Monday, April 16, 2007

Hawaii, Habu and Humility—the Mongoose Factor

Hawaii, where I live, and Okinawa, where my grandsons live, have something in common: the mongoose. This hyper-extended mammal lives in both places as witness to human capacity for miscalculation. In Hawaii the mongoose was introduced to rid the islands of mice and rats that had come on ships with the sailors who introduced all sorts of misery to the “Sandwich Islands.” On Okinawa, the mongoose was introduced to control the habu, a native poisonous viper. In neither case was the mongoose a solution. The reason: a miscalculation. Both mice and rats, and habu are nocturnal and the mongoose is a creature of the day. Hence a creature that was supposed to stabilize earlier human miscalculations further destabilized the environment and habitat.

Our human capacity for miscalculation is legion. Should humanity cultivate a deeper capacity for humility and husbandry of the earth? Obviously we should, but will we?

The current divide in American politics appears to have reached a tipping point. A nation that was largely in favor of toppling Sadaam Husein shortly after September 11, 2001 was in November of 2006 recognizing that the action had destabilized Iraq with no way to get the “tooth paste” back in the tube. Now in the first third of 2007, a majority of Americans want out but can’t agree on how to leave without further miscalculation and destabilization in the region.

Americans are equally divided on the question of global warming. Apparently the truth proposed in Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” is a contested truth. Are the calculations of the majority of scientists that we are heading for an environmental melt down going to be taken seriously or not? Bewilderingly, many conservative pundits are ready to bring in the economic and technological mongoose to correct the situation. The scary thing, as I see it, is that our island home—the planet earth—is all that we have. Oh, yes, space exploration may mean that we become the mongoose in some other intergalactic habitat, but so far we spending most of our money on the war on terror so we don’t have it for space exploration and our life raft to the stars. In the meantime, the smart wager is to take seriously both global warming and our human capacity to destabilize almost anything that we touch. (Chaos theory must have something to say to all of this, but I don’t pretend to understand it!)

I hardly dare to reference the Biblical narrative, but I will. The writer of Genesis puts in God’s mouth to the first humans the much abused manifesto: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” (Genesis 1:28). Perhaps that was “good” before the Fall. (“Fall” as in Eugene O’Neill as much as Genesis 3) Did the Mystery also miscalculate what human perversity and grasping would do to destabilize “the fish of the sea and…the birds of the air and…every living thing that moves upon the face of the earth”? Call it the “mongoose factor.”

Humility and husbandry have something in common: the earth and all that makes for this incredibly rich, diverse, and evolving mystery we call life. Humus and humility (and human) come from the same root: the delicate generativity inherent in the gift of the earth (my hybrid definition).

Humility is the capacity to appreciate and reverence this gift and to recognize that the earth and all who inhabit are vulnerable to our misuse and miscalculations. Wendell Berry* writes, "We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. . . We must recover the sense of the majesty of the creation and the ability to be worshipful in its presence. For it is only on the condition of humility and reverence before the world that our species will be able to remain in it."

Husbandry has to do with contentment and humility as stewards of the earth. It is seeking to live in harmony with the ecosphere, tending it, caring for it, investing ourselves in it without exploiting it, and recognizing that in its wellbeing is our own. Can our urban, technological culture appreciate and embrace this alternative way of being in the world?

We delay humility and husbandry as our common vocation at our own expense. The conversion will be necessarily radical and uncomfortable. The margin for error is great. Walking much more gently on the earth and tilling the soil with gratitude and proportion will be our prayer.

Bottom line, the mongoose won’t do it for us.


*Wendell Berry is a spokesperson for a contemplative husbandry in the emerging future. For a relevant work see his book, The Way of Ignorance.