How, then, shall we act? There will be many rules of thumb, useful in different circumstances. But I'm convinced that, under pressure of intense application, they will all converge upon the most frightful, because most exalted, principle of all. It's a principle voiced, albeit with more than a little trepidation, by my colleague at The Nature Institute, Craig Holdrege:
You can do anything as long as you take responsibility for it.
Frightful? Yes. The first thing to strike most hearers will be that impossibly permissive anything. What environmentalist would dare speak these words at a convention of American industrialists?
But hold on a minute. How could this principle sound so irresponsibly permissive when its whole point is to frame permission in terms of responsibility? Apparently, the idea of responsibility doesn't carry that much gravity for us and isn't this precisely because we are less accustomed to think of nature in the context of responsible conversation than of technological manipulation? Must we yield in this to the mindset of the managers?
If we do take our responsibility seriously, then we have to live with it. It means that a great deal depends on us which also means that a great power of abuse rests on us. Holdrege's formulation gives us exactly what any sound principle must give us: the possibility of a catastrophic misreading in either of two opposite directions. We can accept the permission without the responsibility, or we can view the responsibility as denying us the permission. Both misreadings pronounce disaster. The only way to get at any balanced rule of behavior, any principle of organic wholeness, is to enter into conversation with it, preventing its diverse movements from running off in opposite directions, but allowing them to weave their dynamic and tensive unity through our own flexible thinking.
"You can do anything if you take responsibility for it." An ill-intentioned one-sidedness can certainly make of this a mere permission without responsibility. But, then, too, as we have seen, taking on the burden of responsibility without the permission ("First, do no harm never, under any circumstance; do not even risk it") renders us catatonic.
Permission and responsibility must be allowed to play into each other. When we deny permission by being too assiduous in erecting barriers against irresponsibility, we are also erecting barriers against the exercise of responsibility. The first sin of the ecological thinker is to forget that there are no rigid opposites. There is no growth without decay, and no decay without growth. So, too, there is no opportunity for responsible behavior without the risk of irresponsible behavior.
"But doesn't all this leave us dangerously rudderless, drifting on relativistic seas? Surely we need more than a general appeal to responsibility! How can we responsibly direct ourselves without an understanding of the world and without the guidelines provided by such an understanding?"
Yes, understanding is the key. We need the guidelines it can bring. But these must never be allowed to freeze our conversation. This is evident enough in all human intercourse. However profound my understanding of the other person, I must remain open to the possibilities of his (and my) further development possibilities that our very conversation may serve. This doesn't, in healthy experience, produce disorientation or vertigo, a fact that testifies to a principle of dynamic (not static) integrity, an organic unity, at the center of our lives.
Such a principle, above all else, is what we must seek as we try to understand the world around us. The Nature Institute where I work sits amid the pastures of an organic farm. The cows in these pastures have not been de-horned a point of principle among some organic farmers. Recently I asked Holdrege whether he thought one could responsibly de-horn cows, a nearly universal practice in American agriculture.
"How does de-horning look from the cow's perspective? That's the first thing you have to ask," he replied. When you observe the ruminants, he went on, you see that they all lack upper incisors, and they all possess horns or antlers, a four-chambered stomach, and cloven hooves.
If you look carefully at the animals, you begin to sense the significance of these linked elements even before you fully understand the relation between them. They seem to imply each other. Do you understand the nature of the implication? So here already an obligation presses upon you if you want to de-horn cattle: you must investigate how the horns relate to the entire organism.
Given his own observations of the cow and given his discussions with farmers who have noted the different behavior of cows with and without horns and given also the lack of any compelling reason for de-horning when the cows are raised in a healthy manner Holdrege's own conclusion is: "Unusual situations aside, I don't see how we can responsibly de-horn cows."
Strange as this stance may seem outside a respectful, conversational context, it is a conclusion that remains natural to us at some half-submerged level of understanding. What artist would represent cattle without horns? (Picture the famous Wall Street bull, de-horned!) The horns, we dimly sense, "belong" to these animals.
What the ecological conversation requires of us is to raise this dim sense, as best we can, to clear understanding. The question of what belongs to an animal or a plant or a habitat is precisely the question of wholeness and integrity. It is a question foreign and inaccessible to conventional thinking simply because we long ago quit asking it. We had to have quit asking it when we began feeding animal remains to herbivores such as cows, and when we began raising chickens, with their beaks cut off, in telephone book-sized spaces.
Most dramatically, we had to have quit asking it by the time genetic engineers, borrowing from the philosophy of the assembly line, began treating organisms as arbitrary collections of interchangeable mechanisms. There is no conversing with a random assemblage of parts. So it is hardly surprising, even if morally debilitating, that the engineer is not required to live alongside the organisms whose destiny he casually scrambles. He is engaged, not in a conversation, but a mad, freeassociating soliloquy.