The Importance of Ecological Gratitude

June 5, 2020
Scott Dunham

A basic moral virtue that makes wide-ranging moral change possible is gratitude. It is deceptively simple: the action of expressing heartfelt thanks for gifts received. Evidence of ecological gratitude extends from present day to the earliest known oral traditions for gifts like food, water, sunshine, and the dust from we are shaped. Gratitude maintains and fortifies the personal connection between the land and its peoples. 

Lately I have been reading Ron MacInnis’ The Quest for the Magic Apple Tree to my eight-year old son. The main character, Zadok, arises before dawn each day to greet the first rays of sun on the horizon with a blast from a horn and a recitation of thanks and wonder for the sun returning yet again. My son, well-tutored in modern science, queried me about this recurring scene: The sun rises because it is always there as the earth moves around it. How can the old man say “thank-you” to a star for something that has to happen? After all, the sun will be here for millions of years (well, perhaps my son’s math is a little off). I admit that the practice of daily thanksgiving to more-than-human beings feels odd nowadays. Perhaps all ethics is arbitrary from the mere objective-technological stance of modern societies?

Gratitude is not objective or a technique! It is “personal” in the profoundest sense. Its raison d’être is a mind shaped by wonder, humility and open-mindedness. Knowledge of human dependence upon earth and her communities arises from the posture of humility, wherein we realize that human power and technological knowledge are neither enough nor self-sufficient. The earth wondrously gives birth to us and we are beholden to it for complete lives. Open-mindedness is the companion of wonder and humility, by which our relationship with earth’s progeny grows. We are part of a living process: The world has much to teach us, as we also have gifts with which to benefit her. Our lives in all their personal beauty need to respond to the rest of earth’s life personally. It is truly human to do so thankfully.

If there is any ecological hope, then it will sprout from gratitude as the appropriate personal response to earth’s gifts. It is worth meditating deeply on how wonder, humility, and open-mindedness shape the intellectual posture that makes the action of gratitude both possible and wise. All community, including professional policies and practices, should be motivated by gratitude.

The best ethics are sensitive to moral psychology, and so we note the academic value of Peterson and Seligman’s Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification (American Psychological Association, 2004). It has helpful discussions of gratitude, wonder, humility, and open-mindedness. But let us not forget that stories and poetry often offer explorations of (and models for) virtue. On the theme of (magic) trees and virtues: Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, Robert Frost’s “Birches,” and The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins. Honorable mention: “Thank You World” by World Party.