Like all animals, we are embodied creatures. We need food and water and shelter to survive. But unlike other animals, which act mostly on instinct, we are also spiritual and social beings endowed with free will. We are born into families and raised by parents. We live in neighborhoods and cities and countries, whose customs and cultures shape our habits and outlooks. We are taught by teachers. We worship in parishes.
Human ecology, then, goes beyond the clean air, water, food, and shelter we need to survive. It includes not just the laws of physics, but the natural law. It includes all those concrete institutions we need to become more than we were. To develop virtue. To be happy. To flourish.
There’s a paradox for those of us who live in the United States and Western Europe. In the last fifty years, we’ve become more concerned about natural ecosystems. And despite problem areas, the air we breathe and water we drink are cleaner than ever. Almost no one dies from the air and water borne diseases that beset our ancestors for millennia. Most of the industrial pollutants of the last century, from lead to sulfur dioxide, are gone. We continue to find clever ways to clean up after ourselves. And still, leading voices in our culture push the cause of natural ecology with life-and-death urgency.
In contrast, our culture has grown detrimental to genuine human flourishing. In the last fifty years, institutions most vital to human flourishing have been under assault. The first environment in which we enter the world—our mother’s womb—is now a high-risk zone. Roughly one in four American children are raised by only one parent. (That number is far higher for the poor and most minorities.) About half of marriages end in divorce.
Governments around the world now deign to redefine marriage, an institution that predates every state and society. And fast on the heels of that assault is the attack on human nature itself. Even the existence of men and women, of male and female, father and mother, is up for grabs.
Any defense of human ecology, then, must seek to protect and preserve not just our natural environment, but our moral and cultural environment as well.
Man cannot, and should not, live by clean food, water, and air alone; an ecology is needed that cultivates the mind, the will, and freedom.
Jay W. Richards, Ph.D., is Assistant Research Professor at the Busch School of Business and Economics and faculty fellow at the Institute for Human Ecology.