Yesterday, April 22nd, was the 53rd annual Earth Day event, initiated in 1970 to draw attention to our environmental issues and to emphasize the need for a serious human response. Of course, this now has global participation from those who recognize how dire our situation has become. Earth Day commentators estimate that more than a billion people from 190 countries now participate each year.
And no wonder. A multitude of books, articles, TV reports and online sources describe a wide range of serious problems, including climate change (causing burning forests, rising sea levels, increased storms, etc.), air pollution, deteriorating water quality, loss of biodiversity through extinction and landscape degradation. Of course, these problems—coupled with the growing world population causing it all—are already leading to poverty, disease, hunger and displacement.
And in terms of global warming, largely due to the effects of fossil fuels, it’s only getting worse. In recent years, since 2015, the global average temperature has been the warmest on record, and many experts have claimed that we have only a short time – probably until 2030 – before it will be too late to make any changes Environmental damage prevents disaster. We live on an increasingly inhospitable planet.
What needs to be done? First and foremost, we must expose and dismiss the corporate-sponsored disinformation that claims this is not a fossil fuel crisis. A mountain of evidence points to the burning of such fuels as the cause. And we need to develop laws that shift activities to energy sources that don’t burn coal, gas and oil.
Beyond action to mitigate climate change, we must also call for public efforts to prevent wildlife destruction, prevent damage to wild areas, protect clean water sources, etc.
And while most people don’t realize it yet, we need to develop an education that fosters a deeper understanding of our relationship with and impact on the natural world. An online resource entitled “Everything Connects; Why Nature Matters has a discussion of The Environmental Crisis that comments on the inner, spiritual transformation that humanity must undergo to essentially end our increasing damage to the living earth:
“One of the greatest illusions in the world, causing most of the devastation we see today, is that we are separate from . . . all other life on earth – that we are superior to nature. But the reality is that we are part of nature. . . . It can be difficult to understand or remember that we are fully connected to nature because we live in concrete jungles and mask the surrounding earth. . . . We have evolved incredibly as leaders of the biosphere, but we are largely misguided by living in disharmony from the very foundation that makes our lives and everything we do in them possible.”
Or as I have put it when I reach out to environmental groups: “We need to make nature a part of our spiritual experience – to see our connection to the amazing natural world and to be deeply grateful for it so that what we do promotes, rather than harms, everything.” This evolving perspective was the focus of my first 1975 adult education series, The Ecological Conscience: Perspectives on Mankind’s Relationship with Nature, sponsored by Illinois Humanities and held in various communities in the West was presented by Illinois.
Soon after, I repeatedly created and taught a WIU English Department course on American Nature Writing, attended by many authors who had placed their relationship with the natural world at the center of their spiritual lives, including figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, John Burroughs, John Muir, Aldo Leopold, Rachel Carson, Loren Eiseley, and Annie Dillard. And I’ve also written about some Illinois writers — like Baker Brownell, Virginia Eifert, and Donald Culross Peattie — who have shared this view.
Fortunately, some modern books have also emphasized the importance of nature in our spiritual life. For example, as the cultural historian Thomas Berry says in The Dream of the Earth (1988), “The natural world is the greater sacred community to which we belong.” And he calls for an integration of science and religion to create a kind of New History to create that would open our hearts to the sacred depths of nature – instead of just making us exploit it as we can.
Among other books of this type that I have recommended to readers are two collections of articles by various spiritually committed nature lovers: The Soul of Nature: Celebrating the Spirit of the Earth (1996), edited by Michael Tobias and Georgianne Cowan and “Spirit of the Environment: Religion, Value, and Environmental Concern” (1998), edited by David E. Cooper and Joya Palmer.
In any case, there is a growing sense that the interactions between humans and the natural world should have a deeper, more spiritual, life-enhancing dimension if we are ever to stop damaging the world we are so deeply connected to. This means, among other things, that colleges and universities must broaden their focus on the natural environment beyond biology courses that focus on practical knowledge of animals, plants and natural processes; Communities need to develop activities to appreciate nature, and religions around the world need to expand their insight into our deep relationship with the magnificent, mysterious world of nature.
Writer and speaker John Hallwas is a columnist for the McDonough County Voice.