“We need to make the time to water a new kind of wild empathy,” writes the cofounder of the Church of Stop Shopping.

COP26 protests

EDITORS’ NOTE: Around the world in recent months, committed activists have stepped up protests and direct action to demand progress on climate change, environmental justice and the extinction crisis. Among them are the Church of Stop Shopping, an activist choir group from New York City that visited last year’s United Nations COP26 climate conference in Glasgow, Scotland, to sing, protest and make good trouble. Their enigmatic front man, the “firenado and brimstone” preacher Rev. Billy Talen, provides this account/sermon of inspiration from the event.

This outrageous apocalypse! These multiplying disasters! Can’t we find where these cataclysms are coming from? Why don’t we go to the source and make adjustments?

But what is that source? The people who want to explain the whys and wherefores of plagues, river-leaping fires, 200 mph winds and mass disappearance of species have split into two powerful camps: religion and science. The church people say that “God did it.” And the natural scientists point to a “dynamic, living system” or a “self-regulating organism.”

The trouble with these mystifications is that they leave us at a vague middle distance from the Earth. Neither the religious nor scientific explanation feels truthful. Or maybe a better way to put it is, they aren’t intimate. They distance us from the Earth. These institutions insist on mediating our personal relationship to this place where we live. Our activism for the Earth becomes harder to make powerful.

Stop Shopping
The author Rev. Billy Talen is the pink preacher here performing with the Stop Shopping Choir in New York.

Once we’re at that big remove from the touch, smell, dazzling sight, heady weirdness and fantastic life of the Earth, our activism loses its traction. We’re trying to “save the Earth” by way of politics, ideology, scary data or old morals. We’re trying to be good environmentalists, and that is turning out to be … not nearly enough.

Is the fire and flood getting worse because we’re not doing enough? As the Sixth Extinction heats up, it would seem that the Earth is highly critical of the human species. And so the Earth is doing what she has always done — inventively evolving life to escape a dead planet.

By now you, dear reader, have noticed that I allow the Earth conscious intent. Some may accuse me of being religious, giving the Earth the role God once had. Others would say I’m a member of the new wave of scientists who argue that consciousness is a material, the mortar of all things in the universe. I’m just a desperate activist.

I noticed in Glasgow in November that of all the scores of environmentalist types — from the United Nations diplomats to Extinction Rebellion to Scottish birdwatchers — the most ardent and hard-hitting activists were Indigenous mothers. They were the ones who talked about the Earth as if she was a noble friend who had been wronged. And they could pray to the Earth and sing to the Earth in the middle of a transfixing harangue. And they led the walkout by “civil society” from the COP26 negotiations, leaving the billionaire oil men and their bankers playing poker at their table.

That familiarity with the Earth needs to be a part of all our activists’ emotional lives. For instance, when we are out in the wilds, we should be aware of the mass movement of all life in this warming. We should know that we must migrate, too, and be a part of this extinction. The practice of defending the Earth in this time of the Sixth Extinction calls upon us to grow an empathy for the Earth that may feel intensely strange.

We need to make the time to water a new kind of wild empathy.

Our old nature culture needs new nakedness. We won’t be able to wall off the Earth with “recreation,” “nature photography” or “donating to the Sierra Club.” We need to walk those jagged miles to a wild place, a forest, a wetland, a coral reef, an alpine meadow … go there and whisper to the Earth a sweet nothing.

Give in. Abandon politics. Abandon religion and science. Abandon ideology. Find that intimacy. Start the whole Earth relationship over.

Walk straight into the nearest forest — or park if that’s all you’ve got access to — and stay there until the breakthrough happens. Give the Earth a name and have a conversation. Stop calling the natural world a “creation” or a “system” and talk to her and listen.

If our conscious life exchanges signals with Earth’s conscious life, there is a better chance we can evolve our activism. What kind of zealotry is the Earth calling for? Our answer is in the eye-wall wind of a great storm.

Hear that? “Go to the violence and end it,” the Earth tells us. “Now 50,000 of you walk to a pipeline and dismantle it with your hands.”

The opinions expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Revelator, the Center for Biological Diversity or its employees.

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Previously in The Revelator:

We Need Bold Protests, Says ‘Stop Shopping’ Activist Rev. Billy Talen

Rev. Billy Talen

is the cofounder of the Church of Stop Shopping, an activist/theater group based in New York City.