The Concept of Moral Ecology
In Navajo legend Coyote, known as atse'hashkke or First Angry, symbolized the dark forces of chaos that might destroy a community dependent on harmony and peace for survival. As depicted by novelist Tony Hillerman, Coyote always waits for a chance to sow discord, selfishness, violence, and the breaking of rules and law. 1
For years novelists, poets, and environmental thinkers have touted the Native American way of life as a model of how people can live in harmony with nature. Not as well appreciated is that a kind of moral ecology was interwoven with that reverence for nature. Living an ecological life meant not only living in harmony with nature but also with one another. Individual behavior deemed destructive to the community was thus checked by the kind of strong norms about right behavior that can operate in traditional societies -- norms that were shattered when the indigenous population came into contact with advancing white civilization.
Today we see a flood of anguished commentary about the state of American culture -- its violence, drugs, sexual promiscuity, anomie, family decline, and lagging achievement among the young. It seems that Coyote or, as orthodox Christians would suggest, Satan, has preyed on individual selfishness, lust, envy, and aggression to chip away at the fabric of community life. To many people, the moral environment today just seems coarser, cruder, more violent, and less healthy than in the past, especially for the young. Intriguingly, environmental analogies have begun to creep into this discourse on the culture. Consider the following examples. Conservative family advocate Gary Bauer referred to the "downstream effects" of pornography in analyzing its adverse influence on society.