Nature’s Value

“In order fully to access, enjoy and profit from our environment, we need to see it as something that does not exist just to serve our needs. Or, to put it another way, we are best served by our environment when we stop thinking of it as there to serve us.

A cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) on the plains of Africa – Antony Trivet (Pexels)

“When we can imagine what is materially around us as existing in relation to something other than our own purposes, we are free to be surprised, educated and enlarged by it. When we obsessively seek to guarantee that the environment will always be there for us as a storehouse of raw materials, we in fact shrink our own humanity by shrinking what is there to surprise and enlarge, by reducing our capacity for contemplation of what is really other to us.

“The unique contribution that can be made to this whole discussion by religious conviction might be characterised in two ways. Religious belief claims, in the first place, that I am most fully myself only in relation with my creator; what I am in virtue of this relationship cannot be diminished or modified by any earthly power. It is this that grounds the obstinate belief in the irreducible value of human persons which animates any religious witness or work for the sake of justice; it is this that enables religious resistance to even the most overwhelmingly powerful and successful tyrannies, from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich, the Soviet Union or apartheid South Africa.

“But the implication, secondly, is that every aspect of creation likewise finds its full value and significance in relation to the creator, not to the agenda of any other creature. In the environment there is a dimension that resists and escapes us: to be aware of that is to grasp the implications of belief in human dignity, in my own dignity or value. And to reduce the world to a storehouse of materials for limited human purposes is thus to put in question any serious belief in an indestructible human value.

“As writers like Mary Midgley have argued eloquently, humanity needs to rejoin the rest of creation, to become aware of the limits that interdependence imposes and of the dangerous groundlessness of belief in human value when it is abstracted from a sense of value in all that exists around us.”

  • Rowan Williams
    Archbishop of Canterbury (2002-2012)

Excerpts from his lecture: Ecology and Economy
University of Kent, Canterbury, 8 March 2005
© Rowan Williams 2005