Book Review: Earth Community, Earth Ethics by Larry Rasmussen

Earth Community, Earth Ethics
by Larry Rasmussen
Orbis Books
Maryknoll, NY
366 pages, $24 hardcover

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Thoreau had it wrong when he suggested that “the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” In fact, the mass of Americans seem these days to be living lives of stolid denial of our current unsustainable trajectory – leaving the desperation to those who have seen the iceberg looming just ahead, all too aware of what it takes to change course in time.

Stopping after the first half of Larry Rasmussen's award-winning new book, Earth Community, Earth Ethics, one could only conclude that if we have not already hit the berg, we are about to. In what he calls an “Earth scan,” Rasmussen – Reinhold Niebuhr professor of Social Ethics at New York's Union Theological Seminary – gives it to us straight on. Noting that it is not “the environment” but our very way of life that is unsustainable, he brings together a crushing array of sources to demonstrate that unless we change course in fundamental ways, the Earth will overheat, choke on its waste, run out of resources, and act decisively to purge the source of its agony.

What's more, Rasmussen asserts that the forces that have brought us to this pass simply cannot be the ones to get us out: nation states are unlikely to be able to do it; corporations, by their very form, are ill-equipped; the market system won't; “high-tech nomads and cowboys” won't; our individualist ideology won't.

In short, the first half of the book is a terrific source for those willing to look a grim future in the eye. This is not a book for those who want to feel that hope is plentiful or grace cheap.

Faced by so sobering a picture, it is perhaps not surprising that many of those in socio-environmental work consider themselves to be “spiritual” if not explicitly religious. The challenges before us require a certain strength of soul. Yet as Thomas Berry says, “What now must be done cannot be done by our religious traditions as we know them – and what now must be done cannot be done without them.” Long an activist with the World Council of Churches, Rasmussen agrees, and in the second half of the book, he examines those traditions.

In place of a cosmology in which God and Humankind are separate from each other and from Creation (and, in the case of humans, are therefore free to degrade “the environment” without consequence to themselves), he reaches out for symbols, images, and language that grasp the essential wholeness of all Creation, human and divine, together. Turning much religious symbolism on its head, he calls for an honoring of darkness – of fecundity, stillness, even grief – as well as light; he exchanges the language of human dominion and stewardship over life and the Earth for a language of partnership. And he insists that we tell our story from the real beginning.

For Rasmussen, any God-talk in the particular cosmologies and ethical systems of different traditions and locales that does not include the 15 billion-year history of the cosmos and does not relate to all its entities, living and nonliving, ancient forms and very recent ones, speaks of a God too small.

In short, Rasmussen offers a ground plan for the re-creation of our religious traditions so that they might more adequately channel, augment, and empower the deep spiritual energies of those who would see the destinies of humans and the earth more adequately aligned. Earth Community, Earth Ethics rings with prophetic cadence. And, like all good prophesies, offers not only dire warning, but also a pathway to hope. This is a book for those with the courage to face reality, the creativity to transform it, and the will to do the great work before us.

Reviewed by L. A. Parks Daloz, associate director of the Whidbey Institute, professor (on leave) from Lesley College, and co-author of Common Fire: Leading Lives of Commitment in a Complex World.

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