By Peter Blaze Corcoran
While intensifying their desire to be set free, the terrible months they had lived through had taught them prudence, and they had come to count less and less on a speedy end of the epidemic…One of the signs that a return to the golden age of health was secretly awaited was that our fellow citizens…now began to talk…of the new order of life that would set in after the plague.
Albert Camus, The Plague (1948)
Returning in a time of coronavirus to Albert Camus’ great novel, The Plague, I was reminded of philosopher Maxine Greene’s analysis of the text; she writes, “Tarrou recognizes that the plague can be understood as a metaphor for people’s indifference or distancing or thoughtlessness. He finds the imagination to organize people into sanitary squads to fight the plague and, critically, make it the moral concern of all, because everyone carries the microbe for the plague of the body, the potential for the plague of indifference” (2007). I believe it is this indifference that people of faith must organize against. The time of coronavirus dramatically shows our indifference to inequality, our indifference to an ongoing unsustainable economy, our indifference to the vulnerability of those who live in extreme poverty. Indeed, we see our indifference to the agony of the social world. We see our indifference to massive species extinction, our indifference to the dramatic impacts of climate change, and our indifference to the increasing of zoonotic viruses as burgeoning populations push into the wild. And, indeed, we see our indifference to the agony of the natural world.
Who can say we weren’t warned? Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, perhaps the most important book of the twentieth century, cautioned us as to the impact of modernity upon the very systems that support life as we know it. She wrote, “Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life” (Rachel Carson, 1964). For the book’s epigraph, she chose the bleak words of Albert Schweitzer. “Man has lost the capacity… to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the Earth—from which he and other living creatures draw their food. Poor bees, poor birds, poor men.”
It behooves us to prove Dr. Schweitzer wrong! But what to do? We already know most of what needs to be done—forbid wet markets where viruses jump to humans, create and protect large biodiversity preserves, create a sustainable economy that functions within the Earth’s limits, advance scientific literacy, cut consumption dramatically, transition from the use of fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy. But to know is not to do.
What will motivate us to action? What values and attitudes and ethics will lead us to change our behavior? The answer may be found at the beating heart of all religions, faith traditions, and spiritual ecologies. The oral traditions of First Nations peoples guide us to care for the works of the Creator, the Great Spirit, with abounding gratitude. The Golden Rule shines across all belief sets. The sacred texts of the major religions call for stewardship of nature. One can only hope that these, our most deeply held beliefs, will move us to action.
Greene uses a metaphor for the reification that must be achieved. In The Plague, she writes, “Dr. Rieux fights the plague for the most abstract of reasons at first, because that is his job. Only later, when the unspeakable tragedies he witnesses make him think about what he is doing, does he reconceive his practice and realize that the most important thing he can do is not to be accepting of the pestilence because that is to be complicitous with it” (2007). If we accept the destructive impacts of the current political and economic system on the ecological systems that support life on Earth, we are complicitous. If we accept the devastating impacts on the poor and on future generations, we are complicitous.
The Earth Charter reminds us “fundamental changes are needed in our values, institutions and ways of living. We must realize when basic needs have been met, human development is primarily about being more, not having more” (Earth Charter Commission, Preamble, paragraph four, 2000). This is where we as people of faith and spirituality come in! We are the custodians of spiritual traditions, rather than material traditions. We can help others and ourselves to be more.
One of the great insights of the Earth Charter is the concept of a broadening sense of identity and caring. In Western culture, we care for ourselves first. American culture, in particular, places great emphasis on the individual. Beyond ourselves, we care for those close to us such as our families. Beyond that, we care for the communities of which we are a part. The Earth Charter calls upon us to expand our sense of identity and moral responsibility to include all living things, indeed, to include the larger living universe. The coronavirus crisis dramatically demonstrates our profound connection to others and to other forms of life. My hope is that we will remember these connections beyond this moment of crisis.
Pope Francis in Laudato Si’ states, “The Earth Charter asks us to leave behind a period of self-destruction and make a new start. But we have not as yet developed a universal awareness needed to achieve this” (Paragraph 207, 2015). Perhaps the coronavirus will help us to develop such an awareness as we see how mutually dependent and interconnected we truly are. There is also evidence that the global health and economic crisis is making us a better people as we care for one another and that the crisis is helping us to appreciate medical workers, servers, caregivers and all those who labor in the day-to-day economy.
Leonardo Boff, in a brilliant essay on “The Ethic of Care,” writes, “humanity and Earth stand together facing the future. This future is not guaranteed by the forces leading the universe. We have to want it. Hence the Earth Charter goes on to say realistically ‘we must decide to live with a sense of universal responsibility.’ Accordingly, the principle of self-destruction must be counteracted with the principle of care and of universal responsibility…This is the context in which the ethic of care proposed by the Earth Charter gains relevance as one of the axes around which the sustainable way of life revolves. It will either be oriented by care or it will not be sustainable” (Corcoran & Wohlpart, 2008).
Schweitzer, in spite of his fatalism for human prospects, never stopped caring in his own life’s work. The comforting sign at his hospital in what is now Gabon read “At whatever hour you come, you will find light, and help, and human kindness.” As never before in our lives we need resolve to overcome indifference and complicity with the way of the world—and to replace them with caring for ourselves, for others, and the larger living world.
Is it not the concern of all people of faith, and conscience, and compassion to care for creation? May Earth Day 2020 be a time of reflection, joy, and contemplation as to what each island, each congregation, and each of us will do to bring our care into action.
Boff, L. “The Ethic of Care.” In Corcoran, P. B. & Wohlpart, A. J. (Eds.). (2008). A Voice for Earth: American Writers Respond to the Earth Charter. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press.
Camus, A. (1948). The Plague. New York, NY: Vintage International.
Carson, R. (1962). Silent Spring. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.
Earth Charter Commission. (2000). The Earth Charter. San Jose, Costa Rica: Earth Charter International
Francis. (2015). Laudato Si’: On Care for our Common Home. Retrieved from http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_201505 24_enciclica-laudato-si.html
Greene, M. (2007). Countering Indifference: The Role of the Arts. The Maxine Greene Institute.
This essay was first published by TOGETHER—A Way Forward in “Honoring Earth Together 2020: A Collection of Readings to Mark the 50th Anniversary of Earth Day” in April, 2020. On Sanibel Island, Florida.