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Daily Maverick 168

It’s time to rethink our connection to the planet

Our place on the planet and in the cosmic soup. Graphic: Jocelyn Adamson

Humans are urgently in need of a new ethical code to reboot our relationship with the rest of nature.

First published in Daily Maverick 168

Why should we care about the welfare of other creatures, rivers, mountains or the sea? As long as things are going well for us, why concern ourselves about anything but the social and economic circle that supports us?

Caring is an ethical issue framed, mostly, by ancient religions or systems of governance. They were generally centred on the experiences of single male individuals – such as Jesus, Muḥammad, Buddha, Zoroaster, Hammurabi, Socrates, Plato, Confucius – located in a specific place at a particular time.

Such ethical systems were developed in response to particular social conditions several thousand years ago. They have given rise to moral and legal codes, but also to wars and persecution. Are they still fit for purpose?

The conditions and challenges of the 21st century are no longer local but increasingly global. Climate change favours no tribes or countries, pandemics no borders. Wealth in one country is accrued at the expense of people in another, food supplies are globalised, the collapse of biodiversity is happening everywhere. We are all in this together.

How we care has massive implications for the fabric and systems that sustain life on Earth. We urgently need a new ethic to live by.

In the past, such frameworks have always been constructed from deep, intuitive personal responses to existing conditions. They were ways framed to come to terms with the context in which they were formulated.

Today, however, we know far, far more than Socrates, Buddha, Jesus or Confucius. We have looked back in time to the beginnings of the universe, understand the atomic substructure of matter. We’ve traced the unfolding of natural selection and deciphered the DNA code that builds life through countless generations and millions of body patterns. We know we are catastrophically warming the planet and sliding into the sixth biological extinction.

We know that soil sequesters carbon and that plants protect it. We are aware that vast ploughed, chemically fertilised fields kill soil and rain washes the dirt that remains into the sea. Without soil, land-based creatures cannot survive, yet we continue to plough and poison.

Who is the deity, what is the story, by which rules should we measure our actions in order to build a framework to live by in the 21st century?

Let’s begin from what we know and be humble about what we don’t know. We don’t know why the universe began around 13.8 billion years ago, but we do know its shape and its unfolding through time. That event was pretty awesome and should be the starting point of a new creation story for this century. We have no idea what gravity is, but we know it’s the binding force of the universe. We know most of the story about what made life possible, but very little about what the act of knowing means.

The cosmos cannot be seen as merely a backdrop to the human drama. In reality, it’s the other way around. Humans are part of the unfolding cosmic drama, its potential, its being.

In the beginning, matter condensed out of the primal plasma following an unimaginably immense cosmic explosion, forming giant, unstable stars, mainly from hydrogen and helium. When these exploded, they became the crucibles for new elements. This space jetsam was pulled together by gravity to form ever more dense stars, which in turn exploded, creating more complex elements.

As the universe developed, it became interactive, entwined, vibrant and intense. These increasingly complex elements were the building blocks for giant, whirling galaxies, more stable stars, planets.

Atoms combined to form intricate molecules and countless recombinations over millions of years created coexistent colonies and – in the only case we know of – self-replicating cells. In search of sustenance, they learnt to cooperate and build structures to photosynthesise sunlight in shallow seas and then on land.

Some evolved into plant forms, some consumed the plants, adapted to their waste product – oxygen – and moved on to land. They ate the primitive vegetation they found there, as well as one another.

The biosphere we now share is the outcome of billions of years of development, a system of interrelated processes, networks of connections, correspondence, mutual influences and communication. Matter complexifies and is infinitely entangled.

Sandstorms of diatoms of plants from the dried lakes of the Sahara sustain the Amazon. Wave-lofted phytoplankton in the Southern Atlantic seeds clouds, which fill rivers, the estuaries of which are breeding grounds for most fish in the oceans. Everything is linked, interwoven, almost magical.

The cosmos cannot be seen as merely a backdrop to the human drama. In reality, it’s the other way around. Humans are part of the unfolding cosmic drama, its potential, its being.

The vast, time-deep experiment of biological evolution from which Homo sapiens evolved is integral to the story we must tell about ourselves. We need to grasp that it’s not human society but the universe itself that is our primary source of reference. We emerged from and are a conscious living part of the universe’s reality. By extension and extrapolation, according to theological ecologist Heather Eaton, the most apt description of the universe is that it’s alive.

The expansion of human consciousness into the cosmos is also the universe and Earth becoming conscious through humanity. To come to terms with this is a huge challenge, but also thrilling. Acceptance would require acknowledgement that who we are, what we think and how we think is an unfolding of the universe in human form.

On reflection, it’s self-evidently true. There’s been continuity and congruency in the processes that induced atoms to transform into molecules, to form planets, Earth, an atmosphere, the biosphere, life, consciousness and self-consciousness. Each development has been a poiesis – the bringing into being in ever more complex form of that which did not exist before. It’s a process that continually crosses new thresholds and deepens.

This process is not linear. On Earth, it has developed – and is still developing – through interconnected webs and co-evolution of body forms and consciousness, from microbes to dinosaurs, mouse-like mammals to us in astonishing outbursts of creativity and diversity.

Life powered the hydrological cycle that made life possible – seeding the clouds with particles of phytoplankton and zooplankton, generating oxygen through photosynthesis and creating soil essential to plant life. The ingenuity of life forms is breathtaking, their survival strategies awe-inspiring, their beauty extraordinary. All animals, including humans, need first to be understood as differentiated yet integrated living elements of a whole.

To study evolution is to realise that the biosphere thrives in integrated and interdependent relations, from the interwoven atmospheric, climate and water systems to fractal patterns and cellular dynamics. As Eaton writes, “webs of bacteria, insects, plants, animals and their related social patterns are all repositories of consciousness. To attend to evolution, even minimally, is to be dazzled.”

However, the biosphere that sustains us is both innovative and fragile, essential to our survival, yet regarded by most modern humans and their industrial systems as a mere resource or dumping ground rather than sacred space. We urgently need, to quote Eaton again, “to see a deeper reality: one that kindles the imagination, awakens us to the Earth, and ignites a fire and desire to protect the biosphere”.

We can no longer afford to subscribe to the separate scientific, philosophical, ethical, spiritual and aesthetic modes of inquiry. Our usual intellectual tools that measure, analyse, critique and deconstruct cannot fully comprehend the relationship between consciousness and the universe, or our intimate relationship with its unfolding.

Science urgently needs to develop an ethical, more integrated view of existence, something that physicists, particularly, have started to do. In attempting to understand why atoms appeared to be both waves and particles, and why the presence of the experimenter changed how they behaved, the physicist David Bohm postulated, controversially, that all material objects, from stars to single atoms, were holes in an all-pervading subatomic plasma that connected everything in the universe.

Post-truth discourse, fake news and alternative facts are dulling human sensibilities, and shrinking inner and outer horizons of meaning.

For much of his life, Bohm found no response for this idea from within the rigid scientific community and looked elsewhere. He was enthralled by a quote by the Indian philosopher and mystic Krishnamurti, who wrote that the observer is the observed. This was to lead to decades of cooperation between the two men and a series of conversations in that they deepened the notions of the interconnectedness of subatomic waves from which the cosmos enfolded and unfolded. What Bohm developed was a science of connectedness.

This echoed the ideas of the American conservationist John Muir, who said that, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe”.

This interconnectedness, spanning physics, biodiversity, ethics and religion, Bohm would call a sacredness, the spiritual breath that could underpin a new approach to our relationship with our world.

Right now, however, our ethical, cultural and religious maps are antithetical to the functioning of the biosphere. We are precipitating dangerous climate change by pumping CO₂ into the atmosphere and our industrial farming methods are turning carbon-sequestering soil into carbon-emitting, lifeless dirt.

While we know the causes, talks to offset global warming are continually gridlocked. Human-induced extinctions have accelerated to alarming levels, yet we continue business as usual. We hunt wild animals for trophies. We eat animals like pangolins, civets and bats, the blowback being pandemics like SARS, MERS, HIV and Covid-19, which kill thousands of people and cripple economies.

We fight deadly wars over national territories when we should cooperate globally to protect planetary systems. A fraction of the wealth of the world’s billionaires could end global hunger, but their fortunes just continue to accumulate for no good reason. We manufacture weapons that could kill most sentient life simply to deter others from doing the same.

We seemingly cannot perceive an adequate orientation towards the environmental demands of the present. We’re overdue for a serious rethink about the ethics of our behaviour as planetary citizens, a rethink that goes far beyond our traditional religious and philosophical storerooms of correct behaviour.

We are in the Anthropocene, a time when humans have become the primary arbiters, custodians, creators and destroyers of life on Earth. It’s a massive responsibility that we appear to be taking very lightly.

The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.

Post-truth discourse, fake news and alternative facts are dulling human sensibilities and shrinking inner and outer horizons of meaning. We seem unable to perceive an adequate orientation towards the planetary demands of the present.

To build a new story of our existence, we must experience the cosmos, both scientifically and emotionally, as an intimate immensity of which we, through natural selection, are privileged to be a part. For philosopher Thomas Berry, appropriate responses lie within our social imaginaries. We need, he said, nothing less than a new story to guide us into a more sustainable future. The current versions are dysfunctional in their larger social and ecological dimension, and are not providing direction for a viable future. We need to understand that the cosmos is not just “out there”. It is also within.

In the way that life emerged from Earth’s physical dynamics, so did consciousness. This emergent interiority is true for all species. We are all sentient stardust, a way, to quote Carl Sagan, for the universe to know itself. All animals, including humans, need first to be understood as differentiated yet integrated living elements of a whole. If we can discover our role in these larger evolutionary processes, there may be hope, as author and conservationist Rachel Carson wrote:

“The more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for destruction.”

We need to see a deeper reality, create a new story of existence, one that kindles the imagination, awakens us to the Earth and ignites a fire and desire to protect the biosphere. Unless we do, we will bring about the end of human culture as we know it. If we do not love life, all life, we as a species will lose it. DM168

Absa OBP

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