One way to say where we are is that the human population has become so pervasive on the Earth that it is rapidly shutting down the viability of the living systems that support us. Species are going extinct at ever more rapid rates. Because of the effects of our human presence, the Earth is coming to the end of a 65 million year explosion of life and diversity, the era geologists call the Cenozoic, an era that began with the demise of the dinosaurs. That is very hard for us to get our minds around, distracted as we are by other issues in the foreground of our attention—terrorism, presidential politics, the growing divide between rich and poor.
Religious and cultural sectarianism, immediate political advantage, and narrow, short-term economic self-interest drive almost all present human planning and decision-making, rather than objective consideration of what is best for the health of the total system of which we are only a part. Here and there lie pockets of new thinking, such as provisions in the constitutions of some South American countries giving rights to natural systems like rivers and animals, or successful sustainable energy systems being operated in Scandinavian nations. But the governing paradigm remains unchanged.
The most pervasive value-example is our global fixation upon quantitative economic growth. The finest political and economic minds around the world define increased growth as the royal road to genuine prosperity. At the same time, everyone knows that untrammeled quantitative growth has extraordinarily destructive ecological outcomes, such as ocean-changing oil spills, soil exhaustion, drought, flooding, the melting of the polar ice caps. All of these are even now negatively affecting the lives not only of millions of humans, but also of other parts of the living system upon which humans depend.
It is extremely difficult for our species to grasp that we are not dominant over the total life-support systems of the earth. We have had to absorb previous shocks to our notions of dominance, such as that the earth is not the center of the universe or even the solar system, or that we are the descendents of ape-like creatures, or that we are motivated by unconscious drives—scientific disillusionments to our puffed-up sense of ourselves brought to us by Copernicus, Darwin and Freud respectively.
Contrary to the divine promises found in the book of Genesis, we are not the stewards of creation. Our present behavior indicates at best very ineffective attempts at stewardship. We are not somehow “above” nature. We came from it and are totally subject to its laws and limits. Nonetheless our success as a human species has a clear implication: there are now so many of us that the decisions we are making are determining the fate of the whole earth and everything on it. It is impossible to imagine a more challenging responsibility than that.
To survive and flourish, the human species needs a compelling, unifying context in which to nest our various challenges. As we understand the depth of how much we, we who are fiercely fighting each other over ultimately illusory differences, have in common, we move forward with more creativity and more compassion.
What does contemporary science contribute to this need for context? One amazing and fundamental fact is the precision of the expansion rate of the universe itself. Astrophysicists tell us that if this rate had varied a trillionth of a trillionth of a percent in either direction, we would not be here. Just a hair slower, and creation would have drawn back in upon itself. A hair faster, and there would have been dispersal into an undifferentiated gray fog, no bursting forth of galaxies and stars—and planets, life, consciousness, love, music and art.
What might be some implications of this precision? It gives the lie to facile notions of the randomness of creation when one realizes that everything that exists is directly and causally emergent from that precision. It can change how we see things. The good (what leads to the survival and flourishing of the total system and all life-forms), the true (our scientific understanding of what actually is, from which we derive our ethical convictions), and the beautiful (intervals in music; alluring proportions in natural and human-made forms; allurement itself) all arise from this precision; how could they not?
It brought everything forth in magnificent complexity. To open to this single scientific fact is to breathe the atmosphere of its optimism, to participate in its ultimate hopefulness; how could we not?
And on all levels, macro and micro, as the great cosmologist Thomas Berry wrote, three laws operate: differentiation, autonomy, and communion.
Things and beings differentiate into more and more diversity and complexity. We see this in the diversity of life forms on our planet that have evolved in millions of years of experimentation— microbes, dragonflies, lobsters, orchids.
And then on every level, autonomy is a pervasive, fundamental principle. Acorns grow reliably into oaks. Neutrons have a distinct identity as neutrons and behave reliably as such. Elements like carbon and hydrogen can be counted upon to follow invariable laws.
Thirdly, all things and beings from atoms to galaxies are in communion with each other. Neutrons interact with other particles. Oak trees must commune with water and sun to grow tall. Humans cannot exist without relationships, first of all the mother-child interaction. We exist in a community of beings in which communion is continuous, unbroken, on every level from atoms to galaxies.
Berry saw these laws as an ethical foundation and guide for our behavior: what encourages further differentiation, autonomy, and communion is good. What truncates these three is evil.
What does this mean in practical terms of what people call “the real world,” the world that we digest through the corporate media: the “lead story” on the television news; the large headline in the newspaper? Clearly politicians haven’t yet tried to get elected by establishing the practical relevance of the story of the unfolding universe—so it is up to voters to try to help seed such ideas into the mainstream political dialogue.
It is humbling to our materialist values, but once understood and accepted, this fundamental change of paradigm from illusions of dominance to membership within a diverse community of whales and hawks and bees, can work in favor of our survival: our values will adjust to the need for our human presence to cease to become a drag on the total system. We will ask what is the position of the candidates for high office, not only in our own country but also around the world, on this crucial issue of interdependence, at the same time we are newly examining our own behavior. We will look for ways we can contribute to the health of the system rather than assuming that we can flourish by dominating, consuming, and devastating it.
Why couldn’t this include creating a Marshall Plan for the earth to stabilize its population? So many other issues “nest” within the population growth issue, including the nature of future conflicts and the assurance of sustainable food, water and energy sources for all. Somewhere nine or ten layers of “nesting” down, we find the political conflicts that presently dominate our media—issues like the debt ceiling, or where to try alleged terrorists.
But even our huge population challenge, at the same time a sign of our success and a present danger, nests within the ultimate success of the unfolding universe-process, a process that connects back seamlessly to the primal seed out of which came all that is—with such a perfect assurance of unfolding, creative possibilities. It tells us that we humans have infinitely more in common than we have differences to separate us. It submerges all the diversity of our religious convictions in a fresh and unifying sense of what is truly sacred—what is worthy of our most persistent efforts of care and preservation. And it tells us we possess the inherent capacity to meet all our challenges, no matter how great.
The astrophysicist Brian Swimme and the eco-philosopher Mary Evelyn Tucker have recently completed a landmark book and film, “Journey of the Universe,” that explores these questions, issues and hopes with a satisfying simplicity and depth. Read the book, and look for showings of the film on PBS. It will change you.