What Do You Value?

Last week a 2300 year old Mayan pyramid in Belize was destroyed by a construction company who wanted the material for road fill. Here’s a link to a story on CNN and another to a story by the AP on the Washington Post that has pictures.

the pyramid that was destroyed was much smaller than this one, but it was far older

Although this pyramid was on private land, Belize law prohibits destroying ancient structures. But the material used by the Mayans is both high-quality and easy to get. Jaime Awe, Director of the Belize Institute of Archaeology, said “these guys knew that this was an ancient structure. It’s just bloody laziness.”

Most of us instinctively understand that something like this has value and should be preserved. But scan the comments on the news articles and you’ll find a few people who say “what’s the big deal? It’s just an old pile of rocks.” For the construction crew, demolishing an ancient pyramid was faster, easier and cheaper than quarrying new stone. It had no value to them other than its utility.

This is not a new phenomenon. When Cathy and I were in Rome last year, one of our tour guides explained that much of the destruction of ancient sites was done by the Romans themselves in the years following the collapse of the empire. The Coliseum and various temples had more value to them as building materials than as relics of their glory days. While that’s tragic, I have a lot more sympathy for ancient scavengers using only muscles than I do for modern contractors with diesel powered earth moving equipment.

not on the menu – EVER

Let’s look a different topic. Those of us who are omnivores have a list of animals we will and won’t eat. Excluding those we consider “unclean” (rats and bugs and such), the ones we won’t eat are the ones we value most highly, sometimes because of other utility but more frequently because we feel a relationship with them. Eat a cow? Medium rare, please. Eat a horse? Only if there’s nothing else available. Eat a cat? Only if the alternative is starvation. Eat my cat? If things are that dire, we’ll starve together.

People make decisions that are detrimental to the natural world for the same reason a road builder destroyed an ancient monument – they don’t value what they’re destroying. What’s a forest besides lumber not yet harvested? Who cares whether some species I’ve never heard of goes extinct? Why should I pay more for energy just to protect the groundwater from fracking chemicals?

There are practical reasons why we should live sustainably and respect other species and ecosystems, but no intellectual argument is strong enough to override the basic evolutionary instinct to do what’s easiest and most satisfying for me and mine, here and now. Overriding that instinct requires valuing what we preserve more than what we exploit, and developing that requires a relationship with what we would value.

This is not an intellectual matter, it is a religious matter. Only by developing a sacred relationship with Nature will we find the inspiration to change the way we live and build a society that is both compassionate for the present and sustainable for the future.

Otherwise, future generations will look back on us with the same disdain we have for the pyramid-demolishing road builders in Belize.

earthquakes helped knock these buildings down, but the stones didn’t disappear on their own

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About John Beckett

I’m a Druid in the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids. I’m an ordained priest in the Universal Gnostic Fellowship. I’m the Coordinating Officer of the Denton, Texas Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans. This year I’m also serving as a member of the Board of Trustees of CUUPS National. I’m a member of the Denton Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.

I write as a spiritual practice. It helps me organize my thoughts and work through ideas and concepts. It helps me evaluate my beliefs and practices against my core values and against what I know (or at least, what I think I know) to be true. It helps me interpret my experiences (religious and otherwise) in ways that are both meaningful and honest.

  • JasonMankey

    “Eat my cat? If things are that dire, we’ll starve together.” Damn straight. You’ve been on a roll lately, great post after great post. The great writing is very much appreciated.

  • Pulse

    This is not an intellectual matter, it is a religious matter. Only by developing a sacred relationship with Nature will we find the inspiration to change the way we live and build a society that is both compassionate for the present and sustainable for the future.

    So you are saying that a compassionate, sustainable society is absolutely impossible without religion? Would you care to offer any sort of argument to back up this outrageous claim?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Yes – all of human history, with particular emphasis on the past 150 years. I don’t think it’s impossible, but I think it’s highly unlikely.

      Don’t misunderstand – this isn’t a knock on atheism or a discounting of the great evils that have been done in the name of various religions. It’s a recognition of the fact that people will generally not look past their immediate self-interests unless they have a relationship with someone or some thing. I see no way we will ever make the changes our society needs to make unless we learn to value Nature and to have a sacred relationship with Nature.

      That can be done non-theistically (see “Dark Green Religion” by Bron Taylor: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/2010/12/dark-green-religion.html), but I don’t see how it can be done non-religiously.

  • Pingback: Can We Save The World Without Religion? | Naturalistic Pantheist Musings

  • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

    Nicely put.

  • Corsal

    I would eat my cat if I were starving. I could buy another cat; I can’t buy another me.

    I agree that people need to see that the environment has value. One of the problems is that the benefits of stuff like the rainforest is invisible. We all need oxygen, but because we can’t see the trees making oxygen, it’s easy to forget that we need them to live. The effects of killing a species is hard to predict as well. If frogs die out we might find ourselves with plagues of insects, or some other part of the food chain might collapse. It’s hard to be sure what will happen.

    I’m not sure if religion is the answer. A sense of reverence, maybe. A better understanding of how our wellbeing is connected to the rest of the world, absolutely. More research into the possible effects of extinction, for sure. But I’m not sure nature should be sacred. We should think about the longterm effects of what we’re doing more, not for nature’s sake, but for ours and our children’s, and our grandchildrens. The survival of the human race depends on keeping the environment inhabitable.

    • TheodoreSeeber

      How can you have reverence without religion? Secular Nones seem to me to be the most irreverent people I’ve ever met, and they barely care about the children they raise, let alone great grandchildren that they’ll never meet- they often resort to drastic measures to avoid having to raise those children at all.

      One group of Secular Nones near me, Environmentalists for the Extinction of Humanity (who actually are NOT hypocritical, to join that group you do have to be sterilized) would see humans being extinct as a very good thing indeed for the rest of the environment.

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I just wish we’d start using urban landscape for farming. Imagine hanging gardens on the sides of skyscrapers; rabbit farms on roofs providing both meat and fertilizer.

    There is a *reason* why farmers and rural populations are more religious, and take better care of their environment normally (but not large corporations- whose decision makers are usually several hundred miles away from the land).

  • Rob McFarren

    While my initial reaction to this piece was the same sort of disbelief as to the disregard the construction company showed toward the ancient Mayan ruins…I have gotten to the point where I wonder if that truly is as bad as it seems. The article makes some valid points of our relationship with nature, and so the question I am now pondering is whether a man-made structure’s reuse is as bad as if the construction company had had to open a new rock quarry (or expansion of existing plus travel?) to provide the materials for the road? Without knowing the intricacies of the details and necessity of the road is it better to recycle materials from existing human structures, like the Romans, or to continue to use and impact nature in more lasting ways?

    I’m asking this question, not with an answer, but in wondering at what point does something become historically significant and worth retaining in comparison with maintaining pristine natural landscape? Truly, such a point does exist, and I personally very much enjoy and appreciate items of human history as well as nature (and their interactions). Maybe the important take-away is to determine whether or not our current “advancement” or “expansion” is worth the destruction of either?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/johnbeckett/ John Beckett

      Rob, that’s a fair question that deserves to be asked. But it needs to be asked before the bulldozers start an irreversible process.

      • Rob McFarren

        John, I completely agree!


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