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Individuals and Larger Systems

Posted on Sunday, June 11, 2006 at 06:24PM by Registered CommenterMarshall Massey in | Comments4 Comments

I’ve been thinking: there may be a need to explain myself a little — to present a clearer picture of my own prejudices here.

There are people who become “animal-rights activists”, and then there are people who become “environmentalists”. Often the two groups find common concerns and work together, but sometimes they find themselves in sharp disagreement. This usually happens when environmentalists try to protect the health of an ecosystem by means that cause individual animals to suffer — or when animal-rights activists try to protect individual animals that are doing harm to a whole ecosystem.

This is the animal-oriented equivalent of an old, old debate in human politics between individualists (“libertarians”) and communitarians (“statists”). The debate is: Which should take precedence, the needs/wants/desires of the individual or the needs/wants/desires of the group? One might suppose that the right answer is simply: it depends on the particular situation. I can certainly say for myself that, when an apparent conflict of this sort arises and I hold it up to the Inward Guide, I find that the Inward Guide is not a knee-jerk partisan of one philosophical side or the other in the debate. The Inward Guide, in fact, appears to me to decide such matters based, not on philosophical leanings, but on a foreknowledge of what particular actions will lead to what consequences. But there seem to be an awful lot of people who are knee-jerk partisans — either for the noble Individual against the State, or for the beloved Community against the Misfit. And so it is, too, it seems, in the animal-rights / ecological debate.

In some of my early postings, where I wrote about road kill and similar matters, I was raising a concern for the sufferings of individual creatures at uncaring human hands. Possibly that made me appear to be an “animal-rights activist” of some stereotypical sort. But for me, at least, it has always been easy to make the transition back and forth between caring about the individual creatures, and caring about larger natural communities and systems, and caring about the human beings involved. It came from my experiences growing up.

The town I grew up in — a Detroit suburb called St. Clair Shores — was, from 1950 (when I had my first birthday) to 1960 (when I turned eleven) the fastest growing suburb in the United States. In just ten years, the population skyrocketed from 14,000 to nearly 78,000. It went from farm and marshland to auto-factory-worker bedroom splurb. My family moved there halfway through the decade.

The tract home we moved to was surrounded by other tract homes, but one didn’t have to go so much as a single block to find fields, woods, and creeks still somewhat wild and unspoiled. I spent my summers playing in those fields and woods. There was a bike trail I rode over day after day that ran alongside a little drainage ditch, through a field just one block wide whose grassy hillocks and scattered trees reminded me of Winnie the Pooh. There was a much bigger tract of fields and woods with wonderful winding paths just complicated enough to get lost on if you didn’t watch where you were going. I had religious experiences in those places, seeing God’s glory playing among them like light in a kaleidoscope, testifying to me that there was a lot more to life than just getting by.

By the time I was in junior high, though, every one of those fields, woods, and creeks had fallen to the bulldozer. All the living plants, mammals, reptiles, fish and amphibians in them — save for the few that could somehow flee across several miles of subdivisions to safety — were destroyed.

It took me twenty more years to realize that I’d seen the destruction of an entire biosystem underway — the biosystem of woods, fields, and marshes that had occupied the coastline of southeastern Michigan since the glaciers retreated and the local climate turned temperate. But the scale of the destruction had an impact on me even as an uncomprehending kid. It was just too colossal to ignore. In ten years of childhood, I saw the wild destroyed to a distance of ten miles. And I knew it was happening, not just there, but all around metro Detroit: a semicircle of many hundreds, maybe even thousands of square miles of nature, gone in the space of just one decade. A vaster destruction by far than was wrought at Hiroshima! A natural beauty, and a kind of natural community, unique to that little corner of the globe, created by God and given its radiance by God, perishing at human hands.

All the points I raised in my earlier postings, about individual animals killed on the highway, could be made about this larger destruction as well. There were no skid marks I ever saw. The creatures were just left to die. Bystanders, and even people actively involved in the destruction, didn’t seem to give much thought to what was happening: they were preoccupied with just trying to get by and making a living, nothing more. And the system behind them, the roaring industrial power, really didn’t care at all.

But I saw that it was like ripping chunks out of the insides of a clock — the “clock” in this question being the larger regional biosystem. When enough of such a mechanism is gone, not only will it stop ticking, but things that are connected to it may stop ticking, too. I was there when Lake Erie died: picnicking on summer holidays at Point Pelée on the Canadian shoreline, as the lake waves washed up drift upon drift of stinking, suffocated fish. The lake and the fish were downstream victims of pollution coming out of Detroit — pollution from places that had been woods, fields and streams when I was small.

Twenty years after I saw that southeastern Michigan biosystem fall, it began to sink into my foolish brain that the parallel biosystems elsewhere in the world were being destroyed as well. And I realized: there can come a point where so much is ripped out of a global clock that it, too, will stop ticking.

I found myself pondering that issue in 1980; and by 1982 I was beginning to lay it as a concern before my local Friends meeting.

So I’m maybe not a typical environmentalist. My concern isn’t focused on strictly-human issues like pollution in my back yard and recycling and cheap petroleum supplies; it extends to the welfare of the animals and plants as well. It’s not focused, either, on big systems like the ozone layer and the greenhouse gas balance while being oblivious to the sufferings of individual small creatures. But neither is it limited to concern for individual creatures and oblivious to what happens to larger biosystems.

Rather, my concern is rooted in the destruction of animals and plants and whole regions of wild landscape that I personally witnessed as a kid — and because it is rooted there, it touches alike on the welfare of individual beings and the welfare of whole systems.

It is rooted in a sense of the creatures as God’s creations, and of their glory as God’s gift, and of God’s concern for all of them, and of ourselves as embedded in that situation and vulnerable to the consequences of the ways we behave within it, even though we often feel we cannot help what we do — and because it is rooted there, it doesn’t work on the level of economic cost-benefit analyses, but sees the destruction we wreak as an absolute wrong and an absolute danger to ourselves, and as something that people generally need to be pitied, rather than judged, for doing.

Without knowing it, I was primed by my early experiences to become a religious environmentalist. Not a partisan, not a special-interest type, not the sort of environmentalist who fits neatly into standard political pigeonholes. Something a bit different.


[The natural world] has a woven pattern which science seeks to read, each science following the threads of a particular colour…. There is a changing pattern in the web, becoming more complex as the ages pass…. But the essential idea of a web is that of interlinking and ramifying. … The more we know of our surroundings the more we realize that nature is a vast system of linkages, that isolation is impossible. ( J. Arthur Thomson, professor of natural history, Darwinism and Human Life, 1910)

This is some of the baggage I’ve been carrying with me.

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Reader Comments (4)


Your story brought tears to my eyes as I recalled the places, once loved, that are no more. Places where I grew to know and love nature in intimate ways. And to see the work of God everywhere.

When God created everything, he saw it was good. What part of the good do we destroy wantonly for things we do not need? I beleive original sin might be the fact that we cannot live but by the death of other beings. We know from that we are not able, in and of ourselves, to be innocent in His eyes.

Further, while God creates, we merely fashion with our hands manu (hand) + facture (make). Through our hands, we pass our imperfections into Creation in a larger way. Yet we must live. If we will not feel the pain that comes from this we cannot live in right relationship with our neighbors, human and otherwise.

I am reminded of Robert Burns wonderful poem, ‘To a mouse on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough’.

He says, in one stanza,

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion.
An fellow mortal!

Later he offers a rather dark view of things as winter approached, but without a sense of redeeming Light

“But Mousie, thou art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best-laid schemes o mice an men
Gang aft agley,
An lea’e us nought but grief an pain,
For promis’d joy!

Still thou art blest, compar’d wi me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An forward, tho I canna see,
I guess an fear!”

You have bolstered my trust in the Divine and in humanity by your courage, humility, and foibles. You as you are, not an image of a ‘perfect Marshall’.

Peace, Health, and Life to you,


-- comment posted by Don Campbell
June 12th, 2006 at 9:11 a.m.
Sep 2, 2006 at 11:28PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Marshall, I took especial notice of this post, because the all-too-frequent shortsightedness of professed environmentalists who have little concern animals is a major concern of mine.

I found your distinction between small- and large-scale environmental concerns interesting, but I thought I’d share another set of distinctions that I find helpful here, even if it’s a bit artificial – between ‘environmentalism’ and ‘ecology’. One tends towards concern about ‘our’ surroundings, for our sake, as the etymology of the word environment suggests, while the other is concerned with ecosystems as a whole. One is anthropocentric, the other is ‘biocentric.’ (A single-issue animal rights activist, by comparison, is perhaps ‘zoocentric’.)

To me, when you say

“So I’m maybe not a typical environmentalist. My concern isn’t focused on strictly-human issues like pollution in my back yard and recycling and cheap petroleum supplies; it extends to the welfare of the animals and plants as well. It’s not focused, either, on big systems like the ozone layer and the greenhouse gas balance while being oblivious to the sufferings of individual small creatures. But neither is it limited to concern for individual creatures and oblivious to what happens to larger biosystems.”

it sounds like you’re saying you’re more of an ‘ecologist’ than an ‘environmentalism’, in the senses above, or that you’re perspective is more biocentric than anthropocentric.

Peace and rest to you,

-- comment posted by Zach, http://gaq.quakerism.net/
June 12th, 2006 at 5:27 p.m.
Sep 2, 2006 at 11:30PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Dear Friend Marshall,

I wrote you an e-mail inviting you to the Wider Gathering of Conservative Friends this next weekend in Barnesville, Ohio.

I’m Albion Guppy a Christ Centered Friend living in Mason City, Iowa. I know that you’re an Iowan too.

Would you care to correspond possibly?

Here’s our home telephone number should you care to ride with me to Ohio next weekend (I’ll leave early THURSDAY MORNING).

I hope to hear from you real soon.

In the Light of Christ, Albion Guppy (quicksand53@msn.com)

-- comment posted by Albion Guppy,
June 13th, 2006 at 5:16 p.m.
Sep 2, 2006 at 11:31PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey
Friends, thank you all for your comments!

Don, I appreciated your sharing enormously. You clearly understand what the destruction I witnessed did to me! It sounds to me as if you’ve gone through some very comparable experiences yourself.

Zach, I agree that I’m not simply an environmentalist or simply anthropocentric. But I’m not sure I’m simply biocentric, either. And “ecologist” implies a kind of formal university training that I do not have.

All I’m really trying to do is obey that Inward Guide in my heart — the one that tells me, “Treat My creatures with kindness and compassion; give them the chance to live out the lives that I, God, designed them for. And respect the natural systems you find around you, because I designed the world in such a way that you and all other living beings depend on them for your lives.” Whatever obedience to that Guide makes me, I guess that’s what I am!

Albion, I’m very sorry, but if you’ve read my postings to this blog, you already know I am committed to obedience to Christ, and therefore, to faithfully following through on the leading Christ has given me. I don’t expect to be released from that leading until after I’ve given my address to Baltimore Yearly Meeting on August 6. So I am just not free to travel with you at this time. I hope you will understand.

-- comment posted by Marshall
June 14th, 2006 at 2:02 p.m.
Sep 2, 2006 at 11:32PM | Registered CommenterMarshall Massey

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