From the Editor: Earth Days
April 1970 was a momentous month. The Beatles broke up. The White House secretly ordered bombing in Cambodia that escalated the Vietnam War. Apollo 13’s crippled moonshot mission improvised heroic measures to get safely home. And, on the 22nd, the first Earth Day was organized to revive real affection for the planet.
In streets and parks, some 20 million people showed up for that initial earth celebration to protest oil spills, toxic dumps, and other never-punished environmental sins. The festivities broke into the national psyche. Republicans and Democrats – both sides paid attention. By the end of the year, just seven months later, the US had an Environmental Protection Agency, a Clean Air Act, a Clean Water Act, and an Endangered Species Act.
By now Earth Day activism is stirring in 190 countries, focusing on climate disruption and green energy. See earthday.org for ambitious plans afoot for Earth Day 2020, the 50-year anniversary.
Over that same five-decade span, churches have been doing their own soul-searching about God’s green earth. Early on, though – almost immediately – theological momentum got derailed over whether love of the planet clashed with Christian beliefs. In Genesis, God created a world and called it good. Yet that cosmic charter statement wasn’t enough for believers who claimed to worry that environmentalism endorsed nature worship and devalued human prerogatives.
An essay in 1967 drew up a more sweeping accusation against Christian doctrine. Historian Lynn White Jr. (a churchgoer) argued that the ecological crisis – plain to see in 1967 – came out of Western Christian attitudes of conquest of nature that were 700 years old. The dynamism of science and technology itself reflected a Christian assumption that humans are the rightful masters of nature. In earlier centuries, a rainbow was an impressive symbol of hope, reverberating back to Noah. The age of science turned it into a disenchanted affair of optics and meteorology. The whole concept of the sacred grove, White wrote, became alien to the ethos of the West.
But White proposed a corrective, and found it within Christian tradition: St. Francis of Assisi. Francis thought everything was created to the glory of the Creator. “The key to an understanding of Francis is his belief in the virtue of humility – not merely for the individual but for man as a species,” White wrote. “Francis tried to depose man from his monarchy over creation and set up a democracy of all God’s creatures.”1
Francis died in 1220, a pious revolutionary. His views didn’t prevail, or haven’t yet. It’s a sign of hope to many that the current pope, inspired by his namesake, has produced a powerful encyclical on environmental stewardship calling for principles of the common good, dialogue with science, new life routines, a sacramental regard for creation – an ecological conversion. He declares: “In union with all creatures, we journey through this land seeking God … Let us sing as we go. May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope.”2
Is this argument making its way to the center? There’s lots of innovation going on at the edges. But what’s happening in the middle range, where we drive and work and make dinner and go to church? We’re entering an era of crisis decision, but scant pragmatic progress will be made unless people are moved existentially and theologically. We need not just an Earth Day but an Earth Decade, probably an Earth Century.
Big-picture policies are required for this, and poetry too. There are many policy solutions to pursue: Put a price on emissions (with fees or taxes), invest public money in clean energy and research, improve water management and power infrastructure, construct 100-percent clean-energy buildings, repair long patterns of injustice and cruelty. And poetry? A poem helps a reader step out of the crushing partisan loop, slow down time, sharpen observation, find resistance, reset one’s coordinates. “I test the thickness of the universe, its resilience to carry us further than any of us wish to go,” Jim Harrison says in his poem “Cabbage.”
The writers of this Reflections issue are bearing news, pushing further, testing the thickness of this moment’s potential to meet a crisis and its solutions. The health of future earth days is at stake.
1. Lynn White Jr., “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” March 10, 1967, Science magazine, pp. 1203-07.
2. Pope Francis, Encyclical Letter Laudato si’: On Care for Our Common Home, May 24, 2015. See w2.vatican.va.