I am often struck by a story or article that I don’t have time to follow up on–at least right away. Maybe that’s not all bad, since the transience of blog posts tends to discourage rumination and measured response. In that spirit, I’m posting something I’ve been digesting for a fortnight.
Two issues ago, the New York Times Magazine featured a low-key and appreciative story on Warren Wilson’s new eco-friendly dorm (accessible only with on-line member ID). The accompanying photo gallery is filled with young, self-consciously earthy students of European extraction. They are depicted lounging in their dorm, drying clothes on a line, playing banjos and bending iron railings in their shop. All in all, the article attempts to portray what the director of the school’s Environmental Leadership Center calls “an integration of life and values.” They like their food home-grown, their furnishings hand-made, and their music unamplified.
The one incongruous picture, however, is the shot of an attractive young couple, lounging together in their dorm room (shown above and in the print edition, but not included in the online gallery). The intimacy of the pose suggests a romantic relationship. The caption informs us that the couple “met at a camp for home-schooled children when they were 14. They share an EcoDorm room. Two other couples cohabit in the dorm.”
The picture is notable not only because it adds little to the “integration of life and values” touted above, but because it goes so far as to contradict it. Organic living lies cheek-to-jowl with industrial sex. Now I claim no certain knowledge of the actions of the couple in question, so I speak only at the level of structures and generalities. However, if a college allows unmarried couples to cohabit in a dorm room, then they must at least generally presume sexual activity (once again, I make no judgment about this particular couple: for all I know, they–like St. Thomas Aquinas– experienced an “angelic girdling” resulting in their perfect chastity). And if the dorm structurally encourages sexual activity in an atmosphere inhospitable to the rearing of children–namely, outside of marriage, in a cramped room, before a career, and amid the demands of studies–then it also structurally encourage some use of artificial contraceptives.
It could be argued at several levels that such a dorm culture, i.e., one which encourages both eco-friendly living and chemically modified sex, is inconsistent. Most obviously, one might simply point out that common contraceptives are pollutants–responsible both for harm to wildlife and infertility among human males. At a deeper level, the dorm policy fails to acknowledge the profound link between our body and the cosmos. If we learn to resolve the conflict between desire and the limits of our body by artificial means, then–when push comes to shove–we will similarly resolve conflicts between desire and the limits of the natural environment. Pope Benedict makes this point in Caritas in Veritate (noted previously here).
But Benedict has not been the only one to call for a “seamless garment” of organic attitudes. Wendell Berry, an agrarian thinker whose “green” bona fides are beyond dispute, makes a similar analogy between respect for the earth and respect for the body. In his essay, “The Body and the Earth,” Berry laments:
For the care or control of fertility, both that of the earth and that of our bodies, we have allowed a technology of chemicals and devices to replace the entirely cultural means of ceremonial forms, disciplines, and restraints. We have gathered up the immense questions that surround the coming of life into the world and reduced them to simple problems for which we have manufactured and marketed simple solutions. An infertile woman and an infertile field both receive a dose of chemicals, at the calculated risk of undesirable consequences, and are thus equally reduced to the status of productive machines. As for unwanted life–sperm, ova, embryos, weeds, insects, etc.–we have the same sort of remedies, for sale, of course, and characteristically popularized by advertisements that speak much of advantages but little of problems… That is only a new battle in the old war between body and soul–as if we were living in front of a chorus of the most literal fanatics chanting: ‘If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out! If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off!’
For Berry, we are not reduced to “productive machines” because we ingest chemicals. We are reduced to “productive machines” because we attempt to resolve deeply cultural and human problems with purely technical solutions. It is this casualness in treating sacred things that breeds contempt for the body. And, at the end of the day, I think that Wendell Berry (and Benedict) would see a deeply Christian instinct in the radicalism of the EcoDorm– a desire to walk with the grain of the cosmos. He would simply call us all to apply this “organic” ethos more consistently.