What We Love We Will Protect
By Bishop Marc Andrus
Two stories I heard on the way to COP27, the latest United Nations climate change conference, being held in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, reminded me of the truth that “what we love we will protect.” These stories taught me something new about this saying, though – we love beings with souls, and we have to see and believe that a being has a soul to let us truly love them.
I don’t need to review that empire-building projects depend on strategies of domination and the reduction of ensouled beings – humans and other kind – to mere things. We are in an advanced stage of empire-building, that, in the last hundred-plus years has crescendoed and rushed the objectification of life. The two stories show how this process of reducing life to “things” can be reversed, and in turn, how disregarded, objectified beings can claim their places in the Beloved Community. I’d like to review the dynamic of getting a soul back as I see it in these two stories.
The first is a story about some plucky – better yet, tremendously courageous, indomitable – wild cows on Cedar Island, North Carolina who survived a deadly storm surge. True Grit, by J.B. MacKinnon appeared in The Atavist Magazine, and was entirely griping and moving throughout.
MacKinnon describes how there are wild horses and cows on Cedar Island, as on several other North Carolina and Virginia islands. People are interested and invested in the wild horses, not the wild cows. With some background on the horses, the cows and the people who live on Cedar Island, MacKinnon then moves us into the drama and the science that concocted a rare and deadly storm surge during the onslaught of Hurricane Dorian in September 2019.
Dozens of horses and cows drowned in the surge, but days later hoof prints of cows were found in an entirely different area, many miles from the cows’ normal range. Eventually, four cows were found who swam between 28.4 and 40 miles to safety. MacKinnon points out that the low number, 28.4 is more than the distance swum by hardy people daring the British Channel. And these were cows, not practiced, trained swimmers.
The story of the incredible feat of survival by these four cows won them names – Dori for the most famous of the four – a sign of a changed status, from a thing to an ensouled being. MacKinnon also goes on, prompted by his own reactions to this story, to learn about the feelings of cows, the social lives of cows, both qualities of life we daily deny them as 36 million cows are slaughtered each day worldwide. If we recognized cows as ensouled beings, how would our treatment of them change?
We can begin to answer that question by turning to the other story I found during my trip to COP27, the documentary The Loneliest Whale, the Search for 52, written and directed by Joshua Zeman. The 52 in the film’s title refers to the hertz number for a particular whale identified by sound off the coast of California in the 1990s. 52 hertz is not a frequency used by any other whales documented at the time. No whale was every heard responding to this mysterious, singular whale, thus the sobriquet that went viral for this whale, the loneliest whale.
The whole documentary is fascinating, and I recommend it to you. But how it fits with our Cedar Island ensouled cows is this: Zeman works in some background on our relationship to whales, particularly the hunting of whales. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution, before the discovery of oil and natural gas, whale oil was big business, alongside coal. Whales and coal fueled, literally, the burgeoning Industrial Revolution.
But Zeman, points out, the slaughter of whales didn’t abate after the advent of fossil fuels usage. In fact, whales were on the point of extinction in the late 1950s, with 33,000 a year being killed using industrial, even war-like techniques. There was no romantic pitting of human against whale in 20th Century whale killing; it was as efficient and gruesome as any on-land slaughterhouse.
Then something remarkable happened. In 1967, Roger Payne and Scot McVay, bio-acousticians, discovered the complex, haunting songs of the humpback whales. These songs last an average of 30 minutes, and are sung by pods – choirs, I would say – of male humpbacks. Payne rhapsodized himself, calling the whale songs, “exuberant, uninterrupted rivers of sound.” The paper that Payne and McVay published created a sensation in the scientific world, but this was nothing compared to what happened when, motivated by his desire to halt the killing of whales, Payne released an album, Song of the Humpback Whale.
People were enraptured by the whales’ songs, and very soon a robust, global Save the Whales movement arose. Again, I think, what we witness in this history is the emergence of beings who had been denied their status as ensouled, back into the fold of the Beloved Community. Who would feel comfortable slaughtering these virtuoso singers, singers within families and communities? Not many would, by the numbers – Zeman points out that today the annual number of whales killed is 1% of what it was in the 1950s, before the release of Song of the Humpback Whale – 330 compared to 33,000!
What’s the relevance of all the above? The Presiding Bishop’s Episcopal delegation at COP27 takes its place among hundreds of NGOs and business groups, all outside the official negotiating parties representing member nations of the UN. Within that great crowd of NGOs there is a smaller, but still impressive number of faith bodies, of which we are one. It has been my thought, since we began participating at the historic Paris COP in 2015, that we are here to “be the Church,” to represent and embody what we believe, and we do so with marvelous faith partners.
There are several commonly held truths among the faith bodies at the COPs, I believe; one of them is that the Earth is sacred, and all its life is sacred. To respect the Earth and all life as sacred is not, I wish to underscore, to say that salmon should no longer be fished, or caribou hunted, but to say that the approach to the taking of life is one held in enacted with respect and reverence, and gratitude for the life taken.
Respect, reverence, gratitude – how we relate to all the life God has made, human and non-human – these spiritual qualities are ones that the world’s religions and its spiritual traditions both cherish and cultivate. How would our effort to turn back climate change and reduce the degradation of the environment fare if this effort sprang from a source of respect, reverence, and gratitude?
The Rt. Rev. Marc Andrus, PhD is the eighth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California, elected in 2006 following ministry as the Bishop Suffragan in the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. Raised among the hills and lakes of East Tennessee, Bishop Marc developed an early love for the beauty of the earth, and a call to protect it. His activism, grounded in contemplative prayer, has focused on the rights of vulnerable peoples, environmental justice and climate change. Bishop Marc has had the privilege of leading the Presiding Bishop’s delegations to the UN Climate Conferences (2015-2022). He co-authored with The Rev. Matthew Fox, PhD an award winning book Stations of the Cosmic Crisis (Unity Press, 2016) and is the author of Brothers in the Beloved Community: The Friendship of Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr. (Parallax Press, 2021).