Richard D North

Click to follow
Autodidacts - I am one - fall prey to a sort of unbalance. Especially when young, we wrestle with the books we come across, usually with little context. In my twenties, I fell to Ivan Illich, Michel Foucault and Konrad Lorenz, and raved on about them because they were a disproportionate amount of what I knew. On the whole, I'm glad to have had these chance heroes, though now I find them flawed.

Only one of my early intellectual guides goes from strength to strength, in my mind. Teilhard de Chardin, priest, palaeontologist and philosopher, still seems to me radiantly intelligent and important. I have been re- reading bits of his Le Milieu Divin, and I'd recommend it to anyone. You perhaps know Teilhard's big thesis: that God created the material world, and thereby set in train the process by which life was spread on our planet. But he sees the biosphere as, so to speak, the growing medium for consciousness, as it, too, spreads and intensifies. He called the result the noosphere, which God is pulling towards Him. Consciousness, like everything else, is ascending towards unity with God.

It doesn't matter much whether one believes in God, or even in Teilhard's sense of an ultimate purpose. Teilhard's thinking is luminous because it presumes (in a way very satisfying to green thinking) that there is great nobility in the planet and its workings. Indeed, in a parallel with green thinking (though he was at pains to distance himself from pantheism), Teilhard believes that it is proper to offer the whole inanimate world back to God as a kind of sacrament. Teilhard, in other words, really loved the physical world and thought it divine.

But I have become more and more drawn to his writing on the role of the human. In Le Milieu Divin, he talks about the divinisation of the works of man. He believes that it is wrong to see the workaday world of factory or office, say, as a distraction from one's inner life, or from God's purpose. The argument goes: the creation, and man's part in it, can be seen as a working-through of God's purpose. This is really very like a green view, which, of course, need not include a view about God. If man is part of nature, then it is fair to say that all man's works are really natural, and potentially glorious.

But, of course, we don't just, by a sort of revelation, know which part of our works are properly natural, or to be celebrated. To take the religious analogy: we have been endowed with free will and a good deal of power, and we must find how to so inform our hearts, minds and hands as to make their work serve God's purpose. Or in green terms: make them serve nature, including us. One guide, which crosses both the religious and the green view, would be to say that we are likely to be within our rights to satisfy our needs, but our mere wants are likely to be more dubious.

The sense that we are highly endowed parts of nature raises interesting questions about the naturalness of our technologies. They clearly cannot be unnatural, because we can only work with nature. But we, and only we, have to ask questions about their appropriateness.

It happens that almost everyone who knows about it believes that, in many urban areas, municipal waste should be incinerated, with the heat turned to energy. It happens, too, that many green campaigners believe incineration to be hellish.

Peculiarly, plastic packaging materials make great fuel. The incinerator takes what is reviled waste and transforms it into warmth and light. The process is sophisticated but, of course, also natural. If we use its convenience (say of time-saving) to further human development we may even say it has achieved a very high purpose. It might even, in Teilhard's terms, be divine, or heavenly.