Ed. Note: We are happy to share this reader response, which is part of a series developed by environmental science students at Loyola University Chicago from the course Environmental Sustainability.
Having grown in Western culture, I have been conditioned to think of myself as being separate from the Earth. We are taught to think of the Earth as a pile of resources that may be used at our disposal, exhausted for human gain, bought and sold for profit. In a less cynical way, we are conditioned to see Earth as something to be enjoyed by humans, for humans. During childhood, there would be days I was told to go outside to “be with nature” and play. Similarly, now that I’m older, my friends and I will go to a national park to go “experience nature” as if it is something you must drive a long distance to go see. However, this is not the relationship with nature that we need in order to develop true care for the Earth that will effectively deal with the challenges we are facing today. A true connection with nature is one that allows us to see ourselves as an integral part of the Earth and fuels us to advocate for the well-being of the Earth for the sake of the Earth. This is the mindset we all need if we want to effectively deal with climate change.
It is not until we have a profound encounter with the Earth that we will we realize that we are not separate from nature after all. It is not something we need to drive to in order to experience. Instead, we are a part of the living organism Earth that is breathing, moving, and changing with humans as an integral part. Some people may have this encounter when looking across the vast beauty of the Grand Canyon, or possibly while standing at the top of a mountain at Yosemite. Whatever the experience may be, what is important is that it causes the feeling of personal connection and a sense of oneness with the Earth. For me, it was through learning about the Lakota people’s relationship with water at Standing Rock that made me feel like I was a part of the Earth.
My philosophy professor, Michael Schuck, who spent a great amount of time at many of the Standing Rock protests, emphasized to us that the human body is made up of 70% water. This is important because, for those at Standing Rock, they are not fighting to protect the disposable resource of water. They instead are beings who are deeply interconnected with water, protecting a part of themselves. This deep connection to nature can be further explained through the ideas of Martin Buber. Buber explains that in order to move towards an interconnectedness with nature, one must move from an attitude of “I-It” to “I-Thou.” “I-It” is a concept that Buber explains as one of use, where the I experiences the It in a one-way relationship of use (Buber 1958). “I-Thou” is an attitude of love and respect, where the I encounters the Thou through a two-way experience of love (Buber 1958). Once we move to this relationship of love and respect that we see through the “I-Thou” is when I believe we can truly begin to care for our environment in a way that shows proactive love instead of reactive use.
When we feel deeply connected and see ourselves as a part of nature through this two-way experience, I believe it will motivate us to care for nature even when it is not directly affecting us. I bring this up because as someone who lives in the United States, I am not someone who feels the immediate and direct repercussions of climate change. In the United States, if there is a drought, water is flown in, and if there is a hurricane, the Red Cross is there to clean up within a few days. These are things to be deeply grateful for; however, it also allows us to remain more easily disconnected from the Earth and her dynamic qualities. Those who are feeling the direct and immediate effects of climate change are more likely to act for change in favor of the well-being of the Earth because it is something that directly touches them. However, if we see ourselves as interconnected with nature, then we will feel compelled to act for the betterment of our Earth even if it’s not for something that is directly affecting our community or immediate livelihood. We will fight to protect water, because we are connected to water, not because we are immediately deprived of it. We will fight to protect the biodiversity, because we are interconnected with biodiversity, not because we fear the anguish of our crops. We will fight to protect the Earth from climate change, not because we fear for our grandchildren, but because we are deeply connected to the Earth through love and respect because she is our sister and we are an integral part of her. For this reason, I think if we really want our Earth to benefit from the actions of humans in terms of climate change, we must aim toward a society that sees themselves as a part of nature.
We will not achieve a real compassionate desire for our Earth’s well-being through political parties or monetary gain. Instead, we must encourage people to encounter nature through a two-way love interaction to achieve the “I-Thou” relationship. The “I-Thou” relationship is crucial so that humans may be passionate, not about being a person who fights for the Earth, but about being a part of the Earth that is fighting for the well-being of itself. This mindset of being interconnected with nature is what will allow for widespread positive change towards healing the Earth and mitigating the effects of climate change.