Listening to a TED talk last year, I jotted down the following quote from the speaker whose name is now lost to me: “Our imagination has become an ecological force.”
Trying to locate the source of the quote, I encountered a train of thought that I can’t help but believe we would do well to attend to.
The relationship between human imagination and the environment of which we are a part is a two-edged sword. Mythology offers us a lens through which we might be able to see clearly the two ways this sword cuts. Stories old and new from places near and far drawn from the imaginations of people who are known and unknown to us are vehicles that can help us look honestly at our relationship to this planet. Stories can help us see how we got to the place we are today, and, perhaps more important, they can help us imagine ways to live so that those who come after us will not have to suffer the consequences of the story by which we have been living.
As I have written here before, “We live by story.” The planet is crying out to us that we need a new narrative.
Because this is a religious column, I will say it up front: The Christian narrative, as it has historically been interpreted, has not served the planet well. You may know the phrase from the first chapter of Genesis. Even though it is an insufficient interpretation, we have taken it at face value that humans are to “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion.”
For millennia, those verses had little long-lasting effect on the planet. That was only because the number of humans was too small. No longer is that the case.
So what new stories do we need? Ones about selflessness? About generosity? How about stories of our being part of Earth, not separate from her?
Where will the stories we need come from? Do they need to be new or are there remnants of narratives from times gone by that would serve us well? Perhaps they will come from other cultures.
Some of us can imagine a world in which harmony prevails among everything that exists. Water, air, oceans, soil, flora, and fauna – a single system – an indivisible web. In that picture, all the parts are in right relationship. Life (all! Life) flourishes. We Christians read a story about that. We call it the Garden of Eden. That edge of our relational sword cuts toward fecundity and growth and life.
The other edge cuts toward limitations and eventually death. It is a relational sword that gives hegemony to humans. It is drawn from a manipulative and dishonest story that, if you believe the scientific data, will lead to a rapidly unhinging environment. It is a story imagined by selfish, greedy, heartless humans.
“Our imagination has become an ecological force.” How we employ our imagination, the edge of the relational blade we choose to swing, will determine the outcome of our way forward. We will either continue on the arrogant path of human superiority, or we will acknowledge that we have no right to dominate anything ... that we were created as part of a sacred whole and that we should live as such.
If we choose the way of arrogance, the cockroaches and the viruses will survive when we are long gone. And all our concern today for kids in cages, for gun violence, for sexual harassment will be for naught when we have no clean air, no water to drink, no safe haven from the storms and the fires and the rising seas.
Many of us carry out our recycling each week and use our own bags at the grocery store. We turn off the water while we brush our teeth. We buy energy absorbed by the political scene unfolding in our country.
For us who are of a religious stripe, the admonition to care for our neighbor, while essential, easily usurps our energies. It distracts us and masks the critical work on behalf of the environment that we absolutely must do if any of the rest of it is going to mean anything.
We need a new and compelling narrative. Not data. Not statistics. A narrative. Let us search out our poets, our storytellers, our visionaries. Let us hold up their songs and their tales. Let us be certain our children are not fed the tired, destructive narratives of human domination and exclusion from the web of life. For the love of all that is holy ... for the love of our children ... for the love of this magnificent place we are graced to live, let us animate our imaginations so that they will become the ecological force that is the only thing that will save us from our pride.
Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or firstname.lastname@example.org.