A democratic approach to the Earth asserts that not only are all humans created equal — as the U. S. Declaration of Independence proclaims — but also that all humans are citizens of the same community, the Earth community, and other species also have rights that should be preserved. The following practices encourage the strengthening of democratic values and virtues in our relationships to the Earth, its current inhabitants, and its future generations.
1. Reconnect with Nature
The spiritual practice of reverence helps us cultivate democratic virtues of equality and justice for all — including Earth and all her inhabitants. In their book Contentment, Robert A. Johnson and Jerry Ruhl write about the medieval European custom of showing deep respect for things by naming them as saints. Even the Earth became known as "St. Terre." From this root comes the word "saunter" — to walk upon the Earth with reverence.
Johnson and Ruhl offer this practice: "Nature does not ask for explanations, only that we witness the fleeting moment that is constant. Go for a walk in nature and receive the blessings of an ancient tree, listen for a message in the cry of a bird, take counsel with a constant and abiding stream. Allow yourself to reconnect to the creative matrix that supports all life."
You needn't be able to saunter, though, to savor Earth's offerings. In How to Have More Love in Your Life, Alan Epstein suggests this springtime practice:
"Spend time in a flower garden. Stay there as long as you wish, but make sure your visit is long enough to take in the various charms that the world of blossoms and petals provides. You can sit in a chair or on the grass, lie down looking up at the flowers from below, or walk around. However you choose to spend your time, be aware that you are a guest in someone else's home — nature's — so act accordingly.
"If the day is warm and sunny, savor the rays and imagine how the flowers must feel at this very moment. Look closely at the variety of blooms, at the different shapes and colors, at the way the individual blossoms grow out of their leafy sheaths. Now use your sense of smell to take in the stunning array of fragrance, all of which can be divinely overpowering. ...
"Now see if you can transcend your individual senses and feel the presence of the garden inside you. Try to become just another flower, at home in the garden as if you were in your own house or place of worship. Can you let go of your humanness for a time and transform your existence into something else? Can you lose yourself in a place that men and women have celebrated since time immemorial? What does it feel like to be a flower, to be the object of affection of a bee?"
2. Hold a Council of All Beings
In a democratic government, representatives of the people meet to dialogue, debate, and make decisions affecting their constituencies. What would happen if other life forms besides humans were included in these discussions? In their book Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World, Joanna Macy and Molly Young Brown describe how the concerns of other beings on the Earth can be acknowledged and acted upon in a Council of All Beings. Each participant in a circle speaks for another life-form — an animal, plant, tree, body of water — expressing that being's concerns. You might talk about threats to the being's habitat or freedom, the effects of pollution, natural disasters, and wars, and more. After all the beings have spoken, talk as humans about your responsibilities to correct some of the environmental and cultural injustices you have identified.
3. Practice Environmental Stewardship
Many of the core values of American democracy come from the beginning of the U. S. Constitution: "We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility … promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity … establish this Constitution." These words encourage care not only in today's world but also on behalf of future generations. And key to this commitment is environmental stewardship.
This sort of stewardship involves conservation and sustainable practices. It requires reducing harmful impacts that humans have on the natural world; it also entails using human intelligence and resources like technology to preserve the rights, welfare, and life of all species and all people. Whether we are concerned with air quality, clean water, greenhouse gases, or other environmental issues, the actions of individuals and groups impact each other. In a sense, our citizenship doesn’t begin and end with being American. As humans we have many forms of dependency that go beyond our nation’s borders and the existence of our own species.
Take our trash. The United States is #1 in the world in trash production; we produce about 262 million tons per year, not including hazardous waste, industrial waste, and construction waste. What happens to all the municipal solid waste we produce? While some of this waste is incinerated, some is composted, and some is recycled, the most recent Environmental Protection Agency reports indicate that 52.5% of U.S. waste goes into landfills, resulting in methane emissions (releasing a greenhouse gas into the atmosphere). Many landfills leach hazardous materials into the soil and groundwater. Much of the waste that goes into landfills is electronic (televisions, computer monitors, batteries, lightbulbs), most of which have a high lead content. U.S. landfills also have other metals, like mercury, that are hazardous to both the environment and to human health.
In the past, a high percentage of U.S. waste was shipped to Asian countries, primarily China. China banned the import of foreign garbage as a threat to its environment and public health. Consequently, much of the waste we think is recycled is incinerated or put in landfills. Some cities, like New York City and San Francisco, have plans to send no waste to landfills and are implementing innovative programs for composting, banning Styrofoam containers and plastic bags, and taking other ecologically sound steps. Most, however, send far more trash to the landfill than is recycled.
* As a responsible citizen concerned about your current community and the world we leave to our posterity, commit yourself to becoming more informed on what happens to your waste. Contact your local municipality to find out who provides waste management services where you live. Ask what percentage of waste is composted, recycled, used in a waste-to-energy facility, and sent to the landfill. Investigate the quality of your local landfill.
* Boost your awareness by choosing an item, like a plastic bottle, a shirt, or a television, and drawing its "life cycle" from the factory to the store, your house, your recycling container, your trash bin, your local landfill, a recycling center, or an incinerator. If you choose an item like a computer, remember to consider its various components, like the battery, circuit board, plastic, hard drive, copper yokes, etc.
4. Recycle: We're Off to a Good Start
Our Earth citizenship carries with it rights and responsibilities, including the responsibility to protect nature and people for the benefit of the common good. One way Americans strive to meet this responsibility is through recycling. However, only about 34% percent of the trash Americans generate is recycled. Experts indicate that less than 10% of all plastic in the U.S. is recycled. While some of it is burned, and some of it is exported, much of it goes into landfills where it can take hundreds of years to break down. Consequently, millions of tons of U.S. plastic make their way into the ocean every year, in their original form, in the form of tiny beads of plastic from breakdown over many years, or in some condition in between. Most of us have seen the startling pictures of islands of trash, such as the 79,000 plus tons of plastic covering an area about twice the size of Texas called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Or the pictures of whales, birds, turtles, seals, and other wildlife killed from ingesting plastic. So, yes, we should absolutely recycle everything we can at home and work.
* Find out from your local recycling center what materials are acceptable. For other items, like used motor oil or used paint, ask your local recycling center for a referral to the nearest recycler or safest method of disposal.
* Some cities offer "commingled" recycling programs that don’t require sorting (also called "single-sort" or "single-stream"); the sorting is done at a separate facility or by the recycler. Even if your city offers commingled recycling, practice "kind-recycling" by separating your recyclables. In other words, put your paper and cardboard together, separate glass by color in paper bags, put your plastics together, put your aluminum and steel recyclables together.
* If recycling services aren’t offered, organize a collection of recyclables in your neighborhood, and take them to the nearest recycling center yourself.
* Don’t stop with what your local recycling center accepts. Believe it or not, there are recycling programs for items like crayons, tennis shoes, tennis balls, and oral-care items. An Internet search will help you identify which programs are available nearest you.
* Remember that recycling isn’t the only option. Multiple charities can make use of your old electronics, like your cellphone or computer. With electronics, it’s best to donate them as soon as you can. Organizations like Charity Watch and Charity Navigator can help you make informed choices about your donations.
5. Reduce Waste
While recycling is a good start, we can do much more. Here are some ideas for running the rest of the race.
* Refuse to buy or use single-use plastic items, like plastic bags, plastic bottles, plastic ware, or plastic straws. Instead, bring your own (BYO) cloth bags, water bottle, thermos, bamboo flatware, or camping flatware.
* Eat at home instead of ordering in. If you do order in, don’t accept "to go" items that you can do without, like napkins, plastic ware, and cups.
* BYO containers for leftovers.
* BYO shopping bags. Cloth bags can be easily washed and reused for years; sturdy boxes also have a long life.
* Consider the packaging. When you can, choose package-free options. Increasingly, you can choose to buy items, from produce to bath soap, without the packaging. When package-free isn’t available, choose items in returnable or recyclable containers.
* Choose biodegradable options, like biodegradable trash bags, toothbrushes, pens, trash cans, dish soap, detergents, and cleaners.
*Consider the impact of packaging and mileage before purchasing items to be shipped or delivered.
* If you haven’t already done so, commit to composting food waste, leaves, and grass clippings.
* Raise others’ awareness of eco-conscious choices by collecting and posting pictures that demonstrate the impact to wildlife and the earth of various types of trash. Try posting these pictures near collection cans when you notice people aren’t recycling, or host a photo exhibit.
* Skip the balloons and ribbons. Balloons and ribbons kill countless animals, like birds and sea turtles who mistake the balloons for food or who get tangled in the ribbons. Even balloons labeled as "biodegradable" can take years to break down. Consider the biodegradability and recyclability of cards and gift wrapping too, not just decorations. Homemade cards and decorations can be even more meaningful than store-bought ones. You can also send your greetings via e-cards.
6. Turn Trash into Art
Common trash can be turned into amazing art! Imagine sculptures made from coat hangers, discarded mechanical parts, or old toys. A chair made from CDs. Lamps made from a hair dryer. People also create craft projects out of their trash: attractive planters out of coffee cans or storage baskets from boxes.
Some cities, like San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Portland, have programs for artists to "scavenge" from their landfills or recycling centers. You will, of course, need to consider what is safe and what is legal before you start scavenging from someone else’s trash, but you can easily start making art with your own.
7. Honor Earth’s Provision
The United States has 61 protected areas known as national parks. If you have ever had a chance to visit one, you may find your sense of patriotism swelling from appreciation of their beauty and grandeur. State parks and conservation areas also remind us, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, that "in wilderness is the preservation of the world." That is true because by observing how Earth provides for us, we find ourselves compelled to protect it. But we must also face our shadow — how humans have degraded the Earth.
In A Field Guide to Nature as Spiritual Practice, Christian spirituality teacher Steven Chase offers a spiritual practice based on environmental studies professor Calvin B. DeWitt’s "provisions of creation" given by God and seven "degradations of creation" resulting from human activity.
Provisions of Creation:
"1. Regulation of Earth’s energy exchange with the sun, which keeps Earth’s temperatures at a level supportive of life through the long-standing greenhouse effect, and which protects life from the sun’s lethal ultraviolet radiation by filtering sunlight through the stratospheric ozone layer.
"2. Biogeochemical cycles and soil-building processes, which cycle oxygen, carbon, water, and other vital materials through living things and their habitats and build life-supporting soils and soil structure.
"3. Ecosystem energy transfer and materials recycling, which continually energizes life on earth and incessantly allocates life-sustaining materials.
"4. Water purification systems of the biosphere, which distill, filter, and purify surface waters and the ground water on which all life depends.
"5. Biological and ecological fruitfulness, which supports and maintains the rich biodiversity of life on Earth by means of responsive and adaptive physiologies and behaviors.
"6. Global circulations of water and air, which distribute water, oxygen, carbon dioxide, and other vital materials between living systems across the planet.
"7. The human ability to learn from creation and live in accordance with its laws, which makes it possible for people to live sustainably on Earth and safeguard creation."
Degradations of Creation:
"1. Alteration of Earth’s energy exchange with the sun, which results in accelerated global warming and destruction of the earth’s protective ozone shield.
"2. Land degradation, which destroys land by erosion, salinization, and desertification, and reduces available land for creatures and crops.
"3. Deforestation, which annually removes some 100,000 square kilometers of primary forest – an area the size of Iceland – and degrades an equal amount by overuse.
"4. Species extinction, which witnesses the elimination of more than three species of plants and animals from the Earth each day.
"5. Water quality degradation, which defiles ground water, lakes, rivers, and oceans.
"6. Waste generation and global toxification, which result from atmospheric and oceanic circulation of the materials that people inject into the air and water.
"7. Human and cultural degradation, which threatens and eliminates long-standing communities that have lived sustainably and cooperatively with creation, and also eliminates a multitude of long-standing varieties of food and garden plants."
As Chase recommends, review DeWitt’s lists of divine provision and human degradation. Then:
* Visit locations for each, especially locations for starting points of degradations.
* Explore scriptural references to the gifts of creation.
* Pray about the degradations and contemplate how to heal them.
* Prayerfully reflect on how your gifts and longings, God’s guidance, and the Earth’s needs call you to respond.
8. Engage in Watershed Restoration
Worldwide, countless communities face water shortages and millions of children under the age of five die each year from diseases contracted from impure drinking water. In the U.S., some water systems are threatened by pollution and increasing numbers of areas are struggling to deal with drought conditions, affecting the water available for residential and agricultural use. For example, the city of El Paso, which in the past primarily relied on the Rio Grande river as its water source, has been irrigating with water reclaimed from sewage treatment. Meanwhile, in 2018 the Environmental Protection Agency proposed plans to reduce the protections of the Clean Water Act.
Learning about your watershed and engaging in its restoration and protection projects gives you a way to enrich your connections with your fellow citizens and your community. A watershed (also known as a catchment or drainage basin) refers to an area of land where precipitation, mainly rainfall and snowmelt, collects in lakes and reservoirs and flows through creeks, streams, and rivers to a common outlet, such as a lake, bay, or the sea. Watersheds vary greatly in size, from a single county to thousands of square miles. For example, the Mississippi River Watershed drains 1.15 million square miles from 31 states. Find out more about your watershed and see a map of it.
Here are some ways you can strengthen democracy at the local level through water-focused civic engagement:
* After you’ve learned about your watershed, spend a few minutes reflecting on the equalizing nature of our common dependence on water. All life depends on water.
* Join a watershed restoration group or Watershed Stewards Academy (WSA) and explore what kinds of political actions it can support.
* Even if you don't join a watershed restoration group or WSA, implement your own water saving measures, like installing rain barrels, recycling waste water, and conserving water use while showering, doing laundry, and dishwashing.
* Organize a clean-up or restoration day at a local waterway.
* Organize a local prayer walk at an area that is important to your watershed.
* Hold worship services outside near a creek, pond, or other body of water.
* Pray for drought-stricken areas.
9. Consider Conscious Clothes
The U.S. Declaration of Independence asserts that all humans are endowed with certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. A democratic approach to Earth stewardship holds that all members of the Earth community have been similarly endowed with certain intrinsic rights, including the right to food, water, and a habitat that is safe and clean. The phenomenon of Fast Fashion poses a danger to a safe and clean environment for many of our Earth community members.
"Fast Fashion" refers to the speed with which the most recent designs are offered by fashion retailers, regardless of the environmental impact. The manufacturing process for new clothes, a major source of greenhouse gases, can involve water pollution, use of toxic chemicals, and textile waste, affecting surrounding habitats. Many garments end up in a landfill or incinerator within a year. A startling quantity of microfibers from washing clothes can't biodegrade; they flow into waterways and the ocean, are consumed, and then make their way up the food chain, affecting fish, land animals, birds, and humans.
Before you buy new clothes, consider the spinning, knitting, weaving, dying, finishing, sewing, and transportation involved. Research the following for both the brand and the retailer before you purchase:
* Are the clothes made of recycled materials? If so, what percentage?
* Does this brand/retailer offer organic fabrics that are not dyed?
* Does this brand/retailer pay those involved in manufacturing a living wage?
* Does it ensure that its factories are free of child labor?
* How does this brand/retailer encourage clothes recycling?
* How long does this brand/retailer keep unsold clothes? What does it do with unsold or returned clothes?
* What specific measures does this brand/retailer use to avoid water pollution, avoid toxic chemicals involved in the fiber growing process as well as the dying process, and reduce the flow of microfibers into the oceans?
10. Organize a Clothing Exchange
Clothing swaps are a great way to counter the harm of "fast fashion." Organize a clothing swap at a campus, school, community center, place of worship, or in your neighborhood. Invite participants to bring clothing they no longer use to exchange for clothing they will use.
If the clothes swap doesn’t work for you, donate your gently-worn clothes to charities in need, recycle your worn-out clothes, and shop at thrift stores. Don’t forget your shoes and accessories from jewelry to eyeglasses and purses. A quick Internet search will yield multiple results for places to donate or swap your clothes and accessories.
11. Establish a Repair Café
While national and global protections are certainly important, stewardship of the earth’s provisions may be best achieved at the local level. One such creative local effort is establishing and using repair cafés. Repair cafés are free meeting places which make volunteers and tools available for people to repair household items like clothing, appliances, bicycles, computers, and furniture. Visitors bring their broken items and work together with skilled specialists to repair them. Repair cafés help people use household items longer, reducing the volume of materials and energy to produce new products, the amount of CO2 emissions associated with manufacturing and recycling, and the amount of trash that goes in landfills.
12. Imagine Your Transition Town
Transition U.S. is a hub for initiatives to help communities transition to non-reliance on fossil fuels. Communities strengthen their ability to withstand severe economic, climate, or energy changes through a variety of methods, such as reducing energy usage, increasing community food production, and matching businesses whose waste can be used by another business. Not only do these initiatives reduce the carbon impact and increase local economies’ independence and sustainability, their emphasis on sustainability and cooperation connect people in circles of compassionate and peaceful civic engagement. Brainstorm with your neighbors how you can adapt these initiatives in your community. For example, one step might be to change a local ordinance to allow people to dry their laundry on clotheslines in their yards.
13. Pick up Litter
Earth provides an amazing variety of plants that produce oxygen, prevent soil erosion, filter air pollution, contribute to soil fertility, and recycle water. They don't deserve to be covered with trash. Picking up litter shows that you care and are aware of our reliance on Earth's many provisions. Some sources say that "plogging" (picking up trash while jogging) is currently the hottest fitness trend. Whether you are adopting a highway mile, a nature trail, a bike path, a park, or just going for a walk, picking up trash is a great way to keep America beautiful.
14. Consult Mother Nature
Have decisions to make about your home site or business site? Want to do an impact assessment, a cost-benefit analysis, or just have a better understanding of the physical and biological processes where you are? Try something like the Ecosystem Services Identification & Inventory Tool, an iPad app and web interface that lets people understand the benefits that nature provides and incorporate the value of nature into decision.
Or are you facing the need for organizational changes? Try applying wisdom drawn from nature toward building a thriving and regenerative organization, like that of Biomimicry for Social Innovation.
15. Stir up Global Interdependence
Have you heard of the Declaration of Interdependence? Through the Earth Council and Green Cross International, Maurice Strong (Secretary-General of the Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit in 1992) and Mikhail Gorbachev launched an initiative (with support from the Dutch Government) to develop an Earth Charter as a civil-society initiative. As a result, the independent Earth Charter Commission engaged in a world-wide consultation process to create the Earth Charter, a global consensus statement and ethical framework for building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society in the 21st century. It seeks to inspire in all people a new sense of global interdependence and shared responsibility for the well-being of the whole human family, the greater community of life, and future generations. It is a vision of hope and a call to action.
Try the action guidelines at Earth Charter Initiative.
You can also use the Charter as a resource for developing standards and ethics, as a community development tool, or as an education framework for sustainable development.
16. Put the Encyclical into Action
Convene a group in your community to review Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment and human ecology. Discuss what it would look like to put its principles into action in your community and in the daily lives of your group.
17. Reduce Your Footprint
The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an internationally recognized authority on climate science, recently released an alarming report warning that if global warming is not kept to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius within the next twelve years, then even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat, and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. Ninety-one leading climate scientists from 40 countries analyzed more than 6,000 scientific climate-change studies and concluded that we have an extremely short time to transition our economy away from fossil fuels and other carbon pollution as part of a necessary global mobilization in pursuit of a stable climate.
At the same time, the U.S. has been the world’s biggest source of emissions, and the Trump administration has withdrawn the U.S. from the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Yet the report predicts drastic falls in grain yields and food supplies, dramatic shrinking of the economy, six times as many wildfires in the U.S., states of permanent drought, many major cities flooded as Arctic ice sheets melt and sea levels rise, the death of nearly all coral reefs, and other disasters.
What does this mean for how we practice democracy? We encourage you to consider the democratic values of justice for all, the common good, and popular sovereignty as you take the following steps:
* Consider what changes you can make to reduce your carbon footprint and make a commitment with your family, neighbors, community, and coworkers to do so. Check in regularly with your partners in this effort to make sure you are all meeting your goals. A free carbon footprint calculator (such as those listed below) can help you determine the amount of carbon dioxide and other carbon compounds emitted due to your consumption of fossil fuel.
* Determine your carbon footprint. Start at home, and see how many friends, neighbors and coworkers you can get involved. Then consider how much travel is required as part of your functioning in the world. Convene a family counsel, neighborhood group, or work group to review what actions you can take to reduce consumption and emissions. Make the necessary changes or recommendations to the appropriate decision-makers. Make sure the group follows up regularly to see how you are doing in meeting your goals.
* Research the impact of global warming on the area in which you live and work. Visit Climate Central to find out how rising sea levels will impact your state. Find out what, if any, actions your local, state, and federal authorities are planning to address these problems. Consider how you believe a government of the people, by the people, and for the people should address these challenges. Get involved in advocating for the solutions you believe are fair, just, and a reflection of America’s core democratic values.
More resources related to the Practicing Democracy Project.
Download additional Practicing Democracy Guides.
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More on connections.
For more on reverence, visit The Reverence Project.
More on wonder.
This Practicing Democracy Guide is copyright © 2019 by Spirituality & Practice (SpiritualityandPractice.com), a multifaith website presenting resources for spiritual journeys as part of the Practicing Democracy Project. The guide was researched and written by Habib Todd Boerger, a 2018 – 2019 Practicing Democracy Fellow. Democratic values, virtues, and spiritual practices chart researched and created by Habib Todd Boerger.
Image credit: Image by David Mark from Pixabay.com
For more information on the Project, visit PracticingDemocracy.net.