What Can One Person Do? A Creation Care Dialogue
In light of crises that seem too big for one person to solve, a friend stresses to another the importance of doing the right thing, regardless of the outcomes.
Zoe: So, are you going to the Climate Justice March this Saturday?
Teleo: No, I’m not. Why would I do that? What good can one person do?
Zoe: What do you mean, what good can one person do?
Teleo: Well, the problem of climate change is so huge, and I feel so helpless.
Zoe: You’re right. Climate change is a big issue, whose scope encompasses the whole earth. And because it has such potentially dangerous consequences for all of the Earth’s inhabitants, the warming of our home planet is a daunting challenge. But we are not helpless.
Teleo: But what can I do? Why should I do anything given the pitifully small good that would result from one person’s action?
Zoe: Well, for starters, stop being one person. Find people like you who also care about the Earth. Join a local group of like-minded folks who care for birds, forests, or rivers. And don’t forget the poor, the homeless, and the hungry, since so-called environmental issues are always linked to so-called social justice issues. Every city has earthkeepers, so stop thinking you have to go solo.
Teleo: Okay, now that I think about it, I do know someone who works for the Outdoor Discovery Center. And I have some friends who volunteer at the local homeless shelter. I see how joining forces with others can produce tangible results to make my home a better place. You reminded me of a saying, from Kenya, I believe: “Many little people in many little places doing many little things can change the world.”
Zoe: Spot on. Preach it, brother.
Teleo: But still, climate change seems like such an intractable and unsolvable problem. What could I, or even we, possibly do to make a dent in that?
Zoe: Why do you assume that the consequences of your action will be inconsequential? When you gaze into your crystal ball to predict the future of your actions, why do you think that what you do will have little positive effect? Maybe what you do won’t have much impact for good, but maybe it will. Did Rosa Parks know that her refusal to go to the back of the bus would be a pivotal event in the history of the American civil rights movement? What if she had thought, “What possible good thing could come from staying put?” and walked to the back of the bus? We rarely know with any certainty what the consequences of our actions will be. So why assume that some “little thing” you do will be of little or no consequence?
Teleo: Good point. I guess I lack the imagination to believe that what I do might really make the world a little bit better of a place.
Zoe: Most importantly, let’s talk about the unquestioned assumption at the heart of your point of view. Don’t you see that in your thinking about climate change you assume that results are all that matter? You presuppose that consequences measure the moral worth of an action—that only consequences count.
Teleo: But what’s wrong with that? Consequences do count. Isn’t that how we make decisions? We weigh the potential good and bad consequences of different possible choices and see which one has more good results and fewer bad results.
Zoe: Yes, it is true that we often weigh the consequences of our actions. That is one part of sound moral decision-making. As the prominent Christian ethicist Lewis Smedes puts it, we must “consider the consequences.” But if only consequences matter, then we are surely falling short of thinking and acting as followers of Jesus.
Teleo: I’m not sure I understand. Tell me more.
Zoe: Climate change, or the climate emergency as some today now call it, truly is a global issue that calls us to consider the consequences of our actions. But weighing consequences is only one component of ethical decision-making. Doing the right thing includes more than simply evaluating potential consequences.
Teleo: But how do we know what the right thing is, if not by weighing the consequences?
Zoe: Doing the right thing is informed by the other two main traditions in ethical theory, namely, deontology and areteology, to use the fancy technical terms. Deontology has to do with our moral duties as humans to respect the worth of creatures and places created and valued by God. Because your rescue dog, catalpa tree, and herb garden have value, we have obligations to respect and care for them. Value generates duty.
Teleo: So we should follow our duties with respect to others, as befitting their value, regardless of consequences?
Zoe: Yes, and while our duties to animals, plants, and places are not the same as our duties to other humans, Scripture still teaches us to serve and protect the earth and its many creatures (Genesis 2:15).
Teleo: OK, I get it, but what about this other -ology word?
Zoe: Areteology refers to an ethic that emphasizes character, not conduct. It highlights the role and importance of virtues, such as justice and love, wisdom and self-control, courage and hope.
Teleo: This sounds quite different from the other two. Its focus seems to be on the kind of people we are rather than on what we do, right? Though I suppose the kind of people we are is shaped over time by what we do, for better and for worse.
Zoe: That’s exactly right. Our character, including both virtues and vices, is molded by habits and practices over time. And our character is also shaped by narratives and role models. In our culture, we find ourselves immersed in grand stories, and we even emulate certain people, both virtuous and vicious. All of these—habits, stories, role models—shape who we are, which influences what we think about “doing the right thing.”
Teleo: Such grand stories are everywhere, like the bumper stickers I once saw that read: “Whoever dies with the most toys wins,” and, “You are what you drive.” In our media-saturated society role models are a dime a dozen, and I’m afraid that most of them seem to exemplify these very same stories and bumper stickers.
Zoe: All too true. This, of course, stands in stark contrast to the way of Christ. For the Christian, doing the right thing should flow from habits cultivated not by contemporary culture but by the practices of the body of Christ, the Church. Practices like worship, reading and meditating on Scripture, baptism, the Eucharist, prayer, and service to our human and non-human neighbors. Shaped in this way and empowered by the Holy Spirit we exercise self-restraint when it comes to the use of scarce resources, we embody discernment when making decisions about the long-term care of creatures not like us, we exhibit compassion for those in need.
Teleo: But this is so counter-cultural in America.
Zoe: Which brings us back to Jesus.
Teleo: I was wondering whether after all this highfalutin ethical theory, you would return to Jesus!
Zoe: Jesus Christ, the Messiah, did the right thing, regardless of consequences. He did not think the moral worth of an action was determined by results. He simply did the right thing. Indeed, he embodied the virtues Paul lists in Galatians 5: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Hence we look to Jesus Christ as our moral exemplar par excellence.
Teleo: And don’t forget Colossians 3: compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness, gratitude, wisdom, and love. Especially love.
Zoe: So the consequentialist ethic that dominates our culture must be rejected.
Teleo: In other words, if I have this right, we must not buy into the view that the moral worth of an action is based solely on the potential consequences of that action.
Zoe: Correct. We must follow Jesus and do the right thing, regardless of consequences. We must rest in God’s good future of shalom for all creation, knowing that God uses us to bear witness to that great good future, but the consequences are not in our hands.
Teleo: That sounds easy, but is so hard to do.
Zoe: You got that right. So, are you going to join me for the Climate Justice March this Saturday?
Teleo: I think I will. The problem of climate change is big in scope and may seem unsolvable, but I want to do the right thing, regardless of the consequences. The right thing is to show my support for our calling to care for creation. And if some good should come from it, all the better. God is, after all, full of surprises in honoring our faithful efforts to bear witness to shalom. When and where shall I meet you at the March?
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