Renewing Our Relationship with the Earth
Forget about economics and policy. Valuing the earth reconnects us to ourselves.
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The husband-and-wife duo of John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker are co-directors of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University. In their new book, Ecology and Religion, they reflect on the role of religion in solving our current environmental crisis.
Religions often draw on symbols and stories to open the world to interpretation and meaning. What can this approach offer those of us in the environmental movement?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Environmentalists have been working to address ecological issues for many years by means of science and policy, law and economics. These approaches have had effect in terms of legislation but not necessarily in terms of behavioral change. We need to incorporate religion and spirituality, philosophy and history, literature and the arts. These disciplines show us how humans are moved by beauty, love, story, and symbols. Storytelling and symbolic consciousness bring us into emotional, intuitive, and embodied ways of relating to the earth. These ways of knowing are different from the rational, empirical method of science or the legal reasoning of law.
You write about the importance of revaluing nature. What happens when we shift from viewing nature through a utilitarian lens and start valuing it intrinsically?
John Grim: The utilitarian lens of valuing nature is largely born out of a market-based mindset. Within this worldview there is almost no cost accounting for the damages we are causing to nature’s ecosystems. Ecological economics, which refutes this perspective, is just beginning to reach the business world.
Mary Evelyn Tucker: Humans have emerged from enormously complex evolutionary processes. We are co-creators with these processes. To value the earth community intrinsically resituates us as participating in, not dominating, nature. We don’t yet have a sufficiently engaging spiritual and ethical response to the earth’s destruction. We need to develop a more comprehensive ecological ethics to avoid biocide or ecocide.
Many indigenous peoples practice a place-based spirituality that embeds them in the seasonal cycles. What does that feel like? Is a sense of belonging to a place accessible to modern, uprooted people?
John Grim: Broadly speaking, indigenous peoples live in a participatory universe. A major mode of participation is through ritual practices, which orient communities to the cosmos and ground them in particular places. Place-based knowledge is central to indigenous peoples.
We still sense this when we have a feeling for the place where we were born or spent our youth. We can identify with land, water, ocean, and forests in similar ways and visit them in different seasons to draw on their beauty as a source of renewal. What we need now is to develop a sense of our rootedness in a nested circle of self, community, bioregion, planet, solar system, and universe. This will require learning from an integration of science and symbolic consciousness.
You have written that the ultimate challenge for humans today is to “create ecological cultures.” What do you mean by this?
Mary Evelyn Tucker: In North America, we are realizing that the continued destruction of the environment needs to be mitigated by many strategies, including social and political changes. We have been slow to engage in a cultural shift including spirituality, religion, and ethics. How can we have healthy people on a sick planet? Creating ecologically engaged cultures lays a foundation for the flourishing of our collective planetary life.