Toward Ecological Citizenship: Re-discovering a Sense of the Sacred

“To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. And, human beings come out of that wholeness.” ~ Gary Snyder

Today is Earth Day 2020, and as we all hunker down in the midst of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, I’m sharing this article originally written in early February for Minding Nature Journal (but isn’t going to be published there). As most of us are learning that we are not, after all, in control of much of anything, and that we are as vulnerable as any other species on the planet now seems a good time to ask questions about how we behave toward the Earth and each other.

Due to humanity’s extremely long learning curve that our way of life centered on ‘humans being separate/above Nature’ isn’t working out so well, the question I raise here is: “How might we discover a pathway into citizenship with the other-than-human world?”  This possibility seems to call for a unity of the physical niche and the spiritual niche of human beings.

The rules of engagement and relationships among and between species are in large part developed through biological evolution and beneficial traits between co-evolved species. The manner in which organisms function within their respective niches could be an insightful metaphor for how humans might rediscover right-relationship with the other-than-human world through ecological citizenship. The niche is what can allow decreased competition in interspecies relationships, often resulting in co-evolved mutualistic symbioses that generate resilient communities resulting in ecosystems achieving their full potential.

This begs a follow-up question: What is the natural niche of a human being?

At least in the short-term, science-and-technology-aided-humanity has collectively inhabited the entire planet earth as our realized niche. Complete, though unintended, domination of an entire planet is not a sustainable niche for any species for very long. Although biological and cultural evolution has given humans the means to dominate the planet, the outcome we live with today is a destructive imbalance, where ecosystems we all depend upon have little chance to reach their full potentials, resulting in brittle environments and fragile communities (that are much more susceptible to disease). Thus, we find ourselves living within a planetary-wide extinction event.

How can the modern concept of citizenship aid us in coming into balance with other-than-human life on this planet?

Traditional citizenship is as much about boundaries and limits as anything. The circle that includes who is allowed access to citizenship has been a moving target over time. Until very recently in history, it has tended to focus on adult males who are of the dominant racial group. Only relatively recently have women, children, and minorities been included in the citizenship circle.

At this point, those who have been excluded from consideration in citizenship are the other-than-human lives whom we share the planet. To paraphrase my former professor of wildlife and deep ecology studies, Fred Montague: “Who speaks for cougar, for mountain, for river?”  In 1949 in A Sand County Almanac, wildlife ecologist Aldo Leopold proposed an ethic for the land that essentially includes the wider community of beings as worthy and deserving of citizenship with us. Leopold’s land ethic is no less than the relationships we think of when we hear the term citizen as it is extended to include the forest and tree citizen, the lake and fish citizen, the tallgrass prairie and the bison citizen, the fallow field and coyote citizen, the soil and the worm citizen. Leopold writes that:

We abuse land because we see it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect…A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

Leopold’s land ethic remains a vision through the lens of Western science with a deep understanding of the impacts of both science and modern culture, yet its ethical thrust is a cousin to the spiritual understanding of many indigenous peoples. One example from North America is “Mitakuye Oyasin” (Lakota) meaning ‘All my Relations’ or ‘We are All Related”. Such a creed for living instructs and asks for spiritual guidance to recognize the sacredness of each person, acknowledges the sacredness of life, and creates an awareness that strengthens the person who prays and strengthens the entire community.

We may be born into or earn citizenship status with a nation-state and understand the agreement and responsibility of our nation-state citizenship, yet we have completely forgotten our sense of place as citizens of Mother Earth. Ecological citizenship necessarily introduces a wider set of boundaries and limits compared with our current nation-state citizenship concept. Because we have the capacity of creating and harnessing technology to expand our realized niche to include every continent, every mountain top, even the vacuum of space and potentially other planets, ecological citizenship involves attempting to live the questions considering the health of the larger community: What is a healthy realized niche for humans? What resources are enough for us to live into our own full potentials within our niche? How shall we recognize and respect the niches of other organisms, and allow for ecosystems to reach their full potentials?

We have attained extensive and detailed information and knowledge of the lives and relationships of organisms with the land, waters, and air. We’ve gathered a great library of scientific facts demonstrating the impact of humanity on the other-than-human world, and most recently on earth’s systems of atmosphere and climate.

Yet, this crucial mental intelligence alone is not enough to live into the question posed here – “How can we live in balance with all of life on Earth?”.

Here’s the punchline: Even if we obtained all of the knowledge of ecology and earth science that is possible, it will not be enough to answer the question of what is ecological citizenship and how shall we live into such citizenship with all of the rights and responsibilities thereof. To approach that question with any depth, we need to contemplate and integrate our spiritual niche to unite with our physical niche.

What is required to help guide us on a journey toward ecological citizenship is wisdom. And, wisdom is not derived from head knowledge. Wisdom is birthed from the experience and journey into a mystical (loving) sense of the sacred. We are searching here for a living unity of head knowledge and heart knowledge.

The footsteps toward a pathway into ecological citizenship may well rely upon human beings regaining their mystical sense of awe and wonder of the universe. The awe that one can generate in the presence of the grandeur of life. Such awe and wonder can kindle a sense of the sacred. This is perhaps the source and foundation of our spiritual niche.

Personally, I struggled for many years (and still do at times) to allow myself to feel or to emote any real sense of awe, wonder, or joy. In the last year or so, I’ve focused on cultivating a sense of awe and wonder in the midst of natural environments and the night sky, and a deeper spiritual connection. Still, my threshold remains high for much of the rest of my life. It’s a journey that is requiring some letting go of the need to know, of control, and of my fear of rejection. And, instead, opening to a fuller experience of life and embracing myself and others, while understanding that my suffering is the world’s suffering, and others’ suffering and the world’s suffering is also my suffering. Suffering, compassion, love, awe and joy, and the courage to be vulnerable enough to experience these fully – Scholars as diverse as renowned social scientist Brene´Brown and Franciscan elder Richard Rohr have found these to be inextricably interconnected. You can’t profoundly enter into one without also being willing to enter into the others.

Geologian Thomas Berry (along with a great lineage of Creation Spirituality mystics and prophets from the West including Hildegard of Bingen, Saint Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, and recently Thomas Merton, Rabbi Heschel, Joanna Macy, and Matthew Fox) often relates the central role of human beings in terms of their capacity for awe and wonder of life and the universe:

We will recover our sense of wonder and our sense of the sacred only if we appreciate the universe beyond ourselves as a revelatory experience of that numinous presence whence all things come into being. Indeed, the universe is the primary sacred reality.

Berry underscores that “Eventually, only our sense of the sacred will save us.”

Rabbi Abraham Heschel often taught that “Awe is the beginning of wisdom”. Humans have the capacity to embody wonder and awe of the universe, which eventually accrues a sense of the sacredness of life. This, in turn, gives us our holy duty as caretakers of Creation. It begins with an embodiment of awe, develops into love, and culminates in wisdom.

Although a literacy of ecology and intelligence of the mind regarding life on earth is crucial, we in the West have relied too much on the intelligence of the mind alone. Franciscan spiritual elder Richard Rohr and Episcopal priest and wisdom tradition guide Cynthia Bourgeault teach:

 Wisdom is not the result of mental effort. It cannot be gained through intellectual study…Wisdom is a way of being – a way of being whole and fully open to knowing beyond rational thought alone. Do not confuse this kind of knowing as lightweight. The exact opposite is true.  

In further relating heart knowledge, Rohr and Bourgeault integrate Tilden Edwards’ description of “an undefended knowing” that “allows us to drop beneath the thinking mind, to touch upon real experience, unhindered by the ego’s sense of self, without fear or agenda.”

Such a way of knowing, or unknowing as it might be, is necessary for us to fully embody awe and wonder of other-than-human life, and as Thomas Berry emphasized, enter into a sense of the sacred. A lifetime of opening to numinous experience accrues wisdom. The crux is that the walls of our culture’s cosmological home (the story we live by) has no windows onto the numinous experience of other-than-human life. Matthew Fox invokes a biblical metaphor relating the story we currently live by is like an old wineskin with no capacity to hold the new wine of wisdom and understanding that contains both ecological science and a living, breathing sense of the sacred.

Because the cultural story you are steeped in is often very difficult to see the particulars of the story, it helps to flesh out the major components in order to understand their specific influences. My take on our current cultural story pitfalls that we live by in the U.S. and in Western society, in general, can be described thus:

Chapter One: Humans are at the apex of creation, above and separate from Nature (American white cisgender male humans in mid to upper socioeconomic status with Christian religious affiliations at the very tippy-top peak with a stratified hierarchy of other ‘kinds’ of human beings below that based on intersectionality of skin color, socioeconomic status, religious affiliation, and country of origin. Somehow this have led to a sense of those ‘on top’ thinking all those below – human and non-human – exist to serve those on top).

Chapter Two: A cultural belief in a “pie in the sky when you die” if we say the right religious creeds. (This gives a sense that death isn’t final. Not necessarily a terrible thought, and even positive in that you might think about the strength of your ancestors being with you. Unfortunately, in combination with the rest of our cultural story, such belief has led to an opinion that the Earth doesn’t matter, only our place in the ‘after-life’ matters).

Chapter Three: A firmly held illusion by almost everyone that our financial economics generates the non-renewable energy and material goods that our civilization runs on (it’s the other way around), and

Chapter Four: Our intellect, material wealth, technology, military might, and our “American way of life” will surely save us (from “bad” things like climate change, pandemic diseases, poverty, people who are different from us, from having to participate with respect and compassion toward each other and toward other nations).

Our inability to deal with whole systems problems like climate change or worldwide pandemics stems directly from this cultural story that is tightly binding our collective hands behind our backs and blindfolding us at the same time. Within our current story, we have no vision, no wonder, no love for the other, no sense of the sacred, no sense of place, no understanding that we are at the edge of our map of the world as we’ve allowed our modern industrial lives to understand the real world.

To navigate these uncharted waters and fully live into our questions of how might we come into right-relationship with All our Relations requires new wineskins to hold a new story. A new story that gives us a new map to navigate a world where the other-than-human lives – All our Relations – matter.

I have faith in our capacity to rediscover our relationship with other-than-human lives, as well as our responsibilities as citizens of Mother Earth to become caretakers of life. If we can embark on a journey of re-discovering a sense of the sacred by opening to awe and wonder of the universe, we can realize this capacity.

“A drew drop multiverse”. Photo was taken at the edge of an oak-maple woodland in western Indiana (Brent T. Ladd)

Let us remember and rediscover our sacred place in the miracle of life that Wes Jackson illustrates as, “We, and all other organisms with us [today], have been pulled through the knothole of time.” So too, poet Laureate Gary Snyder reminded us that “To speak of wilderness is to speak of wholeness. And, human beings came out of that wholeness.”

The challenge, as Wendell Berry has pointed out, is that “We don’t know who we are as individuals nor as a people because we don’t know where we are”. We’ve lost a sense of place in the most grounded understanding of what place confers. Ecological citizenship will necessarily mean that citizenship requires a sense of place, as well as a sense of the sacred. They go together like the symbiosis of monarch butterflies and native milkweed plants. They need one another and will continue to co-evolve together.

Humanity requires a reimagining of who we are and the story we live by. It is necessary to struggle through such an apocalyptic reimagining in order to enter into a kinship with the places we live so that we may inhabit our spiritual niche with a sense of awe. When we can experience awe and wonder of the living land and the beings we share our homes with and the wide universe that birthed us, then that is when we will be able to begin a long journey of re-discovering our sustainable ecological niche, our sense of place, and our sacred role as stewards of life in the places we inhabit.

What do you think?