By The Rev. Canon Pam Hyde
I was seven years old, living on the suburban/rural fringe east of Cleveland, on June 22, 1969, when the Cuyahoga River in downtown Cleveland caught on fire. I’m sure my parents remarked on it when the news hit the front page of the Cleveland Plain Dealer the next day, but I don’t remember that. Our six acres of forest with a creek running through it was undoubtedly beckoning to me that summer day, and I was unlikely to be able to comprehend or visualize what it meant for a river to catch on fire. Rivers don’t catch on fire, do they?
But I was one of the lucky ones. I didn’t live in the inner city of Cleveland. I didn’t experience the industrial pollution, trash, and grime that filled those communities and the river that ran through them. I didn’t see firsthand the black smoke that filled the sky above the Cuyahoga after molten sparks from a passing rail car set fire to oil- and chemical-soaked debris floating on the river. It was only later when I was older and learned about how many communities, natural places, and waters outside my own idyllic enclave had been despoiled at the hands of humankind, that my heart broke and I became determined to prevent further degradation and to restore our damaged earth.
Others were quicker to dedicate themselves to this cause. Senator Gaylord Nelson and others, who had seen 1969 bring not only the Cuyahoga River fire but a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, California six months earlier, decided to do something about the deteriorating environment in the United States. They recruited Denis Hayes, a young activist, to organize a day of action across the country on April 22, 1970, which was called Earth Day. Twenty million people demonstrated. And change began to happen.
We’ve seen a lot of changes in the past 53 years since that first Earth Day. But the impact of humankind on the earth is no less catastrophic today. It has become clear from new scientific reports that come to our attention seemingly every day that we’re decimating wildlife species, polluting our oceans, and changing earth’s climate in ways that harm life on earth — human and non-human — now and for generations to come.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu allegedly once said, “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” And I believe that this applies to our dilemma concerning the state of our planet. We keep trying to fix the problems we encounter without trying to understand why they keep occurring. Why do species keep disappearing at an increasing rate when we have the Endangered Species Act? Why do we continue to see global temperatures rising when we’re taking steps to reduce our carbon footprint? Why does the production of plastics continue to increase when our landfills are full and we know that plastic can take up to 500 years to decompose?
As Christians, it’s our job to go upstream and find the root cause of our overall planetary problem. Making sure that rivers don’t catch on fire isn’t enough. We need to make deep-seated changes. We need to love the earth and all its creatures the way that God does. We need to cherish it. Respect it. Treat it as our beloved kin. As the neighbor that Jesus commands us to love. Even the neighbor that is a little hard to love, like, say, the scorpion or the rattlesnake. The earth is the Lord’s, not ours. And so there’s not one thing on this earth that we can decide is expendable if God has not.
On Earth Day this Saturday, I encourage everyone to fundamentally rethink their relationship with the Earth. To see every rock, every plant, every creature from mammal to bird to insect, as just as special to God as we are. God created every little thing for a reason, whether that reason is fully known to us or not. If for one day we can try to see the natural world around us through God’s eyes, maybe that will begin a radical shift in the way we treat the earth. Take this Saturday to focus on this task. Go outside and experience the natural world. Visit a national park for free1. Attend an Earth Day event in your community or state park2. Begin a weekly practice in your church this Sunday of praying for the earth as part of your Sunday worship3. Because it’s not enough just to stop rivers from burning. We need to see rivers — and everything else on earth — the same way God does.
1 For more information, see the Bishop’s E-pistle for March 29, 2023.
2 See a partial listing of Earth Day events in the Bishop’s E-pistle for April 19, 2023.
3 See Resolution 2022-1 “Prayers for God’s Creation” passed at Diocesan Convention last year (https://azdiocese.org/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/2022-01-Prayers-for-Creation.docx.pdf) and talk to your rector, vicar, or priest-in-charge about incorporating these prayers into your weekly worship.
The Rev. Canon Pam Hyde is the Canon for Creation Care for the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona.