One of America’s most important environmental values is ignorance. Even though we routinely send our kids to public schools and to college, Americans seem to value ignorance, in three ways. First is the ignorance of not knowing much. Because of our values of comfort and convenience, and because we box ourselves in the great indoors, most of us don’t know much about nature. We study biology in school, but it doesn’t actually inform our relationships with the biosphere. We learn a little chemistry in classes, but it doesn’t keep us from the proliferation of toxic chemicals in our air and water, and eventually in ourselves.
We also value a second form of ignorance, knowing a lot about a little. In a culture of specialization, many of us learn a lot about the stuff that helps us make a living, at the cost of learning about the stuff that helps us make a life, or about the stuff that would help us sustain the teeming life of the planet. We’re good members of the professional associations of doctors and lawyers, professors and accountants, plumbers and carpenters, but we’re not very good members of the ecological community because it doesn’t pay to think about those issues.
The third kind of American ignorance is intentional. It’s when we know something, and actively choose to ignore it. Global weirding is a good example. We know it’s happening—although most of us are ignorant about the precise processes—but we’d rather ignore it, because it is, as Al Gore says, an inconvenient truth. For the sake of comfort and convenience—values we’ve already discussed—we ignore the evidence that our lifestyles demand a new kind of care for creation.
A culture’s common knowledge is a mark of its priorities, and American common knowledge is no exception. As Alan Durning says in his book This Place on Earth, “we are a heavily schooled bunch—which is not to say we are truly educated. Like most [Americans], we are better trained in consumption than in nature. We can confidently navigate any shopping center in the bioregion, but can still name few of the local plants and animals.” Or as David Orr suggests, Americans are a people who know the price of everything but the cost of nothing.” We know the price of gas, but we don’t know—or don’t care—about the real costs of driving our cars 6 trillion miles a year. We know what we can afford, but we don’t know whether the planet can afford what we can afford. In terms of common knowledge and the care of the planet, we are more ignorant than almost any human beings in history. We live in an information age, but it hasn’t done much to make us wiser.
Most people think that the remedy for ignorance is information, and it is—but not in the way we normally think. Mere knowledge is not enough because it’s inert; it doesn’t do anything. What we need is information that in-forms us, that forms us within, that reaches our hearts as well as our heads. For that, we need a different notion of knowing, a sense that we don’t really know something until we live it (or love it). And that requires a virtue that’s as old as all religion, compassion. When we approach the news of the day (even the bad news) with a heart open to fellow-feeling, including a fellowship with other creatures in Creation, then we’ll understand ignorance not just as a failure of mind or will, but as a failure of imagination. And we’ll see that we can’t be ignorant without violating God’s call to stewardship, because knowing the other is the first step to genuine care.