James V. Schall, S.J.
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
The dominant contemporary “feeling” is that we live in a parsimonious world. Nature is running out of gas. Natural resources are scandalously being “used up,” never to be replaced. Besides, too many people exist on the planet, consuming everything in sight. Species of birds and bugs die out. “Consumerism” knows no bounds to desires. The great enemy of mankind is man himself. He is out of control. Survival prospects for even a small number of gaunt human being are grim. We must act now, decisively, before it is too late.
This doomsday scenario is found in schools, media, governments, churches, and businesses. In the minds of its advocates, its validity is stronger than any faith. To question its tenets approaches blasphemy. Mother Earth is finally unveiled as a cruel goddess. Many find meaning in this collective panic over presumed decreasing resources. It provides an urgent mission. We can now venture forth in a mighty cause to save the world from itself. Evil is now defined not by sins, but by our greedy use of spare resources. Governments are empowered with the welcome task of controlling man by drastically limiting the goods needed for his long-term survival down the planetary ages.
Is there an alternative vision? Why doesn’t the evidence incline us to look at the world’s extraordinary abundance? How is it possible that already so much was available to us for so long? The word “abundance” means overflow, plenty. It comes from the Latin word for wave (unda). When a wave crashes over itself, the sea is filled, full, surging with overflowing waters. The more puzzling thing about the world is not that it contains too little for its purposes, but, astonishingly, way too much, as if it had another purpose in mind.
Allegory of the Eucharist by Alexander Coosemans, c. 1680 [Musée de Tessé, Le Mans]
The initial question is not: “How many resources do we have?” But, “Do we have sufficient and more than sufficient resources for the purpose of our existence on this earth?” Calculations about what might be needed and what is given have little direct relation to the reason why man exists on this planet. No reason can be found to think that, when man ends his stay on this planet, resources to support him will have run out at the same time
Panic about sufficient resources usually arises from the assumption that members of the human race are to remain on this planet for as long as the planet survives. The projections of scarcity are based on this doubtful premise. The destiny and purpose of the human race on this planet are not primarily geared to keeping a few of its billions of members alive down the course of time. Almost all ecology theories about resources and man are premised on the dubious supposition that man has only a this-worldly purpose for his existence. Thus, keeping some of the race alive for as long as possible becomes man’s only intelligible end.
The second presumption of the scarcity syndrome is that human beings do not have brains, or, at least, brains that can deal with their problems as they arise. When I use the word “abundance” to describe what is available to us, I include the human mind’s capacity to learn both what is actually there in reality and how it might be used. We do not know what kinds of technology will be available to us in a century or two. If we predicted the 20th Century on the basis of what men knew in the year 1900, it would never have included the computer, space exploration, or plant research. It is no accident that a hostile relation exists between the limits to growth school and science/technology.
If we approach our lot on this earth from the viewpoint of abundance, we will see that the availability of resources is itself a function of our knowledge plus the enormous riches that are already found on this planet. Nature and mind are not here simply as a result of some accident. With mind and nature, we are given much material abundance to fulfill the purpose for which we are created. This purpose is not for some few members of the human race to be alive when the earth finally burns out, or only to transport themselves to some other planet and continue on ad infinitum.
The purpose of the human race, itself also part of nature, is that each of the finite numbers that God had created is free to reach or reject his transcendent end. The earth is man’s dominion wherein he is to achieve an end that is not simply keeping the planet garden-like. But the caring for the earth is a sidelight to caring for one’s own soul and those of others. Revelation is clear that our inner-worldly end will come when God chooses, when we least expect it, not when we run out of abundant resources.
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About the Author
James V. Schall, S.J.
James V. Schall, S.J.
James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his recent books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, and, new from St. Augustine’s Press, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught.
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