Our common struggle

by Michelle Chan

We are all interconnected

If there is one thing environmentalists understand, it is that in any living ecosystem, everything is interconnected. The bears rely on the salmon, which rely on the rivers, which rely on the trees, all the way down to the microorganisms in the soil. Every part of an ecosystem, no matter how small or seemingly unrelated, plays a critical role, even if we don’t understand it. Life — and our fates — are intertwined.

This is why, as environmentalists, we cannot sit on the sidelines, letting women, Muslims, people of color, immigrants, and others fight their own battles while saving our strength to speak for the trees.

When I contemplate our country, where the crisis of mass incarceration and police brutality is crippling black and brown communities, and immigration raids tear families apart, I know that these phenomena ultimately will hurt everyone in our society. I may not face these trials personally, but as an environmentalist I understand that poison travels. I know that I do not need to directly inhale a toxin to fall ill from it.

But Nature also teaches me that although the web of life is fragile, it is also resilient. Poison can spread quickly, but so can healing. One small act, such as restoring the eelgrass in the San Francisco Bay, can protect spawning grounds for herring, which in turn supports tuna, which ultimately sustains us as human beings.

In other words, our liberation is bound up in another’s. So, on the day after Trump’s inauguration, when I saw 3 million people unite from cities and town around the world for women’s rights, it gave me hope.

The only chance we have to protect our planet and our people is to stay unified, and to never lose sight of our interconnectedness.

Nature inspires us to love

Those of us who love Nature (and even those of us who don’t spend much time dwelling in or on it) know instinctively that Nature inspires.

It inspires awe. The mind-boggling 3,000-mile migration of the monarch butterfly, alight on paper-thin wings. The damp quiet of ancient redwoods, which have stood in witness to history since the time before Christ. Nature never ceases to amaze. And we don’t need to feel the humid breath of the Amazon jungle or the icy wind of the Arctic tundra to be captivated enough by these places to fight for their survival.

Nature inspires humility. Those of us who are spiritual will say that in Nature we see a glimpse of the Divine. For those who are not believers, Nature reminds us that there is so much that we don’t yet understand, and that there is something much, much bigger than ourselves.

And when we are at our best, Nature inspires us to love — boundlessly. It inspires us to overcome the meagerness of our hearts and the smallness of our prejudices, and to mirror the expansiveness and abundance that we see in Nature itself.

As Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si, “A sense of deep communion with the rest of nature cannot be real if our hearts lack tenderness, compassion and concern for our fellow human beings…When our hearts are authentically open to universal communion, this sense of fraternity excludes nothing and no one.”

Excludes nothing and no one. It does not exclude Muslims, immigrants, people of color, or those disagree with me politically. It does not build walls or prohibition lists. It does not divide the world into those who are worthy and those who are not, places that should be protected and those that should be sacrificed. And when I think of the direction our country is heading in: ever-more divided, and laden with hate, fear, and militarism, it flies against one of the most important lessons Nature has taught me: that everything and everyone is intrinsically valuable.

Our ethical challenge

When we realize the dignity and interconnection of all things, it brings beauty, meaning, and even sacredness to our lives. It also brings responsibility.

Our environmental ethic challenges us to consider not only our planet in crisis, but also examine our own role in creating and solving that crisis — one that has both environmental and social dimensions. We begin by making changes in our own lives to get in “right relationship” with the planet and with others. Then we take that to the systemic level, to transform the institutions that perpetuate environmental and social injustice.

Working on a systemic level is hard. But an ecological mindset allows us to see relationships, and to look for the root of both our problems and our solutions. Addressing systemic problems — whether it be the exploitive nature of our financial markets or the way monied interests have taken over our political system — can be overwhelming. So sometimes we just need to start by taking care of what is most vulnerable. And if we are thoughtful, that step can be like planting eelgrass in the bay: an act to protect one part of the ecosystem that ultimately helps nurture the whole.

Nature has taught us that all things are interconnected and intrinsically valuable. It has inspired us to awe, humility, respect, and love. Let us then, as environmentalists, respond boldly to the challenge posed not just by the responsibility of our connectedness, but by the turbulent and dangerous times we find ourselves in. Let us exclude nothing and no one.