Thoughts and Prayers for the Environment

Response to Jennifer Bernstein’s “Living in a Post-Material World”

After every natural disaster or school shooting, politicians offer “thoughts and prayers,” a phrase so well worn that it now has a Wikipedia page. Much of that page is given to documenting the debates that inevitably erupt over its use. Critics see the ritual response as a hollow substitute for effective policy change. After the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, the New York Daily News ran a cover that used politicians’ “thoughts and prayers” tweets to frame their headline: “GOD ISN’T FIXING THIS.” In answer to such cynicism, defenders argue for the importance of prayer in the wake of tragedy. “Whatever your beliefs about God, a sincere appeal to ‘thoughts and prayers’ in moments of crisis is not an indulgent retreat from reality, but a responsible reaction to it,” wrote Katelyn Beaty for The Atlantic following the 2017 Las Vegas massacre. “To insist that we humans can heal the world’s pathologies on our own, without any appeal to God or spirituality, is just hubris.”

There are instructive parallels between the debate over thoughts and prayers and Jennifer Bernstein’s recent essay on how we should understand school gardens, hunting, and eating local — microscale behaviors that are fetishized by many conservationists and environmentalists, including Bernstein herself. Like skeptics about the efficacy of prayer for preventing shootings or disasters, Bernstein sees little hope for the environment in pious micro-behaviors, which are neither scalable nor within the means of those who lack the capital and leisure time for hunting their own game or growing their own arugula. She also fears that the hollow rituals of elite conservationists open their ideology to critique. “God Isn’t Fixing This” can, in certain ways, be read as a deeper critique of religion more broadly, just as Obama’s ill-advised question about the price of arugula to Iowa farmers as an alternative crop can invite a critique of elite, leftist greens writ large.

Nevertheless, Bernstein thinks we can rescue these practices by recognizing them for what they are: “acts of connection, gratitude, and affirmation for those for whom scarcity and want have been abolished.” School gardens are not scale models of sweeping reforms that will save the world. Rather, they are like churches, and picking vegetables is a form of prayer — a ritual that “re-enchants” reality, providing spiritual sustenance and grounding us, literally and metaphorically, at a time when complex systems beyond our control seem to be edging us toward apocalypse.

Even so, she recognizes the paradox built into this position. Part of the reason school gardens can generate meaning is that participants believe in their practical efficacy. Similarly, for the vast majority of religious people, prayer is not merely an expression of solidarity in the wake of a crisis but also an effective vehicle for change. Put simply: prayer can change the world. It’s worth quoting Beaty at length on this particular point:

Most Americans — nearly three in four — believe that prayer is a direct line to a God who cares about the world and is intimately involved in the lives of all people. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, this God is not the removed watchmaker, who set the natural laws in place and let things run their course, passively looking on as innocents are killed in mass shootings. This God “bends down to listen” and “inclines His ears to hear” the utterances of every person who prays, to quote the psalmist of the Bible. This God is radically interventionist, and can move nations’ leaders to pursue righteousness and justice on behalf of said innocents.

Beaty goes on to point out that prayer was at the center of the abolitionist and civil rights movements. In concert with other activities — marches, protests, legal battles — prayer helped to effect positive change. Of course, participation in these movements was not predicated on one’s willingness to pray. Moreover, the movements’ leaders recognized that prayer alone was radically insufficient. Its importance should not be discounted, however, even by those who think no one is listening. You need not kneel alongside the school gardeners, and in turn, they must acknowledge that their activity in itself is far from salvific. But neither is it useless.

A detractor might gently remind us that Beaty leaves out the central role of prayer in opposition to these movements — that if we want to credit the prayers of abolitionists for helping to liberate slaves, we must also credit the prayers of slaveholders for their centuries of bondage. This critique misses the point, though. The argument in favor of prayer is not that it guarantees the goodness of whatever is being prayed for. Nor, for that matter, does the argument depend on the existence of God — after all, the prayers of the school gardeners go out to the natural world. No, these rituals are important because they empower individuals, providing an experience of embodied participation in a system that would otherwise be overwhelming and impersonal, too distant to care about, and too large to change.

That empowerment comes with valuable practical and political power for a movement like conservation. It can lead to protests over complacency, to voting one way over another. Yes, it’s true that if everyone in the world prayed for peace, peace would not automatically ensue. But that’s not an argument against prayer — it’s an argument against those who think that prayer is sufficient.

And so, as someone who neither prays after disasters nor gardens at a school, I find myself in the strange position of defending both rituals. Not because I think there is a God who bends down and listens. Not because I think a world covered in school gardens will solve our current environmental crisis. I defend them because, too often, people feel helpless in the face of gigantic problems. Rituals like these offer hope — the promise that individuals can make a difference. And whatever disagreements we may have about the eventual solution to our problems, it will certainly depend on individuals who want to make a difference. So let’s embrace their thoughts and prayers.