Vox Populi

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Adrienne Maree Brown: Accountable to Earth

Imagine a common reality of collectively prioritizing our most universal gift: life on earth.

I love sitting with mothers in moments of relaxation. I was recently on vacation with some of my goddess crew, one of whom is a new mom. Her baby was sleeping in the next room, and after a bit of time and talk, we heard the sound of his voice, carried in stereo through the door and the little monitor that let us see and hear him. To be honest, anytime he wasn’t with us, we were watching the little monitor, watching him sleep, dream, move around, self-soothe. My friend sat up, alert, and held up a hand to remind herself (and us) to give him a minute to see if he needed her or was just cycling up to the surface of wakefulness before diving into the next dream. He dove, and we went back to what we were doing. An hour later, he cried out again, louder, demanding, fully awake. She moved quickly to hold him, knowing his needs with the incredible grace of good parents.

Later, I thought I heard him again, but he was awake, and it was an owl hooting deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains, the pitch of the hoot moving up, up, up the scale, and into the moonlight. Another time, it was a cat nearby, mewling for attention. I was reading a book about a talking cat, and for a moment, fiction and fantasy merged as I felt certain I knew what the cat meant: Now, now, now! The baby, the owl, the cat—they all sounded the same to me, each crying out for attention, for care, in a language that translates across species.

This pattern of screaming prayer returns me to a familiar question: How do we hear beyond the human cry for help?

The Earth seems to be crying. I hear the concurrent calls of one-third of Pakistan underwater in massive floods; Jackson, Mississippi, without water for drinking or toilet flushing for the foreseeable future; Puerto Rico’s power grid flooded out by Hurricane Fiona. And that suffering barely scratches the surface. There are fires that never rest into ash, there is water that doesn’t recede, waves where we need ice, islands whose highest point is now below water, heat waves that send elders into grocery store aisles while chefs cook steak on the hoods of cars. The anniversary of Hurricane Katrina passed nearly a month ago, and I noticed how normalized these disasters have become; how comfortable we are becoming with mass displacement and death.

What would it look like to answer the demanding cries of Earth, to be accountable to the needs of the planet? Given that these questions are likely already familiar to the readers of this publication, perhaps we need to ask something different: Can those of us willing to be accountable do enough to counter the choices of those bent on destruction? How?

Over this past year, I have been experimenting with a climate ban on unnecessary travel. I don’t fly for work or speeches. If I am in transit, it is for love only: going to family, blood or chosen; going to home; going to health. If it’s within reach and my body is up for it, I drive my electric vehicle to get there.

I’ve mostly been able to hold this practice, and it has felt like a choice that helps ease my impact on the Earth, while also easing the impact that travel and being away from the sanctuary of home has on my body. I am feeling myself more every day as an earthling, understanding how what is good for my body is good for the Earth, and vice versa.

Another practice I’m interested in is folding the Earth into every other thing I do, every decision I make. When I consider any concern I have for people, place, animal, culture, danger, I root myself back to the relationship to our Earth and the changes currently unfolding for her. What would the Earth have me do, have us do?

These questions bring me to this brief but powerful wisdom from Margaret Killjoy: “You can’t write fiction on a dead planet.” I think the same is true for everything, far beyond fiction. If the planet effectively dies for us, if it becomes uninhabitable for humans, nothing else we are doing here matters. So many of us have cried this out, in so many ways, for so long—I know I am adding my voice to an ancient wailing, for attention. For care.

If every issue was seen through an Earth-related lens, what might we learn? We wouldn’t put down our myriad priorities, but maybe we would reframe and redistribute our time to more accurately account for the care of our only home, currently crumbling and buckling, infested and burning and flooding in every room. Our home, too, is wailing.

But imagine for a moment that everyone was tapped into this pattern of accountability to the planet, of anchoring our actions in consideration of their impact on the Earth. Imagine a common reality of collectively prioritizing our most universal gift: life on Earth. Imagine, for instance, a movement-wide, Earth-forward ban on work travel, and a shared commitment to turn our global attention to the wisdom and need of the Earth beneath our feet and over our heads, flowing all around us.

Imagine what we could do together if our movements were focused on sustainability or, even better, sustenance—that which sustains us, that which answers the cry for care. What if movement’s job were to hone the parental instinct of our species? I am not suggesting here that the Earth needs us to parent it in terms of a power dynamic, but rather that there is something communal and universal in the need and offer for care among the species that share this planet. There is a rhythm to care that flows in every direction. Rather than centering a human purpose of domination and forcing the Earth to serve us, imagine if we centered in a human purpose of care, among and beyond our species? 

As I write this, my friend Michaela Harrison is off the coast of Bahia, on a boat, leaning out over the front prow and singing at the top of her range. From miles around, whales come to her, spending the afternoon singing to her, with her, circling her boat in chorus and conference. She recently gave me some highlights on an Instagram live, and in addition to the message “We are one,” which she has shared from her whale comrades before, this time, she said it was clear one message was “We will rule.”

Harrison is singing and whispering and translating, and it will take some time to understand the meaning of these messages. But as I reflect on this larger practice of listening to the Earth’s cries for our attention, it occurs to me that this message could be as much a promise or comfort as a warning or threat. And yet, whales ruling wouldn’t have to come from conflict. Just being a water mammal on a drowning world would yield a definitive superiority.

But I also hear something softer, ancient, parental: “We will be here. We will take charge. We can be trusted with this place, even if you can’t.”

This is a time of overwhelming change. We must do more than we have capacity to do, on too many fronts to count. The key is for each of us to do all we can, to add our voices to the planetary scream for responsive attention. For care.

If we can do that, then perhaps all we have left is to trust that our respite, balm, and collective care will scoop us out of this mess. Or the work of crying will teach us to be so tender with our collective self that we are finally able to mother all that mothers us.


ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN is a writer, editor, activist, social justice facilitator, coach, speaker, and doula. Her books include Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing WorldsPleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good, which she wrote and edited, and Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories From Social Justice Movements, which she co-edited.
ADRIENNE MAREE BROWN

First published in YES! Magazine. Included in Vox Populi with permission.

Illustration by Michael Luong for YES! Magazine.

7 comments on “Adrienne Maree Brown: Accountable to Earth

  1. louisehawes
    October 14, 2022

    Wasn’t it your friend Michaela you describe singing with whales and passing on messages from them? Or did I read awry?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Lara/Trace
    October 13, 2022

    “…how comfortable we are becoming with mass displacement and death.” What a horror… that acceptance.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. louisehawes
    October 13, 2022

    Just wow! Agree with Barbara, and would love to find a way to access some of the dialogue Michaela is taking part in?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Barbara Huntington
    October 13, 2022

    Beautiful. Can we listen?

    Liked by 1 person

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