Place, Ecology, and the Sacred: The Moral Geography of Sustainable Communities
Reviewed by Steven Bouma-Prediger, Religion, Hope College
This new book from Michael Northcott is another gem. Author of numerous important works on environmental theology and ethics, such as The Environment and Christian Ethics and A Moral Climate: The Ethics of Global Warming,1 Northcott focuses in this volume on the notion of place and what is required of us to live more sustainably in our various places. Following in the path of agrarian writers such as Wendell Berry and philosophers such as Edward Casey, Northcott explores what he calls “the growing disconnect in contemporary life between people and the land” (1).
Northcott’s thesis is clearly stated near the beginning of the book: “The seminal origin of the modern disconnect between land and people, and the related and growing pathologies of the landless, is the turning of place into space by the new corporate owners of the land, both private and Statist” (11). In other words, increasing corporate ownership of land has commodified it as the private property of fewer and fewer people. This change has been made possible by a variety of social, political, and technological changes, such as appropriation of commons, mapping and titling of land, and mechanical transportation.
It was also made possible, argues Northcott, by certain ideas in the transition from the medieval to the modern worldview that began in the Renaissance. Joining a chorus of others who contest Lynn White’s thesis that the roots of the contemporary environmental crisis are found in Christianity, Northcott argues that they originate, rather, in repristinated Greek ideas about physical space promulgated in the 14th century. This complex combination of factors has resulted in the homogenization of place “so that places increasingly resemble one another, whether in the form of the convergent organizations of human work and religious ritual, or the growing sameness of forms of entertainment, shopping outlets, and hospitality spaces” (12). In short, placelessness has become “a central feature of the modern condition” (12). I think Northcott is spot-on with his analysis.
Of special interest is Northcott’s elucidation, in chapter 3, of four main options in contemporary environmental ethics: the ascription of moral value to land, species, and ecosystems found in the land ethic of Aldo Leopold; the wilderness ethic exemplified in the writings of John Muir; the attempt to measure the monetary value of the various services ecosystems provide to humans, for example in the work of Robert Costanza et al.; and virtue ethics, inspired by Aristotle and more recently Alisdair MacIntyre. In each case, Northcott offers perceptive critiques, though at the end of the day he sides with virtue ethics (rightly in my view) as the most promising way forward. As he puts it, “Virtue ethics has the considerable advantage over other approaches to environmental ethics of highlighting the importance of face to face relationships of education and nurture, and of small-scale communities of place, in the formation of moral agents” (80).
Northcott deepens his analysis of place and religion in the middle of the book with three case studies that illustrate, among other things, the role of religion in resistance to corporate power (chapter 4), the role of religion in the restoration of a despoiled place (chapter 5), and the role of religion in various movements for food sovereignty (chapter 6).
Northcott summarizes his prescription for what ails us by arguing that for Europeans and North Americans who have lost a sense that their dwelling places have a sacred geography, Christianity— “the dominant religion of these nations”—can be “a powerful source of redemption and repair to the pathologies of extreme mobility, placelessness, and ecological destruction that characterise contemporary life” (45). In ways very similar to what I and my co-author Brian Walsh argue in our book Beyond Homelessness: Christian Faith in a Culture of Displacement, Northcott affirms that the Christian faith has much to offer to weary postmodern nomads longing for home.
This book is not perfect. Most readers, I suspect, can find arguments to contest and claims with which to quibble. For example, is it really true that “barring national parks, it is rare to find any habitable place on that continent [the continental United States] that is not filled with the sounds of automobiles and the ugliness of freeways and neon signs, marred by concrete office blocks, strip malls or monotonous irrigators” (41)? I think not, for I have lived in and visited many habitable places in the U. S. that are not in national parks.
Despite such overgeneralizations, I hope my main conclusion is clear: Place, Ecology, and the Sacred is a stimulating and interesting read. It is also a timely book, given the environmental degradations of our age and the pressing need to find compelling reasons for a new moral geography of sustainable communities. Much more could be said about this fine book. I trust I have said enough to encourage you to read it for yourself.