Dispatch from the Earth

All week we have not only heard, but felt, the reports and repercussions of the deadly blasts and manhunt in Boston. We have listened to the president and the governor and pundits extoll Boston’s resiliency and the power of compassion: the way tragedy pulls us together. We have prayed for the victims and perhaps for ourselves—that we might know how to react or best serve in times of crisis. We may have prayed that our own fears be allayed; that our leaders and law enforcement officials would bring their greatest skills to bear. Friday night we may have offered prayers of thanksgiving that the remaining suspect was captured alive. Surely this week has occasioned litanies of gratitude for every step we take on legs in tact.

This is not the sermon I had envisioned writing when I came up with a title the end of March and sent it to Dick on Thursday for the order of service. I had imagined ruminating on Earth Day from the earth’s point of view. What tips our planet might give its wily humans. What lessons we might learn from biomimicry; how the earth doesn’t produce what it can’t recycle or reuse; how migratory birds and butterflies navigate; how plants communicate sort of thing. I had given some thought to the book of Genesis, how Jewish and Christian scripture placed humans in a garden as our first home. Home the place that originally shapes us. Thus as beings who begin in a garden, conceiving ourselves as gardeners is not simply spiritual metaphor. It is not the Garden of Eden but the Garden of Earth where Creation stories and evolution alike place us. We are denizens of the garden wherein all beings grow.

As the events of the week unfolded and I listened to news coverage and commentary, I realized the sermon I had envisioned was not so far off because there comes a time, to quote Einstein, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.” There are wiser voices than ours, if only we could imagine listening to the earth speak.

While both the planet and humankind are resilient, resiliency is finite. Scientists keep telling us we are at the tipping point. The environmental prophet Bill McKibben keeps posting updates and organizing actions leaders and most of the populace continue to disregard. The earth, too, relays dire warnings politicians squabble about and the rest of us ignore if the effects aren’t visible in our backyard.

In Nashville, a relative took me to the zoo where she acts as a docent. “I’m not a zoo person,” I told her. “Neither am I,” she said having lived in East Africa for many years, “but this one is different.” But it wasn’t. Sure, it was attractively laid out but for the soda machines placed beside the faux habitats that didn’t allow animals to feed or mate naturally. The cloud leopard cups born in captivity were the most gorgeous creatures I’ve seen but to glimpse them contained in a space that would fit on the chancel is not to see leopards being leopards. Watching an animal meant to hunt, roam and mate across vast savannahs cast in the role of a wild cat born and raised in a cage sends a clear signal from the earth. We have overrun resilience in so many places where damaged ecosystems cannot be restored, where species will never roam freely again. In an effort to save endangered species we breed them in captivity but to what end? Would we wish to be preserved if our only existence were in captivity? If the distinguishing quality of humanity is the capacity to implement freedom and exercise choice what authentic humanity exists without it?

The disregard we show the earth manifests in the disregard we show each other.

Disregard comes from disconnection.

In yesterday’s New York Times, Navi Pillay, the UN human rights chief, commented on the judicial hangings in Iraq, “Executing prisoners in batches like this is obscene. It is like processing animals in a slaughterhouse.” And though we are quick to abhor the death of humans we make no effort to stop deaths far more wretched happening daily to millions of animals on our account. In fact, some state legislatures pass bills to make undercover filming of animal abuse illegal; thus we become so disconnected from our own decency that we make its expression a crime. Wednesday, the U.S. Senate ignored the painful reality of Newtown parents and Gabby Gifford in the gallery as they killed a bill most Americans favored to expand background checks.

Later the same day in West, Texas, a horrific explosion at a fertilizer facility caused hundreds of injuries and an unknown number of deaths. Whether the cause of explosion was an industrial accident or an intentional crime, it happened because humans use chemical fertilizer, in this case anhydrous ammonia—the same kind Timothy McVeigh used to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma. Until the 20th century, farming did not involve its use and while we can tout it as a great advance for monoculture crops we must reckon with the damage industrialized agriculture causes to ecosystems worldwide. The earth sends missives and we create junk folders to reroute the mail.

In the face of this week’s tragedy in Boston, and in Texas, the president has again proclaimed our nation the greatest, no doubt in an attempt to bolster and console; but it is a falsehood to believe we can “solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”

We forget each life is connected to the life of the earth. Our well-being is inextricably bound to that of every other being. Together we comprise the beingness of life. There are no unconnected strands floating loose in the atmosphere. We have swallowed the myth of individualism and the false dichotomy of separate spheres: human and planetary. We do not exist apart from other species or ecosystems. From the food we eat, to the minerals we mine, to the air we breathe, every moment is an ode to interconnection.

We’ve reached a tipping point of blatant disregard: for the vast hunger in the world, the pain and suffering, the inequality, the lack of clean water, the lack of accessible health care. It’s not that we simply toss the plastic cup out the window—it’s that we manufacture it in the first place.

Barbara Kingsolver, the scientifically trained author whose novels and essays function as a clarion call to consciousness writes in her book, Small Wonder:


Something new is upon us,
and yet nothing is ever new.We are alive in a fearsome time,
and we have been given new things to fear.

We’ve been delivered huge blows but also
huge opportunities to reinforce or reinvent our will,
depending on where we look for honor
and how we name our enemies.

The easiest thing is to think of returning the blows.
But there are other things we must think about as well,
other dangers we face.

A careless way of sauntering across the earth
and breaking open its treasures,
a terrible dependency on sucking out the world’s
best juices for ourselves—these may also be our enemies.

The changes we dread most may contain our salvation.

Indeed, it may seem unimaginable not to exercise freedom of choice by getting to drive any car we can purchase or any food we can buy. It may seem unimaginable to stop depending on fossil fuel, to stop hydrofracturing the earth and drilling wells. It may seem unimaginable not to eat oranges year round or buy cheap, government subsidized, highly processed and packaged food. It may seem quite literally dreadful to imagine what an earth-centered ethic might look like but it is far less terrifying than the scenario we are creating for ourselves.

In Central and South America, as the most bio-diverse ecosystems on earth disappear at breath-taking rates, people are beginning to realize the salvation a radical change in perspective provides. One such perspective called Buen Vivar, the Good Life, is gaining ground. One Latin American writer describes it this way:

Its distinguishable core can be essentially synthesized in a holistic and cosmic view, of respect and horizontal coexistence with nature, of search for social justice and full multicultural respect. In particular, it emphasizes a radical understanding of well-being and development that requires self-limitation and restraint as opposed to unlimited production and irresponsible and unsustainable waste. From deep community contents it gives very limited importance to individual consumption and ownership, but grants a crucial place to the inclusion of all and the harmony of feelings. This view sees and feels human beings and the world that integrates them organically with the entire universe, in contrast to the hegemonic anthropocentrism of Western capitalist modernity. This has led some intellectuals to characterize it as “biocentric,” “bioequalitarian” or “bioenvironmental.” [1]

In spiritual terms we might call it biophilic: life-loving. A way of existing that honors life’s longing for itself. In a stunning example of how Buen Vivar manifests, in March 2011,

the government of Ecuador filed a case against illegal gold mining operations in northern Ecuador [because] the rights of nature were violated by mining operations, which were argued to be polluting the nearby rivers. This case is different … in that it was the government addressing the violation of the rights of nature. It was also swiftly enforced, as [a] military operation to destroy the machinery used for illegal mining was ordered and implemented.[2]

The government of Ecuador has changed its constitution to reflect this new salvific perspective. Listen to the preamble:

We women and men, the sovereign people of Ecuador
RECOGNIZING our age-old roots, wrought by women and men from various peoples,
CELEBRATING nature, the Pacha Mama (Mother Earth), of which we are a part and which is vital to our existence,
INVOKING the name of God and recognizing our diverse forms of religion and spirituality,
CALLING UPON the wisdom of all the cultures that enrich us as a society,
AS HEIRS to social liberation struggles against all forms of domination and colonialism
AND with a profound commitment to the present and to the future,

Hereby decide to build
A new form of public coexistence, in diversity and in harmony with nature, to achieve the good way of living (sumak kawsay).

And this from Section Two, entitled “Healthy Living”

Article 14. The right of the population to live in a healthy and ecologically balanced environment that guarantees sustainability and the good way of living (sumak kawsay), is recognized.

Environmental conservation, the protection of ecosystems, biodiversity and the integrity of the country’s genetic assets, the prevention of environmental damage, and the recovery of degraded natural spaces are declared matters of public interest.

Article 15. The State shall promote, in the public and private sectors, the use of environmentally clean technologies and nonpolluting and low-impact alternative sources of energy. Energy sovereignty shall not be achieved to the detriment of food sovereignty nor shall it affect the right to water.
The development, production, ownership, marketing, import, transport, storage and use of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, highly toxic persistent organic pollutants, internationally prohibited agrochemicals, and experimental biological technologies and agents and genetically modified organisms that are harmful to human health or that jeopardize food sovereignty or ecosystems, as well as the introduction of nuclear residues and toxic waste into the country’s territory, are forbidden.

And from Chapter Seven, called “Rights of Nature”:

Article 71. Nature, or Pacha Mama, where life is reproduced and occurs, has the right to integral respect for its existence and for the maintenance and regeneration of its life cycles, structure, functions and evolutionary processes.

All persons, communities, peoples and nations can call upon public authorities to enforce the rights of nature. To enforce and interpret these rights, the principles set forth in the Constitution shall be observed, as appropriate.

The State shall give incentives to natural persons and legal entities and to communities to protect nature and to promote respect for all the elements comprising an ecosystem.[3]

Everywhere, the earth suffers our suffering and not surprisingly, everywhere we find people filled with fear, addled with disconnection, resorting to violence. In an essay in Yes magazine, Frances Moore Lappé, known for her groundbreaking book, Diet for a Small Planet, writes:

So, what can we do to break free from the spiral of fear and worsening violence? Maybe we begin here: recognizing that our crisis is not that we humans are too individualistic or too selfish. It’s that we’ve lost touch with how deeply social we really are. Easing the fear at the root of so much pain and violence that generates more fear—from suicide to child abuse to school massacres—comes as we embrace the obvious: We are creatures who, in order to thrive individually, depend on inclusive communities in which all can thrive.[4]

In the wake of this week’s horrific violence in and around Boston perpetrated by two brothers, Dzhokar and Tamarlan Tsarnaev, twenty-six and nineteen years old, it is easy to set them apart, especially Tamarlan: to declare him deranged and utterly unlike us. Dzhokar makes it harder given that everyone the reporters consulted spoke of a decent kid: a scholar athlete who got along with peers, a quiet, well-mannered fellow. Quickly we devise a narrative of how he might have fallen under the influence of a powerful older brother, a boxer turned radical Islamist not only willing to die for a cause but hellbent on making hundreds suffer for it. We create narratives in order to console ourselves, to contain our fear and the sources of it; but in so doing, we forget our relationship with every perpetrator. While we are rightfully repulsed by their actions, we ignore the violence we perpetrate each day against the planet: which is to say all being. We may not have a radical religious agenda. We may not be fanatics of any stripe. We may just be decent people trying to make our way. But we have been given the gift and burden of consciousness and thus it is our birthright and responsibility to use it. To remain conscious of our choices. The energy we use and how we obtain it, what we manufacture and how, the food we grow and how we grow it, the animals we exploit, the ecosystems we manage as resources instead of co-inhabiting as relations—all reflect our own complicity in what the earth would surely label ecocide.

The degree to which we ignore the earth mirrors the disconnection among humans that keeps erupting in ever more atrocious ways. In the words of Barbara Kingsolver:

“The easiest thing is to think of returning the blows. But there are other things we must think about as well, other dangers we face.”
Together may we choose the life-affirming warmth of connection while there is still time. Amen.




[1] Ricardo Jiménez Other Ethical Pillars: Buen Vivir Working Paper for the International Workshop, Biocivilization for the Sustainability of Life and the Planet

[2] Daly, Erin. 2012 Ecuadorian Exemplar: The First Ever Vindications of Constitutional Rights. Review of European Community & International Environmental Law 21(1):63-66. http://celdf.live2.radicaldesigns.org/downloads/The_Ecuadorian_Exemplar_The_First_Ever_Vindications_of_Constitutional_Rights_of_Nature.pdf


[4] http://www.yesmagazine.org/peace-justice/could-our-deepest-fears-hold-key-to-ending-violence-frances-moore-lappe?utm_source=wkly20130418&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=titleLappé


One thought on “Dispatch from the Earth

  1. Kristen Herrington says:

    bless you, my friend, for your wondrous ‘take’ on a stressful week and for our stressed out Gaia! thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *