The Reverend Kathleen Damewood Korb
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Greater Naples
I’ve been hearing a certain amount about fears of human survival, and even some preparations for a time that it will be seriously in doubt — sooner, rather than later. Something that has always seemed rather unimportant to me when I have spent any time reflecting upon it is the question of survival — of individual human beings, of our species or any particular species, of the planet or any portion of the universe. After all, it’s not going to happen — not any of it. All individual living things will die sooner or later, species will inevitably become extinct, except, perhaps, the cockroaches, and the solar system and galaxy and perhaps our present universe will cease to be. Someone asked me not long ago whether the screensaver on my computer, a series of photographs of planets, nebulae and galaxies, was to remind me of the smallness not only of my own being but of the human race. That’s not why I chose it — I hardly need such reminding — I chose it only because it is beautiful, and indeed I might not have if I found our finitude distasteful. I do not. Eternity is a long time and infinity is a long way, and I feel no need to last that long or that widely.
Yet simple survival or the individual and of the race is the deepest instinct, not only of human beings but of all living things on this planet, and I suspect on any other planet on which living things may exist. It is what enables them to go on living after all. It is also true that nothing can continue to survive without the destruction of other living things. Even the strictest vegan (that’s a vegetarian who eats no animal products whatever — no eggs or milk or cheese) consumes things which once held a life spark. Otherwise, of course, they would die. It is up to each of us to decide what makes life too valuable to be destroyed by us, but that some must be if we are to survive at all is simply the most basic fact of life. Since we humans are at the top of the food chain and have unprecedented power either to nurture or destroy, it behooves us to think seriously about how and why we survive, what is created or destroyed in the process, and what we should value in all of it.
Those of you who do not read the letters to the Naples Daily News may not recognize the name of Eddie Filer. He is an indefatigable letter writer and uses his letters primarily to promote and defend his way of life which is unusual to the point, many believe, of eccentricity. He has carried the values that many of us at least say that we share to their logical — or perhaps illogical — extreme. He used to live out in Corkscrew, before he became too frail for its privations, using as little of the world’s resources as possible, and, of course, is a vegetarian. In one letter he stated, essentially, that human beings should stop reproducing because all they did was harm the planet. In his folllow-up letter he listed a litany of things that he valued, nearly all of which included human wellbeing, which simply shows that none of us can be wholly consistent in our ideals.
Although the previous letter was a bit over the top, as I will admit that being an omnivore and an environmental moderate I often find them, it seemed to me that he made a point that requires some consideration. Why should the human race survive? He is right that our numbers, increasing by millions daily, create almost insoluble environmental problems. Were we to become extinct the earth as a whole might well be healthier. Some species would miss us; some might even go out of existence. Red tide would surely cease to flourish were human beings not here to fertilize it with our run-off, and cockroaches, coyotes and rats would find living more difficult. The species that we cultivate might well go out of existence with us or evolve into something entirely different, and even the deer whose overpopulation is becoming such a problem in New England, and elephants presently starving in their protected areas in Kenya might miss our support. However, as a whole, the balance of nature might well be restored, nature having immense powers of recuperation — until some other species evolved to the point that it, too, could destroy all its enemies and reign supreme. After which it would undoubtedly overpopulate the earth, too, but at least it wouldn’t be our fault.
However, I cannot be convinced that it is the duty of humans to commit species suicide for the sake of the rest of the varied species, plant and animal, that live on this earth. Perhaps it is pure unthinking human chauvinism, but I see no reason for giving other species the preference. Admittedly we are far more destructive than any other, but that is because we have the numbers and the power. My observation of nature tells me that any other creature with the same advantages would do much as we have done. When they have overcome their enemies and have an assured food source, overpopulation is the response. Starvation restores the balance or the invasion of a new enemy, but the Darwinian truth continues: the fittest survives and flourishes until it is no longer the fittest.
That cold analysis does not mean that I am indifferent to the issues of overpopulation, of pollution, of the various ways we endanger not only ourselves but the whole earth for the very reason of our fitness to survive. As Emerson said, and Eddie Filer showed, a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, and I am deeply distressed when another species becomes extinct. Well, not all of them. I have no objection to the eradication of dangerous viruses and bacteria, and I couldn’t get up a lot of emotional energy around saving the snail darter. There are certain insects, too, whose demise, though unlikely, would cause me no sleepless nights. However, the fact that what to me is probably the most beautiful creature that ever existed on this earth, the Bengal tiger, is desperately endangered because of the degradation of its habitat and the depredations of poachers, makes me deeply sad. When you think about it, of course, the tiger is not a whit more useful than human beings. It is a dangerous carnivore, and if it can’t get cattle it will prey on people or anything else it can get. Nevertheless, its danger and that of other lovely things is a deep sadness to me. So is the danger that we are creating for ourselves by our indifference to maintaining the nature that sustains us. Even, however, the abstract value of justice does not tell me that our survival is less important than that of other species or of the earth as a whole. I would argue instead that there are reasons of the spirit rather than of science and reason, beyond human chauvinism and the instinct for survival, that give human life a special value. I would not try to argue that it is necessarily exclusive to humanity, but that it belongs to humanity I do believe.
We hear much about the sanctity of life. What is meant, of course, is human life, rather than life in general. I cannot share the idolatry of mere human tissue without sentience, without freedom of will, without true humanity. The term “sanctity of life” is used in the question of women’s right to have an abortion, as well as sustaining heartbeats in the dying even after brain activity is gone. The only religious argument that is given much credence in the media is that of the idolatry not even of human life but of human tissue — non-thinking, non-breathing, non-loving tissue. It is an interesting contradiction that those who advertise themselves as believing first in the eternal spirit rather than the temporal body are so determined to keep that temporal body alive when the spirit is questionable — not so much, it seems, when there is no question about it, since the same people are often those who support war, capital punishment and the rights of property over people.
In the conversations I have had with various clergy on this issue I have often heard the statement, “Well I’m anti-abortion but pro-choice.” My response is “Who isn’t?” but that is not wholly disingenuous. I do know someone who is quite openly pro-abortion. She has had three husbands but no children and was serving as national president of the Friends of the Earth. She disapproves of all human reproduction, although she might grudgingly admit that a few children need occasionally to be born. For her the sanctity of life applies only to non-human life. She was very active in the effort to save the snail-darter. Much as I love her, and I really do, it seems to me that she and the people who would deny all right to abortions for the sake of a blob of human tissue over the well-being of its host, or would keep a person who can no longer think or hope or love alive by artificial means (and I’m sorry, but a feeding tube is artificial) are equally mistaken in their values. They are obsessed with the sanctity of life, but they have made idols of that which is not sacred. They find sanctity in the material, in the flesh, in the finite, in survival. In one case it is survival of specific human tissue, in the other the material world other than what is human, but in neither have they noted what is of the truest value. I do not say that what is sacred may not be found through the material in our lives — if it exists it is only within our finite lives that we can glimpse it — only that those finding survival of any kind sacred have not found it.
Years ago in the Southwest District I presented my odyssey to the ministers’ association there and during the response one of my colleagues asked if there was any room for the spiritual in my life and thought. I wasn’t (and still am not) quite sure what he meant by that, but I responded by saying that I thought that there must be because I would be content for the human race to die out should it forget its commitment to those values which transcend its survival, that make it worth surviving. Although there may be other species that know good and evil, that can recognize the call of justice, the love of beauty, the transcendence of truth, the wonders of creation, I do not know what they are. If they exist on this earth outside of humanity, then I would be as committed to their survival as I am to that of the human race. It is not because we are human that we matter. It is not our DNA, nor is human life in itself sacred. It is in our recognition of and service to what is greater than ourselves.
Some of us are environmentalists because our concern is our own survival or that of our children and grandchildren. Some of us believe that it is a matter of ecological justice — that human beings are of no greater value than any other life on this earth. On the other side of the question, some believe that human beings, defined by nothing essential but their DNA are the special creation and concern of God who will take care of all the environmental concerns created by such idolatry, refusing even to allow the prevention of pregnancy. The ones who believe in the justice of the question come closest to being right, but in their commitment to justice they forget that the concept of justice is only relevant to human beings. The material world as a whole, the universe so far as we can tell, does not have justice as a part of its makeup. Nature appears to have only the goal of survival of the fittest. The strong prey upon the weak, and even the weak, should they find a safe place, will reproduce to the point of starvation. Thus it is and thus it will continue to be until the sun grows cold and the galaxies disintegrate. And they will, and all this survival effort will end in nothingness.
Yet it is the human awareness of goods that cannot be counted or weighed, values that we serve for other reasons than survival that make us worthy to survive. As long as there is an appreciation of the beauty of the natural world and the creation of beauty in art; as long as composers compose and musicians play transcendent music; as long as we seek justice not merely for ourselves but for everyone and everything; as long as the truth is sought for itself rather than merely for its usefulness; so long as we love all that is good and seek to make the world better for everything in it; so long will we be worthy to survive. Then can we speak truly of the survival of the fittest.