The Ego and the Eco
The Humanure Handbook has a short-ish chapter entitled “Deep Shit” that touches on the convergence of humanure and spirituality. The author begins with a story about an invitation to speak at a convent. He was surprised that more than just composting the nuns were interested in humanure. “Somehow, I couldn’t imagine standing in a room full of holy nuns, speaking about turds” (69). Their response is worth quoting at length.
“We are the Sisters of Humility,” they responded. “The words humble and humus come from the same semantic root, which means ‘earth.’ We also think these words are related to the word ‘human.’ Therefore, as part of our vow of humility, we work with the earth. We make compost, as you’ve seen. And now we want to learn to make compost from our toilet material…” This was deep shit. Profound… Some people go to church on Sunday, others make compost. Still others do both (69-70).
The connection between ourselves and the earth is profound. I feel like I’m repeating myself and perhaps not getting anywhere, because I come back to this theme over and over. The truth is that this connection of human to humus is so utterly profound and largely lacking in our modern consciousness that we must come back to it again and again. Jenkins puts it like this,
In essence, the soil, air, sun and water combine within our mother’s womb to mold another living creature. Nine months later, another human being is born.That person is a separate entity, with an awareness of an individual self, an ego. That person is also totally a part of, and completely dependent upon, the surrounding natural world, the eco (70).
As we are enculturated to modern society our awareness of this connection diminishes. Our own ego is deeply tied up in our relationship with the earth. It is an act of great hubris to declare ourselves no longer bound by the limitations of nature and therefore apart from it. Likewise, it is an act of great humility to recognize our place in the ecosystem.
When the ego and the eco are balanced, the person lives in harmony with the planet. Such a balance can be considered to be the true meaning of spirituality, because the individual is a conscious part of, attuned to, and in harmony with a greater level of actual Being. When too much emphasis is placed on the self, the ego, an imbalance occurs and problems result, especially when that imbalance is collectively demonstrated by entire cultures. To suggest that these problems are only environmental and therefore not of great concern, is incorrect. Environmental problems (damage to the eco) ultimately affect all living things, as all living things derive their existence, livelihood and well-being from the planet. We cannot damage a thread in the web of life without the risk of fraying the entire tapestry. (74)
There is a tradition within Christianity of understanding creation as intimately related to our understanding of God and consequently our relationship to God and the world. I think because some conservative Christians are often reactionary against anything that smacks of New Age, earth worship, or even environmentalism, they have jettisoned this part of the tradition. Nevertheless it is right there in Scripture. Many of the Psalms use language about creation to describe God, God’s presence and character. Paul declares, “Since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities…have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made” (Ro 1:20). Perhaps a post tackling the nature of this triangle between God, humanity and creation is stirring. Jenkins goes on to explore further the implications on religion in particular.
When the ego gets blown out of proportion, we get thrown off balance in a variety of ways. Our educational institutions teach us to idolize the intellect, often at the expense of our moral, ethical, and spiritual development. Our economic institutions urge us to be consumers, and those who have gained the most material wealth are glorified. Our religious institutions often amount to little more than systems of human-worship where divinity is personified in human form and only human constructs (e.g., books and buildings) are considered sacred. (74)
On this last point, I probably agree with Jenkins about the nature of sacred texts, objects and places too much for my more religious friends and not enough for my more secular, scientific, skeptical friends. For me it is helpful to recognize that sacred rituals, texts and objects have come to exclude other things from the sacred. It becomes a zero sum game of the holy. If an object or text is sacred that necessarily excludes other objects from this realm. This way of thinking about the sacred and profane makes it possible to objectify nature and abuse it as we have done. Wendell Berry puts it this way in his poem “How to Be a Poet”, “There are no unsacred places. There are only sacred places and desecrated places.” Jenkins continues,
Today, new perspectives are emerging regarding the nature of human existence. The Earth itself is becoming recognized as a living entity, a level of Being immensely greater than the human level. The galaxy and universe are seen as even higher levels of Being, with multiverses (multiple universes) theorized as existing at a higher level yet. All of these levels of Being are imbued with the energy of life, as well as with a form of consciousness which we cannot even begin to comprehend. As we humans expand our knowledge of ourselves and recognize our true place in the vast scheme of things, our egos must defer to reality. We must admit our absolute dependence on the ecosystem we call Earth, and try to balance our egotistical feelings of elf-importance with our need to live in harmony with the greater world around us (72).
John Horgan in his book The End of Science explores some of the theories that Jenkins points to about the earth as a living organism and the idea that there are multiple universes. While ideas about multiverses (and superstrings and other dimensions) have at least a beginning in science, they are in fact really just speculations which, as Horgan points out, cannot and may never be able to be tested using the scientific method. Horgan is a little skeptical of the Gaia hypothesis put forward by some scientists that conceives of the earth as a living organism.
While I understand that some of these scientists veer into some mystical language that is more religious than scientific, I think it is clear from what we do know that the earth is more like an organism than it is a machine. The planetary ecosystem is certainly more than the sum of its parts in the same way that my body is more than just an amalgamation of bones, parts and systems. Again, while some people might be uncomfortable with some of the language about “levels of Being”, the point is to include our expanding knowledge of the universe (or perhaps multiverse, which is in no way a proven reality) in our theology and recognize that we are included as part of and dependent on these systems. When we recognize the humus in our humanity, we will find true humility.