News from a Changing Planet: Towards an Effort of Collective Understanding

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For largely seasonal reasons (and others that may become evident in the new year), I have been thinking a lot about the relationship between faith and religion and environmental stewardship (and its opposite).

Over the last few months, I have revisited Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, which was a powerful call to the faithful (and everyone else) about the crisis of climate change and the injustice of its effects on the world’s poorest people, asking us all to reimagine our relationship to nature, to consumption, and to our responsibility to (what he believes is) God’s creation.

He wrote specifically about Saint Francis of Assisi, whose name he chose when he became pope, the patron saint of animals, the environment, ecology and poor people.

The life and work of St. Francis, he wrote:

“shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace…Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human….If we approach nature and the environment without [an] openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of Saint Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”

One of the reasons I liked that passage is because of how much it reminds me of the writings of scientists and environmental activists, and its emphasis that justice is (or should be) at the center of any conversation about climate change and the environment.

But it really reminded me of Rachel Carson, the marine biologist an author of Silent Spring, among other important environmental books. In a 1956 essay for Woman’s Home Companion, she wrote about a child’s inborn sense of wonder. It can falter in adulthood, she warns, withered by disenchantment, preoccupation with the artificial, and “alienation from our sources of strength.” Carson urges her adult readers to encourage children’s capacity for exploration and connection.

She also suggests that the adults will get something out of it too, as we do with most acts of empathy:

“Exploring nature with your child is largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies all around you,” she wrote.

For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind … One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’

Rachel Carson

Taking action to forestall grief seems relevant in our time, decades after Carson’s, too. A few years ago, I sat on a panel with, among others, Rev. Jim Antal, a pastor with the United Church of Christ who serves as the denomination’s national spokesperson on climate change. During the panel, he said something which I have never forgotten. He said he tells the other reverends in his congregation that they need to preach one out of every four sermons about climate change, and has extended that call to faith leaders of all kinds. If they don’t do that, he said, in a few years, “Every sermon will be about grief: Grief over having lost Eden.”

Every now and then, I experience this kind of grief (what do you call grief in advance? Anxiety?), which I try to resist, in part by remembering this, from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass:

It is not enough to weep for our lost landscapes; we have to put our hands in the earth to make ourselves whole again. Even a wounded world is feeding us. Even a wounded world holds us, giving us moments of wonder and joy. I choose joy over despair.

Excerpt from Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

That, in turn, makes me think about all the things that still need to be done, all of the things that are worth doing, all of the things that each one of us can do. So I reread this, from Rebecca Giggs’ excellent Fathoms: The World in the Whale:

Being hopeful follows from being useful; this has been my experience, and to be useful, it matters that you identify a part of the problem that you might see change in, using the talents and the resources that you possess. Hope is fellowship. Hope is in the doing. We may be the only species capable of imagining a future robbed of the wonder of encountering other species. This knowledge, in the end, gives us cause to start.

Excerpt from Fathoms: The World in the Whale by Rebecca Giggs

I tried to write about this experience of emotional whiplash last year, in an essay for The Atlantic about animals in children’s books and extinction. I’m worried about the world my son will grow up in, and how I will explain to him, among other things, what happened to the whales and bears and tigers in so many of his picture books. But I came to the conclusion:

“[A]bandoning these stories because the animals might go extinct feels like the worst kind of indulgence—it presumes that we can’t do anything to save the species we love. Of course we can, but it will mean changing our behavior and inhabiting this Earth in a way that is more compatible with different kinds of life. Addressing the climate and biodiversity crises requires collective action: voting; getting involved in civil society and advocating for environmental protection within our communities; asking questions and demanding transparency of the companies we work for and shop from; talking with our friends, families, and co-workers about the challenges we face together. No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.

If I knew that no one would ever see a sperm whale again, would I read my son [stories about whales] at bedtime? I don’t know, but I’d rather teach him about the possibility of a world where people worked to make sure that cataclysmic future didn’t come to pass—one where he and I and his dad were part of that project. There is a flip side to the ability to imagine a future without these animals: imagining one with them.”

It’s a world we have to imagine, but it’s also a world we have to understand and work to protect. To do that, we should recognize and be grateful for what we have, what we lost, and what remains to save.

To that end, what follows is an excerpt from the Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving Address, or “The Words That Come Before All Else.” In Braiding Sweetgrass, Wall Kimmerer includes a version of this address, and when she asked Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper within the Haudenosaunsee Confederacy, if she could write about it, he said, “Of course you should write about it. It’s supposed to be shared, otherwise, how can it work? We’ve been waiting for five hundred years for people to listen. If they’d understood the Thanksgiving then, we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

So in that effort towards my own and our collective understanding, here it is:

“Now we turn our thoughts to the Creator, the Great Spirit, and send our greetings and our thanks for all the gifts of Creation. Everything we need to live a good life is here on Mother Earth. Let us pile up our thanks like a heap of flowers on a blanket. We will each take a corner and toss it high into the sky. So our thanks should be as rich as the gifts of the world that shower down upon us. For all the love that is around us, we gather our minds together as one and send our choicest words of greetings and thanks to the Creator.

Everyone: Now our minds are one.”

Let us pile up our thanks like a heap of flowers on a blanket. Happy holidays to all who celebrate, and peace and justice for everyone.

This was originally posted on Tatiana’s Substack News from a Changing Planet, a free twice-monthly newsletter about what on Earth is happening, with articles and essays about climate change and the environment.

Banner photo by NASA on Unsplash.

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