We're closer to environmental disaster than ever before. We need a new story for our relationship with the Earth, one that goes beyond science and religion.
The world as we know it is slipping away. At the current rate of destruction, tropical rainforest could be gone within as little as 40 years. The seas are being overfished to the point of exhaustion, and coral reefs are dying from ocean acidification. Biologists say that we are currently at the start of the largest mass extinction event since the disappearance of the dinosaurs. As greenhouse gases increasingly accumulate in the atmosphere, temperatures are likely to rise faster than our current ecological and agricultural systems can adapt.
It is no secret that the Earth is in trouble and that we humans are to blame. Just knowing these grim facts, however, won’t get us very far. We have to transform this knowledge into a deep passion to change course. But passion does not come primarily from the head; it is a product of the heart. And the heart is not aroused by the bare facts alone. It needs stories that weave those facts into a moving and meaningful narrative.
We need a powerful new story that we are a part of nature and not separate from it. We need a story that properly situates humans in the world—neither above it by virtue of our superior intellect, nor dwarfed by the universe into cosmic insignificance. We are equal partners with all that exists, co-creators with trees and galaxies and the microorganisms in our own gut, in a materially and spiritually evolving universe.
This was the breathtaking vision of the late Father Thomas Berry. Berry taught that humanity is presently at a critical decision point. Either we develop a more heart-full relationship with the Earth that sustains us, or we destroy ourselves and life on the planet. I interviewed the white-maned theologian (he preferred the term “geologian,” by which he meant “student of the Earth”) in 1997 at the Riverdale Center of Religious Research on the Hudson River north of New York City. Berry spoke slowly and with the hint of a southern drawl, revealing his North Carolina upbringing.
“I say that my generation has been autistic,” he told me. “An autistic child is locked into themselves, they cannot get out and the outer world cannot get in. They cannot receive affection, cannot give affection. And this is, I think, a very appropriate way of identifying this generation in its relationship to the natural world.
“We have no feeling for the natural world. We’d as soon cut down our most beautiful tree, the most beautiful forest in the world. We cut it down for what? For timber, for board feet. We don’t see the tree, we only see it in terms of its commercial value.”
It is no accident that we have come to our current crisis, according to Berry. Rather, it is the natural consequence of certain core cultural beliefs that comprise what Berry called “the Old Story.” At the heart of the Old Story is the idea that we humans are set apart from nature and here to conquer it. Berry cited the teaching in Genesis that humans should “subdue the Earth … and have dominion over every living thing.”
But if religion provided the outline for the story, science wrote it large—developing a mind-boggling mastery of the natural world. Indeed, science over time became the new religion, said Berry, an idolatrous worship of our own human prowess. Like true believers, many today are convinced that, however bad things might seem, science and technology will eventually solve all of our problems and fulfill all of our needs.
Berry acknowledged that this naive belief in science served a useful purpose during the formative era when we were still building the modern world and becoming aware of our immense power to transform things.
Like adolescents staking out their own place in the world, we asserted our independence from nature and the greater family of life. But over time, this self-assertion became unbalanced, pushing the Earth to the brink of environmental cataclysm. The time has come to leave this adolescent stage behind, said Berry, and develop a new, mature relationship with the Earth and its inhabitants.
We’ll need to approach this crucial transition on many different fronts. Scientific research has too frequently become the willing handmaiden of what Berry called “the extractive economy,” an economic system that treats our fellow creatures as objects to be exploited rather than as living beings with their own awareness and rights. Moreover, technology, in Berry’s view, potentially separates us from intimacy with life. We flee into “cyberspace”— spending more time on smart phones, iPods, and video games than communing with the real world.
Science and technology are not the problem. Our misuse of them is. Berry said that science needs to acknowledge that the universe is not a random assemblage of dead matter and empty space, but is alive, intelligent, and continually evolving. And it needs to recognize that not only is the world alive, it is alive in us. “We bear the universe in our beings,” Berry reflected, “as the universe bears us in its being.” In Berry’s view, our human lives are no accident. We are the eyes, the minds, and the hearts that the cosmos is evolving so that it can come to know itself ever more perfectly through us.
It’s a view that has been winning some surprising adherents. Several years ago, I had dinner with Edgar Mitchell, one of only a dozen humans who have walked upon the lunar surface. Mitchell, the descendant of New Mexico pioneers and an aeronautical engineer by training, spoke precisely and almost clinically—until he related an experience that happened on his way back to Earth during the Apollo 14 mission. At that point, his voice brightened with awe.
“I was gazing out of the window, at the Earth, moon, sun, and star-studded blackness of space in turn as our capsule slowly rotated,” he said. “Gradually, I was flooded with the ecstatic awareness that I was a part of what I was observing. Every molecule in my body was birthed in a star hanging in space. I became aware that everything that exists is part of one intricately interconnected whole.”
The Overview Effect
In a recent phone chat, Mitchell called this realization “the Overview Effect,” and he said that virtually all of the moon astronauts experienced it during their flights. In his case, it changed the direction of his life: “I realized that the story of ourselves as told by our scientific cosmology and our religion was incomplete and likely flawed. I saw that the Newtonian idea of separate, independent, discrete things in the universe wasn’t a fully accurate description.”
In pursuit of a holistic understanding, Mitchell founded the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS) to explore the nature of human consciousness. The question of consciousness might seem remote from issues like climate change. But it is central to the question of how we treat the world. At the core of our abuse of nature is the belief that we humans are essentially islands unto ourselves, alienated from the world beyond our skins. A little god locked within the gated community of his or her own skull won’t feel much responsibility for what goes on outside.
“The classical scientific approach says that observation and consciousness are completely independent of the way the world works,” IONS Chief Scientist Dean Radin told me. But physics has known for decades that mind and matter are not as separable as we once supposed. Radin cites as an example Heisenberg’s discovery that the act of observation changes the phenomenon that is being observed.
Moreover, quantum physics has shown that subatomic particles that are separated in space are nevertheless responsive to one another in ways that are not yet fully understood. We are discovering that there is “some underlying form of connection in which literally everything is connected to everything else all of the time,” asserts Radin. “The universe is less a collection of objects than a web of interrelationships.”
As we come to grasp how inextricably embedded in this vast web of cosmic life we are, Radin hopes that humans will be persuaded to move beyond the idea of ourselves as masters and the world as slave to embrace an equal and mutually beneficial partnership.
Another prophet of a new scientific paradigm is renowned Harvard biologist Edward (E.O.) Wilson. Wilson is best known for his biophilia hypothesis, which says there is an instinctive emotional bond between humans and other life forms. Evolution has fostered in us the drive to love and care for other living beings, Wilson says, as a way to promote the survival not just of our own kind but of life as a whole.
Darwin’s theory of natural selection is invoked to argue that we humans are conditioned by nature to struggle tooth and nail for access to limited resources. But Wilson contends that evolution does not just promote violent competition but also favors the development of compassion and cooperation—traits that serve the interests of the group as a whole.
He calls this radical new idea “group selection.” Groups of altruistically inclined individuals have an evolutionary advantage over groups that are composed of members pursuing only their own survival needs. This collective advantage, he argues, has helped to promote powerful social bonds and cooperative behaviors in species as diverse as ants, geese, elk, and human beings.
In championing the evolutionary importance of love and cooperation in the flourishing of life, Wilson is not just revolutionizing biology. He is also venturing into territory usually occupied by religion. But, like Berry, Wilson argues that we need a story that cuts across traditional boundaries between fields to present a new, integral vision. “Science and religion are two of the most potent forces on Earth,” Wilson asserts, “and they should come together to save the Creation.”
A thousand-year worldview
At its heart, the new story that Wilson and Berry advocate is actually a very old one. Indigenous spiritual traditions taught that all beings are our relatives long before the science of ecology “discovered” the seamless web of life that binds humans to other creatures. “The world is alive, everything has spirit, has standing, has the right to be recognized,” proclaims Anishinaabe activist and former Green Party candidate for vice president Winona LaDuke.
“One of our fundamental teachings is that in all our actions we consider the impact it will have on seven generations,” LaDuke told an audience at the University of Ottawa in 2012. “Think about what it would mean to have a worldview that could last a thousand years, instead of the current corporate mindset that can’t see beyond the next quarterly earnings statement.”
When LaDuke speaks of Native values, people sometimes ask her what relevance these have for us today. She answers that the respect for the sacredness of nature that inspired people to live in harmony with their environment for millennia is not a relic of the past. It is a roadmap for living lightly on the Earth that we desperately need in a time of climate change.
This ethic has spread beyond the reservation into religiously inspired communities, like Genesis Farm, founded by the Dominican Sisters of Caldwell, New Jersey. Set on ancestral Lenape lands amidst wooded hills and wetlands and within view of the Delaware Water Gap, Genesis has served for the last quarter century as an environmental learning center and working biodynamic farm grounded in Berry’s vision.
I spoke to the community’s founder Sister Miriam MacGillis, a friend and student of Berry, in a room studded with satellite images of the farm and its bioregion. MacGillis told me that she underwent decades of struggle trying to reconcile Berry’s 13-billion-year vision of an evolutionary cosmos with the ultimately incompatible biblical teachings that “creation is finished: Humans were made, history began, there was the fall, and history will end with the apocalypse.” She says, “The pictures I had of God were too small, too parochial, too much a reflection of the ways humans think. We made God in our image!”
Taking the long view fundamentally transforms the basis for environmental action, says MacGillis: “We need to realize that we are the universe in the form of the human. We are not just on Earth to do good ecological things. That is where the religious perspective takes us with the stewardship model—take care of it; it’s holy because God made it. That hasn’t worked real well … The idea of stewardship is too small, it’s too human-centered, like we can do that. It’s really the opposite. Earth is taking total care of us.”
Genesis Farm has propagated these ideas through its Earth Literacy training, which has now spread to many places throughout the world. Their work is a small part of a larger greening of religion, says Yale religious scholar Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-creator with Brian Swimme of Journey of the Universe, an exhilarating trek through time and space portraying an evolutionary universe.
Tucker expects that the upcoming encyclical on climate change and the environment that Pope Francis will issue in early 2015 will be “a game changer” for Catholics. She adds that Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has also been outspoken, labeling crimes against the natural world “a sin.” The Dalai Lama, for his part, has been speaking about the importance of safeguarding the environment based on Buddhism’s sense of the profound interdependence of all life. China has recently enshrined in its constitution the need for a new ecological civilization rooted in Confucian values, which preach the harmony between humans, Earth, and Heaven.
“All civilizations have drawn on the wisdom traditions that have gotten people through death, tragedy, destruction, immense despair,” says Tucker, adding that we are currently in a perilous rite of passage. “We will need all of the world’s religions to help as well as a shared sense of an evolutionary story to get us through this.”