HEYBELIADA, Turkey: On the eve of the release of Pope Francis’s historic encyclical on climate change, I sat in a conference room with windows that offered a view across the Sea of Marmara toward the skyscrapers, mosques, and ancient Christian churches of Istanbul, fabled crossroads between East and West, or, if you prefer, between the developed world and the “global south.” It was a fitting site for the Halki Summit II called by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, who has long been known as the “green patriarch” for his commitment to environmentalism. Among the few dozen delegates were theologians, environmentalists, and artists of various disciplines, the majority hailing from Great Britain and the United States (the conference was co-sponsored by Southern New Hampshire University), with a sprinkling from other continents. Our charge? To cultivate a connection between, as the summit’s subtitle put it, “Theology, Ecology, and the Word” in the context of the fight against climate change.
One would expect that a gathering convened by an august personality such as the patriarch would hold to punctilious form. It did, for a while. And then the two keynoting Terrys — American naturalist and feminist author Terry Tempest Williams and everyone’s favorite British Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton — took center stage in consecutive addresses that revealed a deep divide in a gathering where everyone was nominally on the same ideological team. The fissures, of language and culture, of experience and discipline, highlighted the challenges in bringing not just a few conferees into some semblance of order, but of reeling in disparate actors on a global stage into a cohesive movement that joins (as Francis’s Laudato Si’ does) moral, scientific, political, and even aesthetic authority.
Daughter of the American West and its stirring and scarred geography, Terry Tempest Williams invoked a landscape of loss. She grew up, as she writes in her influential memoir Refuge, in the nuclear shadow of the Nevada Test Site. “I belong to a clan of one-breasted women,” she said, telling of a devastating family cancer cluster that she is convinced was caused by atomic blasts conducted “only when the winds were blowing toward Indian and Mormon lands.” She also told of recently witnessing what looked like a mourning ritual among a bison herd in Yellowstone National Park that had lost a cow in a breech birth. “We must learn to grieve,” Williams said, for the land in its woundedness.
The other Terry was having none of it. Eagleton was born in Manchester, he said, “in the very heart, the very cockpit of the industrial revolution by a river where not even canned fish could survive.” Appearing to relish the role of curmudgeonly materialist, ever eager to needle at liberal pieties, he remarked on the human distance from the natural realm in the form of language itself. He described a kind of “falling up” (rather than a biblical fall) from nature into consciousness, which created a dialectical relationship offering the possibility of transformation — but never the kind of unity the other Terry pointed toward, since that would mean existential annihilation.
In the midst of this argument — between a vision of oneness with nature and a necessary bifurcation, between mystical unity and a bordered material world — nature herself appeared to intervene. As the two Terrys tussled, a small bird flitted through an open window into the conference room and literally zipped between the poet and the critic. Someone called out, “A sparrow!” But this was quickly dismissed by the strong birder cohort in the room. It was a swallow. An apparition full of mystical import? Or a merely coincidental appearance revealing a desire to return to paradise that arises precisely because of the rupture between nature and language?
In the wake of this discursive parting, more and more fissures became apparent among us, including the one between optimistic, save-the-world Americans and world-weary Europeans. The small people-of-color cohort pushed to recognize the voices that weren’t at the table — like first peoples, more women, or, for that matter, Turks. (Some invitees had been unable to attend.) The theologians wrestled with spirit and morality, the environmentalists with science and sentiment, the artists with aesthetics and politics. The joys of an interdisciplinary conversation! Everyone talking past each other and letting the other be … Other. All on an island in a sea whose waters, Turkish environmental and literary scholar Ufuk Özdağ told us, were a blend of the Atlantic and the Black Sea — waters evermore toxic from Istanbul’s pollution, which has caused the rapid decline of dolphin and swordfish populations.
On the morning of the third day I’d lost hope for the kind of reconciliation that for decades has mostly eluded the environmental and environmental justice communities. The fracture between affluent whites generally more focused on nonhuman nature and advocates for the working poor in their often perilous relationship to the environment has long precluded the kind of global coalition the climate change crisis calls for. This has led to a dispersal rather than an accumulation of political energy, a gap eagerly exploited by climate change denialists who are aligned with the very fossil fuel industries that wound the environment and place human communities at risk. Most importantly, the schism in fact runs contrary to the core ethos of both movements, which is a compassionate or even empathic gaze on the vulnerable other — nonhuman in one, human in the other. In his encyclical, Francis integrates human and non-human vulnerability in the figure of the “earth herself,” calling her the “most abandoned and maltreated of our poor.”
Not a moment too soon, the final keynote struck upon the third way that Laudato Si’ embodies, with food justice activist and scholar Raj Patel presenting a stirring vision of theory on the ground in famine-ravaged Malawi. An initial program to transform cash crops to staple ones was successful ecologically speaking (the “three sisters” model of cultivating squash, beans, and corn quickly rejuvenated degraded soils and reduced the need for pesticides), but it became obvious that gender relationships and the overall social fabric would have to be remade as well. The lesson is obvious: environmental best practices almost always align with social justice on the local level. Patel’s story of a community pulling back from the brink touched theologian, environmentalist, artist, and social activist alike. A moral imperative to help the other while respecting local knowledges. An ecological renewal that feeds people even as it heals the soil. And, for the artists, a hopeful story to tell.
On our final night together, Fr. John Chryssavgis, one of the conference organizers and an advisor to the ecumenical patriarch, confided that he’d just read an embargoed draft of Francis’s encyclical and was proud to see Bartholomew prominently cited in the opening pages. Laudato Si’, more than any other text on climate change to date, performs the daunting task of crafting a kind of unified field theory in which the spiritual is the material is the moral. It takes liberation theology’s “preferential option for the poor” and marries it to action on the environment, since pollution and climate change starkly take their greatest toll on the most vulnerable communities across the globe.
Our motley cohort arrived at Heybeliada without a shared language, a veritable Tower of Babel. Nor did we leave the island with our arguments completely settled. But maybe that unsettledness was precisely the place to begin — simultaneously within nature and apart from it, expressing both alienation and desire, no — love, a fierce love of language and the hollow in the forest it escapes from and wants to rejoin.
Rubén Martínez is Fletcher Jones Chair of Literature and Writing at Loyola Marymount University. He is the author of several books including, most recently, Desert America: Boom and Bust in the New Old West.