Fiala on ethics: We must learn to live in harmony with nature

February 7, 2014 

Some have prayed to God to end our drought. But drought is not about God's will. It's about our habits. Human beings choose how to use the rain that falls. Despite the recent showers, we still need the wisdom to adapt to changing conditions.

Drought is a relative term that depends upon long-term average rainfall. Drought in the Olympic rain forest is different from drought in California. But we may have misjudged California's long-term average. The 20th century was wetter than previous centuries. Less rain may be the new normal.

We must respond to local conditions and new circumstances. But we often ignore the constraints of our ecosystem, insisting on our own preferences, failing to harmonize with the land and its changes.

Aldo Leopold, the great conservation ecologist, warned that contemporary American life was out of synch with the land. Unsustainable practices do not respond to the unique beauty and integrity of the local environment. Leopold's famous "land ethic" aims to find harmony with the land.

Harmony is an interesting concept. Musical harmony joins together different tones to make a synchronized and beautiful whole. Harmonizers respond to change in creative, sympathetic and peaceful ways. They don't insist on their own tone. Rather, they learn to blend by listening and adapting to what's unfolding around them. Grace, balance and harmony are essential for a happy life.

Harmonious living is a central idea in the Chinese philosophy known as Taoism. Taoist myths explain that Lao-Tzu, the old master of Taoism, despaired of the disharmony of political life and left civilization behind. But before he retreated to the wilderness, he reminded people to be less like rock and more like water: to flow with the world. Taoism links harmony with flowing water. The Tao Te Ching warns that without harmony, valleys dry up and life withers.

This discussion of harmony may sound frivolous in the face of the hard reality of drought. Drought forces tough choices about distributing harms and benefits. Do we need more dams and reservoirs? Should old rivers be restored? What about the fish? What about the farmers? Ask those questions around here and you're bound to find conflict.

That is part of the problem. We're in conflict with one another and in conflict with the land. We don't listen, and we don't blend.

A Taoist would suggest that toughness and hardness are part of the problem. To adamantly insist on living in a way that is not responsive to the natural world is to miss an opportunity to harmonize.

Green summer lawns, to cite one obvious example, are out of tune with the reality of our dry summer climate. To live harmoniously in California we may have to give up green summer grass. Someone might object, "A lush, green lawn is central to our way of life. And we'll be poorer without them. Let someone else sacrifice. I want to live how I want to live." When each party insists, conflict ensues.

We become adamant when asked to reassess our idea of what is needed for a good life. Drought, however, requires a reassessment of priorities. A different way of living would be beautiful in its own way, so long as it harmonizes with the world.

The point is not to advocate asceticism, self-denial and miserable subsistence. Nor should we prioritize fish over farmers or vice versa. The goal is to find a way to prosper while listening and blending. To live well is to live in balance. We forget that because we've been taught to insist and resist, to fight and accuse. That discordant approach is typical of our disharmonious political culture. It is the same sort of culture that led Lao-Tzu to despair.

Many prefer strife and struggle. We hammer each other, proudly displaying our resoluteness. But unyielding hardness only produces short-term gains. It does not delve into the difficult process of learning to blend with each other and conform to the land.

In the long run, the weather will change us, despite our resistance — just as water wears away the hardest stone. Human civilization is a tiny pebble in the river of time. Wisdom is learning to listen and harmonize with the changing chords of the natural world.

 

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State. He invites your suggestions at fiala.andrew@gmail.com.

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