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As Copenhagen Conference nears, mallards offer lesson in shared responsibility

The leaders who will fly to Copenhagen this December for the U.N. Climate Change Conference might learn something from the mallards on the pond behind my home.

The leaders who will fly to Copenhagen this December for the U.N. Climate Change Conference might learn something from the mallards on the pond behind my home.

As I watch the mallards, I’m thinking, “Maybe consciousness, as we understand it, isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” The human capacities for illusion and self-delusion allow us to imagine ourselves separately both as individuals, and as a species. The mallards carry no such illusion.
This morning the mallards are getting ready for their annual migration. In preparation for the long trip south, they’re fattening themselves for the inevitable weight loss they will incur during their flight. Twelve ducks are lined up in a straight line — almost in military formation — at the shallow edge of the pond, their tails bobbing up and down like the played keys of a xylophone, a keyboard of heads and tails bobbing up and down as they feed and come up for air in preparation for their long flight south to a friendlier climate.

A practice ritual of shared responsibility
Following the feeding, the members of the flock gather on the nature platform in the middle of the pond for a meeting. When they’ve finished preening, they leave the platform and swim in patterns, each one bringing up the rear, inching forward, taking a turn at the front of the V formation, and then falling back to the rear. It’s a practice ritual of shared responsibility that will enable the flock to survive the flight to its winter home.

The mallards know by instinct that there is no life apart from the flock. No one feeds as a soloist; no one quacks as a soloist. There are no soloists. There is leadership, but it is shared. Like the nations, some are stronger; some are weaker. But they know they are a flock and that each one, for its own sake and for the sake of the flock itself, must take its sacrificial turn at the front of the V where the headwinds are strongest. They know that the reason to fatten up at this time of year is to get ready for a hard flight to a friendlier climate. They suffer none of the illusions of self sufficiency or of private ownership that would wall the members of the flock off from each other, no illusion that the reason to feed is to get fat.

But even the mallards live increasingly in the unnatural world our superior intelligence has made without regard to clean water, clean air, or the effects of pesticides on the food chain or on our own DNA. The most conscious species on the planet is also the most foolhardy, entertaining grandiose illusions of species superiority that have left some of us too fat to fly and others of us too weak to fly, a suicidal defiance of interdependence that puts the Mallards and our own flock itself in danger of extinction.

The Uppsala Interfaith Climate Manifesto
What to do? Take a clue from the mallards, or consider The Uppsala Interfaith Climate Manifesto, prepared by an international gathering of religious leaders convened last December by the Church of Sweden in anticipation of this year’s Dec. 7 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Their statement reads, in part:

“We urge political and religious leaders to take responsibility for the future of our planet and the living conditions and habit preservation of new generations. Be assured that when you do that, you can count on important and sustainable support from the faith traditions of the world.

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“We are challenged to review the values, philosophies, beliefs and moral concepts which have shaped and driven our behaviours and informed our dysfunctional relationship with our natural environment. We commit to taking and sharing responsibility for providing moral leadership within our various faith traditions and to all who desire the common good. We call upon all who have influence over the shaping of both intellect and spirit to commit to a profound reorientation of humanity’s understanding of itself and of the world whereby we acknowledge our estrangement and henceforth strive to live in harmony with Nature and one another.”

Will the leaders of the nations who gather in Copenhagen act in concert, like the mallards, bobbing their tails up and down like the keys of a single xylophone, to prepare us for the largest migration humankind has ever faced? Or will they continue the illusion of independence in the belief that getting fat on the pond is what it’s all about?

Illusion — or long, hard flight
Copenhagen represents a choice between continuing to feed the human species’ grandiose illusion that we, the most intelligent of species, are the sole exception to the intricate web of nature — or heeding the call to prepare for a long, hard flight of shared responsibility toward a friendlier climate.

Only hope and courage can equip us for this flight. The Uppsala statement ends on this note of hope:

“As religious leaders and teachers, we want to counteract a culture of fear with a culture of hope. We want to face the climate challenge with defiant optimism to highlight the core principles of all major sacred traditions of the world: justice, solidarity and compassion. We want to encourage the best science and political leadership. We commit our communities to fostering a spirit of joy in relation to the greatest gift given to us all – the gift of life!”

The Rev. Gordon Stewart is pastor of the Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minn., and moderator of the Shepherd of the Hill Dialogues: exploring critical public issues locally and globally.