What’s Love Got to Do With It?

words by willow defebaugh

Welcome to The Overview, a weekly newsletter in which Editor-in-Chief Willow Defebaugh offers an expansive look at the latest events in climate and culture—and how it all fits together.

Photograph by Sergey Gorshkov, World Wildlife Photo of the Year

“Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.” —Robin Wall Kimmerer


Love is not a subject you often hear discussed in the climate conversation. Habitat loss, pollution, global heating, sure—but rarely love. This is primarily due to the fact that a data-driven approach has dominated the mainstream environmental movement for decades. And that’s imperative, especially in a movement defined by science. But it also might be partly why it has taken so long for the larger public sphere to pay attention to the severity of climate change.


As author and environmental and forest botany professor Robin Wall Kimmerer demonstrates in her seminal book Braiding Sweetgrass, a scientific, knowledge-focused approach is only made more powerful when married with a heart-centered one, rooted in wisdom. Specifically, I’m talking about Indigenous wisdom—because if we are going to find our way back to right relationship with the land, it will only be done by following the instructions of those who have always been in harmony with it.


So what does love have to do with the ecological crisis? Just about everything. But before we can dive into why, we have to first understand what it means to love something. When you love something, you take care of it and you nourish it. You keep it healthy and you foster its growth. You do everything in your power to protect it. And you allow yourself to be loved in return.


Kimmerer recalls a graduate writing workshop in which her students were professing their love for the Earth, to which she replied: “Do you think that the earth loves you back?” The purely scientific mind might be somewhat silenced by the question. But another way of phrasing it might be: “Does the Earth take care of you and nourish you? Does it keep you healthy and foster your growth?” The answer to all of those questions is of course yes.


When we look at love this way, we understand that it is actually the currency of nature—as in, the current that runs through it. Despite the ‘survival of the fittest, nature is defined by competition’ narrative most of us were fed (by Charles Darwin, a white man), the survival of a species is actually dependent on the survival of its fellow species. An ecosystem can be cast into chaos if one species disappears, no matter how small or seemingly obsolete. Nature is upheld by a delicate balance of biodiversity—and what is balance if not a synonym for love?


So when we talk about imperialism, colonialism, and toxic capitalism having disrupted the balance of the natural world, we are talking about the balance of love—largely through the creation of a hierarchical worldview. Being an ecologically aware human being raised in these systems comes with a certain degree of shame. But as psychologist Brené Brown points out, growth is not possible when shame is present. And isn’t love the antidote to shame? For surely it is love that lets us say, “I know you messed up, but I forgive you. Now let’s make this right.”


I don’t know what happened first: that we forgot the Earth loves us, or that we forgot we love it. What I do know is that Kimmerer is right, that there is nothing more transformative than the remembrance of this sacred reciprocity which is love. I also know that, if we are to understand ourselves to be indivisible from nature, then to fall in love with it again will require us to love ourselves again. True love isn’t a one-way street, it’s a mirror—a reminder of who we are.

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