The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton

Article excerpt

The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton. By Monica Weis, SSJ. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2011. Pp 216. $40.00.

The idea at the center of Monica Weis's new book-that Thomas Merton, who was ahead of his time on so many social issues, had become an environmentalist before he died in 1968-is definitely intriguing. After all, his death came two years before the first Earth Day and decades before humanity's responsibility for climate change became an accepted scientific fact. If Merton had returned from Asia alive, might he have taken his place among America's best-known environmental advocate-writers, people like Aldo Leopold, Barry Lopez and Terry Tempest Williams?

In The Environmental Vision of Thomas Merton, Weis weaves together compelling evidence that Merton's reading of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring in the early days of 1963 catalyzed a shift in his relationship to the natural world, turning what had been a mostly Romantic appreciation of Nature into something more concrete and urgent-a realization, as Merton wrote in reviewing Roderick Nash's Wilderness and the American Mind (his last published book review), that "an ecological conscience is also essentially a peace-making conscience."

Weis begins with a letter Merton wrote to Carson immediately after reading Silent Spring, a book widely credited with alerting Americans to the ecological dangers of advancing technology-especially insecticides such as DDT that kill songbirds as well as what we call "pests." In his letter, Merton connects his concerns about nuclear war to Carson's warnings about other technologies while disparaging not technology itself but the "sickness" he sees at the heart of our civilization. "The awful irresponsibility with which we scorn the smallest values," he writes, "is part of the same portentous irresponsibility with which we dare to use our titanic power in a way that threatens not only civilization but life itself."

Although he uses the extermination of the supposedly harmful Japanese beetle as an example of the "logic" (Merton's quotation marks) that allows those in power to plan the extermination of humans, little in Merton's letter suggests the concentrated concern for the natural world as an entity unto itself that those we consider "environmentalists" usually express. By this time, Merton had led a tree-planting effort by the monastery's novices and participated in other conservation efforts, but the views his letter expresses are less ecological than strictly Biblical. To religious thinkers, he writes, the world "has always appeared as a transparent manifestation of the love of God, as a 'paradise' of His wisdom, manifested in all His creatures, down to the tiniest, and in the wonderful interrelationship between them." He goes on to say that mankind is part of nature yet transcends it, and so "must make use of nature wisely."

While asserting the oneness of creation, Merton is also professing belief in a traditional Christian interpretation of God's call for man to have "dominion" over the earth-a view of humanity's role that makes many environmentalists uneasy. As with other issues, Merton's most important contribution here is his viewing of environmental matters through a spiritual lens. …