Life on an Island Planet - Musings on Interdependence and Stewardship ~John Martin
I was born and raised in McDowell County, West Virginia... heart of the Pocahontas Coal fields and the scene of some of the most terrible ravages against both humanity and nature that anyone has ever experienced. From the poverty and ignorance of a society held in thrall by greed and exploitation at the hands of those whose quest for ever increasing riches through the despoiling of the land and its people, I stand before you today, disheartened at what I saw in West Virginia, yet oddly enough, encouraged. Though the land of my birth has been strip-mined, its streams polluted and its people left destitute, there are signs of a new awakening to what has been done and a very real desire to atone for the past. The people of Appalachia are starting to wake up to the damage that has been done and are trying to reverse it. For that, I am encouraged and hopeful.
As a young man, I moved to Hawaii, a fabled land of beautiful sunsets and rainbows, of tropical beaches and scenic vistas famous around the world. In the thirty years that I lived in Hawaii, it became obvious that there was another Hawaii, hidden from the view of most Americans and others who came to enjoy themselves amid the sandy beaches and balmy air. The native people of Hawaii have been victimized and their culture prostituted for the sake of greed. There is poverty and homelessness, ignorance and oppression, pollution of the waters and over-fishing of the sea.
Hawaii has suffered greatly and I have witnessed it first-hand as I did in West Virginia. Yet, here too are signs for hope. The native people of Hawaii, the Kanaka Maoli, have begun the struggle for self-determination and control of their lands... the struggle to once again have their cultural values be the determining factor in how their most precious asset, the land itself is treated, not as a commodity to be bought, sold and abused, but as the very source and sustainer of life itself. The Hawaiian people are very cognizant of the fact that they occupy a tiny speck of land in the middle of a vast sea... their island home is all they have and they know that if they are to survive, they must care for it. They learned this lesson long ago, when, after crossing the Pacific in their open canoes, they discovered this fertile garden with all they needed to sustain them... it was truly a garden. This lesson however was lost on those who later on stumbled across this garden and saw it not as a living system, not as a precious giver and sustainer of life, but only another resource to be plundered. That has been our way. This must change.
We too live on an island. Our planet earth is literally an island oasis in a vast and limitless cosmos. It is the ONLY place we know of that harbors life as we know it. It has been our cradle and may soon be our grave unless we alter our perspectives on it and realize the truth in the words of Chief Seattle: "Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect." Still, in order to see this picture, it is necessary to step back and look at it from a distance. In fact, it's the only way that we can see it as it really is. We forget how small our island planet is and how vast the distances among the stars, before we might find any place remotely possible for us to inhabit.
As a teenager, I remember watching in fascination as Neil Armstrong walked on the moon in 1969. The images were broadcast on television to millions of people around the world. I still remember the picture of the earth as seen from the moon, a beautiful blue and white ball suspended in space. For once, we were able to step back from our far too close up view of the world and were able to see it for what it really is, an island planet "hanging on nothing" as it moves through space. Despite our seeming disconnect to all things natural and this bigger view, we are not separate from, but are an integral part of the web of all life on this planet.
When you look at the earth from a distance, there are no national border lines, there are no racial, religious, political or social divisions... only a ball of rock, ice and water with its myriad life forms all interdependently connected, none able to survive without the others. When we see this view of our island planet, we merely see "home." Those astronauts who have gone into space and seen, not merely photographs of our island planet, have come back transformed, with a new perspective that has changed their lives. Their descriptions of the earth as seen from space reflect an understanding of the interdependent web of existence and the fragile nature of life in a way that few others can share.
"Our planet is our spaceship," said NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus, after returning from spending about 4 1A months on the space station. Speaking at an Earth Day celebration, she had this to say: "... it's very easy to take it for granted when we're living on it, when it seems so big and so massive. But it's not. It's very small and very fragile."
She had returned home with a new perspective on her home planet. "When you look out the window (of the space station), you notice how incredibly thin our atmosphere is, how such a fragile shell of air surrounds our planet and makes it habitable. You can read that in a book, but until you see it, it doesn't strike home." Magnus went on to say that when a person gazes at the Earth, there is a sense that humanity and all life as we know it are completely dependent on a single planet and its thin atmosphere. "It makes you think about our planet as a whole system," Magnus said. "We're all there together living together as human beings and other organisms and we have to take care of each other."
We, as a society, have indeed forgotten this view of the earth. I can think of few better reasons to support the space program... to make sure that we, especially now, are reminded of the vastness of the cosmos and the fragility of that little blue dot seen from the Voyager mission as it turned its camera earthward from a distance of 4 billion miles. When you get home, do a quick Google search for the pictures I'm talking about and you'll see what the astronauts were talking about and the way it changed their perspectives. It is, in fact, only a tiny island moving through an immense universe... our birthplace... our home... a home that we share with every other living thing, in fact the ONLY living things that we know to exist in all the vastness of space. It's just us... our tiny planet... and life is fragile. What we do to the earth and to other species, we ultimately do to ourselves. That is why it is so imperative that we not merely respect the independent web of existence, but make this respect something real in terms of action, not only on the personal and local level, but in policies and laws on a global scale.
We must not be forced to explore the universe in search of a new home because we have made the Earth inhospitable, even uninhabitable. For if we do not solve the environmental and related social problems that beset us on Earth - pollution, toxic contamination, resource depletion, prejudice, poverty, hunger - those problems will surely accompany us to other worlds.l
The people of our planet, especially we Americans, instead focus on trivialities while this big picture eludes us. We focus on a small view of life on this planet... largely seeing and caring about only those things that affect us as individuals. Despite pictures of polar bears adrift on ever shrinking ice flows in the Arctic, despite the evidence of storms of ever increasing intensity, despite the evidence of our eyes and our ears, we're all too easily lulled back to sleep by the seduction of our consumer oriented lifestyles. Many of us even argue that we're not being affected, that the problems environmentalists warn us about aren't even "real." Meanwhile the environmental and climatic crises are fast approaching catastrophic proportions.
Indeed, recent scientific data shows that we may well have already reached the "tipping point" when it conies to carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, the driving force behind climate change. The "safe" level for human beings is known to be 350 parts per million, but we have now reached a level of 387 parts per million. I'm no scientist, but I do know that we need to notice this and, if possible, do something now.
We have serious problems and we need serious people to solve them. But the magnitude of the crises facing us, and the literally global consequences of the decisions we make in response to those crises, are rapidly moving toward a critical mass. We must find the political and social will to do the very hard things that need to be done very quickly if there is, literally, to be a tomorrow for our species.
We cannot afford to waste any more time seeking purely "market driven" solutions. It's clear that we can no longer drag our feet when it comes to making the serious changes we need to make and to wait until a more financially feasible way is found. To quote Willy Nelson's character in the film Stage Coach, "I never saw a dead man who cared about money." That statement may well be about us as a human species.
In our desire for more and more consumption, more and more economic growth, more and more things, we have despoiled what we have been given stewardship over. We have defiled the land with pollution and strip mining, we have defiled the oceans with our wastes and over-fishing; we have defiled the air we breathe. The earth is no longer a garden. It has become a grave. Pardon me for getting Biblical, but perhaps we should take a look at what it says in Leviticus 18:28. "And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you." Mind you, even if we do find ourselves extinct as a species, life on this planet will go on... without us. I don't just mean Keith Richards or cockroaches, either. There will be other species that survive the catastrophe. Sooner or later, given the millions of years available, another species may arise, one that understands a simple maxim: "Ignorance can be cured, but stupidity is usually fatal."
Let us not be stupid. Let us beware, lest we, through our inattention to proper stewardship for this planet, find ourselves facing a radically different world than we envisioned for our descendants. Even if we as a species survive, the prospects of the world we will be leaving those generations that come after us appear bleak indeed.
Still, there is room for hope. We are moving toward, I believe, an ever-greater maturity in relation to our world, and in relation to our religious community's responsibility in that world. We are finally beginning to grasp what we mean when we speak of "respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." People are starting to wake up to the realities of our situation and are taking steps to do something about it. People of faith need to be and have been part of that waking up process. In 2006, the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly adopted a Statement of Conscience on Climate Change; it reads in part:
"Earth is our home. We are part of this world and its destiny is our own. Life on this planet will be gravely affected unless we embrace new practices, ethics, and values to guide our lives on a warming planet. As Unitarian Universalist, how can our faith inform our actions to remedy and mitigate global warming/climate change? We declare by this Statement of Conscience that we will not acquiesce to the ongoing degradation and destruction of life that human actions are leaving to our children and grandchildren. We as Unitarian Universalists are called to join with others to halt practices that fuel global warming/climate change, to instigate sustainable alternatives, and to mitigate the impending effects of global warming/climate change with just and ethical responses. As a people of faith, we commit to a renewed reverence for life and respect for the interdependent web of all existence."
These are, indeed, fine words. But, for now let them be a reminder of the urgency of the situation and the attitude that we, as a people of faith must exhibit. We are called to become instruments of change. We are being called to publicly stand up and lend our voices and our actions in support of a new approach to our island planet. We are being called to build a sustainable world. We are being called to make peace with nature, to reverse the destructive effects of what we have already done to our world and to find ways to repair the web of life in those ways that we can.
It is up to us, the present generation to respond to this crisis... not because we have done it al, but because we are the first generation to become aware of the crisis that we as a people have brought about. We stand at the crossroads. Future generations will look back at our time and see it as either what David Korten calls "the Great Turning," when we chose to turn around as a people and actually practice respect for the interdependent web of existence, or they will see this as the moment in time when we failed in our duty to life on our world.
Those of us in this gathering and those in similar gatherings around the world are lending our voices to the cry of our descendants for a livable planet and an end to the delaying tactics and gradualism in favor of concerted action aimed at reducing greenhouse gasses and restoring levels to a more sustainable level. We must let this day not be an end, but a beginning as we continue to speak out for and demand effective change in global policy about climate change. It is imperative that we do so, especially in light of the failure of the United States to sign the Kyoto Protocol on climate change in the last international effort. This is something we should never again tolerate. Let us not waste time being ashamed of our collective inaction on Kyoto. We now turn toward the future, hopeful that a new day is dawning for us all.
This December in Copenhagen, there will once again be international talks aimed at a treaty that will curb global warming and control carbon dioxide emissions. If this can be accomplished, it will begin a transformation from the business as usual approach, it can be a powerful moment in world history. The threat of climate change is so great, and impacts so many countries, that collective action is now required. An effective treaty in Copenhagen would show that the international community can get beyond their individual differences and take common action for the common good of all nations that share this fragile world of ours. And if we can come together on a solution to an issue as complicated as climate change, think of what else might suddenly seem possible? We might truly begin to create the world that we dream of. We might well find ourselves once again viewing our world as a garden rather than a grave.
We may finally as a human family decide that the ignorance, poverty and oppression faced by so many of our fellow beings can no longer be tolerated. We may finally come to realize that human rights are important not in the abstract, but in reality... that we are indeed "caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in single garment of destiny." Martin Luther King, Jr. was absolutely right when he suggested that "there are some things in our social system to which all of us ought to be maladjusted." Let the naysayers call us "environmental nuts", let them call us "tree huggers," let them call us what they will. Future generations will call us people who were activists in the best sense of the word. Remember that "an activist is not the one who announces the river is dirty. An activist is the one who helps clean it up."2 We are beginning to do just that.
Let us make certain that our representatives face the upcoming talks in Copenhagen with a sense of urgency, with a will to actually do the hard work it takes to turn things around while we still can. Let us no longer allow our nation or any nation to recklessly endanger the interdependent web of life by refusing to act responsibly... to recognize that none of us are exempt to the consequences of our actions or inactions.
As Chief Seattle, so eloquently said:
"This we know. The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth.
This we know. All things are connected like the blood which unites one family.
All things are interconnected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons and
daughters of the earth. We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand
in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves."
Indeed, the Earth IS our only homeland... an opal strung in space. Let us do all we can to change our destructive ways and treat it with the care it deserves... that for generations to come it will be a home for us all. We all share this island planet and bear responsibility for not only it, but each other. Not one of us can stand aside separate... no individual, no city, no nation. "Our world truly is one world; what touches one affects us all." The earth was given to us as a garden; it can be so again if only we have the will to make it so. We can either take the bigger view or not. The choice is ours.
It is written in the Torah: "I call heaven and earth to witness today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live." - Deuteronomy 30 May our descendants look back upon us and rejoice in recalling that we were indeed the generation that began the Great Turning... away from death and toward life for ourselves and all who share our island planet.
May it be so. Shalom, Amen, Blessed Be and Aloha
1 Donald G. Kaufman and Cecilia Franz, Biosphere 2000: Protecting our global environment. 1996.
2 Ross Perot