A new Earth Ethics to prevent Ecocide

Address by Mary Evelyn Tucker

Mary Evelyn Tucker is a pioneer in the field of religion and ecology, co-founder and co-director of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale University. She provides in her opening address at Interfaith call for Ecocide law some comments on world religions and ecology as a source of a new Earth Ethics to prevent ecocide. The post is a treasure trove of links to initiatives in the intersection of Faith and Ecology.

Many of us are particularly concerned about a fresh and more comprehensive ethical basis for a flourishing Earth community. Some 40 years ago our teacher Thomas Berry would say we have ethics for homicide, suicide and even genocide, but not biocide or ecocide. Finally we are expanding the basis for ethics with such a valuable discussion as this on interfaith perspectives on ecocide law.

I thank all those who have helped foreground this issue. This includes the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew who in 1997 spoke out regarding crimes against creation and ecological sin. Pope Francis is aligned with Bartholomew’s work and his encyclical, Laudato Si has been a major step forward in creating a more robust basis for eco-justice. The Earth Charter issued in 2000 and the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth in 2010 are also important documents in the movement toward international law on ecocide.

Let me begin with some comments on world religions and ecology as a source of a new Earth Ethics to prevent ecocide. I will be drawing on the 25 years of work directing the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology with my husband, John Grim.

All of the world’s religions have views of nature that form the basis for various cultures valuing nature. We need to include these perspectives along with science and technology, economics and business, policy and law. These are all necessary, but not sufficient without the ethical and spiritual basis of the world’s religions regarding care for the environment and compassion for those suffering the consequences of environmental degradation and climate change.

In response to the question of how we humans can coexist with nature in a mutually enhancing way, John Grim and I organized a series of 10 conferences on world religions and ecology at Harvard from 1996-1998. From these we identified  common values from the world’s religions for a broader environmental ethics that could stem the tide of ecocide. We call them the 6 Rs and they are in our book Ecology and Religion.

Reverence for the Earth and its profound ecological processes

Respect for Earth’s myriad species and an extension of ethics to include all life forms

Reciprocity in human-nature relations

Restraint in use of natural resources

Responsibility of humans for the continuity of life

Restoration of ecosystems for theflourishing of life

All of this involves a revaluing of nature as a source of life not a resource to be exploited. We dwell amidst is a living Earth community not on top of dead matter to be exploited. This is the basis for the prevention of ecocide- affirming the dynamic interrelated dimensions of life itself. Indigenous peoples have understood this for millennia.

This involves highlighting the intrinsic value of nature not only its use to humans, as implied in ecosystems services, which monetizes nature in relation to humans. Economic value should be balanced with intrinsic value. Certainly a circular ecological economy is a positive trend that is emerging and many people are supporting this, including Sami leader, Eirik Myrhaug.

This can include the perspective that Thomas Berry advocated: “Earth is a communion of subjects; not a collection of objects.” Everything is alive, is kin, and is interacting with everything else. We live in a communicative symbiotic world, as indigenous peoples have known.  Berry helped us understand this aliveness of the world in the cosmological and ecological dimensions of the world’s religions. Let me give a few examples from the East Asian religious traditions:

Confucianism – Triad of cosmos, Earth and human where humans are co-creators with the universe and Earth working to enhance the fecundity of nature and society.

Daoism – Human is the microcosm of the macrocosm where humans cultivate themselves in relation to the dynamic movements of cosmos and Earth. There is a recognition that mutual wellbeing depends on healthy ecosystems.

Buddhism – The radical interdependence of all life forms, humans and more than humans, is highlighted by Buddhism from its origin and through its spread across Asia. All the schools of Buddhism recognize this and many provide mediational paths to enhance this interconnection. Thich Nat Hahn speaks of this as “interbeing”.

With these cosmological values and ecological principles in mind there are numerous examples from the religious communities of grassroot environmentalism. These are featured on the Yale Forum website as Engaged Projects. We have also launched a new data base of Faith Action on the UN Sustainable Development Goals, namely those focused on climate change, energy, water,consumption, life below water, and life on land. This is in collaboration with the United Nations Environment Programme Faith for Earth, the Parliament of World Religions and United Religions Initiative. There is also an important new book called Faith for Earth, which we will use in our upcoming online courses on world religions and ecology with Yale/Coursera.

We can highlight some of the religiously based engaged projects on forestry issues for example:

  • In India the Chipko movement in the foothills of the Himalayans began with Hindu women hugging trees to prevent them from being cut down. This was to honor the shakti, sacred life force, in the trees and to ensure that deforestation did not contribute to landslides.
  • In other parts of India tree saplings are offered from various Hindu temples to encourage reforestation.
  • In southeast Asia Buddhist monks in Thailand and Cambodia have been ordaining trees to ensure their protection against logging.
  • In 2019 the Sikh community has pledged to plant 1 million trees across the world.
  • In Africa Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work in creating the Greenbelt Movement that encouraged women to plant trees. She was inspired by both her Kikyu indigenous tradition along with her Catholic belief in the sacredness of Creation.

All of these projects were inspired by affirming life, not submitting to ecocide.

Second, Journey of the Universe

In addition to the world’s religions, we are also looking to science – especially evolutionary science and ecology – for a more comprehensive understanding of the universe and Earth that has given rise to life in all of its diversity and complexity. Without this perspective we can’t create a full bodied ecological ethics for the shared future of the  Earth community.

This is why we made the Journey of the Universe film and book in response to Thomas Berry’s eloquent call in 1978 for a New Story. He knew that cosmology and ecology, science and values needed to be interwoven for an integrated evolutionary story as an antidote to ecocide.

Journey of the Universe weaves the findings of modern science together with enduring wisdom found in the humanistic and religious traditions of the West, of Asia, and of indigenous peoples. Scientific facts and poetic metaphors are interwoven so that we can understand how we arose from these creative processes and participate in them. With that deep time perspective we can create a cosmological and ecological ethics for our planetary future.

Within this cosmological perspective we can ask: What is humankind in relation to 13.7 billion years of universe history? What is our place in the framework of 4.6 billion years of Earth history? How can we foster the continuity and the integrity of life processes? How can we prevent ecocide?

Journey of the Universe is both an inspiring story and a functional cosmology. This is because it harnesses the energy of awe and wonder for the multiple efforts of humans to contribute to the flourishing of the Earth Community. This is what Thomas Berry called the Great Work in which humans will become a mutually enhancing presence for Earth’s systems and societies.

Our present time of “Great Transition” or “Great Turning”, is calling forth new principles and perspectives, policies and practices. Journey is making a contribution to this transition on the level of cosmological principles and broad ecological ethics to inspire practical policies and engaged practices.

Indeed, there are hundreds of thousands of people around the planet who are participating in this transformative work for improved systems of energy and technology, agriculture and food, economics and politics, education and the arts. Some of these specialists, who are inspired by the evolutionary perspective of Journey of the Universe, are interviewed in the 20 part podcast series of Journey conversations. In this same series, scientists deepen our understanding of the evolutionary process with their own specialized knowledge. This knowledge can enhance the transformative work being done on the ground.

We hope you will join in the Great Story that gives a context for the Great Work still ahead for the flourishing of the Earth Community. Clearly we need such a comprehensive evolutionary story, along with the values from the world’s religions, to prevent ecocide.