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Compassion for the Earth

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6 December 2011 4 Comments

No fear

The other night I attended a documentary on Climate Refugees. It was an assemblage of apocalyptic predictions about the mass migrations that could be triggered if warming continues unabated and the world warms 3 or 4 degrees Celsius. Things, the film suggest, are pretty much going to suck, I mean really suck. The goal of the filmmaker, I suppose, was to scare the crap out of us in the hope that this might motivate us to change. This approach bugs me.

Now, I am not a climate denier. In fact, I agree that unless we change and change fast, things are going to get bad, maybe apocalyptically bad. During my darker moments, I wonder if we have reached the end of everything and that the armies of gas drillers and oil mongers currently raping North Dakota and Alberta will actually succeed in dragging humanity into a dystopian future of relentless misery. So, I don’t need any reminders of why we should be afraid. My problem with this film and others like it, is that it relies too much on fear as a motivator.

During the film I found myself thinking about the incarnation — I know, weird, but I am a theologian. In particular I was thinking about Ignatius’ contemplation on the incarnation in the Spiritual Exercises. The incarnation happens because of God’s boundless compassion for humanity and because of God’s desire to save. I also thought of a little known passage from a book by 6th century monk Isaac of Nineveh in which he urges that we have compassion for all creatures and all creation in its suffering. The fathers of the church spoke often about God’s love for humanity as the primary motivation for the incarnation.

If compassionate love is the primary form of God’s engagement with the world, maybe we should attempt to imitate that. Rather than trying to motivate people to environmental action by stoking their fear, perhaps we should work to increase their love and affection for creation. This is the approach advocated by the great American conservationist Aldo Leopold. “We love only what we know,” he said, and “we grieve only for what we love.” God loves the world intimately, and God grieves for the suffering of creation. If we can tap into this and love the world as God loves it, then we have a shot at finding the inner resources and motivation to actually work for meaningful change.

At the risk of sounding trite, I’ll say it: love is stronger than fear. It’s a better motivator too.

Photo: “No Fear” by “Jsome1″ from Flickr (Used under Creative Commons license)

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4 Comments »


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  • Michelle said:

    Thanks for this perspective! If we are made in God’s image, the loving Creator of the universe, this ought to be the way we approach all of life, including our use of the created world. All too often fear paralyzes, while light helps us move forward….


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  • Mari said:

    I know this was not the point of your entry and you admitted that this thought only comes in your darker moments…but could you expand a little bit upon “gas drillers and oil mongers currently raping North Dakota and Alberta will actually succeed in dragging humanity into a dystopian future of relentless misery.”?

    I live in the tension that comes with having been Jesuit educated and having compassion for the earth AND working for an oil and gas company.


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  • Lisa said:

    We have been conditioned by culture (or the Spirit not of God hard at work) to think that love is cheesy, sentimental, for the fool-hardy and the dreamer and yet fear is to be heeded at all costs. Only when one opens one-self to the experience of love, to seeing creation (from the oil fields to the rain forests, to the deserts to each person) as a creation of God do you realize that it truly is much much bigger and more powerful than fear of anything. Your “trite” revelation at the end is really the ultimate Truth.


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  • John O'Keefe (author) said:

    Mari, Thanks for you thoughtful question. My concern if multilayered.

    First, it is highly problematic that large energy companies – gas, oil, coal – are complicit in fostering the belief that climate change is not happening. They are doing so because there is so much money to be made drilling for fossil fuels. I know their argument is that the world needs energy, but if the price is the erosion of the earth’s capacity to support life, the price is too high. The greed of these companies is delaying the development of alternative energy.

    Second, the hydraulic fracking methods used to drill for natural gas is potentially extremely toxic. We are rushing ahead with this technique without due caution.

    The tar sands oil in Alberta is the dirties energy in the world. It is absolutely destructive to land producing the oil, it is dangerous to ship, and it will contribute mightily to atmospheric carbon increases. Millions of Americans don’t want the pipeline, but Oil companies have disproportionate influence in the NE state legislature and in the U.S. Congress. (For example, the house just voted (12/14) to fast track the pipeline.) Also, the First Nations in Canada just blocked an east west tar sands pipeline, so there is resistance in Canada as well.

    The Jesuits just released a document on ecology. I recommend it. It will give you a better sense of what is happening in the Catholic/Jesuit world with respect to environment: http://www.sjweb.info/documents/sjs/pjnew/PJ106ENG.pdf

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