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A Second Reformation? Some New (Old) Ways of Thinking about Nature and Why They Might Matter

The Green Gettysburg Book Club first met on Valentine’s Day in 2020. When the pandemic hit, we went online and have been riding high on Zoom once a week ever since.  Along with attempting to become a little better informed about the practical things we can do to protect the environment, we have also been exploring some new (and also some very old) ways of thinking about our relationship with the natural world, and about how we might move from a model of domination and exploitation to a recognition of our interdependence with the natural systems that sustain us. 

Despite the chaos and confusion of our time, we’ve been wondering whether we could be right in the middle of some kind of Second Reformation, right in the middle of a cultural shift that will eventually affect every aspect of our lives, our communities and societies, our economies, our politics and even our spiritual lives and practices. This is a big question, too big, actually, for us to answer definitely. But many of the writers we’ve been reading have a lot to say on the matter, and we’ve had some really great conversations trying to sort things out.

In the world of the first Reformation, most of us are only tourists at best, but can you imagine how confusing it must have felt to be alive during that period in Europe. It must have been a big hot mess, as the young folks like to say these days.  Looking back, I suppose it all kind of makes sense, at least to historians. But at the time the whole thing must have seemed very chaotic and more than a little frightening to those living through it. Are we living through a similar “big hot mess” right now? Are we living through a similar cultural shift that has unsettled everything?

Many of the writers we have been reading argue that over the many centuries in what we now call “the West,” human beings made a mistake, a big one, about our relationships with nature and with one another.  We came to imagine that we were separate—both from nature and from our neighbors and the human communities that surround and support us. This mistake drove the industrial revolution, fostered innovation and individualism and created the life we both enjoy and are dismayed by now, even in humble places, small towns like our own. And, this “mistake” has been, ironically, so productive in terms of the material things of this world that it has been adopted nearly everywhere on the planet—in the East and South as well as the West—and become the default setting for our—rather manic—species as a whole. As a result, we have pretty much run wild and taken the whole place over.

The damage done by this mistake is popping up and breaking out everywhere these days and can now be pretty accurately measured. The costs can be quantified. In fact, this mistake is turning out to be quite expensive whether we are talking excessive numbers of catastrophic weather events, wild fire seasons that don’t really end, or the impact on human health from bad air, bad water or just too much heat. The list of negative impacts is long and growing. We hear about it every day in the news.

Pope Francis in his encyclical letter Laudato Si’, which some of us read right when the book club first got going, sees this mistake of separateness leading to two different but related consequences. The illusion of separateness from one another leads to a breakdown in human community and a betrayal of neighbor love. The illusion of separateness from nature leads to environmental catastrophe, to severe damage to our “common home,” to the undermining of the natural systems (and ecosystem services) we depend on for clean air, clean water, fertility in the soil and a stable climate, among many other things.

The illusion of separateness supports what he calls the “technocratic paradigm” which allows new technologies and profit-driven markets to essentially make the key decisions about the allocation of society’s resources without regard for the impact on people or on nature. An “ecological paradigm,” on the other hand, would recognize the intrinsic value of all living things and call for dialogue and transparency in decision making, a process involving as many different perspectives as possible. “Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes,” he says, “we need to recognize that solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting (and transforming) reality.”

An ecological paradigm is necessary in order to sustain environmental progress over time and avoid cooptation by the profit seeking and short term decision making associated with the technocratic paradigm. “There needs to be a distinctive way of looking at things,” Francis says, ”a way of thinking… and a spirituality which together generate resistance to the assault of the technocratic paradigm…. To seek only a technical remedy to each environmental problem… is to separate what is in reality interconnected and to mask the true and deepest problems of the global system.” Adopting an “ecological paradigm” like the one Francis describes would likely represent an important cultural shift in how we understand our relationship with nature.

Many of the writers the book club has been reading over the last two years contribute additional insights into the nature of this cultural shift or potential Second Reformation. Here’s a quick sample:

For Aldo Leopold writing in Sand County Almanac what is needed is a Land Ethic. This involves the development of a sense of obligation to the land in not only the farmer and the business owner but also in the tourist out for a literal joy ride in nature. As a naturalist and forest ranger himself, he was all about the development of what he called “perception” in both the tourist and the farmer. “The weeds in a city lot convey the same lesson as the redwoods [in California]; the farmer may see in his cow-pasture [things that] may not be vouchsafed to the scientist adventuring in the South Seas.”

This sense of obligation comes up again in the work of Robin Wall Kimmerer, a botanist and member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. In Braiding Sweetgrass, she explores a relationship with nature based on reciprocity. Nature sustains us, so we must sustain nature and in the process we will be filled with gratitude for all we receive from the natural world. And, she goes on to say, “In a consumer society, contentment is a radical proposition. Recognizing abundance rather than scarcity undermines an economy that thrives by creating unmet desires. Gratitude cultivates an ethic of fullness, but the economy needs emptiness.”  Imagine, she says, a society, a country, a community built on rituals and institutions that allow us to come together regularly to experience gratitude for all that we receive from nature and one another. Bound to put us all in a better mood for sure!

Suzanne Simard studies the forest and the relationships among trees and the fungal networks in the soil. In Finding the Mother Tree, she explains how she was able to measure the chemical communication that connects species and maintains balance in the forest. The forest, she demonstrates, is a community, not a commodity. In his book Half Earth, E.O. Wilson, renowned scientist and specialist in the study of ants, calls for returning half of Planet Earth to its former wild state in order to maintain biodiversity and the ecosystem services on which we depend.  Entomologist Doug Tallamy in Nature’s Best Hope invites us to bring that wild back to the places where we live and work by planting native species and restoring habitat and fully functioning ecosystems in our own yards and community parks and on our corporate and college campuses.

All of these writers point toward a new way of understanding our relationship with nature. Clearly, the idea of “away” as in “throwing stuff away” has gone away and is no more. We have a new respect for limits both in terms of what we extract from nature but also in terms of what we know about nature. Take what you need but leave the rest. Put something back. Study, observe with care but also be ready to admit how much we really don’t yet fully understand. Recognize the need for multiple perspectives. Science yes, but also intuition, poetry, religion and traditional lore and practices.

For Christians maybe it all comes back to building the beloved community, and extending that beloved community to include the natural world.  Nature as neighbor, and maybe teacher, too. Is there a key role for us as healers? Can we humans be the ones to rebalance ecosystems and restore the healthy functioning of the natural world while helping out our human neighbors as well?

The book club has just begun Regeneration by Paul Hawken and a crew of scientists and environmental communicators. They argue that we have the tools we need to repair and restore the natural world we live in and depend on. But do we have the will, the courage, the love of life in all its forms to see things through? I’m still hoping that we do.

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Will Lane, a founding member of Green Gettysburg and the Green Gettysburg Book Club, is a Lecturer in English and Affiliated Faculty Member with Environmental Studies at Gettysburg College.

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  • An upbeat column in a time of confusion and conflict – thank you. “…we could be…right in the middle of a cultural shift that will eventually affect every aspect of our lives, our communities and societies, our economies, our politics and even our spiritual lives and practices…Take what you need but leave the rest. Put something back. Study, observe with care but also be ready to admit how much we really don’t yet fully understand. Recognize the need for multiple perspectives. Science yes, but also intuition, poetry, religion and traditional lore and practices.” Repairing, rebalancing, and one of my pa’s favorite words, reciprocity. Thanks again.

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