What Good is the Earth?

In Genesis, we are told that God pronounced the earth and all of its creations “good” but it never says what it is good for. Of course, perhaps that’s because Genesis speaks of intrinsic value, something that is inimical to our more comparative, utilitarian, and monetary meanings of “good.” One wonders, then, what to make of the special emphasis placed on the physical world in the LDS account of the creation where we learn that the world was created spiritually before it was created physically and that all plants and animals, including we humans, are described as “living souls.” Is this a call to an even deeper appreciation of the spiritual value of the world? If so, would we not expect to find some difference in the way LDS believers perceive, treat, and use the world in our daily economy of feeding, clothing, and sheltering ourselves? And if we don’t find any difference, why not?

We hear a lot of talk in environmentalist circles about the spiritual value of nature, a fact that receives no end of mockery from those who disparage theirs as concerns of “tree huggers” or “nature worshippers.” But what is meant by this criticism, really, except to say that the only value such critics can accept for the earth is whatever price it can command in the economic marketplace? If there is no countervailing notion of intrinsic or sacred value attributed to the earth, the earth is only as valuable as its latest market price. We all know that there is virtually nothing in the world today that cannot be priced and exchanged for something else—air, water, dirt, fire, fuel, wood, fur, meat, timber, ore, not to mention human beings who negotiate their own value and the value of others according to looks, athleticism, smarts, or other skills. Even things that are worthless are only deemed worthless by a market that for the time being can find no exchange value for them.

It is no wonder then that there is a great clamor surrounding the question of self-worth, the worth of an education, the worth of friendships, and even the worth of such things as clean air, clean water, or a beautiful view. And when we hear the word “good,” we can only imagine that it is a question of something being good for something else. Every day we barter and trade, sell and buy the world. We are, in short, thoroughly saturated by the logic of economics, capitalist economics especially. This seems to be the point of much great literature and of the great Marxist writers in particular. Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll House” comes to mind.

Marxism called attention to the chief problem of a culture overwhelmed by the logic of capitalism but it offered an inadequate critique of the problem by suggesting that a mere change in the ownership of the means of production would be sufficient to change the hearts and minds of human beings. Marxism pretends that human beings are determined almost by economic circumstance alone, itself one of the most reductionist monetizations of life the world has ever seen. I don’t say this to excuse capitalism’s moral bankruptcy, but to suggest that the only adequate response to the reduction of life to monetary and exchangeable value is an argument for the intrinsic value of the world. My feeling is that we can best cure the ills of capitalism through deeper respect for the inherent worth of life itself. If Mormons cannot find a way to treat or interact with the physical environment in any way distinguishable from the logic of naked economic interest, then we can only assume they aren’t converted to their own creation narrative. If we cannot see the inadequacies of economic value, we cannot begin to comprehend, let alone admit the existence of, inherent value.

How, then, can we comprehend a world filled with living souls, human and non-human, or understand all physical matter as infused with or penetrated by spiritual matter? I don’t really know. But maybe knowing that the earth is good but not knowing what the earth is good for is the beginning of wisdom. We are told that all things were “made for the benefit and use of man,” but in the same breath, we are told that the benefit is that it “please[s] the eye and gladden[s] the heart” (D&C 59:18). Why is this? Because it is beautiful? Because it is occasionally ugly? Because it seems nurturing but then seems indifferent? Any serious contemplation of the world’s complexity, diversity, and expansiveness makes this an almost unanswerable question and is enough to convince us of the dangers of looking at the world through the lens of narrow self-interest or mere physical need. That, anyway, seems to be the Lord’s interrogation of Job regarding the phenomena of the earth: “where wast thou?” he asks. Yes, the world provides food and shelter, but it is also intended to “strengthen the body and enliven the soul” (D&C 59: 19). We are intended for higher purposes than mere animality, but paradoxically it seems that those higher purposes are found, not in our exceptional differences from, but in our common physical condition with, the earth.

Pigs eat in their troughs, but can they thank their Creator for the pleasure of eating? Can they contemplate a vista or conceive of their own nothingness? I don’t mean to disparage pigs, or any non-human life for that matter. Besides, if they are living souls, I suppose I must at least concede the possibility of something more intelligent, sentient, and conscious in the heart of even the most gluttonous animal. Such concessions come easily to those who raise the animal that they then eat. As Wendell Berry has so eloquently argued, this is the highest ethical standard. We can only sacrifice things we love, and we can only love things in their particulars. Preciousness emerges as an argument for immeasurable value precisely because a life becomes known to us intimately in all of its unique givenness, as presenting itself without price, independent of what we might then decide it is good for.

If someone asks what we are good for, we feel diminished. We wince when it is asked of others. But every day we trade in earthly goods and inquire about their economic value, which only suggests that if we truly wished to know what the earth is good for, we would begin by asking about ourselves.


  • DavidF

    Fantastic article. And extremely thought provoking. I need to sit down and really think this through.

    • georgehandley

      Thank you!

  • BHodges


  • Robert C.

    Nice, and important.

  • Agkcrbs

    Good post, but I’ll take issue with your terminology regarding the “ills of capitalism” (as you seem to be using the word). It would be the same to mention the “ills of moral agency” or the “moral bankruptcy of agency”; and yet there is no such bankruptcy; the wrong result grows out of the wrong or ignorant choice, not the freedom to make the choice, or the system allowing choice-making. One capitalist will fill his needs with an “ill”, and another will meet his needs with a “good” — and the ill and good come from the individual, not from the system of reductionist barter. It’s not the dollar sinning or doing right, but the dollar’s spender. It’s not “capitalism” that goes astray, but individual capitalists. Each of them (that is, we) must economically interface with the world and reduce it to their needs, without which, there’s no pursuit of either the instrinsic or extrinsic worth. Or, if money seems too worldly a figure, time is the elementary currency of mortal man. Our human lives are great marketplaces of moments, and we all reduce the things we value into the “earthly good” of the minutes that we trade for them. This is no moral bankruptcy, or any “inadequacy” of this temporal exchange, unless our values are misdirected and our exchange goes awry. I think you reached this same point, that the motive is key, when you said that “mere change in the ownership of the means of production would be [in]sufficient to change the hearts and minds of human beings”, and “the only adequate response to the reduction of life to monetary and exchangeable value is an argument for the intrinsic value of the world”. I only mean to reject the semantic equation of superficial or miserly capitalism with capitalism itself, a neutral system. To further analogise, capitalist monetary reduction to “extrinsic value” is like the light receptor cells in our eyes, diminishing the reality we cannot truly see into terms of reflected photons — the currency of visual truth, with prices that seem set, until we suffer a visual deficit.

    • georgehandley

      Thanks for this provocative comment. It is a thoughtful one. I think I understand your point–that capitalism isn’t based on values but is a value-neutral system that allows us to make free choices within markets and that it is our choices that determine the morality of capitalism, not the system itself. I am in agreement that there is a significant amount of leeway within a capitalism system that allows for morality or its opposite. The same system allows the sale and purchase of life-saving medicines, but it also allows for a massive pornography industry. But I think what I mean by the moral bankruptcy and the ills of capitalism is precisely the way its pure and radical neutrality is a ruse. I think that is why your equation of capitalism with agency strikes me as a dangerous one. Pure capitalism simply doesn’t exist and frankly I am not convinced that it ever has or perhaps ever should. Its many iterations only demonstrate that a variety of incentives and maybe even imperatives are already in place in one form or another that move the economy in different directions and that constitute a variety of “markets.” The reason I think it is dangerous to claim, then, that capitalism is as neutral as the fact of agency itself is that such a position creates a smokescreen for the values that are already in place to make a market possible and pretends that the market exists naturally. So then when someone cries, “let the market decide!”, what they really mean is that they want the freedom to push the market in the direction of their self-interest, and they pretend that the goods that the market then values were chosen without agency–namely theirs. To celebrate the free market as a virtue is a brilliant scheme to hide human agency and choice behind a neutral mechanism that is, in fact, not neutral. Moreover, a system that makes a categorical value out of competition–instead of, say, collaboration or compassion– is itself taking a moral risk by celebrating the triumphs of the market as goods without taking proper account of the losses. And we end up having to assume that because the market rewards, say, professional athletes, doctors, and actors and devalues schoolteachers and librarians, that we then have some kind of definitive moral judgment. There are many such “ills.” I am speaking to its history. It has incited exceptional levels of greed and materialism, and while greed is universal, it is a shame that it gets such special pats on the back and rewards from this particular philosophy.

      I would guess that this is a semantic difference we have. I agree that markets are moved by people and by human choices, and it seems we agree that they should be moved in a more moral direction. But they aren’t independent of choices, ever, so it doesn’t make sense to me to talk about them in the abstract as if they were merely the scaffolding.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.