Thursday, April 25, 2013

Earth and all stars: reflections after this year's Earth Day

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Allyson Carr is the Associate Director of the Centre for Philosophy, Religion and Social Ethics at the Institute for Christian Studies

"Earth and all Stars, loud rushing planets, sing to the Lord a new song!" That was the first line of a hymn I remember singing quite early on in my childhood. It stuck out because it spoke of the earth in a way I had not encountered before: put simply, I found the idea of the earth or stars or other planets (and later on in the song "flowers and trees/loud rustling dry leaves") singing to the Lord both novel and amazing. It filled me with wonder to hear this hymn and imagine the earth or dry leaves or trees or stars singing a song of praise. I remember trying to listen, to see if I could catch them at it--what would a tree sing about, if it wanted to sing a hymn?

Such were some of the questions that occupied my six-year-old mind. And with Earth Day only just past again, I am reminded that they still occupy my mind nearly 30 years later, though in a different way.  Whereas at six my knowledge about the earth and all in it was largely limited to digging in sandboxes, snow banks, or autumn leaf piles, now (in addition) I read papers on climate change, on deforestation, on oil spills and emissions, on Arctic melt and economic impact on the environment. I find studies on the connections between ecology and economy, and think through the implications for questions regarding how I vote, what policies I should advocate for, the ethical impact of all that I purchase. And perhaps because I am a philosopher it struck me as I was thinking through writing this post... I wonder whether I would still be excited to hear songs the earth or trees or dry leaves are singing, as I thought when I was a child, or if what they sing would break my heart? Would it be songs of praise, or lament, or cries for help? Perhaps a bit of each, and more.

It is hard to know what to do to address the environmental questions that face us today. The more we look into them, the more we realize how complex they are, even while realizing afresh how deeply we are mired in the very problems to which many of us are trying to find a solution. We see too that the effects of harming the soil, water, and air, or of drastically impacting our climate, don't just rest on the earth itself but also on its people. Shifts in climate or a sudden dearth in a once-plentiful resource can trigger massive social, economic and even political problems. And those problems in turn can spell new ecological troubles as governments, corporations and groups struggle to find ways to survive in the new situation.

We frequently hear about a globalized economy, and it's an important topic, but if I am reading the research right, we also seem to be going through a process of understanding that there is a similar global enmeshment when it comes to the environment. Water, for example, flows all over the earth, whether in rivers, oceans or even in the air, falling as rain. The trees that are just budding now as Spring unfolds--where has the water that falls on them been, and what does it carry? If it had a tune that the trees were picking up and magnifying, what would the tone of that tune be?

If, as many people are trying to do, we begin to sing a "new song" with regard to the way that we interact with our environment, how do we do it? The papers, articles, blogs, and studies I have read in order to try to understand right action in this earth, all sing of the need for change. As philosophers and theologians, how can we sing along, while remembering the kernel of truth I think the hymn I started with pointed out-- that there is a sense in which there is a call to sing a new song to God? It strikes me that any such new song sung in response should be multi-layered, one that tries to harmonize better with all that is around us, with which God has called us into relationship.