“Whether wings and feathers or hands and fingers”

It’s Earth Day today and I’m thinking about J. Drew Lanham, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University, the subject of a post I wrote a couple of years ago. I was happy to see that he received a MacArthur Fellowship genius grant last year for “creating a new model of conservation that combines conservation science with personal, historical, and cultural narratives of nature.” In its appreciation of his work, the MacArthur Foundation pointed to Lanham’s particular focus in his teaching and writing: “Lanham believes that the combination of scientific facts and emotional connections to nature can more effectively encourage conservation action.” As a natural scientist, Lanham conducted research and published in his field, but as an African American who grew up on a family-owned farm with a history of slavery and Jim Crow era oppression, the Foundation noted he “also writes and speaks powerfully on the implicit and overt racism people of color often face when engaging with their natural surroundings.” This aspect of his work is powerfully expressed in his creative non-fiction and poetry.

In one of his creative pieces, Lanham imagines a correspondence between Rachel Carson and Martin Luther King, Jr. in which King invites Carson to the Penn Center on St. Helena Island in South Carolina’s Low Country. The invitation comes at a time when both the civil rights and environmental movements were gaining strength and King believes that

we might congenially discuss what I trust will be our shared mission to make this world better for all beings—for every living thing. Our singing birds. Our fight for civil rights. I know that you may have had your fill of all things political. I’m asking not that you commit to marches or more congressional hearings but, rather, to brainstorm with me on how to expand this movement and enlarge the one that I believe you’ve set fire to. Thinking on it, I find it hard to see how one can love the earth but not fellow human beings. And also, it seems incongruous that one could love humanity and exact sins of degradation against nature. I think we’d be closer to getting this act passed with more pressure and some political will, which might happen if we could stretch the concept of civil rights to the very air we breathe—the air we share with your beloved birds.

Describing the Low Country as “the center of so much pain and misery for the Gullah people—those closest in heritage and blood to West Africa,” King concludes his letter by writing

I’ve not visited [St. Helena Island] yet, but I have it on good word that spring is wonderfully not silent* on St. Helena and no alarm clocks are required for awakening, as the birdsong will do the work of rousing us. I believe a bit of a time-out might do us both some good. In bearing witness to freedom as it exhibits itself in wildness, there are lessons, perhaps, to be gained. Whether wings and feathers or hands and fingers, we share the same air, same water, same soil, same earth. We share, regardless of color or condition of skin or plumage, the same fate. I believe a gathering might empower the moment in mighty ways. 

*A playful reference to Carson’s Silent Spring

After imagining Carson’s positive response to King’s gracious invitation, Lanham reflects on the possibility of the two movements’ convergence:

The two movements would’ve seemed disjunct at first glance: Black people demanding equity, justice, and enfranchisement as full citizens in peaceful protest; white people demanding wilderness recognition, clean air, and protection for dwindling species in hearings and op-eds. But looking deeper, both movements, then and now, contain a prevailing desire for a better world built on sustaining good for all. Social justice and the movement to steward and protect nature rise from a similar foundation: a belief in building a better future by being selfless, by sharing and supporting the greater good through sacrifice, by planting the seeds of trees under whose shade you may never sit. These movements share common ground—a clear moral code that (if uncorrupted by ego, profiteering, and power plays) offers a path forward that stretches toward a common cause. King’s “long arc bending toward justice” points to the radical need to sustain moral consciousness at all levels of human integration. This means, by default, care for every living thing: both humans and the environment on which they depend.

I am grateful to Drew Lanham for pointing out that there is a fundamental unity underlying antiracist and environmental concerns in his wonderfully imagined letter. Convergence of the two movements makes so much sense given the similar obstacles presented by systemic and individual resistance to doing justice in both human and natural realms. Perhaps this imagined letter has stimulated some conversations that may have not happened otherwise.

An example where the two movements have come together is the environmental justice movement which has been defined as “a social movement to address the exposure of poor and marginalized communities to harms from hazardous waste, resource extraction, and other land uses from which they do not receive benefits.” [source] Air, land, and water pollution, the targets of the environmental justice movement, are of course part of climate change as the report “Racial Disparities and Climate Change” by Princeton undergrad and grad students makes clear. I think opportunities for progress in addressing racism and climate change can only be enhanced if people currently struggling under different banners join forces. If particular situations call for a combined effort, let’s hope that happens. Just imagine what that conversation between Rachel Carson and Martin Luther King, Jr. might have been like, what ideas and strategies for effective change they might have come up with!

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Personhood, Intelligence, and Happy the Elephant

The November 16, 2021 issue of The Atlantic contained an article by the journalist and Harvard University American History professor Jill Lepore titled “The Elephant Who Could Be a Person.” According to the article’s lede, “The most important animal-rights case of the 21st century revolves around an unlikely subject.” The case involved an animal rights organization arguing that a female Asian elephant named Happy was being illegally detained by the Bronx Zoo. Because Happy lived most of her life in solitary confinement, an unfortunate situation for a species that is extremely social, the Nonhuman Rights Group claimed she had a right to habeas corpus. If Happy were to be freed from the zoo, she would be taken to a sanctuary to live with other elephants.

The NRG’s concern was discounted by the Wildlife Conservation Society which operates the zoo and has insisted that the elephant is well taken care of. Central to the case was the question of whether Happy should be considered a person. The NRG argued for her personhood because in 2005 she passed the mirror recognition test (a method for attempting to determine the presence of physiological and cognitive self-awareness) where she touched an X painted on her forehead. This touching action was considered to be evidence of self awareness and therefore a sense of personhood.

For Lepore, the case has huge implications for fighting climate change and preserving biodiversity:

But can an elephant be a person? No case like this has ever reached so high a court, anywhere in the English-speaking world. The elephant suit might be an edge case, but it is by no means a frivolous case. In an age of mass extinction and climate catastrophe, the questions it raises, about the relationship between humans, animals, and the natural world, concern the future of life on Earth, questions that much existing law is catastrophically ill-equipped to address.

Lepore believes that in the US the legal roots of these questions go very deep indeed: “The U.S. Constitution, written in Philadelphia in 1787, rests on a chain-of-being conception of personhood. The men who wrote the Constitution not only made no provision for animals or lakes or any part of the natural world . . . ” She continues

In the wild, the elephant is a keystone species; if it falls, its entire ecosystem can collapse. In the courts, elephant personhood is a keystone argument, the argument on which all other animal-rights and even environmental arguments could conceivably depend. Elephants, the largest land mammal, are among the most intelligent, long lived, and sentient of nonhuman animals, and, arguable, they’re the most sympathetic.

Last June, Happy’s legal team lost their case in a 5-2 decision. Writing for the majority, Chief Judge Janet DiFiore said that “While no one disputes that elephants are intelligent beings deserving of proper care and compassion . . . we reject petitioner’s arguments that it is entitled to seek the remedy of habeas corpus on Happy’s behalf. Habeas corpus is a procedural vehicle intended to secure the liberty rights of human beings who are unlawfully restrained, not nonhuman animals.” But both dissenting opinions found much merit in NRG’s position, with one of the dissenting judges, Judge Rowan Wilson, writing “When the majority answers, ‘No, animals cannot have rights,’ I worry for that animal, but I worry even more greatly about how that answer denies and denigrates the human capacity for understanding, empathy and compassion.” Even one of the judges who concurred with the majority wrote that the case presented “a deep dilemma of ethics and policy that demands our attention. The issue of whether a nonhuman animal has a fundamental right to liberty protected by the writ of habeas corpus is profound and far-reaching. Ultimately we will not be able to ignore it.”

If we want to consider an elephant, or any other animal for that matter, as a person, we need to begin with some definition of personhood. The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy offers a list of the “central phenomena of personhood; rationality, command of language, self-consciousness, control or agency, and moral worth or title to respect, . . .” In Happy’s court case, the majority agreed that the elephant was self-aware and intelligent, but as a nonhuman it was not regarded to be in the same legal category as human persons. In so doing, the court’s majority followed in what appears to be a generally accepted legal definition personhood. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Law, a legal person “‘is typically defined as a being, entity, or unit which can bear legal rights and duties . . . ” This definition goes on to describe different types of “beings, entities, or units” which are considered legal persons, but also mentions one major exception: “By contrast animals, it is generally said, are unable to assume any legal rights: they have neither the capacity for rights nor the competence to enter personally into legal relations (which can only be had by persons).”

Another term appearing in the Happy court case was intelligence, primarily because Happy’s legal advocates, the NRG, used the mirror recognition test to provide evidence of Happy’s sense of self-consciousness. But the mirror recognition test is not without its critics. As a test used to show that humans were almost universally able to pass a mirror-based self-recognition test by 24 months of age, recent research has shown that the test is successful with children from Western nations, but not so much with children from non-Western nations. Similarly, the test has been successful with some elephants but not others, and a total failure with other species. Reporting his research findings using the mirror test with elephants, Joshua Plotnik believes that “the mark test can be difficult to apply across species because it assumes that a particular animal will be interested in something weird on their body.”

Science is only beginning to explore the possibility that nonhuman species are capable of possessing intelligence and personhood. Any effort to identify the presence of cognitive activity in animals needs to avoid using measures that are appropriate for humans but not necessarily for other species. In his article “Animal Intelligence” appearing in the Cambridge Handbook of Intelligence, Thomas Zentall, Professor of Psychology at the University of Kentucky, describes what scientists need to avoid and what to keep in mind in this area of research.

The ability to assess the intelligence of other species has been constrained because it is not always easy to communicate to other species what we require of them. Furthermore, we tend to define the tasks with procedures designed for us rather than for the species in question. The appropriate assessment of animal intelligence is important, however, because it has demonstrated that although the human capacity for intelligent behavior quantitatively surpasses that of other animals, qualitatively it is not as different as we generally believe. Furthermore, the intelligent behavior of other species demonstrates that although language and culture contribute to human intelligence, they are clearly not necessary. 

If Lepore is correct in saying that Happy’s case is the first to have “ever reached so high a court, anywhere in the English-speaking world,” then we have a long way to go in our court systems regarding the legal status of personhood for animals. If we are to develop a definition of legal person which includes nonhuman animals, we need to move beyond the American legal realm and explore what definitions and applications of the term person can be found in other contexts. One approach would be to become more familiar with Indigenous peoples’ more inclusive understanding of personhood that goes beyond the human. For example, in New Zealand, for a Maori tribe, a river or mountain might be an ancestor. This worldview was a significant factor in a court’s decision to grant personhood to the Whanganui River and the forest Te Urewera. Closer to home, Edward Valandra, a Sicangu Lakota (enrolled) from the Rosebud Sioux Reservation and a professor at Native and non-Native colleges and universities, provides a Native American view:

. . . Phil Wambli Nunpa, the Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council’s executive director, . . . explains that “water is alive: we call it mni wiconi, water is life.” That water is alive—and therefore possesses personality or personhood—defines our cultural response to the DAPL [Dakota Access Pipeline]. Our definition challenges the West’s anthropocentrism, which accords person/peoplehood only to humans. Hence, the Western way of life would both deny and defy water as having personhood. Yet the United States can arbitrarily recognize fictional entities like corporations as legal persons, while denying personhood to humans who become subject to the Thirteenth Amendment’s slavery exception.

I’m hoping that this is a time where attitudes toward our fellow nonhuman beings are profoundly changing. Many people like myself are listening closely to what Indigenous wisdom has to teach. Scientists are exploring ways to understand how nonhumans experience the world and are beginning to interpret outward behaviors as indications of inner states of consciousness and intelligence. Two books about these efforts are Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal and An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us by Ed Yong. (Dog lovers might enjoy Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know by Alexandra Horowitz.) Western Christians are beginning to see helpful developments within Christian theology. See for example, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the Love of God, by Elizabeth Johnson. In an article titled “We humans need to open our minds to the personhood of nonhuman animals,” Franciscan Fr. Daniel P. Horan, director of the Center for Spirituality and professor of philosophy, religious studies and theology at Saint Mary’s College in Notre Dame, Indiana, writes

For so much of our modern human history, we have presumed our absolute uniqueness as a species, denying the possibility of intelligence, emotion, moral reasoning, relationship building, and even kinds of religious experience for nonhuman animals. We simply assume that other creatures are, as René Descartes argued in the early 17th century, mere fleshy machines that only simulate feelings.

It doesn’t take much effort to see how such a rigid anthropocentrism, what the British moral theologian David Clough has called “human separatism,” has contributed to our abominable treatment of nonhuman animals over the years — from hunting to extinction and factory farming, to scientific experimentation, to circuses and zoos.

Regardless of whether the United States courts grant some nonhuman animals legal rights . . ., I believe we humans need to adjust our sense of the more-than-human world.

As we saw in Happy’s case, Judge Rowan Wilson was concerned that the court’s denial of habeas corpus for Happy denigrated “the human capacity for understanding, empathy and compassion.” Apparently, arguing in US courts for the legal personhood of animals is not going to succeed in the foreseeable future. But we can individually and as a society continue to develop our intellectual, moral, and spiritual comprehension of animals’ inner lives. Of course, artists and writers have long recognized animals as vital presences. See for example James Wright’s extraordinary poem “A Blessing.”

PS: Highly recommended: The Elephant Whisperers which recently won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Film, currently streaming on Netflix.


https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/11/happy-elephant-bronx-zoo-nhrp-lawsuit/620672/ https://www.reuters.com/world/us/happy-elephant-is-denied-personhood-stay-bronx-zoo-2022-06-14/

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The Rights of Nature

“Enough about Human Rights!
What about Whale Rights? What about Snail Rights?
What about Seal Rights? What about Eel Rights?
What about Coon Rights? What about Loon Rights?
What about Wolf Rights? What about, what about, what about
What about Moose Rights? What about Goose Rights?
What about Lark Rights? What about Shark Rights?
What about Fox Rights? What about Ox Rights?
What about Mole Rights? What about, what about, what about
What about Goat Rights? What about Stoat Rights?
What about Pike Rights? What about Shrike Rights?
What about Hare Rights? What about Bear Rights?
What about Plant Rights?”
~ Moondog

Most environmental laws today are meant to protect the well-being of humans. Their purpose is to prevent the degradation of ecological systems and resulting threats to the public health of nearby communities. But according to the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), environmental laws like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and similar state laws “legalize environmental harms. They regulate how much pollution or destruction of nature can occur under law. Rather than preventing pollution and environmental destruction, our environmental laws allow and permit it.” What is needed, therefore, are new kinds of laws that do a better job at recognizing the interconnectedness between humans and nature. Thomas Berry and others have called for an “earth jurisprudence” or “earth law” where nature is granted legal standing equal to humans. According to the CELDF, “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.” In the US, Tamaqua Borough, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, was the first community to enact a rights of nature law in 2006; its action was followed by dozens of other communities. In 2010, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, became the first US city to to grant legal status to the rights of nature. However, the rights of nature law movement hasn’t always met with success.

In 2018, a rights of nature law was enacted by the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, of the Chippewa Nation. The law was meant to protect a species of wild rice growing in the Great Lakes region. The Anishinaabeg (also known as Ojibwe or Chippewa) regard this wild rice or manoomin (the “good berry”) as a spiritual and cultural staple as well as a culinary one. But since its enactment, the law has been entangled in a series of court cases involving the White Earth Tribal Court and the federal Eighth Circuit of Appeals. The plaintiff was the manoonim and it was represented in court by the White Earth Band of Ojibwe; the defendant was Minnesota’s Department of Natural Resources. In 2021, the DNR had issued a permit for the Enbridge corporation to construct the Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline. While laying the pipeline, Enbridge crews punctured an underground aquifer in Clearwater County, causing uncontrolled flows of groundwater which posed a threat to the healthy growth of manoonim. Complicating the case was the issue of tribal versus state jurisdiction. The break occurred outside the White Earth Indian Reservation but it clearly had repercussions for manoomin. The DNR appealed to the Eighth Circuit as part of the agency’s ongoing fight to keep a tribal court from considering whether the state’s issuance of the water permit to Enbridge violated the legal rights of manoomin and the treaty rights of White Earth tribal members. In September 2021 the Eighth Circuit ruled that the White Earth Band of Ojibwe Court of Appeals had jurisdiction, but in March 2022 the Ojibwe court, citing federal case law, decided against the plaintiff because the break had happened outside the reservation.

In November 2020, a rights of nature law in the US was overwhelmingly adopted by voters in Orange County, Florida. In April 2021, the law was put to the test in a legal action. The plaintiffs were five waterways that were threatened by a developer’s proposal for commercial and residential development. Representing the waterways were two organizations, Florida Rights of Nature Network and Speak Up Wekiva (a Muskogee word meaning “spring of water”). In July 2022, a judge struck down Orange County’s rights of nature law citing Florida’s 2020 Clean Waters Act and its provision that bans “local governments from recognizing or granting certain legal rights to the natural environment or granting such rights relating to the natural environment to a person or political subdivision.” Clearly in Florida (as in many other states and localities in the US), developers enjoy more government support than environmentalists.

The status of rights of nature laws will continue to be a contentious issue in the courtrooms and state and local governments of our country. At the same time, we will continue to see Native Americans (in addition to numerous environmental protection organizations) advocating for the rights of nature. The CELDF believes that indigenous people need to be involved.

Aboriginal nations and communities retain sovereignty and knowledge over the natural ecosystems they have evolved with. To recognize and follow the natural laws of nature necessitates the elevation particularly of the Traditional Knowledge of local indigenous communities.

While this is a new area of law, it’s a growing global movement. According to Cary L. Biron of Reuters, “Lawmakers have been implementing rights of nature, which are rooted in indigenous thought, through laws, judicial decisions, constitutional amendments, and U.N. resolutions in countries including Ecuador, Bangladesh, Uganda, and Australia.”

To understand the importance of this movement is to recognize that the rights of nature can play a significant part in our efforts to deal with the climate crisis. In a 1972 law review article titled “Should Trees Have Standing? – Toward Legal Rights for Natural Objects”, Christopher Stone, a Professor of Law at the University of Southern California, argued that “nature should have its own voice” and should be considered as a plaintiff in any court case against parties threatening its well being. By placing nature and humanity on an equal legal footing, the human-nature relationship would be less one of subject – object, owner – owned, and more of a relationship of equals within an earth community. In the concluding section of his article, Stone wrote:

Scientists have been warning of the crises the earth and all humans on it face if we do not change our ways – radically . . .

A radical new conception of man’s relationship to the rest of nature would not only be a step towards solving the material planetary problems; there are strong reasons for such a changed consciousness from the point of making us far better humans. . . . To be able to get away from the view that Nature is a collection of useful senseless objects is . . . deeply involved in the development of our abilities to love – or, if that is putting it too strongly, to be able to reach a heightened awareness of our own, and others’ capacities in their mutual interplay. To do so, we have to give up some psychic investment in our sense of separateness and specialness in the universe.

Written fifty years ago, the article still remains highly relevant, even more so given the dramatic increase, in Stone’s words, of “material planetary problems.”


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Are Modern Science and Indigenous People’s TEK Compatible?

A recent article in The Guardian * described efforts of scientists working with members of New Zealand’s indigenous people, the Māori, to save the kauri (Agathis australis). It’s a species of tree native to New Zealand which can grow to over 150 feet tall, with a trunk girth up to 52 feet, and live for over 2,000 years. Kauri forests have been decimated by a disease caused by a microscopic fungus-like organism (phytophthora agathidicida) living in the soil and infecting kauri roots, damaging the tissues that carry nutrients and water within the tree, effectively starving it to death. The disease is easily spread through soil movements, for example, when soil is carried on dirty footwear, animals, equipment and vehicles. The New York Times ran an article on the same story earlier this year. *

According to Māori tradition, the kauri are considered to be sacred, and this elevated status has turned out to be a great help to the conservation project. One kauri in particular, Tāne Mahuta, was named after the god of forests who created space between the sky father and the earth mother, thereby making life possible. When it became evident that kauri were dying from the fungus, Māori became the trees’ guardians by keeping visitors from inadvertently spreading the killer organism. They also were early advocates for the need for more attention from the New Zealand government which up to that time had not given the problem much priority. A change in government in 2017 brought change in environmental policies. As scientists began to spend more time working with the Māori to at least minimize the damage, they came to value mātauranga, the traditional knowledge of the Māori people. According to Tess McClure in the aforementioned Guardian article,

[Forest] rangers and some scientists say the battle has also contributed to a deeper and more widespread transformation of conservation work in New Zealand, which increasingly looks to matauranga – Māori knowledge systems – to reinforce and inform scientific approaches.

In consultation with Te Kawerau ā Maki [a Māori iwi or tribe], the rangers have begun an intricate process of re-engineering tracks through the reserve – suspending many of them above the ground, and avoiding deep foundation pillars that disrupt root systems.

This collaborative effort to save the kauri is not entirely foreign to New Zealanders. Some of that country’s scientists have been open to TEK or traditional (or indigenous) ecological knowledge and have proposed its inclusion in science education curricula * . However, there are those in the wider scientific community who do not consider TEK to be anything like a science. For example Richard Dawkins has been highly critical of what he sees as a type of misguided approach to teaching science.

I have read [about] the ludicrous move to incorporate Maori “ways of knowing” into science curricula in New Zealand, and the frankly appalling failure of the Royal Society of New Zealand to stand up for science – which is, after all, what your Society exists to do.

Dawkins is quite clear about what is and is not science.

. . . no indigenous myths from anywhere in the world, no matter how poetic or hauntingly beautiful, belong in science classes. Science classes are emphatically not the right place to teach scientific falsehoods alongside true science. . . . Science is science is science, and it doesn’t matter who does it, or where, or what “tradition” they may have been brought up in. True science is evidence-based not tradition-based; it incorporates safeguards such as peer review, repeated experimental testing of hypotheses, double-blind trials, instruments to supplement and validate fallible senses etc. True science works: lands spacecraft on comets, develops vaccines against plagues, predicts eclipses to the nearest second, reconstructs the lives of extinct species such as the tragically destroyed Moas.*

Dawkins concerns were shared by a number of New Zealand’s scientists who published a letter highly critical of the proposed inclusion of mātauranga in science teaching. The resulting heated crossfire between critics and defenders of mātauranga have led to statements like “New Zealand science is heading off the rails” while the defenders argue that the critics are making “racist assumptions.” In an article in the New Zealand Medical Journal, Waikaremoana Waitoki, President of the New Zealand Psychological Society and Senior Lecturer, Faculty of Māori and Indigenous Studies, University of Waikato presented the defenders’ position:

The letter writers express their concern that science is being misunderstood at all levels of education and science funding. They further add that science itself does not colonise—while acknowledging that “it has been used to aid colonisation, as have literature and art”. This is similar to saying “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people”. Esteemed scholar, Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith (and others), established that science has indeed been used, under the pretence of its own legitimacy, to colonise and commit genocide towards Māori and other Indigenous peoples. . . . *

Professor Smith’s comment reminds me of the science that had been used in the US to relegate Blacks to a lower status in the hierarchy of human races, characterizing them as having an inferior intellect. * Waikato argues that white racism is behind Dawkin’s and others’ condemnation of mātauranga. Again, that makes me think of systemic racism here in the US where whites are often unable to perceive their implicit bias.

Research conducted over 40 plus years in psychology shows the impact of racism on Māori health outcomes, curriculum development, student numbers, research outputs, and staff recruitment, advancement and retention. More needs to be done, and the NCEA [New Zealand’s National Certificates of Educational Achievement] curriculum changes will go some way to achieving mātauranga parity. We welcome the changes on the horizon and embrace the potential for enhanced understandings of science, whatever their origins.

Waitoki is here arguing for a more inclusive understanding of science. When Dawkins and others declaim “true science works” and “science is helping us battle worldwide crises . . . COVID-19, global warming,” they are insisting on an exclusivist view of what methodologies must be used to determine information about the natural world. According to Waitoki and those who are defending Māori TEK,

Māori do have solutions to global warming, as do many other Indigenous epistemologies. These solutions centre on protecting the planet as an ancestor by using Indigenous science and addressing exploitative capitalism. It is unfair to claim that we should be concerned (and therefore panic) that science won’t be trusted if we teach the truth about the colonisation of peoples, or about racism that occurs in New Zealand society. We should instead be concerned that viable and sustainable solutions, derived from Indigenous worldviews, are systematically ignored and marginalised, or suppressed and criminalised by those who do not understand their role in epistemic injustice.

So are modern science and Indigenous peoples’ ecological knowledge compatible? It’s clear that the answer depends on whom you talk to. But those involved with saving the kauri have no problem seeing the compatibility – because apparently the collaborative approach is working.

According Guardian reporter Tess McClure,

In the case of kauri . . . rangers and conservationists say the advice of Māori has shaped and often predicted the scientific advice, as conservation efforts shift from a focus on kauri alone to a more holistic, interconnected one that looks at pressures on the forest as a whole.

Senior kauri dieback ranger Stuart Leighton describes the kauri situation this way:

We’ve got all of these impacts colliding. It’s climate change, this newly discovered pathogen, the impacts of lots of footfalls … introduced species – all creating this enormous pressure. . . . I think we’ll look back at this point in time, and we’re starting to see, nationally, a change in how we approach some of our natural resources. . . . The western science, if you like, it’s starting to point more and more to that interconnectedness.”

* Sources

Salvation of New Zealand’s dying giant kauri trees may have roots in Māori wisdom | New Zealand | The Guardian(opens in a new tab) theguardian.com/world/2022/aug/14/salvation-of-new-zealands-dying-giant-kauri-trees-may-have-roots-in-maori-wisdom

How Maori Stepped In to Save a Towering Tree Crucial to Their Identity – The New York Times(opens in a new tab) nytimes.com/2022/03/08/world/australia/new-zealand-maori-tane-mahuta-kauri.html

Mātauranga Māori and science — Science Learning Hub(opens in a new tab) sciencelearn.org.nz/resources/2545-matauranga-maori-and-science

Myths Do Not Belong in Science Classes: Letter to the Royal Society of New Zealand | Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science(opens in a new tab) richarddawkins.net/2021/12/myths-do-not-belong-in-science-classes-letter-to-the-royal-society-of-new-zealand/

In defence of mātauranga Māori: a response to the ‘seven academics’(opens in a new tab) journal.nzma.org.nz/journal-articles/in-defence-of-matauranga-maori-a-response-to-the-seven-academics

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Jane Goodall – A Messenger of Hope

Jane Goodall at a podium
Jane Goodall at TEDGlobal 2007
Erik (HASH) Hersman from Orlando, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Some days I find it hard to be positive about our planet’s future. A recent front page headline in the Boston Globe (5/21/27) read “Early heat a sign of what’s to come.” The forecast for that day was 92 degrees or 24 degrees above the historic average. A one-time phenomenon? Scientists think not. According to the National Centers for Envornmental Information (NCEI), 

The April 2022 global surface temperature was 1.53°F (0.85°C) above the 20th-century average of 56.7°F (13.7°C) – tying with 2010 as the fifth-warmest April in the 143-year record. The 10 warmest April months have occurred since 2010, with the years 2014-2022 all ranking among the 10 warmest Aprils on record. April 2022 also marked the 46th consecutive April and the 448th consecutive month with temperatures, at least nominally, above the 20th-century average. [1]

A constant stream of news from around the world about floods, wild fires, drought, extreme heat, melting ice caps, and failing crops can’t help but weigh more and more heavily on our minds and hearts. Compounding all the climate-related bad news are the ineffective responses from national governments and “greenwashing” [2] claims by the fossil fuel companies like Exxon. [3]

No surprise, then, that many of us have become more and more anxious if not hopeless about the future. According to a 2020 American Psychiatric Association poll,

More than two-thirds of Americans (67%) are somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change on the planet, and more than half (55%) are somewhat or extremely anxious about the impact of climate change on their own mental health. [4]

Recently the New York Times interviewed hundreds people in the US about their thoughts and feelings about climate change and global warming. [5] What the  NYT reporters heard was a litany of loss, anger, and sadness, for example:

I lost a piece of my heart with the trees that I will never get back.(Isabela Walkin, 23. The forest her family planted was destroyed by Hurricane Laura, but protected her childhood home in Lake Charles, La.)

I’m mad, I’m powerless, I’m exhausted and I’m only 18. (Hayley Clausen, Hayden, Idaho)

We ruined the world and we feel bad for the young people that are going to have to deal with this. (Ira Russianoff, 72, Dania Beach, Fla.)

But some argue that this is not a time to give up. In my previous post, I quoted the conservation scientist Will Turner insisting that “inaction due to hopelessness is indefensible. We can still make a difference, but we must act now.” And there are many voices of hope and encouragement for continuing the effort to limit the effects of global warming. See for example the resources listed on the “Not Too Late” web page. [6]

One of the more prominent messengers of hope is Jane Goodall (1934- ).  In her interview with Douglas Abrams in The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for Trying Times [7] she showed herself to be a forceful advocate for doing something despite feeling despair: “It’s really important for us to confront our grief and get over our feelings of hopelessness . . . We must find ways to help people understand that each of us has a role to play, no matter how small.” [BoH, 78]

When asked for a definition of hope, Goodall responded that it “is what enables us to keep going in the face of adversity. It is what we desire to happen, but we must be prepared to make it so.” [BoH, 8] And Goodall’s strength for maintaining her hopefulness and communicating it to others is rooted in a spiritual connection to nature.

When I was spending hours alone in the forest at Gombe [a national park in Tanzania where Goodall did her research on chimpanzee behavior], I felt part of the natural world, closely connected with a Great Spiritual Power. And that power is with me at all times, a force I can turn to for courage and strength. And sharing that power with others helps me give people hope. [BoH, 80]

When asked for reasons for hope, Goodall provided four: the amazing human intellect, the resilience of nature, the power of young people, and the indomitable human spirit. Abrams asked Goodall to elaborate on each of the reasons, and the resulting conversations gave them plenty to talk about. Here are some of the points she made:

The amazing human intellect: The intellect can be used for good or bad, and certainly for ecologically destructive purposes when driven by kinds of greed and desire for power that cause environmental degradation. But now that we’re becoming more aware of the harm we’ve done, our ability to innovate has helped us come up with ways of living more in harmony with nature such as renewable energy and regenerative farming.

The resilience of nature: The miraculous endurance of several trees provides Goodall with memorable examples of nature’s resilience. A month after the 9/11 twin tower collapse, a Callery pear tree was found to be still alive amidst the ruins of Ground Zero. Renamed the Survivor Tree, it was rescued and then replanted on the grounds of the 9/11 Memorial & Museum. The other  examples are two 500 year old camphor trees that survived the atomic bomb blast in Nagasaki. Goodall gave numerous other example and explains “There’s a kind of built-in resilience – as when springs brings forth leaves after a bitter winter of snow and ice, or the desert blooms after even a tiny amount of rain falls.” [BoH, 80]

The power of young people: Young people all over the world are challenging older generations to do something about the climate crisis. Goodall quoted Greta Thunberg addressing her elders at a world conference: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day, and then I want you to act.” [BoH, 127] An example of Goodall’s activism is Roots & Shoots [8], a global community action program, founded by her in 1991 for for youth to become engaged in environmental, conservation, and humanitarian issues. 

Jane Goodall at Roost & Shoots Hungary Csigabi, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The indomitable human spirit: Goodall defined this spirit as “an ability to deliberately tackle what may seem to be an impossible task. And not give up even though we know there is a chance we may not succeed. Even when we know it may lead to death.” [BoH, 147] She and Abrams exchanged examples of people whose severe injuries disabled them but who regained a fully active life through “sheer will power.” Examples of groups or communities exhibiting this spirit included the British people’s courage during WWII during the Battle of Britain, and the people at Standing Rock enduring pepper spray, tear gas, rubber bullets and being hosed in freezing weather while protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline.

In a concluding “Message of Hope from Jane,” she begins by underscoring what other scientists have said about the pandemic, “By destroying habitats we force animals into closer contact with human beings, thus creating situations for pathogens to form new human diseases.” [BoH, 226] [9] But despite new challenges posed by COVID and all the obstacles faced by climate change activists that she and Abrams talked about, she ends with an urgent appeal to the reader: “Please, please rise to the challenge, inspire and help those around you, play your part. Find your reasons for hope and let them guide you onward.” [BoH, 234]

Goodall’s love of nature inspires her to become an advocate for active engagement in the climate change movement. At the same time, she sees a need for spirituality to be an essential part of the work that needs to be done.

When you talk about spirituality, many people are uneasy or absolutely put off.  . . . Yet more and more people are now realizing that we have become increasingly materialistic and that we have connect spirituality with the natural world. I agree – I think there is a yearning for something beyond thoughtless consumerism. In a way, our disconnect with nature is very dangerous. We feel we can control nature – we forget that, in the end, nature controls us. [BoH, 210]

People who are beginning to recognize the value of spirituality in this time of climate crisis are, in her words, experiencing a spiritual evolution which, when compared to moral development, is

. . . more about meditating on the mystery of creation and the Creator, asking who we are and why are we here and understanding how we are part of the amazing natural world – again Shakespeare says it beautifully when he talks of seeing “books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in everything.” I get a sense of all this when I stand transfixed, filled with wonder and awe at some glorious sunset, or the sun shining through the forest canopy while a bird sings, or when I lie on my back in some quiet place and look up and up and up in to the heavens as the stars gradually emerge from the fading of the day’s light. [BoH, 211]

I think that if Abrams had asked Jane if she agreed with Emily Dickinson that “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers – .” she would smile and perhaps even add “And sings the tune without the words – / And never stops – at all – / And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard – / And sore must be the storm – / That could abash the little Bird / That kept so many warm – .”

[1 ] National Centers for Environmental Information. “Assessing the Global Climate in April 2022.”  https://www.ncei.noaa.gov/access/monitoring/monthly-report/global/202204

[2] “Greenwashing is when an organization spends more time and money on marketing itself as environmentally friendly than on actually minimizing its environmental impact.” Edwards, Carylann. “What Is Greenwashing.” Business News Daily, Feb. 24, 2022. https://www.businessnewsdaily.com/10946-greenwashing.html

[3] Hernandez, Joe. “Accusations of ‘greenwashing’ by big oil companies are well-founded, a new study finds.” NPR, Feb. 16, 2022.  https://www.npr.org/2022/02/16/1081119920/greenwashing-oil-companies

[4] “New APA Poll Reveals That Americans are Increasingly Anxious About Climate Change’s Impact on Planet, Mental Health.” American Psychiatric Association. October, 21, 2020. Updated on 2/23/21 to reflect the correct percentage. https://www.psychiatry.org/newsroom/news-releases/climate-poll-2020

[5] Kerr, Sarah, Noah Throop, Jack Healy, Aidan Gardiner, and Rebecca Lieberman. “The Unseen Toll of a Warming World.” New York Times, March 9, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2022/03/09/us/mental-health-climate-change.html

[6] Not Too Late. “Not Too Late isn’t an organization. Our goal is to provide useful perspectives and information and guide people from despair to possibilities. This is a project led by Rebecca Solnit and Thelma Young Lutunatabua.” https://www.nottoolateclimate.com/ 

[7] Goodall, Jane, Douglas Carlton Abrams, and Gail Hudson. The Book of Hope : A Survival Guide for Trying Times. The Global Icons Series. New York, NY: Celadon Books, 2021. https://us.macmillan.com/books/9781250784094/thebookofhope 
All quotes from this book will be referenced as BoH, page #. 

[8] Roots & Shoots website: https://rootsandshoots.global/

[9] See Ecozoic Cafe post “A Great Pause” – https://ecozoic.net/2020/04/09/a-great-pause/.

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“This is a fossil fuel war”

“No SWIFT. No gas. I gladly freeze for democracy.” (Protesters in Germany demonstrating against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.) Photo credit: Noah Eleazar, Unsplash.

On February 28th, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth assessment. According to Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan, “This IPCC report marks a turning point in the fight against climate change. It forces us to reckon with a stark reality. The crisis is here, and it is all around us.” Four days earlier, Russian troops had invaded Ukraine, beginning a conflict killing thousands of soldiers and civilians, destroying Ukrainian cities and towns, and causimg millions to flee to neighboring countries. For those of us trying to maintain a focus on what we believe is the greatest challenge to human lives and the welfare of the planet, will this war have any impact on our efforts to combat the climate crisis?

The IPCC report led Svitlana Krakovska, Ukraine’s leading climate scientist, to see the connection between war and climate change.

I started to think about the parallels between climate change and this war and it’s clear that the roots of both these threats to humanity are found in fossil fuels. Burning oil, gas and coal is causing warming and impacts we need to adapt to. And Russia sells these resources and uses the money to buy weapons. Other countries are dependent upon these fossil fuels, they don’t make themselves free of them. This is a fossil fuel war. It’s clear we cannot continue to live this way, it will destroy our civilization. [1]

The West has imposed a high level of sanctions designed to disrupt Putin’s plans for a complete takeover of Ukraine. Europe and the US are using measures like freezing Russian oligarchs’ foreign bank accounts and cutting Russia off from SWIFT (“the global provider of secure financial messaging services”) to stop the war. There can be no doubt, however, that Putin is counting on Europe’s heavy dependence on Russia’s oil and natural gas to help keep paying for the war. On March 11th at a meeting of European leaders in France, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said “We are supporting and actually financing Russia’s war by purchasing oil, gas and other fossil fuels.” [2]

President Biden has proposed an increase in shipments of America’s gas and oil to Europe to help wean it off Russian fossil fuels. There are considerable logistical hurdles to overcome before that effort could hope to succeed (e.g., insufficient fossil fuel delivery infrastructure). For climate change activists Biden’s proposal, if enacted, would be a major setback in the effort to reduce global warming. According to Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency, “I’m very worried our climate goals may be another victim of Russia’s aggression.” [3]

Has this war, then, significantly lowered our chances to make real gains in decarbonizing our energy usage? Conservation International news writer Will McCarry asked conservation scientist Will Turner if, given the grimness of the assessment’s report, the situation has become hopeless. Turner responded “We must take the warnings in this new report just as seriously (as we have with previous IPCC reports). At this point, inaction due to uncertainty is scientifically unjustifiable, and inaction due to hopelessness is indefensible. We can still make a difference, but we must act now.” [4] And action against global warming can’t take a break because of the war. Biden shouldn’t be advocating for more oil to be pumped. To this point, Thomas Friedman writes 

Western nations fund NATO and aid Ukraine’s military with our tax dollars, and — since Russia’s energy exports finance 40 percent of its state budget — we fund Vladimir Putin’s army with our purchases of Russian oil and gas. . . . Our civilization simply cannot afford this anymore. Climate change has not taken a timeout for the war in Ukraine. [5]

Yes, there is no question that the victims of the war in Ukraine and the accompanying massive flow of refugees need our most compassionate response. But climate change is also a moral crisis [6] that continues to concern us deeply and requires an equally compassionate response. Both the war and global warming are and will continue destroying infrastructure needed for providing food, shelter, and public health care. But over time the destruction from climate change will be even greater than that resulting from this war. This is a critical moment for us to continue to do as much as we can for the well being of the Earth community. At the same time, an end to dependence on fossil fuels would mean an end to the power wielded by petro-dictators like Putin.

[1] Quoted in Oliver Milman, “‘This is a fossil fuel war’: Ukraine’s top climate scientist speaks out,” The Guardian, March 9, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/09/ukraine-climate-scientist-russia-invasion-fossil-fuels.

[2] Euronews, March 14, 2022, https://www.euronews.com/2022/03/12/finnish-prime-minister-we-are-actually-financing-russia-s-war-by-purchasing-oil-and-gas.

[3] Quoted in: Somini Sengupta, New York Times: Climate Forward. Newsletter. March 25, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/25/climate/the-problem-with-shipping-gas-to-europe.html

[4] Will McCarry, “Don’t panic: Reasons for hope despite a grim UN climate report,” Conservation News, September 30, 2021, https://www.conservation.org/blog/don’t-panic-reasons-for-hope-despite-a-grim-un-climate-report

[5] Thomas L. Friedman, “How to defeat Putin and save the Planet,” New York Times, March 30, 2022, Section A, Page 24, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/29/opinion/how-to-defeat-putin-and-save-the-planet.html.

[6] On climate change as a moral crisis, see for example: “Morality of Climate Change,” AARCC Newsletter, https://www.arrcc.org.au/about-climate-change-morality.

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John Englart from Fawkner, Australia, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
(More information below.)

In 2015 at the conclusion of the UN Climate Change Conference (UNCCC) COP21, the 196 participating nations produced a treaty aimed at addressing climate change. Called the Paris Agreement, it was the first time a COP document stated that the world’s efforts to deal with the climate crisis needed to incorporate Indigenous ecological knowledge. To quote from the COP21 report: “Parties acknowledge that adaptation action should . . . be based on and guided by the best available science and, as appropriate, traditional knowledge, knowledge of Indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems . . . (Article 7.5).

After last year’s COP26 conference in Glasgow, an article published by the UNCCC reported that the effort initiated at COP21 to draw on Indigenous knowledge would continue. According to Rodion Sulyandziga (of the Udege people, from Krasnyyar, Primorski Kray, Russian Far East and a member of the UNCCC’s Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform Facilitative Working Group), “This is a strong achievement and historic progress under the UNCCC, to bring the Indigenous knowledge holders to the table to voice solutions and humanize the impacts of climate change.”

In 1988, the climatolgist James Hansen provided scientific evidence for global warming at a Congressional hearing that is now considered by many to be a historically significant moment in our awareness of the threats posed by climate change. Of course, as we know, political efforts around the globe to address the crisis have thus far fallen short of what actions are needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change. This despite the fact that the science behind climate change has been confirmed in numerous statements by scientific societies and governmental agencies. Indeed, over the past forty years scientists have increased their research efforts to understand the dynamics behind climate change and how to reverse its effects as much as possible. According to Scopus, a major citation database in the sciences, the number of 1988 publications tagged with “climate change” as a subject was 567. By 2021, it was 46,934 (as of January 21, 2022).

Though quite modest in number compared to the thousands of articles focusing on the more general topic of climate change, a similar increase occurred in the number of articles tagged with “traditional ecological knowledge.” Here is the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) definition of this type of knowledge:

Traditional Ecological Knowledge, also called by other names including Indigenous Knowledge or Native Science, (hereafter, TEK) refers to the evolving knowledge acquired by Indigenous and local peoples over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment. This knowledge is specific to a location and includes the relationships between plants, animals, natural phenomena, landscapes and timing of events that are used for lifeways, including but not limited to hunting, fishing, trapping, agriculture, and forestry. TEK is an accumulating body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (human and non-human) with one another and with the environment. It encompasses the world view of Indigenous people which includes ecology, spirituality, human and animal relationships, and more.

US Fish & Wildlife Service. “Traditional Ecological Knowledge for Application by
Service Scientists.” Accessed January 21, 2022. https://www.fws.gov/nativeamerican/pdf/tek-fact-sheet.pdf

In 1988, there were six publications tagged with “traditional ecological knowledge”; in 2021 there were 466 (as of January 21, 2022). Here is an example – a summary appearing the National Park Service’s website of a research article published last year:

This article begins with a presentation of new research which found that “Indigenous-created forest gardens of the Pacific Northwest support more pollinators, more seed-eating animals and more plant species than supposedly “natural” conifer forests surrounding them.” This counters the long-held belief of western scientists and land managers that ecological conservation requires the absence of people. The focal point of this new research is the analysis of forest gardens’ functional diversity, which captures an ecosystems ability to feed animals (among other measures). Compared to traditional measures of diversity, how many species are found in an ecosystem, functional diversity seems to be a better indictor of ecosystem health. This is demonstrated by the fact that these gardens have survived 150 years without maintenance. In addition to documenting these important findings, a goal of this paper, titled “Historical Indigenous Land Use Explains Plant Function Trait Diversity”, was to provide tribes with citable scientific literature that may be useful as they push for co-management and management agreements. The authors hope their research, by helping Indigenous communities use the land again, will bring the gardens back.

National Park Service. Traditional Ecological Knowledge. “TEK vs Western Science.” Accessed January 21, 2022. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/tek/tek-vs-western-science.htm

Another article, published this year, presents a case study where TEK is applied in a scientific project designed to combat the destructive effects of climate change.

Indigenous communities are often on the front-lines of climate change, and for tribes such as the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe (PACIT) that make their homes and livelihoods in the dynamic landscapes of Coastal Louisiana (USA), sea-level rise, subsidence, and land loss are very real reminders of why they must continue to hone their adaptive capacity that has evolved over many generations and continues to evolve as the pace of change quickens. PACIT members have an inherited wisdom about their surrounding environment and continue to build on that body of observational knowledge that is passed from generation to generation to sustain themselves in this dynamic landscape. This knowledge is woven through their culture and is sometimes referred to as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). The PACIT and other Indigenous communities around the world are using creative strategies to adapt to the impacts of climate change that include partnering with researchers to combine their TEK with science in approaches to enhance strategies dealing with climate change impacts, mitigation, and adaptation. . . . Better inclusion of their knowledge into applied research is necessary to support these communities in their efforts to make sure their knowledge is recognized, understood, and valued in environmental management applications.

Bethel, M. B., D. H. Braud, T. Lambeth, D. S. Dardar, and P. Ferguson-Bohnee. “Mapping Risk Factors to Climate Change Impacts Using Traditional Ecological Knowledge to Support Adaptation Planning with a Native American Tribe in Louisiana.” Journal of Environmental Management 301, no. 1 (2022).

What is common to both research articles is the recognition that modern scientific efforts to mitigate the damage caused by global warming and climate change should seriously consider Indigenous people’s “inherited wisdom” as a resource. We are only beginning to explore how much we need to incorporate Indigenous wisdom or TEK into the way we live on this planet. It may be that we need it a great deal more than we realize today.

Photo: Marcha por el clima on 6 December in Madrid (during COP21). Organisers estimated 500,000 people attended the protest march. Greta Thunberg was there and read a short statement to the crowd at the end. A manifesto – The World Woke Up Facing A Climate Emergency – for climate justice and climate action was read to the crowd by various people from different organisations and constituencies. A concert then followed entertaining people into late into the night. The march was lead by Fridays for Future students, Chileans and Indigenous people.

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Winter Solstice 2021

Inside the Newgrange (County Meath, Ireland) tomb on Winter Solstice

Tomorrow, December 21, the shortest day of the year – the winter solstice, will be observed around the world in a variety of ways. Some examples are provided on this page. Clearly some human communities have been and are still so deeply moved by this phenomenon that they have come to mark it with ancient rituals predating modern religions. Remarkable architectural structures created by pre-Christian cultures draw visitors each year, most famously perhaps at Stonehenge but other sites as well like 5,200 year old Newgrange in Ireland (above photo). In past years, people who wished to witness the winter solstice phenomenon from within the Newgrange tomb would be selected by lottery. This year, because of COVID-19 restrictions, this site will stay closed but available for archeological research.

Indigenous peoples observe winter solstice as another way of maintaining their close connection to the rhythms of nature. In this, they have much to teach and guide us as in this page from the NDN Collective. (NDN, a shortening of Native Indian, is sometimes used by Native Americans in the United States to refer to themselves.) American Indian influence on Catholic missionaries can be seen in 18th and 19th century Spanish mission churches in California where sunlight blazes through the churches on winter solstice.

Winter solstice illumination of the main altar tabernacle of the Spanish Royal Presidio Chapel, Santa Barbara, California. The author first documented this solar illumination of the altar in 2004. Rubén G. Mendoza, CC BY-ND

Winter solstice provides the occasion for feasts and festivals like the Korean Dongji. In this winter soltice party (3 minute video) at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, the event seems like a blend of winter solstice and Christmas (e.e., students singing “Have yourself a merry little solstice), a convergence many believe to be the reason why Christmas is a late December celebration.

Why do many of us in the postmodern world maintain a fascination with sites like Stonehenge and Newgrange? Or enjoy participating in special events marking the Winter Soltice? For example, The Trustees, (an organization devoted to protecting historic and natural sites in Massachusetts), is offering several such events this year. (Note that several of those events have sold out.) I believe Thomas Berry provides a way of understanding the Winter Soltice’s deeper meaning:

With regard to time and seasons, rituals were established [by “earlier peoples” – Berry’s phrase] to create a consciousness of the moments of cosmological change: the dawn and dusk of the daily sequence of sunlight and darkness, the increase and decline in the phases of the moon , the winter solstice especially in the danger moment of the universe, the period of dark descent; then came the rise into a world of warmth and light and the blossoming of the plants and the birth moment throughout the mammailan world. These moments of change were the moments when the shining forth of the phenomenal world was most evident. Such moments were moments of grace, moments when the sacred world communicated itself with special clarity to the world of the human. [TB, 53]

So tomorrow celebrate this moment of grace. Light a candle or two, pour a drink of your choice, and wish a merry solstice to your dear ones and the rest of the earth community! (And try some of the suggestions offered by the NDN Collective.)

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COP26: Some Notes and a Prayer


On the eve of the 2019 Climate Action Summit in New York, churches called for immediate action to address the climate emergency. Photo: ACT/Joanna Patouris (permission requested)

On October 4th, a group of leading figures from a number of religious traditions sent an urgent message to world leaders who would be gathering for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow during October 31 – November 12, 2021. The Executive Summary of a Joint Appeal began with the following:

Today, after months of dialogue between faith leaders and scientists, we come together united to raise awareness of the unprecedented challenges that threaten our beautiful common home. Our faiths and spiritualities teach a duty to care for the human family and for the environment in which it lives. We are deeply interdependent with each other and with the natural world. We are not limitless masters of our planet and its resources. . . . We must address these challenges using the knowledge of science and the wisdom of religion. We must think long-term for the sake of the whole of humanity. Now is the time to take transformative action as a common response. [1]

Religious believers are joining others from around the world protesting expansion of fossil fuel industries and demanding commitments and actions from government and business leaders to limit fossil fuel emissions. Theologians and clergy have been writing, teaching, and preaching about the goodness of creation and our obligation to be responsible stewards of the natural world. For example, Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson CSJ wrote:

Since the reign of God is especially attentive to the needy and the outcast, Jesus showed a partisanship for suffering people that we can today interpret as extending to encompass the earth and its myriads of distressed species and ecosystems. His ministry reveals a wideness in God’s mercy that includes all creation. [See earlier blog post]

Perhaps the most widely read religious statement on the need for protecting the earth and its atmosphere from further degradation has been Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You). Subtitled On Care for Our Common Home, the title is taken from Saint Francis’s great hymn praising God for his creation, Canticle of the Sun. In the encyclical, the Pope exhorts his readers to follow the example of the Saint’s love for the created world: “I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically.” (Laudato Si’, Paragraph 10)

In recent decades, Christian communities have used liturgies and prayers to not only praise God for the wonders of nature but also lament human actions which have caused deep harm to the environment. Examples include this Prayer of Lament from the Anglican Communion Network and the Anglican Alliance, and the Missa Gaia often heard in churches on a Sunday in October in observance of the Feast of Saint Francis (the patron saint of ecology).

In 2015 international negotiations resulted in the Paris Climate Agreement, but the climate crisis has only deepend during the intervening years. Annual increases in the numbers of fires, floods, and hurricanes and the rising of sea levels have confirmed what the scientific community had been claiming for decades – that human activity was degrading the earth and its atmospheric envelope and setting off irreversible changes in the environment.  Many groups both secular and religious have engaged in climate strikes, vigils, and protests around the world. This is a time when many of us feel a need to pray with words of hope that we can change the way we live on our planet home. The following prayer is taken from a prayer booklet developed for children and young adults in New Zealand.

Walk Lightly

Each leaf, each petal,
each grain, each person,
sings your praises,
Creator God.
Each creature on the earth,
all the mountains and great seas show your glory,
Spirit of Love.

And yet the hand of greed has patented
and plundered your splendour,
has taken and not shared your gift,
has lived as owner of the earth, not guest.

And so the ice is cracked
the rivers dry,
the valleys flooded
and the snowcaps melt.

God our Father,
show us how to step gently,
how to live simply,
how to walk lightly
with respect and love
for all that you have made.


Adapted from a prayer written by Linda Jones/CAFOD. [2]

[1] “World Religious Leaders and Scientists Make pre-COP26 Appeal: External Statement / 05 Oct, 2021,” United Nations Climate Change, accessed November 6, 2021, https://unfccc.int/news/world-religious-leaders-and-scientists-make-pre-cop26-appeal.

[2] “Climate Change Prayer Booklet,” Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, accessed November 6, 2021, https://caritas.org.nz/system/files/Climate%20Change%20Prayer%20Booklet.pdf

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Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, “Love is the most universal, the most tremendous and the most mysterious of the cosmic forces.”[1] In their book Teilhard de Chardin on Love: Evolving Human Relationships, Louis Savary and Patricia Berne note that “According to Teilhard, God has implanted a divine spark of love in everything created, down to every last subatomic particle and photon of light.” I wonder if Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle Sisters folk music singer-songwriter duo ever read anything by Teilhard. Maybe not, but whenever I hear her song NaCl, I smile and think of Teilhard.

Here are the lyrics:


Just a little atom of chlorine
Valence minus one
Swimming through the sea, digging the scene
Just having fun
She’s not worried about the shape or size
Of her outside shell
It’s fun to ionize
Just a little atom of cl
With an unfilled shell

But somewhere in that sea lurks
Handsome sodium
With enough electrons on his outside shell
Plus that extra one
Somewhere in this deep blue sea
There’s a negative
For my extra energy yes
Somewhere in this foam
My positive will find a home

Then unsuspecting chlorine
Felt a magnetic pull
She looked down and her outside
Shell was full
Sodium cried “what a gas be my bride and
I’ll change your name from chlorine to chloride

“Now the sea evaporates to make the clouds
For the rain and snow
Leaving her chemical compounds in the absence
Of H2O
But the crystals that wash upon the shore
Are happy ones
So if you never thought before
Think of the love that you eat
When you salt your meat

Source: LyricFind

[1] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy, trans. J. M. Cohen (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 1969), 32.

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