the banality of environmental destruction


WE’RE FACING AN ENVIRONMENTAL cataclysm that is endangering all life on this planet, yet none of us think we’re participating in something horrific.

We ask, “How could something really horrific be accepted by everyone around me? Surely my career and my way of life can’t be that bad if everyone else is doing it too. If it were, somebody would have stopped it already. Right?”

We are having trouble recognizing this horror because there are virtually no bad guys in the game. There are a few, probably, at Monsanto and in oil and gas companies, and a few in public office. But even they are not sitting around tables in the evenings smoking cigars and plotting the extinction of the polar bear. Most of them don’t have malicious intent. They’re just following the prevailing logic and ethic of our culture—the logic and ethic of commerce. They’re just being smart businesspeople, doing what they’ve been raised to do. The banality of evil.

And then there’s the rest of us. We’re not evil and yet we are all semi-knowingly participating in the creation of this global catastrophe. Most of us eat meat and dairy products that require massive quantities of water, fossil fuels, and pesticides to produce, destroying forests and jungles. Most of us live and work in buildings that are burning fuel 24/7 for lights, computers, appliances, heating and air conditioning systems. This is all normal for our culture.

Terrible and Terrifyingly Normal

Hannah Arendt, the twentieth-century political theorist, had some insights into the concepts of “evil” and “normal” that seem to have direct bearing here.

In 1961 she went, as a reporter for the New Yorker, to the trial of Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann was a Nazi lieutenant colonel who had been responsible for the operations side of the project of forcing millions of Jews into concentration camps and later deporting them by train to places like Auschwitz. If there were ever an example of a psychopathic monster—grand evil incarnate—Adolf Eichmann should be it. But Arendt published a series of articles about the trial that she later turned into a book subtitled, A Report on the Banality of Evil. In it she made the argument that Eichmann was actually not psychopathic, not exceptional in his propensity for violence, and not particularly hateful or malicious. What he was was unintelligent, rule-oriented, and insecure, with a desperate need to belong. He was a joiner who wanted to be part of something. He wanted to advance his career. He wanted respect and a good life. He often spoke in clichés. While he was in prison in Israel awaiting his trial, five different psychiatrists interviewed him and found no evidence of any pathology. He was a psychologically stable, normal person. Arendt wrote:

The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were, and still are, terribly and terrifyingly normal. From the viewpoint of our legal institutions and of our moral standards of judgment, this normality was much more terrifying than all the atrocities put together.

Arendt got a lot of pushback for this view, and in fact some of her claims about Eichmann’s guilelessness were recently debunked, but the book changed the conversation about the nature of evil forever.

For a holocaust to be carried out on a grand scale, you don’t need a battalion of sinister bad guys. You maybe need a few bad guys, but what you need even more are thousands of ordinary people who want badly to fit in and advance themselves and their careers. You need people who will accept the moral standards of their social environment. You need people committed to being normalrelative to their place and time, whatever that entails.

In the current moment, the violence that has become normal in industrialized countries is a life of daily violence against the planet. Most of us rely on products shipped from far away, made of plastic, wrapped in plastic, or delivered in plastic bags, most...

The author, Ana Lévy-Lyons

Growing up in the public schools of the vanilla suburbs of northern New Jersey, I always thought that being a religious leader would be the greatest job in the world. There was just one problem: I didn’t have a religion. My mother was a devoutly secular Jewish-heritage intellectual and no dogmas ever darkened our door. I was always told that I could be anything I wanted to be – not only in the sense that I could become president of the United States, but in the sense that I could be religiously, culturally, even ontologically anything. I loved the wide world of possibilities open before me and I acquired a contempt of prescriptive doctrines of any kind. At the same time, I always yearned for the groundedness offered by a more traditional religious identity. I visited churches and synagogues every weekend, pressing my nose against the glass, and longing for the rituals, disciplines, and practices that enriched the lives of my religious friends.

Being a good Gen Xer, my career has followed a winding path since then, in my case from working the counter at a kosher bakery in Oakland to founding a web startup in Seattle to making a foray as a singer-songwriter (winning the SIBL International Songwriting Competition and a glowing review in Billboard magazine) in San Francisco. But during this time of my young adulthood, I also began a spiritual journey that refocused my life – a journey that connected me to my Jewish heritage and led to my current career. I studied Hebrew and became an avid student of both ancient and contemporary traditions of biblical interpretation. I discovered a world of meaning and a spiritual depth that was thrilling. I began to feel the movement of God in my life. The call to spiritual leadership that I had felt as a child stayed with me and eventually landed me at The Divinity School at the University of Chicago.

Today, I serve as senior minister of First Unitarian Congregational Society in Brooklyn, a quickly-growing urban Unitarian Universalist congregation. Serving a congregation comprised mostly of people who have left their family’s faith or who, like me, were raised without religion, I’ve been able to see in vivid color both the gifts and limitations of contemporary liberal religious life. I have a foot in two worlds: a foot in the world of secular humanism (with its critique of religion) and a foot in the world of religion (with its critique of spiritually impoverished modernity). This dual vision has formed the basis of my ministry and of my writing. In my book on the Ten Commandments, No Other Gods, I use this dual vision to make the case for keeping commandments in our postmodern, post-religious era.

My sermons have won numerous awards, including the Borden Sermon Award, the Jerry Davidoff Sermon Award, and the Dana Greeley Sermon Award. My writing has been published in UU WorldCriterion (a University of Chicago Publication), Quest for Meaning, and frequently in Tikkun magazine where I am a contributing editor. My letters and opinion pieces have been published in The New York Times and The Guardian, respectively.

I live in New York City with my husband and two children, both age eleven. In a life with many, many blessings, the love in my family is the greatest blessing of them all.