Marching for Earth

September 23, 2014
anna annastasia mullen
Annastasia Mullen


Among the more than 300,000 people who took part in the People's Climate March in New York City on September 21 were former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, actor Leonardo DiCaprio, and HDS student Annastasia Mullen.

Mullen, MDiv '15, went to New York to join in the march aimed at sounding the alarm on climate change. On September 23, just two days after the march, leaders from around the world gathered at the United Nations for a summit on climate change.

HDS Communications reached out to Mullen as she made her way back to Boston by bus. She explained her reasoning for going and how her time at HDS has afforded her the chance to explore the intersections of environmentalism and religion.

Harvard Divinity School: Why was it important for you to participate in the People's Climate March?

Annastasia Mullen: I've had numerous conversations with my classmates and friends about how lackluster my generation seems to be about actually using our bodies for social change. I'm not quite old enough to have known a time when things were much different, but I feel like my generation is plenty eager to throw their support behind different issues and causes on social media with hashtags and status updates, but we're much more detached when it comes to actually walking the walk!

I'm plenty guilty of this, too. It's quite easy for us to convince ourselves we don't have the time or the energy to be any more involved in things that actually require us to show up and be present. But, we are at a point in climate activism where we can't afford to not show up anymore.

Recycling is good, using reusable grocery bags is good, eating locally is good, but there are much bigger actions we can take as a nation—and as a united global community—to begin to more seriously address how our systems of living are negatively affecting the Earth. I don't think those conversations are going to be taken seriously until we shed our passivity. It felt to me that the people marching recognized what was at stake in our being present and that our presence lent witness to the urgency and necessity of real climate action.

HDS: Do you believe the demonstration will have the lasting effect many people are hoping it will have?

AM: I think the people who marched won't be forgetting it anytime soon. And I hope that seeing such a huge swarm of people coming together for a cause has a long-lasting effect on the people who lined the streets to watch us, the drivers of vehicles that were backed up for miles, and the police officers who stood at the intersections throughout the route.

I think the more serious question is: Will the march have an impact on our law and policy makers, on leaders of major corporations, and on decision makers who have the opportunity to choose compassion over profit?

It's my hope more than anything that the People's Climate March will have a lasting effect in board rooms, executives' offices, at the United Nations, in Washington, D.C., and in the minds of all decision makers who have the opportunity to say no to the things we know will negatively affect our Earth and communities.

It's my hope that when decisions about things like the Keystone Pipeline, investment in renewable energies, etc., are being made, no one is unfazed by the fact that on a Sunday in September 2014, more than 300,000 people from across the United States, and thousands more in other cities globally, stood in the streets for the sake of saying this matters. Caring for the Earth, and valuing all life on this Earth matters.

HDS: How do you see spirituality having an impact on the climate crisis?

AM: There are certainly a lot of answers to this question, the least of which is to say that in my studies at HDS, I've yet to find a religious tradition that has absolutely nothing to say about caring for the planet.

Even in an abstract sense, when our religious traditions tell us we ought to care for our neighbors and for others, we can understand this to mean caring for the non-human others we share the Earth with. More deeply than that, I think within our spiritual and religious traditions there is language and experience for dealing with crises like this one—for coping with things that seem daunting, overwhelming, and maybe even hopeless.

This isn't to say that the climate change movement hasn't found its own ways of acknowledging the massive weightiness of the task at hand. The march was an incredible reminder of the creativity and ingenuity that can be fostered in social movements. What I would suggest, though, is that everyone is being, and will continue to be, impacted by our changing global landscapes. As we continue to experience these changes, and as well feel their impact in our lives, I think we will undoubtedly feel some of these sensations of loss and disorientation, of anger and helplessness.

I think one way spirituality and religion can have an impact on the climate crisis will be to offer experience and language, tradition and rituals as a way to recognize the sacredness of what is being harmed and lost, and to help us foster deeper compassion for what remains. 

HDS: How has your time and education at HDS helped you as an environmental advocate?

AM: I've been fortunate to have had the opportunity to explore the intersections of environmentalism and religion in a number of my classes here at HDS. This hasn't necessarily been the main objective of most classes, but I've enjoyed the chance to view much of my studies through this environmental lens, particularly in final papers. Furthermore, my Field Education placements have allowed me to feel out how these academic explorations interact with lived experiences.

In my time at HDS, I've studied the creation stories of Genesis, learned about the close relationships between trees and people throughout human history, was introduced to the roots of environmental ethics, and have been encouraged to think about new formations of eco-theologies. These educational experiences have no doubt transformed my own relationships to the Earth, but they've also deepened my sense of responsibility to respecting and advocating for it.

HDS: What did you take away from the march?

AM: One of the most powerful moments of the march for me was the moment of silence. The official start of the march was at Columbus Circle, which is on 59th Street. There were so many people in attendance that I was lined up near 86th Street—so, nearly 30 blocks back from where the crowd started.

When the moment of silence began, there was a slow hush across the street as those in front of us began to raise their hands and people stopped talking. It was a beautiful moment of stillness in a city that is always in constant motion. After standing silently together for a few moments, there was an absolutely chilling wave of thunderous noise that started down at Columbus Circle, rolling its way down the streets of New York, until there were 300,000 of us yelling and clapping, sounding the alarm on climate change. It was an incredible moment. But almost more powerful than that was the fact that this march was made up of an incredibly diverse group: children and grandparents; religious folks and atheists; immigrants and life-long New York City residents; students and physicians; anarchists and politicians.

The power of community is really beautiful. There are so many opportunities for division, for clashing, for picking sides in our world. One thing that will always unite us is the Earth that we share, and joining together to give voice to its worth was a beautiful reminder that change is possible.

—by Michael Naughton