Diane Wilson, a 2023 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, spoke with Sojourners’ associate news editor Mitchell Atencio.
I'M A FOURTH-GENERATION FISHERWOMAN. In 1989, I was working in Froggy’s Shrimp Company as one of the only woman fish house managers. A shrimper came in the office and pitched a [newspaper] article on the desk. It was the first time the toxic release inventory ever was made public. It was part of the Community Right-to-Know Act. Calhoun County is a small, rural county, but we were number one in the nation for toxic disposal.
Elizabeth Weinberg draws connections between things many of us haven’t thought to link together. In her 2022 book, Unsettling: Surviving Extinction Together, a whale’s excrement is not just feces but the nourishment that fuels whole ecosystems.
As the school year sets at St. Thomas More Academy in southeastern Washington, D.C., students spring into action for a day of tree-tending. Eighth graders at the Catholic elementary school swap books and computers for shovels, rakes, and hoses and head outside to tend to the more than six dozen growing trees around their campus. They remove old mulch, add some new, and water each of the trees.
I NODDED ALONG with everything in the holistic permaculture course until day four, when things went off the rails. My family and I were at a farm in Bolivia, volunteering and learning about land design, groundwater recharging, alternative energy technologies, and returning fertility to the earth. Day four’s topic was community-building, which sounded innocuous enough.
Our host and instructor was a man from New Zealand who has farmed two acres in a remote Bolivian valley for nearly a decade. He talked about the importance of local decision-making, how focusing on global problems over which we have little influence can leave us feeling disempowered. Human-induced climate change, he added, is another story the oligarchs at the top are telling to stoke our fears and get us to surrender our freedoms. That and the pandemic.
Our host’s views are extreme. But he is among a growing group of back-to-the-land conservatives who don’t fit my categories. He disbelieves mainstream climate science, yet he is installing solar ovens, composting toilets, and bioconstructed buildings on his property. He scoffs at “wokeism,” which he sees as another form of top-down control, yet he deeply respects the local Indigenous community and attends the Quechua-only neighborhood meetings with surrounding farmers.
Humanizing the Harrowing
The French film Saint Omer follows the trial of a Senegalese woman accused of murdering her child. The docudrama is a condemnation of the criminal legal system, and a reminder that no one is the totality of the worst thing they’ve done.
Les Films du Losange
LASCAUX IS FAMOUS for its Paleolithic cave paintings, found in an underground complex in southwest France. The biggest area of Lascaux with the most abundant paintings is an echo chamber. Enveloped in sound, our human ancestors may have drummed and danced around a flickering fire whose shadows animated the natural scenes of people, animals, and their environment on the surrounding walls—all inviting transcendence. In ancient Greek religion, the lyrical music of Orpheus charmed the gods and compelled animals, even rocks and trees, to dance. Early Christian iconography developed a practice of liturgical art that both offered theological instruction and included details of the plant and animal world, both literal and allegorical, to foster spiritual reverence.
Closer to our time, great thinkers such as 19th-century German explorer-scientist Alexander von Humbolt looked beyond isolated organisms to the unity among plants, climate, and geography. In the 20th century, French Jesuit and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s perception that the universe is an evolutionary process moving toward greater complexity and consciousness furthered the understanding that humans are interdependent with the created world. Albert Einstein wrote that human beings experience ourselves “as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of consciousness” and that “we will have to learn to think in a new way” if humanity is to survive. This view is echoed in new developments in quantum physics that we may be evolving toward a more coherent wholeness among spirituality, science, and art.
The icon paintings of Angela Manno, an internationally exhibited and collected artist, are yet another expression of this lineage in her series “Sacred Icons of Endangered Species.” I interviewed Manno by email and telephone in March.
Andrea M. Couture: As a contemporary artist, what attracted you to icon painting, one of the oldest forms of Christian art, going back to the third century?
Angela Manno: I’ve been fascinated by non-Western and ancient art forms throughout my life, from illuminated manuscripts as a child to batik while traveling through Indonesia in my early 20s; icon materials—gold leaf, pigments made from ground up semiprecious stones, earth colors; and the ethereal look of the finished product’s images of angels and saints.
In the 1980s, I developed my own personal idiom, combining the ancient art of batik with color xerography to symbolize the merging of intuition and reason. My aim was to convey a sense of the sacredness of the planet Earth. In the 1990s, no longer having access to my large studio and a photocopier, I searched for a medium that would allow me to work in a more modest space and, at the same time, I wanted to explore a truly liturgical art form. In a stroke of synchronicity, I had the opportunity to begin studying with a master iconographer from Russia in the Byzantine-Russian style, and became completely captivated by the symbolism, not only in the images, but in the process itself, and studied with him for over a decade.
THE IRRITATING THING about the Bible—well, one irritating thing about it—is that it keeps instructing us, in unambiguous terms, to do things we don’t want to.
On the first page it tells us to take care of the earth, which is quite embarrassing now that we’re fiddling with the thermostat and killing off large numbers of the creatures that we are supposed to look after.
Of course, it gets much worse once we reach the gospels and we’re told to take care of the poor and—well, I mean, come on, stop the steal. Nastiest of all is the quite specific demand to welcome the stranger. Clearly, we’re not into that—nearly three-quarters of white Christians voted for the candidate whose senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, once said, “I would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched American soil.”
These various unreasonable demands become even more unreasonable as time goes on, because they start to converge. Because we failed to take care of the earth, instead burning massive amounts of coal and gas and oil, we raised the temperature, and because hurricanes draw their power from the heat in the ocean, we now have more of them—this past season we set a record in the Atlantic, with a nonstop procession of storms that exhausted the regular alphabet and drove us deep into the Greek one. Hence, it was storms Eta and Iota that crashed into Central America in November, causing incredible wreckage: By some early estimates, Honduras saw damage equivalent to 40 percent of its GDP. (Katrina, one of America’s worst storms, cost us 1 percent of our GDP.) Not surprisingly, Honduras is now an even more difficult place to live—indeed, for many people an impossible one, given that food and shelter, which are actually necessary for survival, can’t be found.
Addressing climate change is a faith-based obligation to “protect God’s creation,” say 81 percent of American religious voters surveyed in a poll released this morning from Climate Nexus and Yale and George Mason’s respective programs on climate change communications.
Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was one of the worst environmental justice disasters in modern U.S. history. It was also one of the first times that I, then a teenager, consciously connected animal justice and racial justice. Kanye West’s declaration “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” is often remembered as the statement on racism in Katrina, but another expression that needed no words circulated among black people in the hurricane’s immediate aftermath: a picture of pets being evacuated on an air-conditioned bus.
While black people were abandoned, dead, and dying on rooftops, corpses floating bloated in flooded streets, people’s pets were evacuated to safety.
Black people have long understood as racist the disparate treatment of nonhuman animals and black people. In 1855, Frederick Douglass wrote that “The bond-woman lives as a slave, and is left to die as a beast; often with fewer attentions than are paid to a favorite horse.
As a Christian, I believe God calls us to a total and radical re-imagination and transformation of our relationship with others and the earth. We yearn for a vision of complete reconciliation for all of God’s created order. As political leaders, especially those of you grounded in faith and values, I implore you to respond faithfully and with full force to love God and neighbor by enacting just, compassionate, and transformative climate policies that rise to the challenge of the climate crisis.
8-year-old activist Havana Chapman-Edwards, also known as the Tiny Diplomat, closed that day with a powerful statement on climate justice intersectionality. “I am here today because climate justice issues are not separate from other justice issues. It’s not right that wildfires, droughts and other climate disasters are being ignored. Black, indigenous, and people of color are doing the least damage to the planet but we are the ones who are paying the price first.”
MAYBE YOU’VE HEARD a land acknowledgement at a conference, sporting event, or worship service. These brief statements name the Indigenous territory on which an event takes place, a small sign of respect to the people who stewarded this land for millennia and whose deep relationship to the land continues today. For any of us who’ve settled on that land, these statements are intentionally unsettling, a way “to counteract the ideologies operating in the Doctrine of Discovery by naming that the land was not empty when Europeans first arrived,” as one group of Canadian churches put it.
But land acknowledgements become trite—an easy checkmark in the social justice box—if they are not part of ongoing relationships with local Indigenous communities. These relationships must include settlers being quiet and listening to some hard truths from Indigenous people about history, responsibility, and reparations.
CHANGE YOUR LENSES, please. Okay, maybe you can’t simply change lenses right now, but would you at least notice the lenses you are currently wearing? If you are like, say, 99.9 percent of us in the U.S., you have been influenced by a very particular set of perspectives that interpret life from an Enlightenment-bound Western worldview.
All of our lenses have various perspectival tints, but Western worldviews seem to have several in common, including the foundational influence of Platonic dualism, inherited from the Greeks. This particular influence absolutizes the realm of the abstract (spirit, soul, mind) and reduces the importance of the concrete realm (earth, body, material), disengaging them from one another. In dualistic thinking, we are no longer an existing whole.
Western worldviews tend to have other related assumptions—such as hierarchy, extrinsic categorization, individualism, patriarchy, utopianism, racism, triumphalism, religious intolerance, greed, and anthropocentrism. But the influence of dualism empowers these other concerns.
What difference would it make if life were viewed instead as a fundamental whole, if the earth itself were seen as spiritual? And how would such a worldview square with Jesus’ approach to such matters?
IF YOU’RE LIKE me, your first response to the title of Eduardo Sasso’s book was “What?!” But, as unusual as the pairing of climate change and sex is, Sasso proves that their association is fitting. A Climate of Desire argues that the challenge of today’s climate crisis is ultimately not about technology, science, or political will. Rather, like sex, it’s “about desire: about what we long for and about the consequences of our longings.”
Our longings have always been ripe for co-optation. Sasso’s book shows how, throughout history, from the tower of Babel to the tech frontier of modern California, people have been tempted to forsake their God-given humanity for an artificial substitute. Our problem today, though, is that our refusal to learn from the past comes with an exorbitant price tag. Fossil fuels have enabled the unrestrained indulgence of our misplaced desires, transforming our cities into engines of unprecedented ecological devastation.
In A Climate of Desire, Sasso reminds us that the Spirit-inspired imagination of ancient truth-tellers such as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Jesus himself has a great deal to offer us in our current predicament. Calling their contemporaries to repentance, these holy dreamers denounced the harlotry of cities and nations that were running after false gods of wealth and power. They proclaimed visions of the holy that bordered on the psychedelic and grasped that at the heart of injustice and violence is misplaced desire.
Sasso finds tremendous strength in these ancient voices. But he also gains inspiration from recent campaigns for civil rights and contemporary initiatives for ecological renewal, such as the Transition Network and the fossil-free divestment movement.
THERE ARE SEVERAL good and interesting arguments to be had about climate change: Should we tax carbon? How much? Concentrate on electric cars or on public transit? How best to reduce the factory farming that creates so many emissions? Dealing with this crisis will involve the biggest and most rapid transition in economic history, so it would be strange if there weren’t debates about how to proceed.
But one debate not to have is: Is global warming real? By now it’s entirely obvious that the scientists are basically right—that’s why there’s half as much ice in the Arctic as when they started warning us, and half as many coral reefs. Donald Trump aside (there’s a nice thought), this one is so clear even the oil companies don’t dispute it, though of course they try to delay and minimize the need for real change.
Deprived of that point of contention, those who want to disrupt the push for climate action fall back on two particularly dumb straw-man arguments, which are worth engaging just long enough to dispose of.
One is that climate activists want to “turn off fossil fuels tomorrow.” You hear this from oil companies, but you also hear it from liberal politicians who don’t want to take strong action against oil companies. When local environmental justice groups, for instance, asked then-California Gov. Jerry Brown to stop permitting new oil wells next to their schools and homes, he responded with roughly the sensitivity and candor of Oklahoma’s climate-denying Sen. Jim Inhofe. Environmentalists, he said, wanted him to “snap my fingers and eliminate all gasoline in all California gasoline stations.” And if he did that, he said, “What would happen? Revolution? Killings? Shootings?”
PEOPLE WHO are sensitive to creation know that creation is in constant flux. Continents drift, climates change, magnetic poles flip-flop, and bogs gradually give way to wet meadows and then various kinds of forests. There’s a natural succession out here under the sun, and I think there’s a kind of natural succession going on theologically for many Christians as well. ...
First, increased concern for the poor and oppressed leads to increased concern for all of creation. The same forces that hurt widows and orphans, minorities and women, children and the elderly also hurt the songbirds and trout, the ferns and old growth forests: greed, impatience, selfishness, arrogance, hurry, anger, competition, irreverence—plus a spirituality that cares for souls but neglects bodies, that prepares for eternity in heaven but abandons history on earth. ...
Stormwater pollution is the fastest growing source of pollution in the Chesapeake Bay watershed—a 64,000 square mile drainage basin that sprawls across parts of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia, New York, and Washington, D.C. One of the contributors: religious congregations.