When Earth Day was established 54 years ago, its focus was on preserving and protecting.
In its early days, it addressed issues like air and water pollution, deforestation, nuclear testing and so forth. It was a “conservation” endeavor, not an “environmental” one. Climate change was not yet widely recognized.
The awakening created by this movement led to several valuable actions, including the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Much has changed in this half-century, with our focus shifting from “a future worth living” to whether there will be a future at all!
We’re confronted now by the prospect of a planet decimated by climate change, dying trees, vanished species, arid once-verdant grass lands, eroded coasts, disappearing islands and “climate refugees” fleeing the lands of their birth that are now unlivable.
Scientists agree this will be our future if we don’t change how we live our lives.
I’ll not spend time here reviewing what needs to be done to address climate change. We know what is needed and how to do it. Rather than list our tasks, I want, instead, to focus on the foundational understanding of ourselves and our world that will be needed to sustain our efforts.
We are a part of creation. This is a primal understanding among humankind. The creation stories from the various traditions assume this to be true. It’s an intuitive understanding.
Take Native American spirituality, for example. Let’s listen to Chief Seattle who says, “The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. All things are connected like the blood that unites us all. Man did not weave the web of life, he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.” This involves a respect for the earth and its creatures – a concern, a reverence.
The 13th century Francis of Assisi believed one should engage with the environment. He called the sun “our Brother Sun, who brings us the day and the light” and called the moon “Sister Moon.” He went on speaking of “our Brothers Wind and Air,” and spoke of them as “upholding life.” Even addressing “Sister Water, who is very useful to us, and humble and precious and pure.”
Contrasting this commitment to stewardship of the created order is a perspective that views the earth as a source to be exploited and plundered, something apart from life.
The industrialization of our planet, which has brought us once-unimaginable gifts, has also contributed to an arrogance which sees us as “apart from,” rather than “a part of.” This is an important challenge in our day.
Do we need somehow to hear Francis again as he speaks of “Sister Earth,” whom he calls “our Mother, who nourishes us and sustains”? We are part of creation. Our life depends on it.
At the same time, we are also connected to one another. It’s a shared reality, almost a mystical connection. Carl Jung calls it the “collective unconscious” and likens it to a common aquifer with individual wells. To be human is to be related.
In Chengdu, China, at a center for the study of the Giant Panda, I encountered a sign displaying the words of John Muir in English and Mandarin. It said: “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
Muir understood that everything is connected. And Martin Luther King Jr. based his life on it when he said, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”
We are a part of creation, and we are connected to one another. But there is a reality that holds these together: it’s that we belong to those who come after us.
Many my age might not be greatly affected by climate change. But I have five wonderful grandchildren, and they’re going to be living in this world long after I’m gone.
What will their life be like? Crazy Horse spoke for them when he urged, “Treat the earth well: it was not given to you by your parents, it was loaned to you by your children.”
Of the many beautiful places in the world that I’ve been able to visit, one is the Maasai Mara – the savannah wilderness in southwestern Kenya. I can never forget those beautiful landscapes and diverse wildlife, but I especially remember the Maasai people.
I’ve come to learn of the greeting they use when they meet each other. The greeting is, “How are the children?” And the response is, “All the children are well.”
As we reflect upon our own role in this changing world, is there a better question for us to ask than, “How are the children?”
Retired pastor of Judson Memorial Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Edmondson previously served the First Baptist Church of Berkeley, California. He is an alumnus of Berkeley School of Theology and Regents Park College, Oxford University. Edmondson was a founding member of the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America and in retirement taught in the College of Theology at Central Philippine University. He lives in Oakland, California.