It is not always easy—to say the least—to relate the world of the saints to our own everyday life, where harmony is rarely the dominant characteristic of our environment or our relations with other creatures. A hermit in the desert might co-exist with local fauna; but the population of a city is bound to displace many, many other creatures. And then there are the creatures whose interests seem to be in direct conflict with our own: does “loving everything with the same love” really extend to the mosquito or the deer tick?
To this last question, the holy ascetic might well answer “Yes.” But what does that mean in practice? It defines such a person’s own relationship with unattractive and dangerous creatures; but there is always a difference between what one may accept for oneself and what one expects others to bear. The saints show us clearly that genuine God spills over into loving compassion for all his creatures, just as it is inseparable from love for our brother and sister. In the world of the fall, an all-embracing love does not exclude the possibility that animals may need to be deliberately killed if they threaten human life, like Abba Helle’s crocodile. Yet the saints teach us that the life of even an insect should not be taken thoughtlessly, and that our power over other creatures gives us a responsibility for their welfare. The stories of how holy people have lived inspire us to look hard at the possibilities for coexistence before taking more drastic action; and if we want to avoid outright conflict with other creatures today, ecological understanding is one of our most valuable tools. To return, for instance, to the aforementioned deer tick: we discover too late how the explosion in tick populations is linked with the extinction of the passenger pigeon, whose flocks would strip the oaks of acorns. With the birds gone, a wealth of acorns fed a growing population of mice, hosts for the ticks. There was a world in which we could coexist more easily with the tick, and we destroyed that world—not in the days of Adam, but in the twentieth century.
When we think about the displacement of other creatures and habitat destruction as a result of human activities, or the uses to which we put domestic and experimental animals, the approach will be similar. If we can discern a principle, it would be that human needs prevail—but not human whims or human greed. If I am harming other creatures by serving interests of my own, I must consider honestly whether my “need” is real or frivolous and whether it can be fulfilled in some other way.
The way we interact with other creatures cannot, however, be reduced simply to a set of ethical principles. Fundamental to our attitude, and therefore our behavior, is the way we perceive the world around us. Much modern thinking is dominated by ways of perceiving that are based on “nature red in tooth and claw”: the world is an arena of cutthroat competition, a battleground of selfish genes. It is important to recognize that these are not objective descriptions, but frameworks for an interpretation of the facts—lenses through which we perceive reality. And the Church offers us a different lens, that of the icon. An icon of the transfigured human being, and in some cases the environment around him or her, does speak to us of the actual world around us and how to treat the land in which we live. The ultimate contrast is not between sharing our environment or preserving it in a pristine state. The choice before us is whether or not we will embrace its potential, as the saints have done, so that natural and man made features alike become a sacrament of divine presence.
This is an excerpt from Living in God’s Creation: Orthodox Perspectives on Ecology by Elizabeth Theokritoff, published by SVS Press. Emphases added.