A squirrel lies motionless in the middle of a street, its guts splattered out of its body, seemingly crushed beneath a car as it tried to cross over. In the past I’ve seen raccoons, pigeons and even cats in this pathetic state, and often wondered what if a person crossing the street was even hit by a vehicle. I know. All hell would break loose, emergency vehicles flashing red lights and sirens would be dispersed and inevitably criminal charges will be laid against the driver.
So why aren’t other sentient beings receiving the same respect as humans? You see, every single creature on the planet has a role to play, but just because humans don’t see the intrinsic characteristics, they tend to treat the other creatures with disregard. Perhaps the reductionist society in which we live has brainwashed us into believing that we’re superior and more valuable than other living beings. Not at all, according to Albert Schwietzer, a 20th century theologian, musician and philosopher. In his published essay (1936) “Ethics of Reverence for Life” Schwietzer said,
“Indeed, when we consider the immensity of the universe, we must confess that man is insignificant. The world began, as it were, yesterday. It may end tomorrow. Life has existed in the universe but a brief second. And certainly man’s life can hardly be considered the goal of the universe. Its margin of existence is always precarious.”
Similar sentiments are echoed by a distinguished professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University, Homes Rolston III, in this article “Naturalizing Values: Organisms and Species“: “Humans are no more intrinsically valuable than any other living thing, but should see themselves as equal members of earth’s community.”
The reality is, humans have mostly focused on the utilitarian values of nature. However, according to Rolston, the intrinsic value of nature and that of all living organisms far exceed the values that humans place on them. Depicting numerous examples, he dispels the notion that human beings are the only species capable of valuing nature, as he reflects on how every organism is valuable.
For instance, the wings of the Carboniferous dragon flies are highly efficient and capable of spontaneous aerodynamic manoeuvres, which help them catch their prey in flight. Even though humans have only now discovered the value of such wings, they have always existed. The single celled Cyanobacteria have built in molecular clocks that track day and night to aid with special physiological needs. Genomes evolve rapidly due to the presence of ‘Transposons’ (gene segments, mobile elements) which helps modify the DNA quickly, which in turn provides genomes a better chance of survival.
Schwietzer attempts to make a more compelling case, as he delves into the sacredness of nature, and calls upon humans to revere the inherent value of every living being. A fundamental principle of morality he says, is its “good to maintain and cherish life and evil to check or destroy life.” This tenet requires us to move beyond our current views of morality and expanding our moral responsibility to include everything that ‘has life’.
So, what does Schwietzer mean by “reverence for life”? He describes it as an inward force that drives our individual will-to-live — a force cognizant of the will to live in others and also ‘longing for unity with’ the will to live in others. This force of life is beyond the objective confines of this world, and it’s the destiny of our existence to obey this higher revelation of life in ourselves. In this sense, Schweitzer’s ethic of reverence requires a spiritual or cosmic relationship with both people and all living creatures. I think it’s possible to cultivate this by spending time in the wilderness, and more importantly feeling nature’s magnificence.
During one of my mystical morning walks recently I was serenaded by the most amazing choir melded with the haunting calls of the Blue Jays, the seductive melodies of Red Cardinals, and the warning calls of the Red Wing Black Birds, all of which soothed my soul. The clusters of tension in my body instantly melted away as my stormy mind became calm. I was surrounded in tranquillity — a most treasured intrinsic quality of the natural world that I cherish.
In his essay entitled “Nature” (1836), Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American essayist, lecturer, and poet, who led the Transcendentalist movement of the mid-19th century said,
“The influence of the forms and actions in nature is so needful to man that in its lowest functions, it seems to lie on the confines of commodity and beauty. To the body and mind which have been cramped by noxious work or company, nature is medicinal and restores their tone. The tradesman, the attorney comes out of the din and craft of the street, and sees the sky and the woods, and is a man again. In their eternal calm, he finds himself.”
However, in this hectic pace of life there’s little time to savour nature’s serenity. Clearly, in their quest to conquer power and success humans have ignored the intrinsic values, and instead focused only on the utilitarian values of nature, which is leading to the destruction of nature and extinction of living beings. In his book The End of Nature environmental activist, author and journalist Bill McKibben decries,
“We didn’t create this world, but we are busy de-creating it. Still the sun rises; still the Moon wanes and waxes; but they look down on a planet that means something different than it used to. Something less than it used to. This bustling, blooming, mysterious, cruel, lovely globe of mountain, sea, city, forest; of fish and wolf and bug and man; of carbon and hydrogen and nitrogen-it has become unbalanced in our short moment on it. It’s mostly us now.”
The industrial and scientific revolutions that fuelled technological advancements have undoubtedly offered the comforts we enjoy in this modern era. However some principles of these revolutions have also insidiously crept into our minds and created a deep schism between humans and nature. I think in order to revive our connection with nature and each other we need to tune into the intrinsic values of nature and all living beings, including humans. We need to become humble enough to acknowledge that humans are just one species in this magnificent web of life and that other living beings also have extraordinary intrinsic values, some that humans may never discover. As Chief Seattle (1786-1866), the Squamish and Duwamish leader of the Native American tribes in the U.S. State of Washington once said,
“Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect.”
So here’s a six-minute film that portrays my secret hide-out from the hectic mad world — my recent encounter with a family of ducks: