The State of the Earth; The Fate of the Earth
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, April 22, 2007
I think it’s fair to say that some of the most vivid memories some of us have of our childhoods have to do with the Earth—with being out of doors; with being outside in the natural world. We might remember the early-morning sunrise on the beach; or the climb to the top of Monadnock; or the sharp, cold waters of the Gulf of Maine stabbing at our bodies, as we dared to jump in. There are all those memories we have of green fields, and favorite gardens, and soft summer evenings by the side of the lake. We all probably have a snowstorm, a great deluge, and a lightening storm that sticks out in our minds; that somehow carved its special place in our memories.
Looking back, there is often an almost dream-like state to our deepest memories of being one with nature. There is a sense of something deeper at work here, a sense of something truly holy and profound. Perhaps this is because, as Father Andrew Rossi has written, “the entire created universe is a revelation from God… Every created thing is a word of God, revealing in the corruptible clay of its material substance the truth of its origin and end in the infinite Word of God.”
There is deep within us, as Thomas Berry wrote, a “dream of the Earth”. But not all our dreams of the Earth are happy ones. There is also the ongoing ecological nightmare of our exploitation and destruction of the Earth.
In his book, The Future of Life, a scientist named E.O. Wilson tells us that we are using up non-renewable global resources at the rate of about 3% per year: three per-cent per year. You don’t need a super computer—you don’t even need a calculator—to do that math. We are simply living upon the Earth in a non-sustainable manner, and if something major isn’t done soon, we could well face major ecological catastrophe, just a little on down the road.
Relatively few scientists now doubt that the over-development of the Earth and our dependence upon oil for fuel is causing dramatic climate change and global warming. In the latest report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released last month, is full of non-sensationalized, but nevertheless frightening evidence of what global warming is doing to the Earth:
Here are some of the more notable conclusions of this report of hundreds of scientists representing 113 governments (and remember, this is not Al Gore speaking here; this is not the Democratic Party; this is the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, representing scientists from over a hundred different countries): The report says that there is no doubt that the planet is warming, according to all sorts of measures, from rising air and ocean temperatures to widespread melting of snow and ice.
Increases in global temperature are "very likely" the result of higher concentrations of greenhouse gases, which are far higher now than they have been over the past 650,000 years. We should expect global temperatures to continue to rise, even if greenhouse gas concentrations stay at present levels. Continuing to release greenhouse gases at current rates would be "very likely" to yield much more severe consequences during this century than those we saw in the previous one. Sea levels will rise; heat waves and droughts will strike longer and more often; hurricanes will become more intense; and it will rain more in high latitudes.
A scientist named Rodolpho del Valle tells us that “In January 1995, a mass of ice the size of Rhode Island broke off the Larsen ice shelf and plunged into the Antarctic Sea,” Flying overhead, del Valle saw “a platform of ice more than forty miles wide, broken up into pieces that looked like polystyrene foam… smashed by a child.” Scientists have predicted for years that global warming would someday melt the polar ice caps. “But the whole process,” says del Valle, has been much quicker than we anticipated… Recently, I’ve seen rocks poke through the surface of the ice that had been buried for 20,000 years.”
Likewise, rainforests that have grown over centuries now lie devastated before human greed and arrogance. In 1991, it was predicted that at current deforestation rates in the Brazilian jungle, by the middle of the 21st Century, only scattered "remnants" of tropical rainforests will exist, While the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has slowed slightly over the past two years, the world over an area of forest aboutone-half the size of California vanishes each year. The destruction of trees also destroys the quality of the air we all breathe.
It is also estimated that worldwide deforestation will take with it one quarter of all species on Earth over the next fifty years. As Matthew Fox tells us, “A species is a once-in-a-universe event, never to be repeated.” Scientists estimate there are 10 to 30 million plant and animal species on the planet, most of them unidentified. Each year as many as 50,000 species disappear. That’s about 136 species a day, or one species every 11 minutes. Up until the modern age, in the natural course of evolution, one single species disappeared approximately every 2000 years. As Hildegard of Bingen said almost 900 years ago, “in the midst of all other creatures, humanity is the most significant and yet the most dependent upon the others.” Humanity is also, by far, the most destructive.
It is also true, of course, that “what we do to the Earth, we do to ourselves”, and that ecocide is also, eventually, ecological suicide. Our current ecological shortsightedness reminds me of one of Gary Larsen’s “Far Side” cartoons. A dinosaur is addressing an auditorium full of other dinosaurs. There is a chart behind him, with the trends obviously running down, down, downward. “Gentlemen, the picture is bleak,” the dinosaur says. “The earth’s climate is changing, the mammals are taking over, and we all have a brain about the size of a walnut.”
We may well be more like the dinosaurs than we like to admit at times. The difference—and the tragedy—is that, unlike the dinosaurs, we have chosen to get ourselves into this sad state of wrong relationship with the natural world. How on Earth did it happen? How can we get out of this mess?
In his book, The Dream of the Earth, cultural historian, naturalist, Christian mystic Thomas Berry proposes some answers.
“In our time,” Berry writes, “human cunning has mastered the deep mysteries of the earth at a level far beyond the capacities of earlier peoples. We can break the mountains apart; we can drain the rivers and flood the valleys. We can turn the most luxuriant forests into throwaway paper products. We can tear apart the great grass cover of the western plains and pour toxic chemicals into the soil and pesticides onto the fields until the soil is dead and blows away in the wind. We can pollute the air with acids, the rivers with sewage, the seas with oil—all this in a kind of intoxication with our power for devastation at an order of magnitude beyond all reckoning. We can invent computers capable of processing ten million calculations per second. And why? To increase the volume and speed with which we move natural resources through our consumer economy to the junk pile or the waste heap.”
From whence did this destructive power of the human race arise? It didn’t happen overnight, Berry tells us. It came about over centuries and centuries, he says, as part of a gradual development within human consciousness—a profound change in focus—a “vast turning”—through which modern humanity came to see itself not as part and parcel of the natural world, but somehow, above it, controlling it—not as a strand in the web of creation, but as the very center of it.
Instead of seeing ourselves as one with the natural universe—and one with the natural powers inherent in the natural world—humanity came to see itself as Master of the Universe. As there arose a new capacity for understanding and controlling the physical dynamics of the natural world, there was less and less concern fore the psychic and spiritual forces which earlier people saw as central to their experience in the world. The basis of life was no longer viewed primarily in terms of the communion of humanity with the divine, but rather in terms of mechanistic, scientifically-observable, readily exploitable patterns of cause and effect.
This “vast turning” was a long time in coming. Perhaps only another great change of heart—a great change of perspective—a revolution in the sphere of human consciousness-- can lead us back into right relationship with the Earth.
As Tom Owen-Towle of our church in San Diego reminds us, “Ecology is fundamentally a theological matter.” Perhaps a healthy religious and spiritual view of our relationship with the Earth can lead the way out of the mess we are now in. In addition to the well-known (and very valid) mantra of “reduce, reuse, and recycle”, Owen-Towle proposes three other “R-words” for reawakening humankind’s healthy relationship with the Earth: relatedness, respect, and responsibility:
First, we need to realize, deep within our beings, that we are related to all of nature—that we are products of the natural world. “There exists an undeniable bond among all living creatures.” We are all joined in an interdependent web of existence: this is healthy theology and it is sound, solid science. As Tom Owen-Towle writes:
As Albert Schweitzer said: “Until human beings extend the circle of their compassion to include all living things, they will never, themselves, know peace.”
A profound sense of our relatedness must undergird our human policies and behaviors on this Earth.
Second, we must move away from an attitude of domination and control toward one of respect for other living things.
When Jesus as says in the Gospel of Matthew, “Behold the lilies of the field,” he’s not just saying, “Hey, look at those lilies.” To behold something means to treat it with profound respect. It means that you try to bewith something; that you try to hold it in your heart and soul.
In our dealings with the Earth, we need to behold the lilies of the field. Behold the moon. Behold the sunset. Behold the rocks. Behold the trees. Behold this Earth which gave us birth. Become one with the Earth. Hold it in your hearts at all times.
Respect for the Earth and its systems needs to become the basis of our human policies and behaviors.
Out of this respect can come a new sense of our responsibility. Our responsibility for one another. Our responsibility to care for the Earth.
Standing where we are now, in these early years of the 21st Century, it is easy to throw up our hands and give in to a sense of confusion and hopelessness. The problems of this world can overwhelm us, certainly. But even as he calls down wrath upon the present state of our world, Thomas Berry cautions us not to give in to despair; not to give up hope. For Berry is, above all, a man of faith—not faith in the patriarchial forms of Western religion which have alienated us from the natural world and from each other and which have brought us to the edge of this ecological abyss. His faith, rather, is in the creative and healing power of the Earth itself.
“In moments of confusion such as the present,” Berry writes, “we are not left simply to our own rational contrivances. We are supported by the ultimate powers in the universe as they make themselves present to us through the spontaneities of our own beings.”
The Earth itself tells us why we should have hope. But to hear what the Earth needs, we human ones have to stop talking long enough to listen to the Earth again. “In relation to the earth we have been autistic for centuries,” Berry writes. “Only now have we begun to listen with some attention and with a willingness to respond to the earth’s demands that we cease our industrial assault, that we abandon our inner rage against the conditions of our earthly existence, and that we renew our human participation in the grand liturgy [or, the grand unfolding] of the universe.”
To learn to live anew, we must learn to act anew-- with humility, with respect, and with care—to peal away the forms and institutions and manifestations of this human-centered, patriarchial, exploitive, domineering, industrial reign—and bringing to birth in our midst new creations, new forms, new manifestations of what has been called the Pax Gaia—the Peace of the Earth.
Let us take heart, my friends; and let us remember these amazing times in which we are now living. Bringing to birth a new world will not be easy. There may be few of us now living on this Earth, struggling through this difficult and messy time of transition, who will be alive to see the child emerge in all its beauty and all its glory. But as Rami Shapiro has written:
We can do what we can. We can begin to dream the Earth anew. We can begin to act. We can begin, quite literally, to save the world, to save the Earth.