The Nature of College by James Farrell


When the alarm clock buzzes in the morning, Dr. America rolls over, taps the snooze button, and buries his brain in the pillow. Eventually he rises, visits the bathroom, brews the coffee, and looks over the morning paper. In this groggy state, he’s not thinking much about morality: he might be conscious, but he’s not yet conscientious. And yet, if he’s like most of us, he’s made several ethical choices before breakfast, and most of them are related to the American value of resourcism, the simple idea that nature is primarily a resource for human consumption.

American resourcism is Biblical, but it’s more historical than religious. In Genesis, God told Adam and Eve that they would have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and all living things that move upon the earth. But he didn’t give them a market economy, and that changes everything. By the time that Europeans “discovered” the New World, they had already learned to see the American Eden in terms of commodities that could be sold on world markets. That was the purpose of colonialism, after all. So when the English saw the tall pines of New England, they couldn’t see the forest or the trees: they saw(ed) ships’ masts and lots of lumber. When they saw prairies, they saw farm fields. When they saw nature, they saw products—and they saw profits.

These dead men still rule our lives. For example, when Dr. America thinks that he is just lighting up a room, he’s also burning coal and generating greenhouse gases. If the good doctor thought about it, he might think that it’s “no big deal”—and that would be true, if he only lived today. But Americans live a long time, so all of our “no big deals” add up to major environmental impacts. As Eric Sorenson points out in his Seven Wonders for a Cool Planet, “If the average North American life expectancy holds at seventy-eight years, each person can expect to produce 1,630 tons of carbon dioxide over his or her lifetime.” The everyday actions of Americans are choices camouflaged as routines, but each of our habits is, in fact, a moral choice. Things are better or worse because of what we do, from our personal appearance to planetary health.

But we don’t feel like ethical actors because we’re just doing what comes culturally. We’ve made these choices not by our active options but by our passive participation in systems of choice.  As this suggests, one of the most powerful things we do is to define normality for each other, because we generally think that normal is moral.  If it’s normal to flip on the lights in the bathroom, we normally think it’s OK.  But it could be more complicated than that. And we might need a new normal.

Resourcism is connected to economism, the assumption that the value of things is primarily economic.  Few of us would proudly proclaim our adherence to a purely economic valuation of the world, but it’s embedded in almost all our daily practices, from early morning to late at night. And those practices have practical consequences.  When we look at the world through an econoscope, it becomes an econoscape—a landscape designed mainly to make money, or to make the making of money easier (as with roads and parking lots).  An econoscape is a radical simplification of nature, a version of buy-o-diversity that cheapens the richness of creation by trading tomorrow’s fertility for today’s consumption.   In a resourcist view of the world, the green of photosynthesis is converted to the green of money.

Resourcism “worked” when populations were small and the earth seemed infinitely resilient. And people will always depend on resources: that’s how we’re constituted.  We know now, however, that the earth is small and fragile and finite, especially under the assault of six billion people who increasingly want to consume like Americans. So unless we use our imaginative resources to manage our natural resources and our consumption, we’ll continue to find ourselves destroying God’s creation. Unless we create a culture that’s truly resourceful—as committed to the regeneration of nature as to its depletion—we won’t be fulfilling the other Biblical command for the care of creation.