The way we see the world shapes the way we treat it. If a mountain is a deity, not a pile of ore; if a river is one of the veins of the land, not potential irrigation water; if a forest is a sacred grove, not timber; if other species are biological kin, not resources; or if the planet is our mother, not an opportunity — then we will treat each other with greater respect. -David Suzuki
Have you read any of Pope Francis’s encyclical on climate change, the environment and inequality? It just came out, and if you’ve spent any time on the web, you’ve probably seen talk of it circulating. I’ve read a few excerpts so far, and the one that’s sticking in my head right now is the following:
These days, they [the global poor most affected by climate change] are mentioned in international political and economic discussions, but one often has the impression that their problems are brought up as an afterthought, a question which gets added almost out of duty or in a tangential way, if not treated merely as collateral damage. Indeed, when all is said and done, they frequently remain at the bottom of the pile. This is due partly to the fact that many professionals, opinion makers, communications media and centres of power, being located in affluent urban areas, are far removed from the poor, with little direct contact with their problems. They live and reason from the comfortable position of a high level of development and a quality of life well beyond the reach of the majority of the world’s population. This lack of physical contact and encounter, encouraged at times by the disintegration of our cities, can lead to a numbing of conscience and to tendentious analyses which neglect parts of reality. We..must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.
At risk of making sweeping generalizations, Pope Francis hits on an essential element in the discord we are experiencing in this modern world, the one he says is starting to “look like an immense pile of filth.” Most of those decision makers and people who are have the most power to influence public behavior? From what I can glean from reading about global issues, politics and how policies come into being, our policy makers tend to spend the majority of their time in urban jungles, airplanes and conference rooms. I’m sure many of those folks also enjoy spending time in the outdoors, but I would wager a guess that those who do spend time communing with nature perhaps don’t do it as regularly as they might like. I would also guess not many presidents or members of Parliament go on many solo hikes or spend time in solitude out in the wild. Thus many are not allowed (either by themselves or by their job title or by their ‘superiors’) to cultivate a passion for nature that informs their decisions.
It’s challenging to look past the market trends and economic disasters into the real issues [deforestation, species extinction, water degradation, habitat loss, etc..] when one spends the majority of one’s time looking at screens and in meetings where the illustrations are charts, graphs and numbers. When priorities are centered around growing the economy, making more money and creating jobs to make more stuff to make more money, the natural world suffers. People suffer. Animals and plants suffer. Even those policy makers and the so called “1%” suffer. When we as a people live cut off from nature, life in all forms suffers.
We haven’t reached the point where the majority of people accept that our systems need to change. There have been plenty of natural disasters, economic crashes, and unacceptable behavior among our species to illustrate that things are simply not working. There are entire island nations being swallowed by the sea, leaving thousands of creatures, including humans, searching for new lands to call home. The evidence is glaringly transparent if we choose to see it. What’s not in place yet is the acceptance that things are where they are, and that in order for humanity to thrive in harmony with the Earth and the rest of creation, we need to let go of our cycle of “more, better, faster” and accept “enough” in its place. We might find that “enough” ends up providing more abundance than we thought possible.
I like to think that Pope Francis’s public statement is a sign that despite myriad differences in beliefs and value systems, people have the capacity to acknowledge that the one constant across the board is the Earth. Her health is our health. Her life is our life. As Wendell Berry writes, “The earth is what we all have in common.”
Can we be the change, as Gandhi once said? I hope we can. It won’t be easy. Change, even if we shut down the energy grid right now, is going to be slow. It won’t happen overnight, even though we want it to. Those island nations will probably be just a memory in 50 years, and we need to feel the grief of what has already come to pass. Change will take planning and doing things that make us feel uncomfortable and stretch our boundaries. We will have to talk to people we don’t like. Pope Francis writes,
We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all.
We need to be in the conversation, not the fight. We need to remember that our roots are woven deeply into the natural world, and we need to feel down to those roots. And at the end of the day? Turns out we all really are on the same side.
Image via 350.org: Peia Kararaua, 16, swims in the flooded area of Aberao village, Tarawa atoll, Kiribati.