Print this page

Mother Earth Day 2017

April 22, 2017

Earth Day in 2017, has as its theme: Environmental and Climate Literacy.

Scientists believe that the two discoveries which changed the path of evolution were, fire and language. They are not sure which came first. Fire enabled survival during the ice age. Language enabled efficient movement of the nomadic tribes. Both were essential if humankind were to survive.

The ability to use language developed into the skill we know today as literacy, and literacy has become the metaphor for many essential developmental skills, for example, psychologists speak of emotional literacy. Others speak of technological literacy. Literacy is being redefined in the 21st century and embraces much more than the original word did. So we can include Environmental and Climate Literacy under this heading. This latter is a skill still in its
infancy, but we can still recognise its value.

The level of language literacy in many countries today is very basic. Many people can read and write only to the level of grade four. The drive to educate beyond this grade of literacy is actively pursued by government and humanitarian institutions, but it is a huge task. Being literate, however, has the potential to move people from poverty and helplessness to a level where they can take control of their lives.

It is the awareness of the need for literacy that drove Mary MacKillop and Julian Tenison Woods to establish schools for the poor. It was that same recognition which caused Paolo Freire to use literacy to fight oppression in South American countries. Literacy is linked to awareness, and true literacy involves comprehension, an ability to make connections, a critical ability and high levels of interpretation involving metaphor and symbol.

Bernhard Schlink, the author of The Reader, like many philosophers and jurists, also argued that without literacy there is no morality. His chief character, Hannah, only came to realise the impact her actions had on others when she could make connections and move beyond instinctual reactions. Until she did this, she not only destroyed others physically but also destroyed her young lover emotionally and psychologically because she could not understand the impact of her actions.  

Becoming literate changes us and the way we perceive the world. Environmental and Climate literacy does the same thing.

Becoming literate in the above brings with it, the realisation that human action is destroying the planet. This is a hard learning for individuals and groups. A 2015 American survey revealed that only about one in ten Americans understand that over 90% of climate scientists think human caused global warming is occurring. (Davenport: 20) What would a similar Australian survey be like?

Understanding the environmental and climate situation today is frightening. We are often in denial and resist knowing. Yet we are called to action and, as Leslie Davenport says, "to be resilient in face of fear. Only action reveals the truth of our beliefs." Schlink writes: "There’s no need to talk about it, because the truth of what one says lies in what one does."

Lertzman (2015, p.1) says:


What may inform these particular challenges to facing climate change through the lens of anxiety, conflict... may feel like double-binds. Arguably, we are becoming aware of the damaging impacts of our practices while being stitched into a way of life that can be hard to shift, creating extremely challenging psychological and social tensions tricky to navigate.@ Goodreads Inc. 19/3/2017

Where can we begin. Let us take the advice of Aung Sun Suu Kyi, the great Burmese leader - "begin somewhere!"

True environmental and climate literacy goes hand in hand with contemplative consciousness. We come to understand all is one. Thomas Merton says that "contemplation awakens us to the original unity present within us but which we have to recover." Meister Eckhart uses the phrase: "with a contemplative consciousness all differences are one-d."

When we act from a contemplative consciousness we do the same actions e.g. recycling, but from the perspective that we are Earth and all is one. There is a unity here; all creation is made of the same stuff.

As Christians, we believe Earth is holy because it was created by the Spirit of Love. The Incarnation validated the sacredness of Earth and all that exists.

With this understanding, we recognise that when we destroy part of our world e.g. The Great Barrier Reef or our rainforests, or any part of our local environment or when we hand it over to someone else to do so it is an act of self-destruction or self-sabotage.
What we do to the Earth we do to ourselves.

Chaos theory, first developed through examining weather patterns, has taught us that a small change in one area can have tremendous effects elsewhere. This is true both in a positive and a negative way. A shift in our understanding of climate change, a movement forward in acknowledging the Gaia hypotheses (that is recognising Earth is a living organism), an effort made to befriend and care for Earth, which befriends and cares for us in return, may have massive implications for good elsewhere. To believe this is to move into a realm beyond the physical, into the spiritual and this in itself is transformative.

Pope Frances recognised this in Laudato Si' and elsewhere. He stated that "care of the Earth is a corporal work of mercy." Francis writes:


As a corporal work of mercy, care for our common home requires simple daily gestures which break the logic of violence, exploitation, selfishness... Pope Francis

What will your act of mercy towards and for Earth be this Earth Day?

Climate literacy invites us to listen, read, discuss the writings of the great ecological prophets of the day, people such as Teilhard de Chardin, Brian Swimme, Thomas Berry, ilia Delio, and poets such as Wendell Berry, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Oliver and David White. To take note of indigenous prophets such as those who write  on the Pachamama  Alliance website.

Perhaps it would be good to finish with the words of a poet Wendell Berry, who is environmentally and ecologically literate:


And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles,
no matter how long,
but only by a spiritual journey,
a journey of one inch,
very arduous and humbling and joyful,
by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,
and learn to be at home.*
Wendell Berry

Environmental and climate literacy invites us to be, to love and to nurture and care for our home in partnership with Earth itself, the place we call home.

Colleen O’Sullivan rsj

*Taken from Poetry Chaikana, Ivan Grainger’s website, 18/3/2017
Penguin image source: earthday.org
Holding Earth image source: abc7news.com
Tree image source: sustainable.camdencounty.com