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On Religion, Stewardship of the Earth, and Malignant Normality

by Peter A. Belmont / 2017-11-14
© 2017 Peter Belmont


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As I see it, mankind as a whole has failed to accept and act on a duty of stewardship of the earth.

This may not be true of individual people in general, but it is clearly true, by and large, of people’s governments, business and economic organizations, and media. We are known by what we do—or fail to do, by what we say and write and on what we are silent.

I am not alone in seeing things this way. See letter of 15,000 scientists with dire warnings about man-made climate change.

I see man-made global warming and consequent climate change (GWCC) as only the most recent and most blatant evidence of this failure of stewardship. The overrunning of the earth with trash, industrial and farming pollutants, concrete and asphalt, poisons and bio-active chemicals, and of course an excess human population, are of much longer standing. The onrushing extinctions of many species at human hands is another example of the failure of stewardship.

[A]lready we are bursting through the physical limits of the planet that sustains us. Climate breakdown, soil loss, the collapse of habitats and species, the sea of plastic, insectageddon: all are driven by rising consumption. The promise of private luxury for everyone cannot be met: neither the physical nor the ecological space exists.

But growth must go on: this is everywhere the political imperative.


Reasons for Failure to Act as Stewards of the Earth

Since I am concerned with “What’s to be Done?” about GWCC, I’ve included a section on that topic at the end of this essay.

However, the principal subject of this essay is not mankind’s failure to act as steward for the earth but, rather, the reasons for that failure.

The chief reason for that failure is a collection of what in my perception are “malignant normalities” (a concept defined and discussed below). Consider this essay a warning about those malignancies.

As malignant normalities I particularly call out the following for attention in this essay:
     •A society which fails in its duty of stewardship of the earth is a malignant normality
     •A social/economic system based on the burning of fossil fuels is a malignant normaility
     •The environmentally abusive nature of corporations is a malignant normality
     •The erosion of democracy due to the powerful corrupting intrusion of the money of large corporations and billionaires is a malignant normality
     •The predominance of the ideology (or “religion”) of neoliberalism, free-market corporate capitalism, and consumerism is a malignant normality
     •The lack of courage to preach stewardship by those religious leaders whose faith formally calls for stewardship is a malignant normality
     •The bubble within which our political and industrial leaders normally live and work, a bubble which makes it easy for them to close their eyes to the realities of life on earth, is itself a malignant normality.

Defining “Malignant Normality” & Stating Our “Duty to Warn”

The psychiatrist Robert J. Lifton, M.D., who is known for his writings about the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings and also about Nazi doctors, has written a brief and incisive essay, ”Our Witness to Malignant Normality”, which appears as the foreword to a very recent book, a collection of mostly psychiatric essays called “The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump” edited by Bandy Lee, M.D., M.Div. Dr. Lee is the organizer of a recent conference at Yale University about the “Duty to Warn” .

In his essay, Lifton discusses two very useful concepts: “malignant normality” and a “duty to witness” (or duty to warn).

By “malignant normality”, Lifton means a state of affairs accepted by all or by many people as normal and correct or unexceptionable but which is nevertheless malignant.

Lifton’s concerns and analysis, in this foreword, while centered on the problem of Donald Trump, carry right over to GWCC and other problems—such as the erosion of democracy due to the powerful corrupting intrusion of the money of large corporations and billionaires.

Lifton is concerned chiefly with the duty of professionals to notice public malignancy and warn or bear witness about it, but it seems to me that every thinking person and not just “professionals”, has the same duties—if perhaps not the same training and skills.

What is “malignant” is a matter of individual judgment. And reasonable and reasonably ethical people may differ in their judgments.

And “normality” may be contextual. In too many cases, a person who would not usually murder has done so as a member of a mob. What’s “normal” in daily life may not be “normal” in the social context of a mob, and vice versa.

By a duty to witness or warn, Lifton means a duty of professionals to use their professional skills for the benefit of the greater society, especially in face of malignancy, including a malignant normality, perceived as particularly dangerous or evil.

In my opinion, a duty to warn is an ethical duty of all people, irrespective of their profession. Professional credentials may help a warner’s credibility if the warning is a matter of expertise, but we all have the duty to warn.

As everyone hears constantly on New York subways, “If you see something, say something.”

It is clear that the process of recognition of malignancy—especially when it has become a normality—is a gradual thing, and different people will come to recognize the reality of the malignancy and the severity or threat of the malignancy, if at all, at different rates and different times. Certainly, it will usually be the case that one person’s unobjectionable normality will be another person’s “malignant normality”. We begin to see malignancy gradually.

Lifton concludes his short foreword with a quotation from the poet Theodore Roethke, which makes the point of gradual realization beautifully, as poets often do: “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”

Stewardship of the Earth & Religion

I am not a conventionally religious person. If I have a religion at all, I suppose it might best be labeled “environmentalism”. I am certainly persuaded that humankind has—or should have—a duty to act collectively and individually as stewards of the earth.

When I say, as I sometimes do, “Let no one put asunder what God has put together,” I am not speaking of God as creator, but of the creation itself, a thing of beauty and wonder, the natural world as it is or as it was 50 or 100 years ago. A necessary thing, whatever the corporate CEOs may suppose.

This duty of stewardship is not that recent invention, “environmentalism”, but appears to be a religious idea of long standing, appearing within various religious traditions.

Since the idea is an old one, we might wonder why it is not acted upon more vigorously.

Stewardship in Hunter-Gatherer Religion

It is widely believed that some (or many) hunter-gatherer cultures had explicit stewardship ideas in their religions. Be that as it may, it is clear that such communities had to exist within limited resource systems and did well to limit their impact. A society which killed too many animals or gathered too many edible plants within a small territory would starve or would need to move to another and richer place, perhaps with a view to giving the older place a chance to recover its animal and plant populations. People who had no realistic option to “move on” would therefore have had to develop a system of stewardship—and a system of population control as well if disease, hardship, and warfare did not suffice.

Today we are finding that in various ways we are living in a world of finite and all-too-exhaustible resources. In that way, we share something in actuality with that subset of hunter-gatherer societies which had nowhere to move on to—the need to act as stewards for our resources—but we have so far failed to share with them the deep and awful realization of this truth and have consequently failed to develop habits of stewardship.
So, here we are. We know the problem, we know the Earth’s resilience and resource base cannot be stretched infinitely and we are uncomfortably aware that we are heading in the wrong direction. The question that remains is how we can better manage our relationship with nature.


One may find a beautiful, poetic, and religiously tinctured (fictional hunter-gatherer) statement of the duty of stewardship in “The Shelters of Stone”, part of the wonderful series of novels about cavedwellers, the “Earth’s Children” series, by Jean M. Auel. Auel has composed a creation story for her cavedwellers, “The Mother’s Song”, and its antipenultimate verse deals with stewardship:
To Woman and Man the Mother gave birth,
And then for their home, She gave them the Earth,
The water, the land, and all Her creation.
To use them with care was their obligation.

It was their home to use. But not to abuse.

OK, that is the expression of stewardship in an imaginary hunter-gatherer religion.

My take on the hunter-gatherer religions is that whether or not they express a duty of stewardship, they are of limited practical significance today because the self-styled Western Civilization has seen fit, largely through European settler-colonialism, to wipe out most of the people who might otherwise have followed and proselytized for those religious ideas. Today, the lessons hunter-gatherers might teach are disregarded by us numerically and militarily dominant folks, the so-called Western Civilization.

What of today’s dominant religion or ideololgy?

Today’s Dominant Religion or Ideology

The sad fact is that the predominant religion or ideology today is decidedly anti-environmental, and rejects root and branch any duty of environmental care, any duty of stewardship.

That predominant ideology (it might be called ”Mammonism”) is the ideology or religion that embraces “neoliberalism”, free markets, corporate capitalism, and consumerism. This ideology has much in common with “religion” because it is for many people a comprehensive normative system of belief, behavior, society, and morality.

We are told constantly that capitalism and free markets are “good”. Surely an assertion that something is “good”, justified solely by ideology and not by outcomes, is a religious idea. The anti-environmental outcome of Mammonism has been well known for many years.

The overwhelming chief cause of GWCC is the on-going operation of the world’s economic-industrial regime based on the ideology of capitalism. If you think this is too strong a denunciation, read this.

While I think of Mammomism as a “religion”, I don’t insist on this idea: call it an “ideology” or anything else you like. At all events, into the hands of the followers of this system of belief and practice, industrial societies appear to have delivered first themselves and later the rest of the world lock, stock, and barrel.

Indeed, the USA seems to be in such a rush to export, at gun-point, “free-market democracy” (that is, neoliberal corporate capitalism together with corporate-controlled “democracy”) that it seems almost a desire to kill the rest of the world even as we commit suicide at home. I describe all this in this heavy-breathing manner because I see these arrangements as a “malignant normality”. Needless to say, not everyone sees them in that way.

The Abusive Nature of Corporations

As a matter of law and custom, corporations are responsible alone to their shareholders, and responsible alone for gaining profits, often near-term profits, and to achieve these ends they make free use of their enormous financial resources to “buy” from the legislative and regulatory branches of governments freedom for the corporations from whatever environmental (or other) governmental trammels might otherwise interfere with such profit-making.

In other words, the corporations not only travel through the world spewing as “externalities” environmental (and social) harms to the right and the left as freely as yesteryear’s coal-burning railroad engine used to spew soot and cinders along its right-of-way;—large corporations also erase the possibility of “democracy” by corrupting the people’s government.

What is abundantly clear is this: corporations are not, as such, on board with the idea of effective environmental stewardship, and none more distant from such stewardship than the fossil-fuel producing corporations and some of the fossil-fuel using corporations.

Since the religion of the corporations is the dominant religion of our times, it is small wonder that introducing and activating the idea of stewardship is a very uphill battle.

Stewardship in Major Religions

Stewardship appears to be accepted, as a religious duty, by many Christians and Christian religious groups. Similar positions are taken by other major religions.

Indeed, elements of the Catholic Church and other religious organizations are weighing in on the side of the environment and in particular in the battle over GWCC. See Amicus Brief of Global Catholic Climate Movement et al.. This brief states a religious position as clear as a bell:
The common interest in and motivation for the Faith Organizations’ submission of an amicus brief is that the Youth Plaintiffs’ Public Trust Doctrine claims at the heart of their Complaint invoke the same moral imperative that motivates the proposed amici. The public trust principle of law mirrors a sacred trust based on deep covenants of obligation towards future generations and to all Creation. As the climate crisis threatens the future survival of civilization, the principle could hardly have a more compelling application.
This very interesting legal brief sets forth not merely religious arguments for the proposition that governments must act as trustees over the environment for the benefit of today’s children and future generations—they also quote Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt, and others. Well worth reading.

The trouble is, that all religions these days need to exist as social institutions within a society that is dominated by the religious ideas of the corporations. Government is dominated, as already noted. The corporate media are, well, corporate. In large part, the people work, if they have jobs, for corporations.

Some (doubtless minority) opinion has it that a major segment of American Christianity has abandoned religion entirely in favor of political power. See The death of Christianity in the U.S. This, if true, would not seem to augur well for a strong theology and practice of stewardship of the earth from this quarter.

It should also be noted that, in the 16th century, a major branch of Protestantism, if not all of Protestantism, repudiated the Old Testament ban on usury—usury being the name for lending at interest and thus the basis of capitalism. ”Calvin’s main contribution to the usury question was in having the courage to dump the prohibition altogether.”

So it comes hard for the churches of religions that formally espouse stewardship to preach it with any great vigor.

We have seen energetic preaching—and indeed exhortation to political activism—in favor of prayer in schools and state aid to religious educational institutions, and in opposition to abortion, contraception, same sex marriage, and other matters of controversy.

But we have seen little in the way of similarly energetic preaching or political exhortation on GWCC.

We may hope that this will change, but it would be nice if it would change quickly and noticeably while there is still time to oppose GWCC.

If religions are, by and large, trapped in the notion that morality and ethics exist solely to regulate behavior between people and thus not to regulate social behavior (in particular in regard to stewardship of the earth), than this must be accounted a malignant normality.

The Problem of Agreement on Stewardship

I think that we need a general agreement about what needs to be done (as well as what needs to stop being done): the ideas of “abuse” and “stewardship” and “malignant” are not self-defining, and there is room for much disagreement even among committed environmentalists about these ideas.

Generally, however, it is clear that some of the things which many humans do, things which have become “normal”, are in fact malignant, “malignant normalities” in Lifton’s phrase.

To overcome a “normality” requires a cultural shift. As Jonathan Foley says in “What’s Limiting Us?” at Macroscope:
Culture matters. It did for other challenges we faced, including reducing rates of smoking and associated illness, cutting incidents of drinking and driving, legalizing gay marriage, and achieving broader civil rights. While scientific studies, technological innovation, policy change, and widespread education were all crucial in these battles, it was cultural change and acceptance that really helped them reach a tipping point.

That’s what we need for the environment too. Otherwise, instead of pulling together, listening to the science, acting on what we know to be true, we will continue to delay, choose not to listen, not to act, not to build a better world.

And I think we all agree that this needs to change.


Today’s Most Malignant Normality

Donald Trump and his (were that it were merely Keystone-Cops-like) cabinetfull of anti-environmental billionaires are by all accounts a group of people so separated by the cosseting and insulating cotton-wool wrappings of great wealth from awareness of the realities faced by the ordinary people of the earth that they permit themselves to act as if all is OK with the world and they and their friends may without regret go on their merry ways making money hand over fist without regard for the ill effects of such money-making. Donald Trump makes money with real estate and may be the least troubling of these wealthy men (at least through an environmental lens limited to viewing his own business dealings), but many of his cabinet secretaries are taken right out of the board rooms of oil companies and are by long habit fiercely anti-environmental.

And, indeed, these men—like many other CEOs of large corporations—live and exist within a tiny elite caste, a social system within the 0.1%, in which such disregard for environmental (and other social) concerns is so pervasive, so universal, that such disregard has for them become normative; and thus this rarefied and insulated social system is yet another example of a malignant normality.

So what these men are doing, and what corporations in general are doing, is “normal” inasmuch as such corporate doings have become normal since 1945 if not long before.

The new realization is that these “normalities” are in fact “malignant normalities”.

So these corporate CEOs and many others believe that going full speed ahead and burning fossil fuels as if there were no tomorrow is correct, necessary, and can go on forever without a need for corporations or anyone else to act as environmental stewards. They see no need to slow down CO(((SB₂SB))) emissions and/or otherwise to act to reduce the enormous CO(((SB₂SB))) burden in the atmosphere from today’s 410 ppm to the 280 ppm of 1800.

They are dead wrong. But they are not the ones who will die.

And, corporations to the contrary notwithstanding, humankind will slow down and reverse its emissions of CO(((SB₂SB))). We might do so deliberately in a long overdue attempt at environmental stewardship, if we are lucky. Or we might do so, willy-nilly, after an environmental catastrophe destroys our capacity to continue our pollution.

Or we might do so, in effect, by very actively developing and putting into service massive mega-industrial-sized devices for removal of CO(((SB₂SB))) from the atmosphere.

But if we are to take any of these steps deliberately, we will need to come to various agreements and the first of these is agreement that several of today’s normalities are malignant.

I believe that these malignant normalities include the corporate religious structure (capitalism, corporate control of governments) and the social-industrial structure based on the burning of fossil-fuels.

Above all today’s normality of the powerlessness of the common person willing to act as a steward of the earth must be seen as malignant.

What’s to be Done?
Simultaneous Action on Two Fronts

Well, as to ending or minimizing the malignant societal normalities—I have no idea.

As to the atmosphere, it now appears from every hand that what’s needed is dual action, simultaneous action on two fronts, each on an emergency or “war footing”.

We need, as one project, to shut down our practices of burning fossil fuels, replacing all fossil fuel-based energy production by “green” methods of energy production such as wind and solar.

This should be done as soon as possible, doing what’s easy first and what’s harder when it becomes possible. “Going Green” on electric power generation looks to me to be the easiest.

And we need, as the other project, to perform “CDR” or “CCS”, removal of existing CO(((SB₂SB))) from the atmosphere in vast quantities—quantities enough simultaneously both to offset the annual increases in atmospheric CO(((SB₂SB))) due to still continuing (and presently still increasing!) burning of fossil fuels as well as to reduce the atmospheric presence of CO(((SB₂SB))) from today’s 410 ppm back down to 280 ppm. Furthermore, the energy needed to perform CDR will have to be “green” or else the exercise will be counterproductive, a costly failure.
Fully 101 of the 116 models the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change uses to chart what lies ahead assume that carbon will be taken out of the air in order for the world to have a good chance of meeting the 2°C target. The total amount of CO2 to be soaked up by 2100 could be a staggering 810bn tonnes, as much as the world’s economy produces in 20 years at today’s rate
(Economist).

Neither of these two actions is easy or likely to be finished (or even very much started) anytime soon. It is therefore important not to fall into “moral hazard” by supposing that doing CDR alone will allow indefinite continued burning of fossil fuels, because CDR will take a very long time to become an adequately massive presence. (See Industry is Betting Big on CCS as a ‘Shield’ for Fossil Fuels at Bonn Climate Talks.) We need both actions, and we need them massive, and we need them started and ended soon.

I suspect that all this could comfortably be funded by redirection of a mere 10% of the world’s “defense” budgets. And surely, protecting the world/earth from destruction by GWCC may fairly be characterized as “defense”! See The Military’s Warning on Global Warming.
What the military recognizes and the civilian government does not, is that the biggest security threat, the biggest security threat our species has faced in 10,000 years, is global warming. The military doesn’t call it a hoax. The 2014 Quadrennial Defense Review calls climate change “an accelerant of instability” and a “threat multiplier.”


Here are some articles to read:

Can Carbon-Dioxide Removal Save the World?

The Global Impacts of Rapidly Disappearing Arctic Sea Ice

Controlling the Climate: refreezing the Arctic?

How Much Carbon Can Soil Store




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