“Tell me a story.” How often we said that as children! “Tell me a story.” Narrative has the power to shape our world; indeed it is how we understand the world and our place in it. “Tell me a story.”
Some queries to explore: What is the story we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it? How has that shaped our relationship with the world, with the entire community of life? And what have been the consequences of that story – for people, for the land, the air, and waters, and for all the diverse life forms dwelling therein? Are we able to re-imagine our relationship with the Earth? What would a different, more life-enhancing story look like? What canst thou say?
The dominant paradigm of our time – our story – is one of human exceptionalism. In this, the human alone is valued and honored at the expense of every other being and every other aspect of the world. It is a mechanistic paradigm which dictates humans’ relationship “over” the Earth, which we then use as a resource to take from, alter, and exploit as we wish.
Thus we have severed our inter-relationship with the rest of the web of life, and in so doing rendered damage so great that we are now experiencing a climate crisis, the ongoing sixth extinction, and vast degradation of the planet with the poisoning of our air, land, and water. Every living species has experienced the deleterious influence of our human presence. In the human realm, this paradigm manifests in racism, sexism, classism, and ageism. We live our individualistic lives in “quiet desperation,” with epidemic rates of suicide, addiction, and depression.
Our isolation is evident even in our language – we refer to anything other than humans and our pets (and our cars!) as “it,” hardly a term of relationship, let alone endearment. We speak of “natural resources,” rather than “earthly gifts,” given freely, upon which we are completely dependent. We speak of “the environment,” as though “it” (sic) is separate from “us.” We identify ourselves as “consumers” as if all we do or are able to do is exploit, take, and consume.
In our consumer-driven society, we are no longer sustained by the ever-renewing cycle of nature. We live now in the cycle of industrial production and consumption, often oblivious to the fact that all our material possessions are sourced from the greater Earth community. Of course, in order to live, we must consume – that is true of all beings on Earth. How can we do so mindfully – aware of our consumption and its cost to the circle of life (whether it be foodstuffs, energy, clothing, anything!), and in a way that does justice to the lives that we take?
John Woolman practiced a form of this mindful justice when he refused to wear denim or ride in coaches in order to not participate in the horrors of the slavery-based economy.
In the United States, we speak of “justice for all.” What would justice look like for the 100,000 to 250,000 seabirds, at least 2,800 sea otters, approximately 12 river otters, 300 harbor seals, 247 bald eagles, 22 orcas, and an unknown number of salmon and herring in Prince William Sound, which perished shortly after the Exxon Valdez went aground, discharging 10.8 million U.S. gallons of crude oil into those waterways? (Sarah Graham, “Environmental Effects of Exxon Valdez Spill Still Being Felt,” Scientific American, 12/19/2003)
Our paradigm of separation and domination has lulled us into thinking that we can escape the consequences of the ravages we’ve been inflicting upon the Earth community. We are now beginning to understand that the fate of the human is inextricably interwoven with the fate of the entire web of life, and many people around the world seem to be “waking up” to this reality and to the urgent imperative to act differently, to change “business as usual.”
What if we had a different story, and we lived from and into a different paradigm – one that acknowledges and celebrates our intrinsic relationship with the Earth and all her creatures, waterways, landforms – mountains, soils, forests, deserts, rivers, lakes, oceans; a reciprocal, mutually enhancing relationship with all, with the entirety of the web of life?
We can look to some words of early Friends and to Quaker Testimonies for guidance:
It would go a great way to caution and direct people in the use of the world, that they were better studied and known in the Creation of it. For how could Man find the Confidence to abuse it, while they should see the Great Creator stare them in the face, in all and every part thereof? (William Penn, Some Fruits of Solitude, 1692)
The produce of the earth is a gift from our gracious Creator to the inhabitants, and to impoverish the earth now to Support outward greatness appears to be an injury to the succeeding age. (John Woolman, Conversations on the True Harmony of Mankind and How it May be Promoted, 1772)
Nearly all Friends are familiar with these words from George Fox:
Be patterns, be examples in all countries, places, islands, nations wherever you come; that your carriage and life may preach among all sorts of people, and to them; then you will come to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in everyone; whereby in them you may be a blessing, and make the witness of God in them to bless you. [Emphasis added.] (George Fox statement from 1656, included in The Works of George Fox, 1831)
Friends’ understanding of the identity of “everyone” has continued to evolve over the centuries. What would it look like to “answer that of God in all creation,” or “in all life Spirit,” and in so doing become a blessing, as Fox promised. Here is the opportunity for humans to reciprocate for all the gifts we receive from the Earth.
William Penn exhorted us to “Let us then see what love will do.” Do we love this world? The Belted Kingfisher? The Chinook Salmon? The Coast Redwood? What would love have us do and be?
Likewise, how can we understand our Testimonies of Unity, Equality, Community, Simplicity, and Peace as directing us toward harmonious and reciprocal relationships that respect the inherent integrity of the Earth community, rather than simply that of human beings?
Thomas Berry expresses it this way:
The world is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects; it is a communion of subjects each with their own intrinsic value, interiority, and subjectivity, not a collection of objects simply or primarily for human use, taking. (Evening Thoughts: Reflecting on Earth as Sacred Community, a collection of essays by Thomas Berry, edited by Mary Evelyn Tucker, 2006)
An international “Rights of Nature” movement is growing:
In September 2008, Ecuador became the first country in the world to recognize the Rights of Nature in its constitution. Bolivia has also established Rights of Nature laws, as has the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and more than three dozen other communities.
Under the current system of law in almost every country, nature is considered to be property. Something that is considered property confers upon the property owner the right to damage or destroy it. Thus, those who ‘own’ wetlands, forestland, and other ecosystems and natural communities, are largely permitted to use them however they wish, even if that includes destroying the health and well-being of nature.
When we talk about the Rights of Nature, it means recognizing that ecosystems and natural communities are not merely property that can be owned. Rather, they are entities that have an independent and inalienable right to exist and flourish.
Laws recognizing the Rights of Nature change the status of ecosystems and natural communities to being recognized as rights-bearing entities. As such, they have rights that can be enforced by people, governments, and communities on behalf of nature. (International Center for the Rights of Nature, “Rights of Nature FAQs,” Community Environmental Defense Fund, https://celdf.org/2016/03/rights-nature-faqs/, 3/21/2016)
We need to change our understanding and the way we live in relationship to and with the Earth. Let us recognize our responsibility to the entire web of life and make decisions and choices accordingly.
My daughter had the gift of an opportunity to live this way for a short time. When she was ten years old, she spent a week at the Yosemite Institute – an outdoor education program for youth in Yosemite National Park. Each participating group is asked to do a service project; for my daughter’s group, it involved collecting acorns from the forest floor for a Mi-Wuk demonstration program at the Visitor Center. Rather than collecting every last acorn they could find, which would have been consistent with our prevailing paradigm of domination, the students were educated to understand that “the acorns with the cracks and holes were for the animals, and the acorns with the tops were for the future.” They were only to collect the acorns with neither cracks, holes, nor tops. With one lesson, they learned a different way of being, a different story – one in which they were part of and respectful of the community of life there in Yosemite Valley.
I look forward to a shift in our lived paradigm, from a sense of the world as subservient to human exploitation, to a sense of the world as an integrated natural community, intrinsically valuable, where humans derive true glory as functioning members, rather than as conquering invaders, of this community.
Tell me a story, a story that will be my story as well as the story of everyone and everything about me, the story that brings us together in a valley community, a story that brings together the human community with every living being in the valley, a story that brings us together under the arc of the great blue sky in the day and the starry heavens at night, a story that will drench us with rain and dry us in the wind, a story told by humans to one another that will also be the story that the wood thrush sings in the thicket, the story that the river recites in its downward journey, the story that Storm King Mountain images forth in the fullness of its grandeur . . .” (Thomas Berry, The Dream of the Earth, 1988) ~~~
Mary Ann Percy carries a life-long spiritual concern for Earth and all our relations, currently serves as an NPYM rep to Quaker Earthcare Witness (QEW) and previously served on Friends Committee on Unity with Nature (the previous name for QEW) from 1994-1998. She is a trained Joanna Macy facilitator in The Work that Reconnects (WTR) and a member of Bellingham Friends Meeting (NPYM.)