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A Spiritual Perspective On Greening Our Lives

Judith Meyer, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist church in Santa Monica shares thoughtful, spiritual, human perspectives and this week's "LOVING THE EARTH" message is about greening and environmentalism.

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One of my favorite e-newsletters is the weekly sermon from Judith Meyer, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist church in Santa Monica. She always shares thoughtful, spiritual, human perspectives and this week's "LOVING THE EARTH" message is about greening and it is very appropriate for our growing perspectives on how to green California.


"In Search of Nature" is a collection of essays by Edward O. Wilson, biologist, entomologist, and prolific writer on the subjects of nature, evolution, and diversity. This collection was published in 1996, and today I read from Wilson's essay "Biophilia and the Environmental Ethic."

Wilson's latest book, titled "The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth," reflects the increased urgency to address this issue. It was published in 2006.


Biophilia, if it exists, and I believe it exists, is the innately emotional affiliation of human beings to other living organisms. From the scant evidence concerning its nature, biophilia is not a single instinct but a complex of learning rules that can be teased apart and analyzed individually. The feelings molded by the learning rules fall along several emotional spectra, from attraction to aversion, awe to indifference, and peacefulness to fear-driven anxiety. These multiple strands of emotional response are woven into symbols composing a large part of culture. When human beings remove themselves from the natural environment, the biophilic learning rules are not replaced by modern versions equally well adapted to contemporary technological features of life. Instead, they persist from generation to generation, atrophied and fitfully manifested in the artificial new environments. It is no accident of culture that more children and adults visit zoos than attend all major professional sports combined (at least in the United States and Canada), that the wealthy continue to seek dwellings on prominences above water amidst parkland, and that urban dwellers continue to dream of snakes for reasons they cannot explain.

Were there no evidence of biophilia at all, the hypothesis of its existence would still be compelled by pure evolutionary logic. The reason is that human history did not begin a mere 8,000 or 10,000 years ago, with the invention of agriculture and villages. It began hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago, with the origin of the genus Homo. For more than 99 percent of human history people have lived in hunter-gatherer bands intimately involved with other organisms. During this period of deep history, and still farther back, into paleohominid times, they depended on an exact learned knowledge of crucial aspects of natural history. That much is true even of chimpanzees today, who use primitive tools and have a practical knowledge of plants and animals. As language and culture expanded, humans also used living organisms of diverse kinds as a principal source of metaphor and myth. In short, the brain evolved in a biocentric world, not a machine-regulated one. It would therefore be quite extraordinary to find that all learning rules related to that world had been erased in a few thousand years, even in the tiny minority of humans who have existed for more than one or two generations in wholly urban environments.

The significance of biophilia in human biology is potentially profound, even if it exists solely as weak learning rules. It is relevant to our thinking about nature, about the landscape, the arts, and mythopoeia, and it invites us to take a new look at environmental ethics.

A sermon by the Rev. Judith Meyer
Unitarian Universalist Community Church
Santa Monica, California
February 11, 2007

We've all seen the light. Thanks to a just-in-time educational campaign about global warming and the consequences of climate change, there's no avoiding the issue anymore. Add in a winter that has been too hot and then too cold, and our growing guilt over carbon dioxide emissions, and you have a society that is finally ready to make some changes.

Here at our church our new Green Sanctuary committee has been actively introducing the 3-2-1 concept of reducing our personal use of energy. And they have many, many more ideas they want us to consider. As it turns out, there is a lot we can do.

Caring about the future of the earth is a practical, intellectual, and spiritual activity that involves much more than a panicky acknowledgement of the weather or complaints about traffic. Our own "seventh principle" of Unitarian Universalism affirms our core value of "respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part." There are relationships here that belong to us as creatures, that deserve our attention and make claims on how we should live.

And yet those very relationships seem now to be in jeopardy. Biologist Edward O. Wilson writes, "the manifold ways by which human beings are tied to the remainder of life are very poorly understood."[1] While the biodiversity of our planet dwindles, we have satisfied our craving for "an expanding and unending future" with everything from religion to the space program. We have failed to notice that the frontier we seek is the very one in which we make our home.

Wilson tells us, "90 percent or more of the species of plants, animals, and microorganisms [on earth] lack even so much as a scientific name," for we have not yet discovered them. We plunder this abundance with our wasteful habits, plunging ourselves deeper into acquisition while "the living part of [our] environment" begins to disappear. Wilson points out that this destructive path takes us further away from our own nature, for humanity, like all life, seeks affiliation with other organisms, not alienation.

So why do we do it?

I've been thinking about Wilson's message again these past few weeks, preparing for this Sunday, while my husband David has been exploring a different reality. Perhaps some of you are aware of it. It's called "Second Life." I can only tell you what I have learned about it from looking over his shoulder, although that hasn't stopped me from forming opinions. "Second Life" is a world you access by way of your computer. You can roam a nearly unlimited landscape in avatar form, as yourself, or someone you create. You can buy land and build on it, sell merchandise, meet other avatars, and pursue fantasies of all kinds. For an architect and urban planner, "Second Life" is a very seductive world - a world before it got messed up by bad design. It's still open and malleable. David can't understand why, when there are virtually no limits, people still want to build traditional buildings, but that is perhaps another part of human nature we don't have time for today.

As I look at "Second Life," I see something I can't quite describe: is it merely an escapist form of entertainment, or is it something more? When physical limitations prevent us from roaming the real world, will we have another world, just as diverse and exotic, to experience in virtual terms? That could be good, or it could be an invitation to give up, once and for all, on the frontier that E. O. Wilson so persuasively urges us to explore. Having trashed the landscape and turned travel into a logistical nightmare, we can still sit in our recliners and move the mouse wherever "we" want to go.

It's not clear what impact virtual worlds will have on the fate of our earth. But unlike other notions of other worlds - heaven, for example, or hell, or outer space - we can visit "Second Life" anytime we want, as long as we have the tools. The portal is open. Once again another world beckons, opening a creative frontier to design, populate, and leave once we find something better. The environmental ethic takes inspiration from an opposite point of view, expressed in an often-told story about Henry David Thoreau, naturalist, author, and Transcendentalist. He died young - at age 44, of tuberculosis. According to one biographer, Wendell Glick of the University of Minnesota, "As [Thoreau] declined into death in the spring months of 1862, just as nature was renewing herself around him, he expressed no regrets for the life he had lived. To the deathbed question, 'Have you made your peace with God?' he allegedly replied, 'We never quarreled.' 'Are you ready for the next world?' another acquaintance asked. Thoreau's response was: 'One world at a time.'"[2]

One world at a time: the naturalist's declaration, now the environmentalist's ethic. And that world needs our love if it - and we - are to survive. The question is, which part of human nature, the part that loves the earth or the part that destroys it, will prevail?

In another essay in his book "In Search of Nature," E. O. Wilson asks, "Is Humanity Suicidal?" "Darwin's dice," Wilson writes, "have rolled badly for Earth. It was a misfortune for the living world in particular, many scientists believe, that a carnivorous primate and not some more benign form of animal made the breakthrough. Our species retains hereditary traits that add greatly to our destructive impact. We are tribal and aggressively territorial, intent on private space beyond minimal requirements, and oriented by selfish sexual and reproductive drives. Cooperation beyond the family and tribal levels comes hard."[3]

These unfavorable qualities clash with our affinity for other living things, leaving us with an ethical dilemma and limited time to resolve it. Will our expensive habits get the better of us and bring down the rest of creation too?

Wilson says, "no." "We are smart enough and have time enough to avoid an environmental catastrophe of civilization-threatening dimensions," Wilson wrote in 1993. "But the technical problems are sufficiently formidable," he adds, "to require a redirection of much science and technology, and the ethical issues are so basic as to force a reconsideration of our self-image as a species."[4]

Our love of the earth and the interdependent web of all creation are calling on us to make choices not only about our consumer habits, but about who we want to be as human beings. This is the spiritual challenge before us. How can we become people who preserve, not destroy, what we love?

In his essay on biophilia, Wilson points out that the "innately emotional affiliation" we feel towards other living organisms[5] has not adapted well to urban life. Instincts rooted in living closer to nature - a fear of snakes, for example - persist as irrational aversions, although they rarely if ever threaten us. The sense of connection may continue "from generation to generation," but it is "atrophied and fitfully manifested in the artificial new environments."[6] Wilson uses the fondness people have for zoos as one example. Perhaps virtual worlds like "Second Life," which are as artificial as they come, nevertheless satisfy the craving for open space, before it gets all messed up with bad design. Or pollution or over-population.

Clearly there is no going back to some earlier state, in which we lived closer to nature. As urban people who depend on technology, our only option is to cultivate our love of the earth, by adapting it to modern life, and by living interdependently and cooperatively - with nature and with each other. From this we may grow a spirituality that lives in our connections - to other living organisms, to the earth, to all of creation.

To love the earth is to feel that connection in every choice we make and to accept responsibility on behalf of all life for the urgency of our current situation. We can settle that ethical dilemma about what our species is here to do. And use the power we have to discover and enjoy - not destroy - all of life, in all its magnificent diversity, as long as earth is our home.

______ [1] Edward O. Wilson, "Biophilia and the Environmental Ethic," in "In Search of Nature" (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1996). [2] author_pages/early_nineteenth/thoreau_he.html [3] "Is Humanity Suicidal?" in "In Search of Nature." [4] Ibid. [5] "Biophilia and the Environmental Ethic," in "In Search of Nature." [6] Ibid.

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