Hope in the Long and Short Run: a Conversation with Dr. Nancy Langston
Updated: Sep 8
Let’s begin with the end. Towards the end our conversation, Dr. Nancy Langston said that she “owes it to the Great Lakes to be hopeful.” She said that, however, after recounting a number of reasons to NOT be hopeful: a history of serious damage to the Lakes, the roll back of environmental laws and regulations, and the political divisions in our country resulting in a lack of bipartisan collaboration on water issues.
So why be hopeful? For Dr. Langston, Distinguished Professor of Environmental History
In the long run, her hope “comes from a sense that the earth will thrive, regardless of what we do,” she said. As an example, she cited the end-Permian mass extinction around 250 million years ago, when 98% of all life on earth died. The earth recovered, eventually, so that gives her hope, “that evolutionary processes will help the earth, help species evolve new, fascinating responses to these dramatic changes.”
The study of evolution, starting as a child, helped form the basis for her own worldview. “I am profoundly atheist. I was raised Catholic, but I’ve been an atheist since I could think through things.”
As a girl, she struggled with the practice of Catholicism. “Then one day,” she recounted, “I read a little Darwin. I had a sort of illustrated guide to ‘The Origin of Species.’ ‘Voyage of the Beagle,’ I think it was called. It had beautiful pictures and I was a little kid. But I read it and it just clicked for me. For whatever reason, evolution made sense for me in a way that religion didn’t. I’m not suggesting that they need to be opposed... but for whatever reason, the study of evolution just profoundly satisfied me in a way that trying to study religion never did.”
Langston sees the Catholic tradition as emphasizing transcendence, that the physical world we live in is transitory and that true, eternal existence lies outside this life. “That’s fundamentally different than the way I see value,” she said. “Anything that tries to transcend or see mortality or death as somehow wrong or limited just doesn’t work for me.”
“I would like to think I have a spiritual understanding or sense of engagement and embeddedness in the watershed and in the Great Lakes and in place,” Langston added, “but it’s not at all about transcendence, or eternity, or something other than things of the Earth.”
“My sense of value lies in the water and the air and the birds and the Earth, but it doesn’t have to transcend death,” she said. “It’s fine with me that the sun will burn out... it’s completely cool with me that the universe ends. I don’t need a sense that something goes on or some sense of God that’s greater than all that. But for me a sense of spirituality is that my own individual life and worries... all that is short-term, limited, and that value lies somewhere else.”
While a long-term, evolutionary view gives her hope, Langston also leans on a slightly shorter view of sustainability that she has learned from Indigenous friends and colleagues.
The Christianity that Langston grew up with had a hierarchical worldview, with humans above animals, the land, and the water. “The indigenous communities that I’ve been fortunate enough to learn a tiny bit of their perspective see that as just bizarre,” she said, adding, “They feel like we’re all relatives.”
For example, she referred to an article titled, “Renewing Relatives: Nmé Stewardship in a Shared Watershed” by Kyle Whyte of Michigan State University and Marty Holtgren and Stephanie Ogren of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians. The essay tells the story of the work by the Little River Band to restore the Lake Sturgeon, or Nmé in the tribe’s Anishinaabemowin language, on the Big Manistee River in the northwestern part of Michigan’s lower peninsula. In the article, Whyte, Holtgren and Ogren write:
Restoration is not only about numbers of fish; it is also about the involvement of community members at all levels of the restoration process itself. Through participation and ceremony, individuals develop their own genuine relationships to nonhuman species, expand or adapt their worldviews to others, and learn to act collectively on behalf of the sustainability of the watershed.
It’s that connection that people have with the world around them that interests Langston. “I’m really fascinated and moved by other people’s relationships with nature... with the Great Lakes, with water, and how different people value water and how spiritual values play such a key role in sustaining their relationships and our future in this watershed.”
Ultimately, those relationships, and the work they inspire, help give Langston hope. Another example she cited is the work of the Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission, along with federal and state agencies. “That gives me hope,” she said. “There are still massive numbers of people really trying to go above and beyond their jobs. I mean, they do their jobs, but they also really, really love the Lakes and the species that inhabit this amazing Great Lakes ecosystem. So, that’s hopeful. People still care.”