A Blog Post from Forest Whitaker
April 22, 2020 – In the midst of the crisis created by COVID-19, our eyes are focused on humanity’s struggle against a disease of global magnitude that has spread with unprecedented speed. The need to save lives is paramount. We must both protect ourselves and be vigilant about caring for the people we love – especially if they are isolated far away from us. The crisis is decidedly here and everyone has pressing concerns to attend. We may be tempted to ignore that today is Mother Earth Day. At the same time, yet, we should never forget that crises, whatever their impact and their scale, are never just synonymous with threats and damages; they are also moments when we should try to understand their deeper causes and consider their long-term consequences.
This is the approach that I’ve adopted in my work to promote peace and reconciliation, which I think is valuable when addressing any crisis that affects human communities. This coronavirus spread so quickly in part because of how interconnected our world is on a daily basis. Our world, the human world, is interconnected indeed; yet, COVID-19 revealed that we may not really be ready for such a world. Most countries, both industrialized and developing, lack robust health care infrastructure in the face of this unprecedented challenge. We have been suddenly reminded of our collective fragility. This is a stark reminder of why we need to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in the first place: behind their 17 goals and 169 targets, the deeper aim is the resilience of people, highlighting our capacity to recover, to rebound, and to evolve both individually and collectively. In this sense, the SDGs provide an agenda for every person and every country: rich and poor, we are all on the same boat; or, should I say, we are all on the same planet – Earth.
One of the main lessons that COVID-19 has taught us is precisely to reflect on our own humility. By observing Earth Day, we have an opportunity to acknowledge that we are animals. Even with all of the immense power that science and technology affords us, we remain exposed to all kinds of unpredictable dangers simply because we are living beings. These dangers include the global environmental degradations that our activities have created or heightened. Climate change, losses in biodiversity, pollution, and countless other degradations are attacks on the planet. Our methods of production and consumption are creating imbalances that veer on chaos, weakening life everywhere – both life on the planet and life within us. There is a deep connection here that we need to reflect and act upon.
When the UN proclaimed International Mother Earth Day, with the Inca goddess of sight fertility, Pachamamma, in mind, they noted that “Mother Earth is a common expression for the planet earth in a number of countries and regions, which reflects the interdependence that exists among human beings, other living species, and the planet we all inhabit.” To say that we depend on the planet we inhabit is to remind us that the Earth is habitable, which is not a given. Neither the moon nor the Sun are habitable. They bear no life that we can see. They are barren, and home for no one, least of all for humans. We are the children of the Earth in the most literal sense: our bodies and minds have evolved in unison with the environments that host us, and we are one with them. The elation that we experience when gazing at a landscape speaks of our deeper relation to nature, to a bond that we can never renounce or sever. In this sense, though, the very notion of the environment may be misleading. It may invite us to believe that nature or the Earth are merely surrounding us as if they were outside us. This is not true. We are in nature and we are from the Earth. They are intrinsic and holistic to what we are, flesh and soul. When half of humanity is confined because a virus infects our lungs through our noses and mouths, we are reminded that the simple act of breathing freely is a blessing. It is one of the precious gifts that we receive from the habitable Earth.
Yet, we do not seem to cherish these gifts. We even seem to be at war with the planet. In contrast, Mother Earth Day is an invitation to make peace with the Earth, and in doing so, to make peace with ourselves. This concept is a fundamental of peacebuilding processes: if you want to achieve peace with others, you first need to be at peace with yourself. This is what I try to practice. This is what I teach to the thousands of children and youths who participate in the programs of the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative. Connecting with oneself – with our spiritual dimension – is a condition to make peace happen – to save lives or, in other words, respect our own biology. In the face of the situation created by COVID-19, we need healthy minds to remain disciplined, continue to practice preventive safety measures, and remain calm while most of us are confined at home. Anxiety is a normal response to crises, but epidemics are dangerous because they don’t just infect our bodies with viruses: they can also infect our minds with fear. And fear will make us look for scapegoats. Around the world, we’ve seen reports of racism, discrimination, and even violence. This is when our humanity can truly be defeated – not when the virus strikes, but when we fail to respect human dignity. On Mother Earth Day, let’s start reconnecting to ourselves, others, and the planet. Let’s grow stronger together.