Earth Day, Climate Change, and Telling New Stories


The Tale of Two Farmers

In the Talmud is a story of two farmers who lived next to one another for years, yet who could not agree on which of them owned a plot of land adjacent to both their farms. One of the men claimed his grandparents had built their home there, so he had rights to it. The other insisted that since his grandparents had planted fig trees on that land, he should get it.

Unable to resolve their disagreement, they took their case to the rabbi.

Soil from dirt held in cupped hands - reverence for the Earth

The rabbi listened to them. He pulled at his beard and considered the problem. Yet, he, too, was unable to decide what was right in this situation. At last, he came up with an idea for how to find out. Taking the two farmers with him, he went to stand on the disputed plot of land. Then he bent down and put his ear to the ground.

“What are you doing?” the men asked him.

We Belong to the Land

The rabbi did not answer. After a long moment, he stood up and looked at the two men.

“I have been listening to the land,” he told them. “The land says that she does not belong to either of you. You belong to her.” [1]

The same message can be found in a Sufi story. In this one, the farmer leaves home to take care of some sick relatives, asking his neighbor to tend his crops while he is gone. When he returns, the neighbor won’t give the land back to him. “You were gone too long,” the neighbor says. After arguing a while, they, too, consult a third party, this time the village wise man. Just as the rabbi did, he puts his ear to the ground, rises, and tells the the two men that they belong to the land. [2]

A quote that has made the rounds of the internet, and is said to have come from an unnamed Native American, says basically the same thing: “When the blood in your veins returns to the sea, and the earth in your bones returns to the ground, perhaps then you will remember that this land does not belong to you. It is you who belong to this land.” [3]

We may indeed have to die before we fully understand this.

Earth Day and the Stories We Tell

Sunday is Earth Day, a day when we supposedly honor our planet, recognize that we are her children,  and acknowledge that she deserves our respect and care. Unfortunately, this ethos of compassion for the earth does not seem to be the predominant story taught in our society.

We humans are story-telling creatures. We make sense of the world through folk tales, myths, and parables. In this way, we learn values and empathy. When couched within a story, facts are more easily assimilated and understood. Because stories are so powerful, they can be useful for those who would indoctrinate and manipulate us. Parents and religious leaders, for instance, choose what myths they want us to hear. Advertisers, activists, and politicians all use story to stir us to action or manipulate our emotions.

Our stories also teach us how to treat our planet. Do we see the Earth as an inanimate ball of metal and dirt here but to serve our needs? Or do we see her as a sacred home, one that holds us, carries us, and sustains us?

Over many millennia, we humans have come up with myths to explain how the earth was created.

Two Creation Myths

A Hopi story tells of the Creator, Taiowa, who existed when there was no time or shape. He created his nephew, Sotuknang, who then formed the nine solid worlds and placed water on them. Sotuknang created Spider Woman, who made the flowers, animals, birds, trees, and people. On the foreheads of the men and women, she made a soft spot through which the voice of the Creator could be heard. She instructed the people “to respect their Creator and live in harmony with him.” [4]

The Vikings told of ice that dripped and thickened until it became a frost giant named Ymir. After that, a cow licked the ice rime until a god named Buri appeared. Ymir turned evil, and Buri’s grandsons killed him. They created the world out of Ymir’s body parts. [5]

One speaks of respect and harmony. The other begins with coldness and violence.

The First Hebrew Creation Tale

The creation stories that have perhaps most influenced our Western culture come from the Hebrew scriptures. There we find two different creation stories. The oldest version talks about the earth as “a formless void,” with a darkness that “covered the face of the deep” and “a wind from God [that] swept over the face of the waters.” When God said, “Let there be light,” light appeared (Gen 1:1-3 NRSV).

After making all manner of plants, animals, and birds, God made humans. He blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen 1:28 NRSV).

This does not encourage us to respect and revere the planet on which we move and make our home.

The Second Tale

The second Hebrew creation story is not much better. In it, God creates the garden and sets Adam there to till or work the ground. This is clearly an agricultural view of the world, one in which digging up the dirt and pulling up weeds is normal.

Unlike farmers, hunter gatherers, do not control or manipulate the land. Therefore, they tend to revere the earth in a way farmers do not. When we collect the bounty already provided for us, we understand our connection to the land in a different way than when we plant crops. When we accept the gifts the earth provides, it is easier to remember that we belong to her than when we entice the earth to grow something we tend. In the latter case, we start to think that not only do we grow the food ourselves, and that it belongs to us alone, but we also being to believe that we own the ground that grew the crops.

In the second story, Adam and Eve are evicted from the garden. Because they ate of the fruit they were warned not to touch, God curses them, the snake, and then God curses the ground itself.

The Cost of “Owning” the Earth

Given that these stories informed the religious mythology of the Puritans and Pilgrims who fled to the United States, is it any wonder we in this country prefer to exert power over the earth rather than collaborate with her?

This world view has a great cost. Pollution and erosion are just two of the harmful outcomes of our agricultural practices. Our lust for oil and metals has resulted in desecrated land and fouled oceans. Now global warming threatens to destabilize ecosystems throughout the world and may well lead to massive extinctions, perhaps even of the human race.

This is not the first time the earth has warmed in this way. Pollution and the massive burning of fossil fuels is new, but our planet has warmed and cooled and warmed again for nearly as long as she has been alive.

The Thermal Maximum

One such warming period spanned the Paleocene and Eocene eras. Called the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), it shares a resemblance to our own age.

During the late Paleocene, the earth had been growing gradually hotter, when suddenly a huge influx of carbon spilled into the oceans and atmosphere. When I say suddenly, I mean that tens of billions of tons of carbon dioxide was released over the course of about 1,000 years. Such an increase in carbon dioxide raised the temperature of the earth got hotter about 9º to 16º Fahrenheit.

Given the current rate at which we are releasing greenhouse gasses, we can expect to dump the same amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but in perhaps 100 years. That’s ten times faster. [7]

During the PETM, this warming had a a dramatic effect. It disrupted weather patterns. Storms became wilder and precipitation changes caused drought. The oceans acidified and sea levels rose. Mammals got smaller. Horses, for instance, shrank to the size of house cats. [8] Land flora and fauna either migrated or went extinct, and many ocean species disappeared. The effect lasted about 120,000 years. [9] According to Kaplan, it was at least 150,000 years before the Earth recovered.

We can expect similar consequences as we face the warming of our environment today. Already, we are experiencing violent storms and reduced snow pack. Ice packs are melting, oceans are acidifying, and  species are dying out. What makes climate change so potentially damaging now is not just that life forms will have little time to adapt to the increased heat, but also that we have isolated ecosystems throughout the world making animal migration difficult or impossible. Unable to migrate, they will die. [10]

Denying Reality

Still, many people refuse to accept the facts that climate scientists readily observe. After all, these facts are frightening and uncomfortable. If we really are damaging our world in such a drastic way, the only rational response is to change our behavior. That would mean sacrificing lifestyles, forgoing profits, and changing our priorities. It would take change. Even those of us who believe that global warming is real and that we are causing it, often feel helpless and stymied. Change is always hard. Even though we can imagine that the consequences will be more drastic than any disaster we have ever before faced, we resist changing the way we live.

Like addicts, we will have to hit some horrific bottom before we face the reality of our situation and make those uncomfortable changes that could save our lives. Unfortunately, it is possible that we’ve already waited too long. Could we be like the alcoholic who stops drinking after her body is destroyed?  We might get sober, might change our ways, yet the effects of our past could kill us anyway.

Yet what if we changed our stories? Instead of telling ourselves that the earth and all her creatures are here for our pleasure; that it’s okay to gouge her surface, pillage her bowels, and dirty her air because we have dominion over her; that our momentary comfort matters more than the survival of future generations, let’s tell a story of reverence and responsibility. If we did that, what might we do differently?

Revising the Biblical Creation Myths

Today, many theologians are rethinking this Biblical mandate of dominion. Instead of believing that we have license to use everything in and on the earth for our pleasure and greed, these theologians interpret the Bible stories as holding us responsible for being stewards of the land. Our task is to cherish and maintain our environment.

This is a justice issue. The harm do to our world hurts the poor and marginalized more than it does those with money to escape. Yes, pollution and toxins spread throughout the world, but our factories and mines tend to be more concentrated in pockets of poverty. True, there is no place on Earth that is not getting hotter, but the rich can build fortresses to minimize their misery. The poor cannot.

But this story of human-caused destruction is not just about justice for one segment of the population. It is about survival for all of us. Kamanzi Segatagara Michael quotes Pope Benedict who, in 2009, said, “The environment is God’s gift to everyone, and in our use of it we have a responsibility toward the poor, toward future generations, and toward humanity as a whole.” [11]

Michael notes that in Genesis, humans are the “pinnacle and the center of the creation stories.” This makes human responsible for the care and tending of the garden that is the earth. Given this, Michael asks why we have stressed the idea of dominion over that of stewardship. [12] It’s a good question, but he does not answer it, for who can truly know? Nonetheless, he insists that we are responsible not just for our own survival, but also for that of all the creatures who live on the earth with us. [13]

Listening to the Land

Clearly, we are failing in that duty. Perhaps we need not only to reinterpret old stories and create new theologies. Perhaps we also need to listen. As the rabbi and the wise man said, we do not own the land. The land owns us.

To help us understand what that means, writer Kaitlin Curtice suggests we find out who lived in the place where we now lay our head to sleep. All land has a history. Geological pressures shifted and changed the countryside. Animals and plants were here before we were. Other people made their homes in this same place. They all helped make our neighborhoods what they are today. [14]

Curtice writes, “I feel the pulse of the dirt beneath me telling its story.” [15] If we pay attention, we might discover the rich, varied, and incredibly beautiful and mystical story the land has to share.

Reframing the Stories

Like the rabbi and the wise man, we need to press our ears to the dirt and listen. What can the earth tell us about life and stewardship? Can we respect what she has to teach us? Can we learn to live as if we belonged to the land? What would that look like? Perhaps it would mean that we revere the earth, respect her dignity, and take care of her. If we did that, how would we be changed? How would the earth change?

We are sojourners on this planet, here temporarily. Although we “get to rest with [Mother Earth] for a little while,” [16] she will continue on after we are gone. Whatever we do or don’t do, no matter how many plants and animals die from our thoughtlessness, even if we do not survive as a species, the planet will carry on. She will recover.

Yes, nothing lasts forever. Someday even our planet will burn up as the sun expands, but that won’t happen for a few billion years, at least. Whether or not some ancestor of ours is alive to seek shelter in a spaceship before that end comes may well depend on the choices we make now. May the stories we tell encourage us to make wise ones. [17]

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Jaffe, Nina and Steve Zeitlin, The Cow of No Color, New York: Henry Holt & Co., 99-100. Another version Miles, Zoe Klein, “Th B’Shevat Seder,” Jewish Journal, January 24, 2018, http://jewishjournal.com/cover_story/230016/tu-bshevat-seder/, accessed 4/28/18.
  2. Brady, Mark, ed., The Wisdom of Listening, Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2003, 257. Also The United Church of Canada, “Living on the Path of Respect: A Worship Service on the Repudiation of the Doctrine of Discovery, 2017, 5, http://www.united-church.ca/sites/default/files/living-path-respect.pdf, accessed 4/18/2018.
  3. See, for example,  https://shamandrummer.tumblr.com/post/139489074083/you-belong-to-the-land, https://deltacollege.edu/emp/pwall/documents/Meeting31.pdf, or  https://www.facebook.com/Pantheism/photos/a.96049621080.111440.89590536080/10152300974981081/.
  4. Creation Stories from Around the World, July 2000,   http://www.gly.uga.edu/railsback/CS/CSIndex.html, http://www.gly.uga.edu/railsback/CS/CSFourCreations.html, accessed 4/21/18.
  5. “Odin and Ymir,”
  6. Creation Stories from Around the World, July 2000,   http://www.gly.uga.edu/railsback/CS/CSIndex.html, http://www.gly.uga.edu/railsback/CS/CSOdin&Ymir.html, accessed 4/21/18.
  7. Mathez, Edmond A., Climate Change: The Science of Global Warming and Our Energy Future, New York: Columbia University Press, 2009, 99-100.
  8. Kaplan, Sarah, “A Key to Last Episode of Global Warming,” The Oregonian, Nation, March 28, 2018, A12.
  9. Mathez 100.
  10. Biotic Response to Global Change : The Last 145 Million Years, edited by Stephen J. Culver, and Peter F. Rawson, Cambridge University Press, 2000, 3.
  11. Cf. Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, n. 48. quoted by Michael, Kamanzi Segatagara, “Dominion or Stewardship? An Ecological Perspective on Genesis 1-2,” Hekima Review n°43 (December 2010), pdf, 1.
  12. Ibid 9.
  13. Ibid 12.
  14. Curtice, Kaitlin, “Day 5: To Those Who Belong[ed] to the Land,” November 5, 2017, https://kaitlincurtice.com/tag/native-land/, accessed 4/18/18.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Barras, Colin, “How Long Will Life Survive on Planet Earth?,” BBC, March 23, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20150323-how-long-will-life-on-earth-last, accessed 4/20/18.
Copyright © 2018 Barbara E. Stevens

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.