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There’s general agreement that the Bible has a word or two to say about man’s relationship to the environment. The most commonly quoted verse is from Genesis, 1:28:

...Then God blessed them, and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth (Gen. 1:28).

This can be read as God giving mankind free reign over every living creature, environmental consequences be damned. The more moderate view argues that man must act as responsible stewards for the earth and all its creatures. Both interpretations assume that Man, through the auspices of God, knows what’s best and that there’s a certain alignment between the notion of man’s continued ‘fruitfulness’ and a healthy environment.

But is that the case? What if man’s effort to ‘be fruitful and multiply’, to seek a stable food supply and to protect his species through the modest means of agriculture are actually what is causing (and has caused) environmental crisis after environmental crisis? Most available evidence indicates that’s exactly the case.

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In a novel (Ishmael) that begins with a classified ad reading "Teacher seeks pupil, Must have an earnest desire to save the world, apply in person." Daniel Quinn kicks off an odd bout of Socratic dialogue between a skeptical pupil and a talking gorilla. Unlikely as it sounds, the main thrust of Ishmael is the need for an enlightened stewardship of the Earth along the same lines of the biblical verse, but with a serious twist. According to Ishmael (the talking gorilla) the world is divided into two communities –those of the Takers and those of the Leavers. Takers are those who practice domesticated agriculture as a means of survival, Leavers are hunters and gatherers or pastoralists. About 8000 years ago these two groups clashed in the Fertile Crescent. The Takers won and the world hasn’t been the same since.

Takers unlike Leavers, allow for the one unforgivable sin for any species, uncontrolled population growth. Because of the benefits of domesticated agricultural, our species has continued to grow, pushing out other species, laying waste to our environment and effectively fouling the only nest we have, the Earth. Worse, we have clothed our reckless behavior in the robes of invincibility and myth. Not only have we conquered and subjugated the planet – according to our own mythologies, we were always meant to subjugate and conquer the planet. It’s written in our Holy Book, as Ishmael points out. The myth of the Fall and the story of Cain and Abel is deconstructed by the gorilla and becomes a warning by the Semite Leavers (pastoralists) against the unfathomable destruction of the Caucasian Takers (farmers) from the north.

Takers are destructive due to a kind of cyclic reinforcement that affects agricultural communities. Populations are allowed to grow because of the increased food supply. But because increased population puts pressure on that very food supply, the Takers must continuously expand, forcing neighboring tribes out of their region, killing off or domesticating other species for their own purposes. Hence, outward expansion and destruction becomes a natural dynamic of a ‘Taker’ lifestyle.

It’s fun to note in this regard the metaphoric meanings of the names Adam and Eve: Adam means man and Eve means life. So life tempts man into becoming a Taker, just as population pressures force agricultural output to continuously expand.

Ishmael says at one point,

Whenever a Taker couple talk about how wonderful it would be to have a big family, they’re reenacting this scene beside the tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. They’re saying to themselves ‘Of course it’s our right to apportion life on this planet as we please. Why stop at four kids or six? We can have fifteen if we like. All we have to do is plow under another few hundred acres of rain forest –and who cares if a dozen other species disappear as a result?

Ishmael notes that the spread of Taker culture has nearly encompassed the world. It’s what we have come to know as ‘Western culture’ and it temporarily holds many benefits for those who embrace it. Short term benefits to be sure, as Taker culture inevitably will exhaust itself. But in many ways it’s also like a prison, a pleasant consumerist prison, and ‘what is crucial to your race is not the redistribution of power and wealth within the prison but the destruction of the prison itself.’

The narrator objects that destroying the consumer prison would not be easy; would in fact be nearly impossible.  Too many benefits accrue to those within its walls to contemplate its demolishment. The books ends without real resolution, the gorilla dies and the narrator is left with his calling card that asks a simple question:

With man gone, will there be hope for Gorilla?

And on the flipside...

With Gorilla gone, will there be hope for man?

The later is perhaps the most compelling argument for a sensible adjustment of the ‘Taker’ lifestyle. In the recent
Harper’s Steven Stoll, associate professor of History at Fordham University takes a look at these adjustments and finds that one of the most compelling was first noted in the Holy Book as well. In his view, "Genesis is all about population as destiny."

According to one Jewish legend, after the Flood, Noah invented the plow, scythe and hoe—the tools for appropriating the landscape and bending it to satisfy man’s hunger. Genesis 9:2 reads like a propaganda handbook for Takers:

And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be on every beast of the earth, on every bird of the air, on all that move on the earth, and on all the fish of the sea. They are given into your hand.

On the flipside, Stoll notes that later in the Hebrew bible, Moses, a herder, is given the Ten Commandments. These laws had become necessary because as people changed over from being Leavers to Takers,

the relationship between land and labor also changed. Slavery, dispossession, empire---all can be understood as rational adaptations to a new world in which the intensive occupation of land become the basis of wealth and sovereignty.

The laws are necessary to control the behavior of an aggressive population, and to control the expansion of the population itself. Towards this end Leviticus "extends the commanded Sabbath day of rest as a precaution against the ecological destruction endemic to agrarian societies." In short, a period of rest (approximately 1 year), of letting the land lie fallow was not just advised but legislated to slow down an economic and cultural system that threatened to devour the region both environmentally and socially.

In the sabbatical year not a grain or grape was harvested, or even gleaned from the weedy shoots that poked up in formerly planted fields. The inconvenience of spending a year gather wild wheat in the hills of Galilee had to be balanced against the very survival of the nation: the fallow period restored a degree of soil fertility, preventing starvation and the need to migrate. In a political sense, the sabbatical lived up to its peaceful principle, because a seed planting people able to remain within their ordained territory had no need to go to war with their neighbors

Within the strict practice of the Sabbatical year, we find the necessary response to the God of Genesis, the one that commands man to ‘be fruitful and multiple’...the laws laid down in Leviticus recommend a certain level of ‘sustainable management’: sure grow your crops, but don’t exhaust your soil, and if you want to maintain some semblance of a decent life, stick to one place and don’t count on continuous expansion as a life habit—otherwise you’ll be afflicted with ceaseless wars and turmoil. Good advice! But it doesn’t end there.

Channeling God’s voice, the authors of Leviticus then moved the sabbatical toward and even more radical confrontation with the cumulative tensions of a farming society. Following every 7 sabbatical cycles not only would land lie fallow for a year, but a half century of property sales would be reversed , outstanding debts would be relieved and all slaves released. ...The statute effectively abolished whatever notion of property the Israelites  might have had. Instead everyone owned a ‘use’ right that could be bought and sold until the jubilee (7th sabbatical year) suspended the economic rules and reset the game

And in the Seventh year, God gave us true land reform.

The upshot, Stoll notes, was a "legal mechanism for preventing class differences." More importantly, it was a method for creating a sustainable and localized community.  We could extend the core concept of the jubilee to our own economic behavior in forgiving third world countries their ‘debts’, by extending carbon tax laws so that we "break a pattern that threatens the social order" just as the Leviticus statutes did. Our economic norms are dysfunctional without an awareness of the culture and environment in which they are practiced. One famous
Goldman Sachs investor suggested that creating a bubble around food supplies in 2008 wasn’t an ethical problem because he preferred to think of such investment in commodities as investing in ‘widgets’. But Goldman Sachs wasn’t investing in widgets, it was creating financial products around wheat used to feed the world and because of the bubble that such products created, millions of humans starved.

Following economic rules with no regard for their real world consequences is not just greedy and cruel, it’s insane and self destructive. Ultimately, Leviticus rules are about humanity’s survival (at least at the tribal level). The eating laws (don’t eat pork, etc...) are probably as much about trichinosis prevention as a religious mandate. The same applies to their concept of the jubilee.  The biblical laws enforced and regulated economic activity—even the ultra conservative God of Leviticus knew that an unfettered free market would destroy their world. They tell us what we really want to know, how to survive, how to live within the context of our environment, legislating against the urge for thoughtless domination and endless expansion.

So the next time some far right Christian yahoo decries your environmentalism as idolatry or tries to use Genesis to prop up arguments against caring about species extinction or global warming, or that only the Bible offers any ‘true’ meaning, mention Leviticus, the book of laws, and the Sabbatical year, how those rules, with appropriate adjustments, could offer solutions that could be applied successfully to our own situation today. Tell him that the ultra conservative Hebrew God of Leviticus had the good sense to advocate for sustainable farming, not to mention the downright Socialist notion of property redistribution and probably mankind’s first legislated land reform. Then step back and watch his head explode.

ECSTASY diaries will appear most often on weekends and  
Thursday evenings.  All diaries dealing with the problems of  
living in a Consumerist society are potential candidates.  If you  
think you've got something to contribute, please contact
WarrenS and he'll schedule you in.

Here are a few important links:

Annie Leonard's crucial movie, The Story of Stuff.

An invaluable tool for calculating the ecological footprint of your lifestyle, from the good folks at Redefining Progress.  What's your score?

The Reverend Billy  
and the Church of Stop Shopping

 SCRAP - a creative  
reuse center, store and workshop space. Donations of high quality, low cost, re-usable materials such as  textiles, paper, jewelry findings, wood, buttons and plastics are  collected from businesses, institutions and individuals then sorted, displayed and distributed by SCRAP for artists, educational and community groups.For more creative reuse centers around the country, click here.

Profound and stimulating philosophical perspectives on  
sustainability, civilization and the role of human nature from Technoshaman Jason  

The Freecycle Network™ is made up of 4,793 groups with 7,208,000  
members across the globe. It's a grassroots and entirely nonprofit  
movement of people who are giving (& getting) stuff for free in their  
own towns. It's all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of  
landfills. Each local group is moderated by a local volunteer (them's  
good people). Membership is free. To sign up, find your community by  
entering it into the search box above or by clicking on "Browse  
Groups" above the search box. Have fun!

If you have a resource that should be included in  
ECSTASY diaries, please include the link and a few words about it in  
the comments.

The ECSTASY series thus far:

February 28: Introducing ECSTASY.
March 7: The Work of Julian Lee and Juliet Schor: Two Voices of Sanity.
March 10: G2Geek's Measure The Power.
March 14: Earthfire promoted Annie Leonard's appearance in Washington, DC.
March 21: RL Miller tells us about Chickens.
March 24: G2Geek prompts an unbelievable discussion about the difference between Consumerist Time and Hunter-Gatherer Time.
March 28: citisven shares a thought-provoking and aesthetically satisfying look at the ways that one person's trash is another person's art materials.
April 4: WarrenS gives us the good word on Making Homemade Musical Instruments.
April 7: G2geek talks about what makes for robust and sustainable technology.
April 11: B Amer tells us how to find ECSTASY on our bicycles
April 18: rb137 reviews Judith Levine's book, "Not Buying It!"
April 25: mwmwm's powerful rumination on our collective complicity in consumerism.
April 29: G2geek discusses the need for a new economic and emotional narrative.
May 2: WarrenS offers Eight Thoughts About Timescale.
May 6: G2geek talks about the ecological implications of Where You Keep Your Money.
May 9: rb137 gives us a powerful review of the role of "blood metals"  in our consumer electronics — Your Cellphone is Killing People!May 13: G2geek gives us the backstory of neo-feudalism, with more promised in the weeks to come.
May 16: Milly Watt tells us more about the power of feedback in reducing our consumption of electricity.
May 23: G2Geek presents part two of The Backstory of Neofeudalism
May 30: WarrenS asks an important question about consumerism and  parenting: Can a Middle-Aged Dad Find ECSTASY?
June 2: Citisven delivers a kind indictment: we are all complicit in  the horror that is the Gulf of Mexico.  His piece is called You Can't Wipe That Spill With A Kleenex® and it's well worth your attention.
June 6: WarrenS discusses the fallacy of the GDP, and looks at some other ways to quantify the health of our economy.June 20: WarrenS talks about Giving Music Away.
June 27: Laughing Planet tells why we all need to do some more Walking!
July 4: WarrenS brags on his DIY Garden Project.
July 11: WarrenS reviews Juliet Schor's "Plenitude" and Bill  McKibben's "eaarth" — and ruminates on the implications of convenience in our lives.
July 18: rb137 gives us some valuable insights on keeping our  surroundings clean without buying tons of toxic chemicals, in Cleanliness is Next to ECSTASY.

Originally posted to DelicateMonster on Sun Jul 25, 2010 at 09:11 AM PDT.

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