Finding Harmony in Our 21st Century Biosphere

In 1996 I spent a week living with a Maasai tribe in the Loita Hills of southern Kenya. One morning, we went on a walk across the African savannah; the golden hills rolling in the distance speckled by deep green pockets of forest. This landscape has been colored by nomadic grazing by the Maasai and the migrations of magnificent herds of wildebeest.

Suddenly, one of the Maasai with us stopped abruptly and raised his hand. He indicated that we would pause here and rest for a while. I found shelter under an acacia tree and was joined by one of the other Maasai who grabbed a few twigs from a nearby shrub and handed me one. He said that while we rest, we might as well brush our teeth and he began scrubbing. I had noticed that in Nairobi, most of the poor Kenyan children had unhealthy teeth – blackened and missing – swollen gums. But within the Maasai tribe we were living with, the children (and the adults) had shockingly white teeth. This significant difference illustrated the positive effects of being in tune with their surroundings. The Maasai knew which trees and shrubs had naturally cleaning properties and I was impressed by how good my teeth felt after chewing on the twig for a few minutes.

While we rested, I watched a group of Maasai gather around the spot where we were originally stopped. One of them walked over to a tree and wielded his panga – a large machete-like knife– and proceeded to chop a large branch. He returned with an eight-foot long post with a sharpened end, about six inches in diameter. He stood and raised the log over his head and then thrust it straight down into the earth beneath his feet. The red-clay soil began to yield and crumble. There were two others on their knees on either side of the man with the big stick and when he lifted the stick into the air again, the two on the ground reached out and cleared away the loosened earth with their hands. No sooner had they moved the clumps of dirt then the stick came thundering back into the ground, releasing more chunks. This rhythm, at once powerful and graceful, continued for almost an hour. The men rotated tasks since it appeared the one standing and thrusting the stick was working the hardest and tired fastest. The hole deepened and widened. Finally, they stopped and called me over. I was small and light and they asked if they could use my length. They grabbed onto my ankles and lowered me into the hole head first. It must have been at least eight feet deep because the man holding my ankles had to extend his arms into the hole and my hands above my head just barely reached the bottom. Resting against the sides of this freshly dug hole, I could feel the cool moistness of earth. It was dark and damp and refreshing. I reached my hands into the bottom of the hole and began exploring a large cavity that emerged from the bottom. It’s as if this conical penetration into the earth had punctured a void that had long existed beneath our feet. But this void was not empty; it was full of life: sweet, nurturing life. I filled my hands with the warm sticky waxy substance and shouted up. I was pulled from the hole, dirt dragging across my front, with my hands full of honey. Emerging from the hole and standing with my prize, I shared this sweet nectar with the group.

As we walked through the savannah, the Maasai noticed everything. They knew what shrubs made good toothbrushes. They knew where to find shelter and where to find food. And they knew to look at the dirt beneath their bare feet. Because when one of them spotted a hole the size of a pencil, they knew to stop. They knew that it was worth it to spend an hour digging a hole with a stick and hands because at the bottom, was a nest of groundbees that held the sweetest honey I’ve ever tasted.

Those Maasai men were paying attention, and much of what I’ll say today is a plea for us to pay better attention. We are surrounded by the majesty of a complex and beautiful world. It is necessary that we pay better attention to it.

We live on a magnificent planet and no matter what your understanding of creation may look like, it is breathtaking. Recently, I’ve been enamored by Carl Sagan’s response to the Pale Blue Dot photograph. In his book by the same name, he writes,

“How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, “This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant?” Instead they say, “No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way.” A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.”[1]

Well Carl, here today, at the Laurel Park Tabernacle, the Unitarian Society of Northampton and Florence has gathered to draw forth the reserves of reverence and awe you’ve promised.

For those of you who are not familiar with The Pale Blue Dot, it is the photo that Voyager I took on its way out of our solar system in 1990. If you haven’t seen it, I’ve got a copy up here, and I invite you to come check it out after the service. This photograph, which is mostly black, has diagonal bands of color, which are beams from our sun. Within one of these beams is a tiny, blue, dot: Earth – Our home, surrounded by an infinite void.

The Pale Blue Dot is one stop on a lineage that includes Copernicus’s establishment of the Sun as the center of our solar system and Newton’s discovery of universal laws of physics. It includes Earthrise, the photo taken from Apollo 8 in 1968 of Earth rising above the surface of the moon. It includes Darwin’s theory of evolution and the discovery of Lucy in Ethiopia. It’s a journey that, over the past tens of thousands of years, has allowed us to understand our place in the universe as pretty small and perhaps, insignificant.

But there’s another journey that we’ve been on. And this journey begins 100,000 years ago when humans began using language to communicate. It includes technological developments like the irrigation ditch, the plow, paper, and wheels. It includes Gutenberg’s printing press and Graham Bell’s telephone. It includes Edison’s light bulb and Morse’s telegraph, the Pony Express, transcontinental railway, GPS, the internet, Google earth, e-mail, and yes, even Facebook.

The first journey is a journey that frames our existence within an unfathomable continuum. The universe has been here for a long time and it’s going to be here a long time. No matter what we do.

The second journey, on the other hand, is about connection. Maybe it’s a little myopic, but I find it much more accessible. It’s a journey in which we’ve expanded our ability to connect to each other. When faced with the unfathomable continuum within which we exist, it’s comforting to me to ask the question, what about us? What about now? This is an instant in a timeline that began billions of years ago and will continue for billions of years in the future. This is an instant that we get to share on this tiny blue dot in the midst of an infinite void. What are we going to do with this instant?

In our reading, Norman Crowe explained how nature began to be viewed as separate from the human experience.

“The freedom of exploration these notions of dualism gave us led across new thresholds that in turn changed or further reinforced the way we looked at nature and our place in nature.”

The dualism he’s referring to is the separation of mind and soul from matter and the natural world. He goes on to explain that the thresholds this dualism led to include Copernicus, Newton and Darwin. This dualism and these thresholds further reinforced the way we looked at nature and our place in nature. “It became possible to see the natural world as something that we might exploit and control for our own benefit.”

In the second half of the nineteenth century, as the first industrial revolution was dramatically reshaping the landscape[2], the Romantics added to the dualism by celebrating the purity of untouched nature – “for the protection of some life pasturing freely where we never wander,” as Thoreau put it in our meditation.

But this paradigm doesn’t work anymore. In a political, economic, and social society characterized by extreme polarity, pitting Romantic environmentalists against greedy industrialists only furthers the rift between our soul and nature. And that’s a rift that won’t survive the 21st Century. We need to synchronize ourselves with our surroundings before it’s too late. We need to find harmony between our soul and nature.

The title of this sermon is, “Finding Harmony in Our 21st Century Biosphere.” Our biosphere is the 3.5 billion year old all-inclusive sum of the systems that support life on our planet.  It includes all ecosystems, the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and lithosphere. With the notable exception of the Sun’s energy, it’s a closed loop, somewhat self-regulating, system that has promoted life for a very, very long time. Humans, of course, have only been around for a tiny fraction of that, just over 2 million years, and for the majority of that, we interacted with the biosphere pretty much the way other mammals did. Humans have always been like the beaver and changed their environment to meet their needs, but about 10,000 years ago (half a percent of the 2 million years we’ve been around), we shifted from hunter gatherers and began farming. We learned to dwell. Since then, humans’ ability to alter our environment has grown and grown and grown. The dualism that Crowe wrote about has allowed us to see our environment as something separate from ourselves, and therefore “as something we might control and exploit for our own benefit.” But in the nineteenth century, we discovered that we could burn coal to power steam engines. As our energy source shifted from wood to coal, and then to oil, humans experienced an unprecedented change in the way we lived on this planet.

The systems that make up our biosphere have been operating under the same rules for a lot longer than we’ve been around. But humans have learned how to manipulate these systems in awe inspiring, if not terrifying, ways. We’ve removed mountaintops in West Virginia to turn coal into electricity, carved canals through Panama and Egypt to connect oceans and seas that had forever been separated. We reforested and deforested and reforested the North American east coast. We terraced Southeast Asia and turned unfertile mountainsides into productive farms. We plowed the great plains of the American Midwest and put so much dust into the atmosphere the sky darkened in Washington D.C. We polluted countless streams and lakes and turned rain into acid. We lit the Cuyahoga River on fire. We filled New York City with so much pollution you couldn’t eat outside.

And then we cleaned up the Cuyahoga River. And we passed the clean air act. And New York’s air quality has never been better. The Cuyahoga River is now a viable ecosystem.

We have the ability to destroy ecosystems. But like the beaver that regulates water levels and creates thriving wetlands, we also have the ability to create ecosystems. We know how to warm our climate; which is pretty incredible. We also understand what it would take to cool it.

I’ve mentioned the extraordinarily eternal timeline of our planet. And I have to admit that I don’t have a clear opinion about what our world should be like in a thousand or ten thousand or a million years. I can’t summon compassion for life in another era. What I am concerned with, however, is the tiny moment that we get to share on this planet. It’s okay to be selfish – in fact, it’s an evolutionary advantage – so the question becomes for me, what kind of world do I want to live in? While I can’t imagine the world in a thousand years, it’s pretty easy for me to look into the near future and realize that I care a lot about the kind of world my children grow up in, and definitely my grandchildren. Things get a little fuzzier when I get to the next generation and somewhere around four or five generations in the future, I stop being able to empathize – to really commit myself to their lives. And that’s okay because the moment I’m trying to define lasts about a century. I don’t really know what life in the twenty second century will look like. But I have an opinion about what life in the 21st century should look like.

At the rate were going, my grandchildren could grow up in New England surrounded by palm trees instead of maple trees. So what? I could be okay with that if we as a society decided, given all the information that we had and understanding all of the implications that that would entail, that that’s what we wanted. My problem is that I haven’t heard anyone who knows what they’re talking about say they believed this would be a good thing. And yet, we as a group seem to be making decisions that none of us as individuals would ever make.

What will it take for us to embrace the responsibility we have for creating the world we want our grandchildren to inherit? I believe that it will take a new way of thinking, an expanded mindset, an empathic, biosphere consciousness that places us squarely in the middle of the complex interdependent web of which we are not only a part, but of which we have unprecedented influence.

Our consciousness is the gestalt effect of what we know, what we feel, and what we believe. This trinity of education, expression, and experience provides a roadmap for action.

One: expand what we know through aggressive research and education. Each one of us needs to learn the science of climate change, the ecology of our forests and our fields and the hydrology of our rivers and streams. We have a responsibility to know how to grow vegetables and design houses that don’t need mechanical heating or cooling systems. We need to teach each other about how we understand our biosphere.

Two: cultivate values and opinions. It’s one thing to understand the science behind climate change, but it’s quite another to have an opinion about it. It’s one thing to know that the earth’s tilted axis results in the changing of the seasons, but it’s quite another to feel something about it. To cultivate opinions, we need artistic expression. Art is the only way to communicate feeling and emotion without having to translate it into an intellectual experience and then back into an emotional one. Expression through music and dance and photography and poetry and painting and video and sculpture and theater has always and will continue to shape our collective consciousness from an emotional core.

Three: experience the awe and reverence of our Earth. Being a part of this web is a magical experience, and we can’t afford to miss the wonder and splendor of every moment. Building biosphere consciousness requires experiencing the biosphere.

Like the Maasai men, we need to pay more attention. Notice the way the wind ripples through leaves on a birch tree; the delicate veins on an over ripe cherry tomato; the sparkle of stars in the night sky or the depths of clouds on a summer day. Slip into a cool stream on a hot afternoon and feel the water that has descended from mountains miles away; witness the first moments of day as the sun peaks over the horizon. We are surrounded by excuses for inspiration – let us experience them.

[1] Sagan, Carl. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Ballantine Books, 1997.

[2] I must interrupt myself in light of Friday’s Olympic Opening Ceremonies. I had already written this line, “as the first industrial revolution was dramatically reshaping the landscape,” when I saw Danny Boyle’s interpretation of the same. If you missed it, it’s worth watching. At the beginning of the ceremonies, the stadium is covered in a pastoral and bucolic green landscape made with real grass and shrubs. It’s a picturesque rendition of early eighteenth century Britain. But then the music changes and the cast of dancers begin transforming the set. They literally bent down and rolled up the sheets of sod and carried away pieces of pasture. As they did this, towering smoke stacks grew from the earth and the floor now exposed was a ragged diagram of a map of London. Of course, this was a dramatic performance, but I must commend Boyle for his vision and courage to visually expose the effects of the industrial revolution on the