It's International Mother Earth Day, Ready or Not

We are a species not highly evolved enough to be ready for Earth Day, let alone Mother Earth day. But there is some tantalizing and hopeful evidence that we're beginning to find our way.
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The one thing every earthly organism shares is an absolute dependence on the planet's environmental systems. One might think, then, that conscious and intelligent organisms would welcome a day honoring the Earth and promoting lifeways and livelihoods that do not degrade the habitats upon which their flourishing depends.

One would be wrong.

In his magisterial Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (1967), the historian Clarence Glacken demonstrated that throughout western history there has been conflict between those who conceive of God as beyond the world and are indifferent to the Earth, those who share the belief in an otherworldly God but think that he demands good environmental stewardship and those who consider the earth itself sacred.

Put simply, the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) exemplify the first two approaches, while diverse spiritualities that consider nature to be sacred can be labeled as pantheistic or animistic (the world is full of spiritual intelligences) or, more broadly, pagan. The historic antipathy between Abrahamic and pagan traditions has often resulted in violence, usually with pagans and indigenous peoples who constitute the largest group that can be so labeled getting the worst of it. But increasingly, in an age characterized by greater tolerance for religious difference, the boundaries between these traditions are blurring. In Finding God in Singing River (2005), for example, the theologian Mark I. Wallace argued that Christianity and paganism have many affinities and can be reconciled. My book Dark Green Religion: Nature Spirituality and the Planetary Future (2010), as well as my Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (2005), provides many examples of the innovative ways people today are fusing their birth religions with paganism-resembling spiritualities and modern science, coming up with new spiritual hybrids they find meaningful and a basis for environmental action.

But as was made clear by Fox News and other conservative outlets over the past few days, the longstanding conflict between those who conceive of the sacred as above and beyond the world, and those who see it all around and themselves belonging to it, is not going away anytime soon. As I explained in "Debate Over Mother Earth's 'Rights' Stirs Fears of Pagan Socialism" on Religion Dispatches, in 2009, the United Nations declared April 22 as International Mother Earth Day. By so doing, the world's nation states accepted a resolution proposed by the socialist president of Bolivia, who infused its language with Andean Mother Earth Spirituality. The idea was to paint Earth Day (first celebrated in 1970) in a darker shade of green, valuing nature for its own sake, professing that ecosystems and non-human organisms should be conferred legal rights. Bolivia even passed a landmark law protecting the rights of nature this year, an act inspired in part by the 2008 Ecuadorian Constitution, which similarly gave rights to natural entities and non-human organisms.

It is easy to see, then, why those who consider free market capitalism to be a sacred system never to be abridged, and believe only one true extra-worldly God exists, find danger in both Earth Day and Mother Earth Day. Both, in such a view, mislead and deceive, and they do not place trust where it belongs: in God and capitalism.

Until and unless these fundamental differences are resolved, Earth and Mother Earth Day are not likely to achieve their sponsor's most ardent hopes: harmony among human beings, and between human and other earthly beings.

Truth be told, we are a species not highly evolved enough to be ready for Earth Day, let alone Mother Earth day. But there is some tantalizing and hopeful evidence that we're beginning to find our way.

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