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Living Earth Community

Sam Mickey
Mary Evelyn Tucker
John Grim


Sam Mickey

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1There are many ways of seeing Earth. It is possible to gaze at the planet from the vantage of a space shuttle in orbit. If you are standing on the moon, you can see Earth rise in the distance, as seen in the famous photograph of Earth taken from the moon by the NASA astronaut William Anders in 1968, Earthrise (see Figure 1). You can also look at Earth much more closely, on a more minute level, observing the habitats and inhabitants of Earth as they appear at any moment, and in any context — urban, rural, or wild. You are looking at Earth when you see a meadow, a forest, a tree, a cat, a farm, a house, or the ground beneath your feet. Along with these different ways of visually perceiving Earth, there are also many ways of understanding Earth, spanning various fields of scientific research, the religious traditions of the world, and philosophical theories of nature. There is great diversity in how we can relate to the vast panoply of beings composing the life, land, air, and water of Earth. This book is a celebration and revitalization of that diversity.

2Everything lends itself to multiple perspectives. Consider the heart: an organ that is found in fish, reptiles, birds, and mammals. What is the heart? There are different ways of responding to that question. A poet speaks about the heart in terms of love and loss. A biologist speaks about the heart in terms of the cardiovascular system and blood pressure. It is not that one person is right and the other wrong. Those different ways of speaking reflect different perspectives, different ways of understanding and experiencing the heart, and different ways of knowing and being in relation to the heart. A poet and a biologist can both be right. They do not have to be mutually exclusive. They can each be true at the same time. Indeed, those perspectives can be held by the same person. Each human being contains various capacities for taking different perspectives on the world: logical, poetic, verbal, emotional, perceptual, intellectual, social, and more.

Fig. 1 Earthrise.

Photo by William Anders (1968), Wikimedia, public domain,​wiki/​File:NASA_Earthrise_AS08-14-2383_Apollo_8_1968-12-24.jpg

3One can cultivate the artistic perspective of a poet or painter, the mathematical and logical perspective of a chemist or biologist, the verbal skills of a speech writer, the emotional intelligence of a sensitive friend, and the embodied or somatic knowledge of a swimmer or basket weaver. Furthermore, different perspectives are variously cultivated throughout human cultures and traditions. Biology, Buddhism, Hinduism, Indigenous lifeways, mathematics, and music all involve different ways of thinking, feeling, and acting. Understanding these differences is a way of understanding ourselves collectively, of understanding humankind. Furthermore, different perspectives are not taken up only by humans, but by all kinds of living beings.

  • 1 Gabriel Popkin, ‘Bacteria Use Brainlike Bursts of Electricity to Communicate’, Quanta Magazine, Sep (...)
  • 2 Krista Tippett, ‘Robin Wall Kimmerer: The Intelligence in All Kinds of Life’, On Being, February 25 (...)

4Different forms of agency, sentience, significance (semiosis), intelligence, and communication are exhibited throughout the community of life on Earth. For example, research in microbiology suggests that communication takes place between bacteria, specifically through exchanges of pulses of electrical energy.1 Communication enables bacteria to sustain themselves in communities, without which an individual bacterium cannot survive. Regarding the increasing number of scientific studies that find evidence of intelligence across all forms of life, the botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer makes the following observation during an interview with Krista Tippett: ‘I can’t think of a single scientific study in the last few decades that has demonstrated that plants or animals are dumber than we think. It’s always the opposite, right? What we’re revealing is the fact that they have extraordinary capacities […] we’re at the edge of a wonderful revolution in really understanding the sentience of other beings.’2

5Approaching the middle of the twenty-first century, humans are learning more and more about the extraordinary capacities of life on Earth, and, at the same time, life on Earth is undergoing a profoundly troubling transformation due to the massive overexploitation and overconsumption of resources by developed (industrialized) nations. During the current period of environmental change, immensely complex challenges are facing life on Earth, including pollution, deforestation, water scarcity, climate change, and mass extinction. Such challenges cannot be sufficiently addressed through a single perspective alone. What is needed is dialogue and integration among diverse perspectives. Planetary problems call for globally coordinated responses. The inclusion of multiple ways of being and knowing is crucial for coordinating viable responses to the intensifying ecological crises occurring around the world. This anthology is a contribution toward that effort, presenting succinct essays that explore the diverse ways in which humans think, feel, and act in relation to the community of life on Earth.

Dialogue across Perspectives

6The essays in this volume illuminate different ways of being in the world and the different kinds of knowledge that they entail, such as the traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of Indigenous communities, the affective knowledge that comes with religious love and devotion, the scientific knowledge of a biologist, the aesthetic knowledge of someone listening to or composing music, and the embodied knowledge communicated through storytelling. It is important to emphasize that different ways of knowing are not always harmonious or even compatible. Consider an example between different religions. Some ways of knowing are oriented around belief in God, as in the monotheism of Christianity or Islam, whereas other ways of knowing suspend belief in God (i.e., agnosticism) or they explicitly believe that there is no God (i.e., atheism). In astronomy, the idea that Earth revolves around the sun (heliocentrism) is strictly incompatible with the ancient model of geocentrism, which assumed that the sun revolved around the motionless Earth. There will always be contrasts and contradictions between perspectives, especially when considering the community of life on Earth in all its diversity. The question is how to sustain a flourishing coexistence amid this radical diversity.

7Integrating multiple perspectives does not mean that everyone will agree about everything all the time. It means, rather, that there is an ongoing dialogue between those perspectives, seeking shared understanding and common interests, while accepting differences. However, not all perspectives should be included in a thriving planetary civilization. Perspectives oriented around violent control, domination, or hate cannot be included in any kind of integrative dialogue, since those perspectives refuse to participate. Respectful or hospitable relations are required for dialogue to take place. If you cannot acknowledge some truth or intrinsic value in your interlocutor, then you cannot have a dialogue. Authoritarianism, racism, religious fundamentalism, and colonialism are examples of perspectives that are not amenable to dialogue. Even the perspective of a poet can become too narrow-minded to hold itself open to dialogue. A poet and a physicist cannot have a dialogue about an ocean if the poet refuses to acknowledge that there is some validity to physics (e.g., tides are caused by the gravitational pull of the moon), or if the physicist refuses to acknowledge that there is some truth in poetry (e.g., tides are the ocean’s dream of the moon).

8Dialogue between multiple perspectives is not only about knowledge. Ways of knowing (epistemology) are always connected to ways of being (ontology). To put it simply, epistemology implies the existence of knowers. An artist has a way of life, a way of perceiving and acting in the world, a way of being, of which an artistic way of knowing is an integral part. Ways of knowing are not merely abstract frameworks or belief systems. Frameworks and beliefs are involved with knowledge, to be sure, but knowledge only makes sense in some kind of existential context. Knowing is therefore entangled with encountering, feeling, imagining, experiencing, relating, sensing, intending, and so on. Your understanding of the world shapes and is shaped by who you are, including your opinions and beliefs, as well as the practical, emotional, embodied, historical, and material dimensions of your existence. What a gorilla knows is part of what it is like to be a gorilla. What a scientist knows is part of what it is like to be a scientist. What a rabbi knows is part of what it is like to be a rabbi. The contributors to this volume are mindful of this connection between knowing and being. Bringing together scholars, writers, and educators across the sciences and humanities, this anthology provides informative and inspiring accounts of perspectives that attend to ways of being and knowing that intimately intertwine humans with the vibrant vitality of the Earth community.

9Multicultural and interdisciplinary in scope, this anthology engages with diverse cultures and traditions around the world, and draws upon academic disciplines across the sciences and humanities. It is unique for its mixture of expertise and accessibility. The authors included in this book are leading figures in their respective arenas, and in the chapters that follow they introduce contemporary research, traditional knowledge, and emerging modes of thought in ways that are accessible to the general reader while also relevant to specialists. The essays included in this volume are revised versions of what the contributors presented to one another when they met for a workshop held in the fall of 2018 at the Oak Spring Garden Foundation in Virginia. The workshop was hosted by the renowned botanist and evolutionary plant scientist Peter Crane and organized by the two directors of the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim. The focus of the workshop, like that of this book, is the integration of multiple perspectives on the community of life on Earth.

10When bringing multiple perspectives into dialogue, there is no perspective that is assumed to be the best or truest. No single perspective is given priority over the others. Any contrasts, conflicts, and comparisons between them emerge through mutual understanding and not one-sided evaluation. It is the dialogue that is given priority, the ongoing struggle for mutual understanding. Furthermore, if no single perspective is given priority, that includes the perspective of this introductory overview. The birds-eye view is not privileged over a close-up. A more general or universal perspective is not given priority over more specific, local perspectives, and vice versa. Each perspective can be understood on its own terms. Each of this book’s chapters do just that: they elucidate different ways of being and knowing on their own terms, based on their own place within the evolving community of life on Earth. The aim of the book is not to determine once and for all which perspective comes out on top, but to figure out ways to move forward together.


11The chapters of this book are grouped into six sections, which reflect the diverse histories and futures of humankind in intimate relationship with the more-than-human world. The focus of Section I is precisely the presence of that which is more-than-human. Reflecting on species dynamics within the planetary biosphere, David Abram, in Chapter 1, suggests that new insight into the astonishing navigational feats of migratory animals can be gleaned by recognizing the broad Earth as a dynamic, agential player in these migrations. The long-distance movements of various animals can readily be understood as metabolic processes within the body of the living planet, not unlike the rhythmic systole and diastole of a heartbeat.

  • 3 W. S. Merwin, ‘Learning a Dead Language’, in Migration: New and Selected Poems (Port Townsend, WA: (...)

12Remembered songs of extinct wattlebirds, endemic to Aotearoa New Zealand, catalyze Julianne Warren’s storytelling. In Chapter 2, she spins a path from first listening to a Pākehā-narrated recording of an elder Māori performing traditional mimicry of Huia. Replaying these dead bird-human voices interacting with sounds in the near-Arctic helps her begin learning, in poet W.S. Merwin’s words, to ‘hear what never/ Has fallen silent.’3 Between antipodes, ancestral echoes escape from machines, and sleeping languages live on—in loss—spellbinding companionships of hope’s sound.

13In Chapter 3, Paul Waldau considers possibilities for transforming human institutions (e.g., law, education, ethics, and religion) in ways that promote a flourishing Earth community. The author considers how self-actualization for humans can be found not through the arrogance of human exceptionalism, but through different expressions of humility and through a recognition of the animality of humankind.

14Section II brings attention to the dynamics of forests in Latin America. Drawing on his ethnographic research among Indigenous communities in Ecuador, Eduardo Kohn considers the political and ethical implications of thinking with forests in Chapter 4. It is a diplomatic undertaking that seeks to integrate multiple ways of understanding the cosmos, and it is an ontological undertaking that rethinks the very nature of existence by recognizing the intelligence inherent in all life.

15Frédérique Apffel-Marglin advocates for integral ecological healing in Chapter 5, particularly by attending to the practices of Indigenous Amazonian communities. The use of psychedelic plant medicines in Amazonian shamanism exemplifies the kind of non-rational ways of knowing that expand human consciousness beyond the individual ego and into intimate communion with the more-than-human world.

16In Chapter 6, Thomas E. Lovejoy elaborates on the importance of biodiversity for the Earth community and the role of biologists therein. Bringing science together with ethical and political issues, Lovejoy articulates the responsibilities of biologists and other scientists for promoting biodiversity and addressing contemporary ecological crises.

17The ecological implications of Asian traditions provide the guiding thread for the next section, Section III. In Chapter 7, Prasenjit Duara thinks with the circulating waters of oceans to articulate the complex confluence of human and natural histories, particularly with reference to Asian contexts. Whereas the fragmentation of human and natural histories contributes to ethical and political failures to address environmental issues, Duara’s oceanic metaphor demonstrates how human history, including the study of history (i.e., historiography), overlaps with natural history, while these histories nonetheless operate on different temporal scales.

18Religion and ecology in Hinduism is the focus of Chapter 8, with David L. Haberman elucidating the value of love and devotion as ways of connecting to the natural world. In contrast to the detachment that characterizes abstractly intellectual forms of knowledge, these ways of connecting to nature yield emotional or affective knowledge, which promotes care for the beauty and vulnerability of the natural world.

19In Chapter 9, Mary Evelyn Tucker presents contributions to ecological ethics in Confucianism, highlighting the importance of Confucian cosmology for understanding the material world as vibrant and lively, not passive and inert. Confucianism facilitates an approach to ethics for which personal and social concerns are embedded in the Earth community and the whole cosmos, such that ecological concern is not separate from the practice of self-cultivation.

20Section IV integrates perspectives from ecology and the humanities, with a view toward storytelling. To build a bridge between scientific and ethical perspectives on ecological issues, David Haskell advocates in Chapter 10 for contemplative exercise, in the sense of repeated, open-ended attention. Contemplative participation within the community of life deepens one’s sense of ecological aesthetics, and such appreciation for the beauty of nature provides an integrative ground for ethical actions informed by scientific knowledge.

21In the next chapter, advocating for the cultivation of storytelling skills, Timothy Brown shares his experience bringing science and storytelling to students, specifically through work with National Geographic. Stories provide a framework for communicating scientific information to non-specialists, for thinking across different academic disciplines, and for motivating action.

22Chapter 12 attends to the role that listening plays in attuning humans to the stories of the natural world, specifically in terms of a project involving Long-Term Ecological Research oriented around conserving coastal ecosystems. Willis Jenkins describes The Conservatory Project, which integrates perspectives on environmental change from sciences, humanities, and the arts, designing ecoacoustic listening exercises that afford participants an aural sense of their embodiment and embeddedness in a dynamic environment.

23Listening can facilitate a contemplative awareness that is conducive to nonanthropocentric ways of being in the world. Brooke Williams, in Chapter 13, presents a series of reflections on the conference that gave rise to this volume. Williams discusses an exercise for engaging with ecology through the imagination. Participants are guided through an imaginal encounter with ancestors, the different kinds of gifts they might bring, and the paths those gifts can be taken.

24In Section V, attention is given to the resilient relationships cultivated within Indigenous lands. Chapter 14 introduces the worldview of the Okanagan people, an Indigenous people inhabiting the northwest of North America. Jeannette Armstrong describes her personal background and experience growing up as a member of the Okanagan community in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada. She highlights the importance of intimacy with the land, taking responsibility for relationships, and building resilient communities in the face of cultural and environmental destruction.

25In the next chapter, drawing attention to the contemporary resurgence of Indigenous languages, Mark Turin describes the collaborative work of linguistic and cultural revitalization in response to the destruction of Indigenous communities in settler colonial nations. While recuperating the vitality of languages, this process also facilitates the recuperation of the well-being of Indigenous communities as well as the lands within which those languages and communities are embedded.

26Chapter 16 draws on the wisdom of Indigenous traditions and the world’s religions, as John Grim proposes a triad of sensing, minding, and creating, to help us understand the world without separating nature from culture. All things exhibit capacities for external interaction (sensing) and an inner patterning or consciousness (minding), and those external and internal facets change over time as novel conditions arise (creating). The emergence of life from matter and of humans from other life forms can be understood as an explication of the dynamics of sensing, minding, and creating inherent in the universe.

27The following chapter indicates that revitalizing Indigenous communities requires more than a recognition of tribal sovereignty. Samara Brock shows how it also requires a recuperation of Indigenous understandings of existence and ways of being. The inclusion of multiple ontologies opens up possibilities for creating relational, hybrid forms of practices that cultivate mutuality and reciprocity between humans and the land.

28The final section, Section VI, concentrates on the planetary and cosmic dimension of human existence. In Chapter 18, Sean Kelly proposes that the current cultural and ecological transformations taking place on Earth are evidence of a Second Axial Age. The period between the eighth and third centuries BCE is known as the ‘Axial Age’, which saw the beginnings of philosophy, science, mathematics, and many of the world’s religious traditions. Whereas Axial Age values were oriented around transcendent or cosmological principles (e.g., Truth, God, Oneness), values of the Second Axial Age compel humans to reorient civilization around the living Earth community — Gaia.

29The next chapter reflects on the enduring quest of human beings to inhabit and understand the universe. Weaving together an account of the exterior (objective) and interior (subjective) facets of the cosmos, Heather Eaton finds the unique qualities of human subjectivity in symbolic consciousness and in the worldviews, narratives, and other systems of symbols through which humans interpret and respond to their surroundings. Along with symbols and narratives, learning about ecology involves attention to systems and interrelationships at multiple scales, from ecosystems to the biosphere.

30To facilitate the cultivation of ecological imagination and promote environmental awareness, Mitchell Thomashow’s concluding chapter presents proposes five qualities of environmental learning (observation, information, interpretation, expression, and manifestation). Those educational qualities are pathways for integrated ways of knowing and being in the living Earth community.

31As the concluding chapters of this volume indicate, the end of the book is not the end of the journey. This whole book is a beginning, an opening for people who seek different ways to partake in planetary coexistence. In other words, this book is an invitation to new beginnings, new possibilities for living, learning, connecting, and communicating with other humans and with the more-than-human world. This includes new opportunities for the revitalization of Indigenous lands and languages; for the rejuvenation of ancient wisdom; for the inclusion of rational, emotional, embodied, animal, and ecological ways of knowing; and for the integration of humankind within a living Earth community.

32What would it look like if more people became more aware of and sensitive to their relationship with the living Earth community? How would the education, government, economy, and media change? How would individuals think, feel, and act differently? The responses to those questions will vary from place to place, depending on different cultural values, and from person to person, depending on different experiences, moods, and personal backgrounds. This book does not present a framework that the reader should apply. If a framework or model is like a map, this book can be thought of more like a compass. A map is something distinctly separate from the territory that it describes and separate from the person using the map; a compass has a more participatory relationship to the territory and to the position of the person wielding the compass. The needle of a compass is composed of steel, an alloy of iron, which is responsive to Earth’s electromagnetic field. A compass needle moves according to the specific place of the person using it. With compass in hand, where will you go?

  • 4 Richard Powers, The Overstory: A Novel (New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 2018), p. 3.

33As humans shift toward a more sustainable way of inhabiting the community of life on Earth, every single human being will participate in that shift differently. Each of us will navigate several overlapping concerns, including oneself along with family, friends, and strangers, whether human or more-than-human. Some might start new nonprofits or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), whose mission is to restore ecosystems or advocate for peace and justice. Some will advocate for environmental issues in their respective sphere of influence — at home, in school, on social media, or in the workplace. Some will feel more empathy toward a companion animal, maybe a dog or cat, whose personality makes it impossible to hold up a rigid boundary that would separate humans from our nonhuman kin. Some will make changes in dietary preferences and other personal behaviors to adapt to the precarious conditions of life on Earth. Some will have conversations with friends and family. Some will have conversations with trees, listening to what trees might have to say to an inquiring mind, like one of the characters in The Overstory (2018), a novel by Richard Powers about the many ways humans and trees relate to one another. Sitting on the ground, leaning against a pine tree, a woman listens to what the tree is saying, ‘in words before words’, and then she hears it say, ‘Sun and water are questions endlessly worth answering’.4

34We all move forward in our own way, depending on the unique circumstances of our lives. There is more than one way to read this book, as there is more than one way to inhabit this planet and answer the ongoing questions of sun and water. We are making ourselves at home on Earth, and we are learning how to do so together.



Merwin, W. S., ‘Learning a Dead Language’, in Migration: New and Selected Poems, W. S. Merwin (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005), p. 41.

Popkin, Gabriel, ‘Bacteria Use Brainlike Bursts of Electricity to Communicate’, Quanta Magazine, September 5 2017,

Powers, Richard, The Overstory: A Novel (New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 2018).

Tippett, Krista, ‘Robin Wall Kimmerer: The Intelligence in All Kinds of Life’, On Being, February 25 2016,


1 Gabriel Popkin, ‘Bacteria Use Brainlike Bursts of Electricity to Communicate’, Quanta Magazine, September 5, 2017,

2 Krista Tippett, ‘Robin Wall Kimmerer: The Intelligence in All Kinds of Life’, On Being, February 25 2016,

3 W. S. Merwin, ‘Learning a Dead Language’, in Migration: New and Selected Poems (Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2005), p. 41.

4 Richard Powers, The Overstory: A Novel (New York, NY: W. W. Norton and Company, 2018), p. 3.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 1 Earthrise.
Fichier image/jpeg, 11k


PhD, is an Adjunct Professor in the Theology and Religious Studies department and the Environmental Studies program at the University of San Francisco. He has worked for several years at the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale. His teaching, writing, and research are oriented around the ethics and ontologies of nonhumans, and the intersection of religious, scientific, and philosophical perspectives on human-Earth relations. He is an author of several books, including Whole Earth Thinking and Planetary Coexistence (2015), Coexistentialism and the Unbearable Intimacy of Ecological Emergency (2016), and On the Verge of a Planetary Civilization: APhilosophy of Integral Ecology (2014). He is co-editor (with Sean Kelly and Adam Robbert) of The Variety of Integral Ecologies: Nature, Culture, and Knowledge in the Planetary Era (2017).


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