From Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004, on the spiritual dimension of environmentalism:
I have come to believe that the physical destruction of the earth extends to us, too. If we live in an environment that’s wounded…it hurts us, chipping away at our health and creating injuries at a physical, psychological, and spiritual level. In degrading the environment, therefore, we degrade ourselves.
The reverse is also true. In the process of helping the earth to heal, we help ourselves. If we see the earth bleeding from the loss of topsoil, biodiversity, or drought and desertification, and if we help reclaim or save what is lost…the planet will help us in our self-healing and indeed survival…The same values we employ in the service of the earth’s replenishment work on us, too. We can love ourselves as we love the earth; feel grateful for who we are, even as we are grateful for the earth’s bounty; better ourselves, even as we use that self-empowerment to improve the earth; offer service to ourselves, even as we practice volunteerism for the earth.
Of course we need to be stewards of the environment, and environmental causes are seen as something that go hand-in-hand with faith more and more often. For myself, I often think about taking care of the environment on a level of “doing what’s right” or thinking about future generations, but I rarely think about it as a spiritual duty.
Yet, if we are indeed stewards of the environment (as Genesis 1 certainly implies), then it is a spiritual matter insofar as everything we do is a spiritual matter. There is no spiritual life as different from a physical life, or even as a subset of it, rather: there is life. If anything, our temporal physical lives, our eating and drinking and talking and singing and dancing lives are part — or a subset of — a larger spiritual life.
And if this is true, wouldn’t our call to be good stewards of the environment have an inherent impact on our connection with God?
I try to do my part for the environment: Brooke and I recycle, and we buy organic food, we pick up trash if we see it in a park, but really: we do enough to feel good about ourselves without truly sacrificing. Or, as stewards, are we called to sacrifice for the environment, or merely make good decisions about it?
But even then, I fear my lack of knowledge about what I buy and what I throw away and the corporations I support: I am sure I have been a poor steward again and again.
I realize that this is an individual matter, but I find it fascinating on a spiritual level, as someone who has already thought some about my duty for the environment. The duty, I believe, goes hand-in-hand with my duty and love for humanity, as so often environmental issues are social and justice issues. Or again, just as there is no physical duty and spiritual duty, there are no purely environmental issues and purely social issues: they blend together.
I appreciate thinkers such as Wangari Maathai, who remind and reveal to me, to us, that each decision and action is spiritual in nature, and that throwing a piece of trash on the ground — or picking one up — is as important as a kind word to a friend or opening up the Bible, for it is God’s urging to us in a specific time and moment, and the reminder that God ultimately requires every inch and second of our lives.