Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, February 26, 2020
I have been reading a book of Greta Thunberg’s speeches. As you probably know, Greta is the Swedish student who is striking for action on the climate “emergency”. She has had the opportunity to speak to political and business leaders throughout the world using the extensive work of scientists as her message, Greta is attempting to reach the most powerful, those with the ability to address the climate crisis in a way that brings necessary and lasting change. Why are her impressive words not eliciting more action at the top? What is it that motivates us to respond to the climate crisis or not. I think we know what motivates inaction – money and probably fear of having to give up the comforts of an unsustainable lifestyle.
Greta is motivated by the science and the desire for a livable planet for her’s and future generations. This should be enough. The science is clearly telling us a livable future is not possible at our current rate of consumption. It is obvious that our children and grandchildren will face many challenges as a result of our inaction. That is enough for me, although there are other motivators. For many, a spiritual connection to the natural world drives their response. In a December message we were reminded of the Bible’s call for caring for the natural world and offered up Christian moral convictions as a reason to respond to the climate crisis. “We are called to be stewards of God’s creation. When we keep the Earth, then we do God’s will.”
For the indigenous people of this country a belief in the interconnection of all living things is central to their spiritual beliefs, and it guides their daily way of life and an activist agenda. I read a poem attributed to a Taos elder:
Now this is what we believe.
The mother of us all is earth.
The father is the sun.
The grandfather is the Creator
Who bathed us with his mind
And gave life to all things.
The Brother is the beasts and trees.
The Sister is that with wings.
We are the Children of Earth
And do it no harm in any way.
Nor do we offend the sun
By not greeting it at dawn.
We praise our Grandfather for his creation.
We share the same breath together-
The Beasts, the trees, the birds, the man.
Sherri Mitchel, a member of Maine’s Penobscot Tribe, expresses similar thoughts. I quote:
Our “way of life is about living close to the Earth, close to our kin, and remaining ever mindful of our responsibilities to the sacred agreements that we have with every living being. It is about the sustainability of the Earth, our relationships, and our spiritual connections.
“Everything is interconnected and interdependent; the well-being of the whole is determined by the well-being of any individual part…. This belief forms the foundational understanding weaving through all of our other values. It’s the thread that ties them all together.”
I will briefly review three of the values Sherri discusses in her book Sacred Instructions:
- We all have enough, meaning that everyone should be ensured they have enough to live with dignity and a sense of security and that community has enough to thrive.
- Harmony is an inner state of equilibrium, in spite of life’s challenges we are asked to understand the dual nature of the universe and recognize the beauty in everything. When we are connected to the source of life we develop greater compassion and patience.
- Harmony with the natural world teaches taking active steps to live in harmony with the rest of creation. Quoting Sherri, “We cannot even see ourselves as being stewards of the Earth. We are only keepers of a way of life that is in harmony with the Earth…. This understanding is very different than the belief that human beings are chosen above all others.’
These beliefs and values are shared across Native tribes and communicated through ceremonial dances, chants, and folk tales/stories passed down from generation to generation.
I repeat: We all have enough, Harmony is an inner state of equilibrium, and Harmony with the natural world.
This reverence for the natural world was central to the Native way of life long before the colonists came to this country and it did not take long for the colonists to impact the New England environment. In 1855 Thoreau wrote in his journal about the ecological changes to New England that resulted from the colonists way of life. He was comparing his observations with those of William Wood, who recounted his observations in a 1633 book, New England’s Prospect. Some of these changes resulted from clearing forests to send timber to England, others from their farming practices. Colonists had a very different relationship with the natural resources of New England than the original Americans.
Today, motivated by these beliefs, Natives take civil action to protect the environment. Nick Estes, of the Sioux Tribe, writes about the belief that “water is a nonhuman relative who is alive and that nothing can own her (referring specifically to the Missouri River) and she cannot be sold or treated as a piece of property.” It is this belief that motivates the native camps of protesters attempting to block building of the Keystone XL Pipeline. In the February Friends Journal find an article by Shelley Tananebaum, a Quaker Earthcare Witness, who spent time in a camp in Standing Rock.
These are all strong motivators for caring for the natural world. I too believe in the interconnection of all living things and the importance in maintaining the health of the many ecosystems that sustain the natural world. I wish I were as sure about a path forward as I am about why we need one. I don’t know how to motivate those who have not bought into any of the values I have shared here.
I sometimes play a game imaging a world that resulted from the Colonists learning care of the land from the first residents of this country. This is fantasy I know, but maybe it has some value. At least it puts my mind in a happier place. Imagine for a minute what kind of economic system we might have if its health was not based on how much we are consuming? What kind of trade deals would we have with other countries? Would they be designed to increase production and sales? Or think about the Industrial Revolution. There would have been one, of course, but how might it have been different if there was more concern for preservation of natural resources? Or how would farming be different if we cared about the health of the soil and the ecosystems that large farms disturb? Or think about the value “we all have enough” and how public policies would differ if that was a commonly held value.
What else might have evolved differently and how might we mine these ideas for use in creating a sustainable future for our children and grandchildren. How can we move backwards to a time of less consumption, more preservation of our natural resources? Isn’t that what reducing our carbon footprint is all about? We are not going to reverse climate change by composting and recycling. But we are working to find a life style that provides a sustainable future for humanity.
I leave you with a quote from the Harvard entomologist, E.O. Wilson,
“Natural philosophy has brought into clear relief the following paradox of human existence. The drive towards perpetual expansion – or personal freedom – is basic to the human spirit. But to sustain it we need the most delicate, knowing stewardship of the living world that can be devised.”