Terry Tempest Williams (author and Harvard Divinity School writer-in-residence), Charles M. Stang (director of the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School), and Dr. Sam Myers (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health principal research scientist and Planetary Health Alliance director) have launched The Constellation Project: a new collaboration between the Planetary Health Alliance (PHA), the Harvard Divinity School (HDS), the Center for the Study of World Religions (CSWR), the Harvard Center for the Environment (HUCE), and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (HSPH) that ignites interdisciplinary, community-based conversations around fundamental questions related to the complex constellation of relationships between humanity, the natural world, and our fellow cohabitants.
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The Harvard Gazette, Putting ‘the Language of the Earth on the Agenda’
"A constellation is a group of stars connected by the imagination. We look up at the night sky and see a map of stories created by our need to understand the world around us and beyond.
And yet at home, on the ground, our perspectives can be limited.
We are at a critical moment in human history. We are only just beginning to comprehend the significance of what Martin Luther King described as “the fierce urgency of now.” Most of human civilization has taken place during a geological epoch: the Holocene, characterized by remarkably stable biophysical conditions. But about the same time that our first Apollo astronauts stepped onto the moon and were overcome by the stunning beauty of Earth rising above the moon’s horizon, we entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, where the press of our species now registers as its own geologic force disrupting natural processes at the fastest rates in the history of our species.
Consider these facts: To feed ourselves, we annually appropriate about 40% of Earth’s land surface for pastures and croplands. We use about half of the planet’s accessible fresh water to irrigate our crops; and we exploit 90% of global fisheries at, or beyond, their maximum sustainable limits. In the process, we have cut down half of the world’s forests and dammed more than 60% of its rivers. The quality of air, water, and land is diminishing around the world because of global pollution. Our production of greenhouse gases is changing Earth’s climate. These and other processes are driving species to extinction while the numbers of individual mammals, fishes, birds, reptiles, and amphibians have fallen by half in the past 45 years. We are holding Nature under siege.
We are trying to respond. The global health community is beginning to understand that environmental degradation is not only an ecological crisis but also a human crisis. This is the genesis of planetary health.
Just as we recognize the interconnectedness of our health and the health of the planet, we recognize the rupture of our relationship with Nature. The ongoing destruction of Earth’s natural systems is the result of decisions, made daily, by billions of people. These decisions are voluntary and involuntary at once, collective and personal. Reverence and awe for Nature have lost their authority. The question must be asked: what is driving our actions? How do we reignite and reimagine a spiritual relationship to this beautiful, breaking planet we call home?
How do we nurture empathy, restraint and resiliency, sacrifice, and faith grounded in action? How do we acknowledge the grief we feel in relationship to our changing world from the devastation rendered by fires, floods, and hurricanes? Can we as humans broaden our definition of community to include all species, not just our own? And what might a different kind of power look like, feel like, as we extend our notion of power to include the legal rights and standing of rivers, mountains, and all manner of life on Earth?
As we address these enormous challenges, the emerging field of planetary health in partnership with an earth-based spirituality can create a more ethical stance toward life evolving within the era of the Anthropocene. We need new stories for a new era of planetary consciousness.
The Constellation Project—a collaboration between the Harvard Divinity School, the Planetary Health Alliance, the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Harvard Center for the Environment, and the Center for the Study of World Religions—celebrates conversations between disciplines that have been in dialogue only with themselves. This kind of academic apartheid has for too long oppressed the imagination and stifled creativity. We need robust and creative conversations where scientists can speak honestly from the depth of their breaking hearts about what they are witnessing: the loss of species and habitats, the death of coral reefs, the rise of infectious diseases. We need to experience the emotional register of music, poetry, and films that are reexamining what it means to be human in an increasingly fractured world.
The Constellation Project is committed to this deeper exploration of people in place. Call it an ecology of residency. What stories do we tell ourselves that wound the world and its inhabitants, rather than allow all life to flourish? What kinds of stories are emerging that could help set us on a different path?
The Constellation Project is lit up by questions that hold us to account.
The territory where science, the arts and humanities, human health and spirituality meet is where the Constellation Project shimmers. Our intention is to create an atmosphere of witnessing, where diverse voices from all disciplines, geographies, traditions, and practices are invited to speak to create a wider community of care. We are calling together the Storytellers who share a common reliance on Nature as a taproot to an evolving consciousness. By identifying this taproot of care and engagement, we can better anchor our humanity to a bedrock of planetary compassion.
We imagine these gatherings will stimulate an awakening for us as individuals and as a community. We want priests bringing science into their sermons; we want scientists to feel permission to give ‘reverence for life’ authority alongside their analyses; we imagine scholars and students finding a place for their spiritual life.
The Constellation Project is committed to drawing new maps that will guide us toward a future of abiding strength and presence where our embrace of humanity becomes an embrace of the Earth, interconnected and interrelated. This is the place where inspiration, imagination, and courageous actions can dwell."
Written by:Dr. Samuel Myers is a physician and principal research scientist at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health and the Director of the Planetary Health Alliance. His research focuses on the many ways that human-caused changes to the natural environment impact human health. He is the author of over 50 peer-reviewed research articles and is co-editing “Planetary Health: Protecting Human Health on a Rapidly Changing Planet” with Howard Frumkin.