

… DeWitt also points out that the stereotype of environmental activism as liberal and secular has never been accurate. Devout evangelicals have long been in positions of environmental leadership. And on this program last year, the chief representative in Washington D.C. of the National Association of Evangelicals, Richard Cizik, stunned many of our listeners with his passionate declaration that he is a “convert” to the science of climate change. As it turns out, Cal DeWitt was one of the organizers of the global gathering that exposed Cizik and others to the science of climate change. DeWitt describes an intriguing theory of his this hour, that evangelical and charismatic Christianity may be better equipped than other Christian traditions to change and galvanize and lead on an issue like this.

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