The Walrus

Tree of Life

Opinion and commentary

by Ken Alexander
Sightings · From the April 2007 magazine
Share
Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village, though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

— Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”

My philosophy of religion professor, Yitzchak (Irving) Block, was, like almost all of my professors, American. Born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, he moved to New York in 1952 and attended a yeshiva. Always a sports enthusiast, he became a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers during that team’s sparkling era. “Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, I saw them all . . . baseball has a timeless, mysterious quality to it, so much of it based on luck, the fates,” I remember him saying.

A modest and meditative man, but with a dry and impish wit, Block picked up his doctorate at Harvard, then emigrated to Canada in 1961 to take a position as a professor of philosophy at the University of Western Ontario. He had never heard of London before, but he has lived there ever since, an observant orthodox Jew in an unlikely place.

In class, Block shared his enthusiasm for a life rooted in faith, and of the texts we read it was Martin Buber’s I and Thou that most clearly excited him. Assuming the Aristotelian idea that the only true substances are living organic things that feature a unity of form and matter, Block explored Buber’s notion of a mystical relationship between “beings” that grow. Buber suggests seeing a tree, for instance, as movement — roots drinking sub-soil water, sap coursing up through its veins, leaves breathing in and returning air — whose essence is to bear fruit; and recognizing that the source of nourishment, the roots, are like religious faith, deep and concealed.

Too measured to proselytize, Block did nonetheless recommend we try having an “I and Thou” — as opposed to an “I and It” — experience. He issued it as a challenge that might involve, perhaps, a leap of faith. Stand before a mighty oak, say, and see it not as fixed in time and space, but as a non-static being to commune with.

Fostering spiritual environmentalism was not Buber’s intent, Block told me in early February when I called him for a refresher course, but I was not alone in reading this into I and Thou. The year was 1981 and environmentalism was in the air, as was mysticism, faux or otherwise. “Poppycock,” said some. In one of his finer moments, US President Ronald Reagan asserted that “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.” But saner minds prevailed, and the next year the United Nations endorsed sustainable development and enshrined the “precautionary principle” into its World Charter for Nature. Ever since, that principle — which holds that if there is no scientific consensus that a substance (e.g. a chemical) or an action (e.g. deforestation) is benign, then the substance should not be used, nor the action taken — has remained the Holy Grail for those advocating the protection of biodiversity, a green economy, and a dramatic reduction in green- house gas emissions.

Flashing forward to 2007, it is now apparent that the environmentalists have been speaking among themselves, the precautionary principle beaten back with the stick of “plausible deniability,” with statements more clever than Reagan’s but which have had the same effect. But now that a scientific consensus has been reached that humans have put the world in jeopardy, this long passage of time, a quarter-century, raises a serious question: if an issue requires too large an adjustment, do we actually have the will (and the ingenuity) to deal with it? The basic strategies for sustainable living — conserve energy, reduce fossil fuel dependency, save the forests, consider solar panels, reduce, reuse, recycle, and so forth — were and still are commonsensical prescriptions for a world living beyond the ecosystem’s carrying capacity. Twenty-five years ago, the idea of replacing a consumption-based economy with a conservation model pricked at our collective subconscious. With noteworthy exceptions, there it remained. Relegated to countercultural and environmental organizations, revolutionary change was voided by an economy gone global; by free-floating capital that promised to lift all boats and that has resulted in China, India, Brazil, and others demanding the right to industrialize and to taste the sweet fruits of consumption.

Now, after twenty-five years of saying “Follow our lead,” the West must say, “We have made a catastrophic mistake, and if you, China, or you, India, persist in becoming societies governed by the right to own cars, refrigerators, air conditioners, and other weapons of cumulative destruction, we are all doomed.”

And how likely is such a mea culpa? Is it not more likely that “implausible deniability” will continue to trump the precautionary principle; that, as history suggests, this moment will pass; that buying will neuter being? And that we will not watch our woods fill up with snow?