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In Honor of Tree Huggers, Water Protectors, and Re-Wilders

Why loving the nonhuman world is necessary to restore our planet’s health.

We do extraordinary things when we fall in love. Our attention to the needs of another can be laser-focused. Our protective urges are on high alert. We may imbue our imaginations with new kinds of curiosity that rebel against the fixed ideas of reality, which can make us seem a little bit crazy. The tried and true feels unreliable and false. We become promethean, ready to remake the world with renewed energy and purpose. We delight in differences we hadn’t recognized before and seek to ensure that our new way of seeing is not diminished by naysayers, experts, and traditionalists. This kind of love isn’t always romantic, but it involves similar emotions and motivation, emerging sometimes from budding affection or an ethos of care for others. Even ephemeral love can rewire our sensibilities and move us toward adventures we might not otherwise have embarked upon. In that brief moment, we realize that the power to love can take us beyond ourselves.

Actor and environmentalist Mark Rylance recently called upon artists to use this power to bring us closer to the nonhuman world. He thinks we have been taught the wrong lessons about love’s limits, leading us to depreciate the natural world. In a recent interview, he said “I feel like we’ve got to fall in love with nature again; we do incredible things for each other when we fall in love,” adding that “We’ve been encouraged not to love animals, not to love plants, in order to enable us and others to be heartless about them and treat them as products and commodities to be used, and that’s not working.” Rylance wants us to imagine eco-centric love stories that will inspire us to stop global warming, protect our fellow earthlings, and fill our hearts with hope as we face down the threats of the climate crisis—as he puts it, “stories to awaken compassion, to awaken people to make a change.”

Paeans to loving the nonhuman world might strike an odd note to those of us familiar with the hopeless reports generated by climate science and politicians. As Katharine Hayhoe, chief scientist at the Nature Conservancy, laments: “I don’t find hope in the science of climate change—where nearly every time a new study comes out, it shows that climate is changing faster or to a greater extent than we thought. I don’t find hope in politics, either—where arguments over the arrangement of deck chairs continue as the Titanic tilts at an ever more dangerous angle.” She is referring to the abundance of scary stories we read about in the environmental news: loss of habitat, human-caused mass extinction, the disabling of ecosystem services, and so on. We also know that the root cause of pandemics is human destruction of forests and ecosystem functions and the zoonotic transfer to humans of pathogens from our fellow animals. This is the reality that most world leaders are prone to ignore because their livelihoods and political fortunes depend on climate inaction in the service of industrial agriculture, extractive industries, and fossil fuel barons. And yet, Hayhoe has found inspiration in the millions of people pushing for climate action, because they improve the chances “of a better future for us all. That’s what gives me hope.”

There is evidence of a societal shift occurring that has elicited optimism in some unlikely places—from shareholder activists winning seats on the boards of major fossil fuel companies, with the intention of preparing them for the end of oil and gas (carbon bubble bursting), to a court order in the Netherlands forcing Royal Dutch Shell to reduce emissions by nearly half in a mere nine years. We can be cynical about this tremor shaking up business-as-usual, but it resonates with the growing admiration for climate activism and the hope it inspires.

Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University, is “cautiously optimistic about our prospects for averting catastrophic climate change.” He says that “as climate impacts become obvious to the person on the street and impossible to doubt,” the end of the “age of denial” is at hand. He takes heart in the youth climate movement, which has galvanized “public attention” and helped to focus our obligations of care on the “least culpable and most vulnerable.” Meanwhile, the pandemic has forced open the debate on “the sustainability of our current path,” while the “shift in political winds [with the change in US leadership] has raised the stakes and led fence-sitting nations to step up to the plate.”

After a century of destruction of the Earth’s ecosystems, people are rising up with renewed passion for nature, embracing hope that we can emerge from our long period of mourning the loss of beloved wetlands, forests, marine ecosystems, and other sources of life and a healthy planet. It’s time to enact an ecological form of restorative justice, expanding the global work of water protection, conservation, and re-wilding of farmlands, grasslands, and forests to a territorial scale the size of China. That is the aim of a new decade of ecosystem restoration called for by the United Nations, which has marked June 5 as World Environment Day. The guiding theme of this decade of action invokes the power to love nature in order to “Reimagine, Recreate, and Restore” our planet’s natural beauty and life-sustaining processes.

We have the resources to build the vast infrastructure of ecosystem care envisioned by this project. We can no longer afford to normalize human heartlessness toward the nonhuman world, letting media and other social institutions commodify nature as merely a thing to behold and exploit. For far too long this has devalued and destroyed our common home. As Mark Rylance politely puts it, “that’s not working.”

More from Toby Miller, Ph.D., and Richard Maxwell Ph.D.
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