Interview with Dr. David Cloutier—Part 3: Nature, natural law, and life at a food coop

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We conclude our interview with Dr. David Cloutier with a look at the laws of nature, the natural law, and what all this has to do with life at The Common Market food coop, where he serves on the Board of Directors.

CE: In the Communio essay we were discussing, you wrote that “Benedict is clearly signaling the desire to move … to a more holistic, more traditional understanding of natural law in a cosmological sense.” And so when Benedict XVI connects traditional life issues and the environment he was, in part, trying to connect the Natural Law with nature’s laws. Can you say a little more about that?

Dr. Cloutier: Yes—understanding natural law in a cosmological sense. The concept of Natural Law is not a concept of modern scientific regularity, though we are apt to confuse the two. Natural Law suggests that there is some kind of built-in purpose or end to things. Now, most defenders of Natural Law want to insist that most importantly the Natural Law says that there are built-in ends for persons—which is true, obviously.

But what Pope Benedict was trying to recover—what Thomas Aquinas would have presumed, what Aristotle would have presumed, what the Church Fathers basically would all have presumed—is that what is said about the human person—that it has these build-in ends, or purpose—is true about the entire created universe. It’s not just true about the human person. They would have understood Natural Law in some kind of purpose or end that all things have.

In my new book, I spent some time with the psalms that use parts of nature to praise God. There is this sense in those psalms that everything in the created order—not just persons—is oriented toward God’s glory and praise. I assume that everyone up through the 16th or 17th century that when you talked about Natural Law, they would have presumed that you were talking about persons but you were also talking about the whole of creation, as having an ordered purpose or end. It’s clear that modern science disrupted that understanding. And in effect, Catholics fought back against this disruption very strongly in terms of the human person but not as strongly for all of creation.

Now we’re seeing that. We’re seeing a recognition that it is difficult to fight that battle in terms of preserving some kind of built-in purpose for human life without recognizing that that means the whole cosmic order has built-in purposes.

CE: In the interview up on the blog now with Dr. Celia Deane-Drummond, she speaks of the necessity to recover the “cosmic Christ.”

Dr. Cloutier: That’s great. That’s fantastic. I look forward to reading that because I think that that is essential.

CE: So lastly, you are on the board of directors of a local food coop. That gets to the last line of your Communio piece—and it gets to something that I am challenged with—and that’s practicing what we preach. Your exact line is that people can “ultimately display a lack of discipline in attending to the arduous task of changing their own lives.” So tell me, how do you do that in your own life?

Dr. Cloutier: Well, I would first say that I do it very imperfectly. And one of the reasons I feel compelled to work on this issue is that I am not striving to live some kind of radically, back-to-the-land kind of life. And I assume that if back-to-the-land kind of lives are the only way to solve our ecological problems then we’re all in a whole lot of trouble. [Laughs] It’s just not going to happen. And there are really good reasons why that is not an adequate response to the challenges that we are facing.

In my own life I would say that I pay a great deal attention to the patterns that I actually talk about in the book. I carpool to work—it’s a pain, it adds to the time to your morning, you’re not in charge of your own schedule, which is one of the things that academics usually like. But if you live in a place without public transportation—and I work at a rural campus—it’s an important sacrifice to drive less and to help other people drive less if they want to carpool.

The way we feed ourselves is at the heart of the transformation that’s needed to live in a sustainable way. Many of our agricultural practices are so socially destructive and environmentally destructive on a wildly large scale—like the dead zones in the Chesapeake and the mouth of the delta of the Mississippi, all from nutrient pollution from fertilizers and water use from the insatiable appetite for beef—you just can’t get away from the extent to which agriculture lies at the base of these problems. So we need a different way to feed ourselves.

What I see at my coop—what I see from people interested in these matters—it’s not just an asceticism. It’s not, “oh, I have to eat less beef.” It’s, “oh, I get to meet the farmer!” And they like it!

We just had our owner-fest a few weeks ago, where we invite in our food vendors. We had over a hundred local vendors that we work with—and people love it! I love it! I meet these vendors and I am so inspired by these people. And I want to support their work. They’re doing good work. They care about the work that they’re doing. They’re doing all the right little things on their side. The store staff on the coop side is also trying to do all the right little things on our side. It’s fun to see people passionate about their work, and especially when the work is what brings thousands of people their daily groceries! [Laughs.]

Doing the right thing for the earth connects people. And I would say the same thing about carpooling. I am much closer to the colleagues that I carpool with than if I just met them at meetings and in the hallways.

So, I try to do these kinds of practices that make a significant difference but also transform people to see that doing the right thing environmentally can be really enriching. But I want to use a theological term to name this stuff: really grace-filled. Really grace-filled. In unexpected ways.

Beyond that I do what I can do. I try to maintain a lifestyle with walkability. I don’t take international vacations. And all these are the kinds of things that are important to pay attention to, because it is our attachment to those things that makes it very difficult to do larger social change activities.

CE: Can you give an example? What is something that we’re attached to that, if altered, would rattle us?

Dr. Cloutier: For example, any kind of G[enetically] M[odified] O[rganisms] labeling would have a radically disruptive effect on industrialized agriculture. And big food businesses know it. Even apart from what I think of GMO’s, labeling of them is sufficient enough that people would say, “I don’t want to participate in this system if I don’t have to—I want a different system.”

So that’s very powerful. If you get people paying attention to their food, then they will eventually pyt attention to the labeling. If you get people to pay attention to the amount of gas they’re using, and their ability to get around without using lots of gas, it makes it much easier to implement carbon taxation—which is the most no-brainer of all environmental policies. Right? If we tax carbon, we make it more costly. But the disadvantage to that is huge if people have to fill up their tank once or twice a week. Yeah—if I did that I would probably be against carbon taxation, too! So you have to figure out how you can live without as much driving.

CE: Living in a fallen world can be difficult. But what struck me about the first two examples you gave—the carpooling and the communal aspect of the food coop—is the relational nature—

Dr. Cloutier: Yes!

CE: —you’re getting to know your colleagues better, you’re getting to know your neighbors that may have been strangers but they’re growing or supplying your food. That to me is certainly a very Catholic answer.

Dr. Cloutier: Absolutely. And I would add this about the coop—and it’s so important. What a great place to work. We have about 100 employees and almost everybody loves working there. Because you have people like the cashiers to the people who design the marketing materials, and they’re into it—they’re into it! It’s not just a job in some corporate outpost. They are into it. This is our store that we can do interesting things with. They love working with one another. That doesn’t mean that we always get along or you don’t have the usual problems that every workplace has. But on the whole, the difference between what it must be like to work at that store and what it must be like to work at a big-box retailer grocer is enormous. And that’s because of that relationality—so important.

CE: Absolutely. It’s almost as if we’re made in the image of a Triune God who is love and relationship! Right?

Dr. Cloutier: Absolutely. Well said!

CE: Well, we’ve come to the end of what I wanted to discuss. Is there anything you’d like to add?

Dr. Cloutier: No. Great job with the questions. I’ll just add that I am very honored for the kind words about my work. And your work is very important, and I’m very appreciative of that.

CE: Dr. Cloutier, thank you again. And as I think it was C.S. Lewis that said, “Onward and upward!”

Dr. Cloutier: Onward and upward.

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Catholic Ecology posts my regular column in the Rhode Island Catholic, as well as scientific and theological commentary about the latest eco-news, both within and outside of the Catholic Church. What is contained herein is but one person's attempt to teach and defend the Church's teachings - ecological and otherwise. As such, I offer all contents of this blog for approval of the bishops of the Church. It is my hope that nothing herein will lead anyone astray from truth.