Issues arise when we frame our concern about climate and ecological breakdown as being about saving “the Earth.” This invites us to think of the natural world separate from ourselves. Those who don’t care about forest hikes and rare butterflies may ignore pleas to “save the Earth.” We know “the Earth” has seen many waves of extinction and evolution, so we may feel fatalistic about humanity’s decline. What’s more realistic – and motivating – is to realize averting climate and ecological breakdown is about saving ourselves and the rich living resources on which we depend.



Quicklinks to Article Content:
The Problem with Saving “the Earth”
Bearing Witness: One Farm in the Anthropocene
Bearing Witness to the Fragility of Our Food Systems
The “Earth” Is Not Something Separate from Us


The Problem with Saving “the Earth”

Today we’ll be taking time to Bear Witness to the fact that the climate and ecological emergency is not really about destroying something we can call “the Earth.” Instead, we should be concerned about the fact that we are destroying ourselves – and, of course, almost all other forms of life on this planet.

Unfortunately, when protecting “the Earth” is one of our motivations for action on the climate and ecological emergency, a number of issues arise. When we objectify “the Earth” as a precious thing to be saved, we risk framing it as an optional – though lovely – benefit to human beings. Something we love and appreciate and try to take care of, like a pampered pet. Someone who couldn’t care less about forest hikes, rare frogs, and sunsets may be deaf to our pleas to “save the Earth.” We forget that we depend on the natural world for our very existence – the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, the resources that enrich our lives, the energy that warms us and gives us light, and the security we enjoy. Instead of talking about how we’re destroying “the Earth,” I like to talk about how we are endangering “Earth’s natural life-support systems.”

After all, depending on how you define Earth, humans either don’t (yet) have the capability to destroy the planet itself, or we could decimate all current forms of life on Earth but a million years from now the planet would be repopulated – just as lively, but different. Such patterns of boom and bust and change in terms of life on this planet have happened many times before. When we think something called “the Earth” is endangered by the global heating and ecological destruction, we may end up thinking fatalistically about our situation. For example, I’ve heard people suggest that climate chaos is just the Earth’s way of fighting back, and that humans are probably destined for extinction (or something close to it). I’ve heard people observe nonchalantly that at least when humans are gone, the Earth will recover and something else will evolve.

I have to admit I take some solace in the fact that humans are unlikely to be able to completely annihilate life on this planet, no matter what we do. However, I think we need to be wary of framing our climate and ecological crisis as being a question of whether or not we save “the Earth,” or even life itself at its most fundamental level. What is much more realistic and relevant is that we’re facing a question of whether or not to save ourselves, along with the vast living resources on which we depend.

Bearing Witness: One Farm in the Anthropocene

Horton Road Organic Farm

I’ll try to bring this issue alive by sharing something written by a good friend mine. Debra Seido Martin has been an organic farmer for over 30 years. She and her husband have a jewel of an organic farm near Eugene, Oregon, called Horton Road Organics. I’ve had the joy of visiting the farm many times, and – to my mind, anyway – it’s a poster child for sustainable agriculture. I fantasize about how wonderful the world would be if this was how we raised all of our food: On small-scale farms, no herbicides and pesticides, diversified and rotated crops, organic fertilizer carefully applied, mindfulness of the cycles of nature and how to retain long-term soil quality… Seido’s farm also includes an apprenticeship program, where people who want to learn how to farm come to live and work during the growing season.

I asked Seido (Seido is her Zen name, which is how I know her) to tell me how the climate and ecological crisis affects her farm. Generously, she wrote a short piece she named “One Farm in the Anthropocene:”

“This next generation of farmers faces profound challenges in growing food. My heart aches for them. Their world will not be my world I have farmed in for 30 years. I am bolstered by their passion to do it anyway. When people find out I’m a farmer, they often exclaim, “Wow, that’s really hard.” They imagine overwhelming manual labor and voracious insects mowing down your crops. A Dorothea Lang shot of the dustbowl. But in truth, those things are not hard in a stable climate. They’re predictable if you are skilled. Losses are integrated into the diverse organic system. Running an organization of unpredictable humans is hard, but the crops are lawful and reliable, the work energizing. Until now.


“Now in this Oregon mountain valley, it’s possible to have 116-degree days where all plants immediately go into stress mode. Like humans under duress, they forgo reproducing in favor of survival. Tomatoes and eggplant drop their blossoms to keep themselves hydrated, thereby losing all future fruit in a single event. It’s now possible for smoke from fires to blot out the sun for days, the air quality to be in an AQI maroon zone of extremely hazardous. Two years ago, ash from one of these fires deadened the heads of white cauliflower and ruined whole plantings of lettuce and celery that could not be washed free of it. Before 2020, we did not even know what an AQI – air quality index – even was. Now we have policies about at what AQI level we pull our crew out of the field and where they can go to breathe. We have to figure out what temperature is too great for anyone to work in.


“It’s now possible for the electricity that runs our irrigation and cooler to be shut off for days due to fire danger. Huge losses ensue. It’s now possible for peak season outdoor markets to be cancelled due to extreme heat or smoke or storm. When this happens, we cannot recoup those financial losses. It’s possible our farm will not have enough water in the future to irrigate from the creek in which salmon spawn. That will be the end of the farm because food crops need water no matter how much conservation you do. That possibility brings great sadness, though I am more accepting as I head towards the end of my career.


“It is harder to send these young farmers off after a season of apprenticeship to start their own farms. They head into a complete unknown as to how to mitigate all these challenges in addition to learning how to do everything else. Of course, it’s also possible collectively to stop the direction of ecological collapse in which we are heading. Farmers know about resilience and renewal, letting go and beginning again. Given half a chance, everything is generative and full of creative life. In this new world, that farmers have access to this will be of vital importance.” – Debra Seido Martin

Bearing Witness to the Fragility of Our Food Systems

Let us Bear Witness to the fact that our worsening climate and ecological crisis is going to bring food shortages all over the world. Even if we convert all agriculture to organic and sustainable practices, an unstable climate and increasingly frequent and severe droughts, floods, fires, heatwaves, and other severe weather events are going to seriously challenge our ability to grow food. Farming practices developed over the millennia will become insufficient to meet those challenges in a way that can reliably feed everyone and allow farmers to make a living.

Most of those fortunate enough to live in rich nations have not known serious food shortages, but try to imagine what it’s like, if you haven’t actually experienced it. Food stops being something you can take for granted. You need to think about it a lot. It becomes one of your main concerns: Where to find it, how to obtain it, how to afford it, and how to compete for it and then protect it.

Just think of the hoarding that occurred at the beginning of COVID lockdown in most places, in early 2020. I had been fortunate enough in my life that this was the very first time I had seen empty grocery shelves. I remember my body buzzing with anxiety as I decided whether I should grab an extra bag of pasta off the shelf – not because I had any immediate need for it, but because there weren’t many left, and who knew what kind of deprivation we would be facing in the near future? I remember the tension in the grocery store as everyone was looking out for themselves and their families, with the tacit understanding that we would sacrifice civility if we felt it was necessary to get what we needed. I remember standing in a 30-minute line to check out – a line that snaked around the giant grocery store so far that it started in the far corner by the butter and yogurt coolers – and wondering just how much crazier things might get. I remember the extra cans of soup, boxes of crackers, and bottles of Gatorade I piled up in my storage room; they sat there, untouched, to protect us from the horror of lack.

In most parts of the world, incredibly, the COVID pandemic resulted in few serious shortages. Only a handful of items ended up disappearing entirely, and generally those were things we could do without. Imagine, in contrast, what a global wheat shortage would do to us. It wouldn’t simply be a matter of not being able to buy flour for our pandemic bread baking habit. There would be a shortage of bread, pasta, cereal, and many other items. What would such stress do to our already fragile social, political, and economic systems? What conflicts would it cause or exacerbate within our already divided and volatile societies?

The “Earth” Is Not Something Separate from Us

When I think of saving “the Earth,” I think of the beauty and wonder of nature, and how I want to save it for its own sake. I think of Seido’s tomatoes dropping their blossoms, of the salmon in the stream that gets lower every year, of our forests singed by hellish temperatures 15 degrees F higher than what is locally considered extremely hot. My love of, and respect for, nature inspired me to write a dedication for my Zen group many years ago: “May great compassion inspire all to wise stewardship of our planet, its ecosystems, and wondrous creatures.”

A few years back, I changed that dedication to, “May great compassion cause all to awaken to our interdependence with our planet, its ecosystems, and wondrous creatures.” The concept of stewardship, as sincere and noble as it might be, is dangerously applied in the case of Earth’s natural life-support systems. Who are we to think of ourselves as “stewards” of nature? As if it’s something separate from us, something that depends on us for care, something we deserve kudos for preserving.

We are inseparable from nature. Increasingly, we are coming to understand that nature is not pretty scene for us to enjoy, a setting for our recreation, a source of materials for our comfort and pleasure, a treasury of wealth for us to extract and exploit, or a lifeless terrain to be manipulated to our advantage. Nature makes every last aspect of our life possible – and it can only do so when it is alive, whether we’re talking about living entities or living systems.

In saving nature, in saving life on Earth, we are saving ourselves. As we seek to motivate ourselves and others to take action on the climate and ecological emergency, it’s generally going to be much more effective to emphasize saving ourselves than it will be to emphasize saving some kind of abstraction called “the Earth.” In the vast majority of human beings, the instinct for self-preservation – including the preservation of family – is much stronger and more compelling than any idealistic intention to conserve plants, animals, and ecosystems for their own sake.

Fortunately, we will save life on Earth by saving ourselves, because these tasks are one and the same. Any belief that humans will save themselves through human ingenuity and technology alone, while we continue to trash nature, will end in disaster.

One encouraging thing is that acknowledging our interdependence with nature – although frightening at times – can also be deeply connecting and rewarding. Just ask yourself which of these two realities you’d rather be part of: One where the things of the Earth, living and non-living, are here to be used up by human beings, and when we run out of stuff or start drowning in our own waste we’ll just move to another planet or live in outer space or wait for the rapture. Or, instead, a reality where human beings are dependent on, related to, and responsible for the things of the Earth, living and non-living, and where we learn to live in sustainable, honorable, and harmonious ways with the greater-than-human world – whether you want to call that world “the Earth,” mother Earth, the web of life, nature, or God’s creation.


Image by Annette Aigner from Pixabay



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