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SPIRITUALITY AND ENVIRONMENTALISM
An issue that often generates a lot of passion among the spiritually conscious is the issue of our responsibility to the environment, an issue which, regardless of one's religious or political perspective, is an important one. After all, this is the only home we have while in the flesh, so it is an important topic and one that directly relates to spirituality, at least in regards to being responsible citizens of this great green and blue marble we call earth.
It's fair to say, I think, that throughout much of history, human beings have regarded Earth as little more than a massive resource put here to sustain them. It provided oxygen, heat, light, food, clothing, energy, metalsin fact, everything needed to sustain lifeso seeing it as a great repository of all the "things we need" made sense. As such, throughout most of human history it has been thought of it as being an inexhaustible resource and largely indestructible, and as such something to be taken advantage of.
In modern times, however, our view of the Earth has changed, especially in regards to its limitations. The planet is not an inexhaustible source of everything but instead has a finite amount of many of the things we need to maintain the infrastructure of modern society. It also is not indestructible, as evidenced by the growing debate over climate change and the effects of man-made pollutants upon the environment. We have also become increasingly aware of just how unique our little planet really is, especially when compared to the vastness of space and the conditions that need to be in place for a planet such as ours to even exist. This has given us a new perspective, and one that sees the Earth as a fragile ecosystem clinging precariously to the outer rims of our galaxy, subject to all sorts of nasty things like cosmic radiation and space rocks capable of demolishing the planet in a single afternoon.
There is also another perspective, however, and one that has been growing-especially within the New Age movement-that sees the planet not as simply a rock that is capable of sustaining life, but as a living organism itself, with a degree of consciousness and even self-awareness that sounds very much like sentient life. Some have even taken to calling this "conscious planet" Gaia and worshipping "her" like a goddess, a practice that has become increasingly common-place and even fashionable in some circles.
While I don't have a problem with the idea that all living things share a type of collective consciousness and am even open to the prospect that the Earth itselfin being composed entirely of the same kind of energy that animates each and every human beingmaintains a sort of cosmic awareness, it's a leap for me to imagine that the planet possesses the same degree of consciousness as, say, a catmuch less a fully sentient human being. It appears to my limited intellect that our universe is made up of both things that are self-awarethat is, sentient-and things that are not self-aware, with the latter being in the vast majority. Perhaps some can see a stone and a baby as being equally sentient, but I for one am not in that camp. I see a division between things that are self-aware and things that are not. That doesn't make the one superior over the other; it's just that each "thing" in the universe serves a different purpose. Some things are suns, others are planets, some are comets, while other bits of energy form things like trees and boulders and kangaroos and even people. They each have their place, their purpose, and their role. This is why I get nervous when I hear people refer to earth as a type of conscious entity, as it's been my experience that people who elevate nature to the level of deity usually do so at the expense of their fellow man.
So back to our original question, what is our responsibility to the planet that sustains us? The traditional belief has been that man was given authority over the planet and all the creatures upon itunder the water, on the ground, and in the airas a gift from God (who created it, by the way, in six busy days, at least according to some). This view has not been popular of late, however, as it implies that human beings are somehow superior life forms who have been given free-reign to lord it over the "lesser" creatures of the planet. It's also been seen as justification for all manner of abuse on this planet, from whale hunting to deforestation and from strip mining to spewing toxic waste into our atmosphere and oceans. In effect, the Biblical right to the planet ceded to us in Genesis has been considered by many to have been a license to rape and pillage the environment without fear of consequence or repercussions.
But is this a fair assessment of what Genesis tells us? I don't believe so. God didn't turn the keys to the place over to us and say: "Okay, boys, do with it as you will!" A careful reading of the text shows that God gave us "stewardship" over the planet, not the rights to it or ownership of it. The key to understanding this is in the word "stewardship." If one thinks about it, a steward does not own the thing he is given stewardship over, but is simply given responsibility to maintain it to the best he knows how. In other words, if one has stewardship over a garden, it is assumed he or she will maintain it in as good a condition as possible; that they will till the soil, plant and water, pull the weeds, protect it from locusts and the birds of the air, and otherwise ensure that it remains in as pristine a condition as possible. In fact, a steward who fails to do this can count on being unemployed fairly quickly. Additionally, the steward doesn't do this for nothing, for by preserving the garden in its pristine condition, he also sustains himself and his family, making stewardship of the planet a codependent operation, with both sides benefiting from the labors of the other. Therefore, stewardship over the planet should be seen not as a divine right but as a divine obligation and responsibility, and one that we fail to uphold at our own peril.
Of course, this is an ancient idea proposed to us by an archaic text written thousands of years ago that has no real bearing on us today-or does it? Actually, I think it is still valid when we take a moment to consider exactly what man is. Human beings are the only sentient life form on this planet and, as such, the only creatures capable of being stewards over the whole Earth. They are also the only animal with the intelligence to alter ecosystems in significant ways, and are the only creature equally capable of either destroying their home or of turning it into a virtual Garden of Eden. In other words, who better to be put in charge of managing the planet's resources than homo sapien? What other creature could do the job?
Some of the most militant environmentalist, however, suggest that man is what's wrong with the planet, as though humanity is some sort of corrosive that is eating away at Gaia the way cancer eats away at an otherwise healthy liver.
I consider this is not only an extremist position, but an irrational one at that. Man is as natural a part of the planet as are the fowl of the air and the fish of the sea. We are not interlopers sent here to pillage the place nor are we some sort of alien spore that landed here and took root. We are a natural part of the environment in the same way as are beavers and bumblebees. The fact that we tend to think of skyscrapers and super highways as being artificial structures designed to ruin the beauty of "nature" is more political than factual; in reality, they are every bit as natural as beaver dams and beehives. The only difference between ourselves and creatures that build habitats or otherwise impact their environment is that we simply have the means of creating far more extensive structures and use a wider array of materials than do our furry, feathery, scaly, and slimy cousins. In other words, the difference between ourselves and the other creatures of the planet is one purely of degree; we may have the capability of making larger and more sophisticated things, but ultimately our desire to build is no different than that seen by most creatures in the animal kingdom.
Conservationists and environmentalists, however, are quick to point out that man is guilty of all sorts of environmental atrocities, from exterminating entire species to clear cutting millions of acres of old-growth forest, which is, of course, quite true. But I would also point out that swarms of locust are capable of turning lush and rich grasslands into deserts in a matter of days and that even subtle climactic changes can wipe out entire species without human involvement at all. In fact, 99.9 percent of all species that have ever lived on this planet are now extinct, the vast majority dying out long before human beings ever appeared.
I would also point out that human beings are the only creature capable of bringing a species back from the edge of extinction as well, as was demonstrated with the bison, the bald eagle, the gray wolf and a host of other animals over the last half century. We may have exterminated the passenger pigeon but we saved the California condor, making us both a responsible and an irresponsible steward at the same time.
Spirituality teaches respect for all life, but also that everything exists largely to sustain everything else. All living organisms on this planet eventually serve as part of a vibrant chain of life-a chain, by the way, that incorporates death into the equation and, I suspect from a cursory glance at the last half a billion years of evolution, things like mass extinctions. Like everything else, the planet and her ecosystems are transitory and in a constant state of change, making the effort to insist we save some tiny fish in a lake somewhere a battle against the inherently transient forces of nature itself. That's not to say we don't have a responsibility to preserve and protect our ecosystems when we have the opportunity to do so, only that doing so must be done with the recognition that we are playing with nature and that may incur inherent consequences we cannot begin to imagine. For example, we find it unconscionable to permit some endangered species of wild cat to go extinct without realizing that the species' extinction may be a necessary ingredient in permitting another species an opportunity to expand. By taking extraordinary steps to ensure the survival of an untenable species, we are in effect usurping the process of natural selection, which, to the best of my knowledge, has worked pretty well for hundreds of millions of years (and without the help of a single environmentalist at that). Being good stewards of the planet, then, may include allowing the process of natural selection to play itself out, even if it means permitting the green-gilled mountain frog of Northeast Borneo to go extinct. That's how Gaia works and it seems presumptuous of us to tell her her business.
The problem with the more extreme elements within the environmentalist movement is in the supposition that we are interlopers rather than partners in managing our planet, resulting in a sort of hostile impasse when it comes to weighing the need to protect our resources from human abuses against the need to utilize those resources for human needs and development. It is in going too far in one directioneither in protecting the planet from development of any kind or in seeing our planet as one great smorgasbord of minerals, lumber, and animals to be pillaged for personal enrichmentthat the spiritual aspect is lost. Spirituality recognizes the extraordinary responsibility Gaia has given us while accepting the fact that we have as much right to the planet's resources as do all the animals that live here-as long as we are responsible and conscientious in acquiring and using those resources. Animals can't be responsible and conscientious; only sentient beings have that ability, which is what makes us both uniquely removed from and at the same time perhaps even more attuned to our planet than we imagine.
It's not just the short-term management of our planet and its resources that spirituality addresses, however, but the long-term aspect of it as well. This is where the global warming debate comes into the picture with its competing concepts of what is happening to our planet, why it is happening, and what it all means for the future. One side maintains that human activity is gradually changing the environment, creating an overall greenhouse effect that will raise world temperatures and significantly change climactic conditions, resulting in the massive loss of arable lands, drought, rising seas levels, and global chaos as the planet's six-and-a-half billion residents battle amongst themselves for ever diminishing resources. The other side, while conceding that the trend over the last century has been towards warmer temperatures, maintains that such is the result of a natural warming cycle upon which human activity has only a negligible impact at best. They even point out that warming can have beneficial effects as well in making frigid climates traditionally closed to agriculture suddenly arable as the permafrost level recedes, thereby actually increasing the worldwide acreage of usable land. (In fact, it is suggested by some historians that a warm spell that occurred between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries may have been the impetus that brought the world out of the throes of the Dark Ages and set the stage for the Renaissance and Age of Enlightenment to follow a few centuries later, thereby suggesting that global warming could be more beneficial than detrimental-at least in some locales.)
Unfortunately, it is difficult to determine whose science is more accurate, especially once the issue became politicized and, as such, subject to funding considerations and political pressures to reach certain conclusions. It can also be fairly asserted, I think, that both sides have been guilty of "massaging" the data to better conform to their particular political agendas and of largely ignoring the counter arguments of their opponents.
What does spirituality mandate in regards to the debate? I don't know, but as is usually the case when there are two diametrically polarizing positions, the truth probably lies somewhere in between. It's a proven scientific fact that the Earth naturally goes through global heating and cooling cycles and has been for hundreds of millions of years. It's also true that human activity can have a significant impact on various ecosystems (as is periodically demonstrated by oil spills). Clearly, as stewards of the planet, we need to recognize that Earth's climate is not always predictable nor do we usually have the ability to "fix" it when it doesn't do what we want it to do. Sometimes I think we imagine we have all sorts of control over things like global temperatures and melting ice caps and that by simply passing the proper legislation or regulating certain industries, we can correct the problem practically overnight (geologically speaking). On the other hand, it's apparent that some people imagine the planet to be indestructible and our ability to do damage negligible-a belief largely proven wrong when one looks at the massive deforestation that has reduced the ability of our planet to perform the vital function of scrubbing the air clean of CO2, thereby threatening the delicate balance of nature.
Clearly, as Gaia's steward, we need to be aware that we can do significant damage-especially over long periods of time (as we learned from the depletion of the ozone layer)-but we also need to be aware of the fact that the Earth itself is capable of implementing great changes, many of which we would perceive from the limited context of mortal beings as being detrimental. For example, a single large volcanic eruption can put as much particulates in the air in a single day as can be expelled by all the factories and automobiles in the world in a single year. The eruption of a super volcanoor a series of large conventional eruptions occurring simultaneouslycould easily usher in a dramatic climactic shiftprobably towards an ice agein a matter of weeks, so we would be unwise to blame everything on human activity or put much faith in our ability to change what's going to happen next. We can make minor adjustments from time to time, but "fixing" the temperatureeven if we knew what the "normal" worldwide temperature is supposed to beis beyond us. Humanity is like a little tugboat pushing against a massive, fully-loaded oil tanker; with tremendous energy and determination, we might change its heading a few degrees, but we lack the power to make it go where we want it to go. All we can do is keep up with it and give it a little nudge once in awhile and hope it doesn't run aground.
And perhaps that's the way it should be. I would be most uncomfortable were we to live in a world in which humans had the technological capability to raise or lower the thermostat at whim. Perhaps, as guests on this planet, our job is not to tell Gaia what to do but to simply adjust to what she's going to do in spite of us. Perhaps in understanding that, we are approaching something more closely resembling wisdom, which is, after all, the cornerstone of spirituality.
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