Andrew Fiala

In the digital age, it is key to get outside and feel the sunshine, breeze and dirt

Chris Witmer from central Florida rides a rented bike with his family through Yosemite Valley June 4 in Yosemite National Park.
Chris Witmer from central Florida rides a rented bike with his family through Yosemite Valley June 4 in Yosemite National Park. Fresno Bee file

The California Conference of Bishops released a pastoral statement last week on the need for environmental justice and environmental education. The document is inspired by the Pope’s ecological encyclical, “Laudato Si': On Care for Our Common Home.”

The bishops call for a renewal of spirituality that would “approach the gift of creation with awe and wonder.” Of special concern is climate change. The bishops state, “The disruption of the Earth’s climate is one of the principal challenges facing humanity today, with grave implications for the poor.”

Not everyone will agree with all of this. President Trump denied that climate change is a problem when he met with Prince Charles earlier this month. Climate change is more polarizing than abortion, according to a recent poll from Yale University. The Catholic approach also has the potential to be divisive. It links “integral ecology” to rejection of abortion.


But what is needed now is common ground in defense of our common home. Poetic language can help to make this clear. The bishops follow the Pope in suggesting that the Earth is our mother and our sister. They say that sun, fire and wind are our brothers. This may sound like something from new age spirituality. But it is inspired by the poetry of St. Francis of Assisi.

Similar metaphors can be found in other traditions. In the Lakota tradition, the phrase “mitakuye oyasin” means we are all related. A Hindu hymn says, “the earth is my mother, I am her son.” The Dalai Lama writes, “If we think of the planet as our house or as our mother, Mother Earth, we automatically feel concern for our environment.” And in the Chinese tradition, the philosopher Zhang Zai wrote, “Heaven is my father and earth is my mother. All people are my brothers and sisters, all things are my companions.”

We can find common ground in the world’s spiritual traditions, which celebrate the interconnectedness of life and the need to care for our earthly home. The problem, of course, is that we focus on short-term self-interest and lose sight of the larger whole.

So how do we transform consciousness in a way that becomes ecologically aware? Science, poetry, and religion help. But we also need direct experience of nature.

The world does not feel like a home to those who do not live fully within it. The Earth does not really feel like a mother to those who live in artificial worlds and virtual reality. We sit in air-conditioned places watching flickering images on screens. We don’t see the trees, waters, and soils that sustain us. If we do not touch the natural world, it cannot touch us in return.

The solution is easy. Dig in the dirt and see the worms, roots, and insects that form the nurturing soil. Climb a tree and study the leaves and branches that produce the air we breathe. Watch the sun move across the sky or the river flow. We cannot live without these earthly powers.

Nature is all around us, reminding us of our fragility and interconnection. But we close ourselves off and ignore the organic reality that makes life possible. Surely the way to cultivate ecological consciousness is to shut off our screens and go outside.

Here is a radical proposal. Let’s encourage everyone to set aside a certain time every day to encounter nature directly. Sit beneath a tree. Lay down in the grass. Listen to the birds. Feel the wind and the rain. Watch the sun rise or set. Study the constellations. Observe the moon.

Taking a moment for nature would help us to de-stress and detoxify. We lived hunched over screens. Our posture turns us inward. We don’t breathe from our bellies or lift our heads to the sky.

In California, opportunities for transformational ecological experience abound. A trip to Yosemite can have a profound impact. John Muir said, “Going to the mountains is going home.” But you don’t need to hike up Half Dome to find your way back home. Green things live just outside your window. The worms and the birds are busy in your yard. To get back home, you only need to open your door and go outside.

Andrew Fiala is a professor of philosophy and director of The Ethics Center at Fresno State: @PhilosophyFiala