Earth Day

The first Earth Day was 1970 April 22 -- 54 years ago. The Earth that we were trying to preserve on that first Earth Day, we failed to preserve. Our planet today is not the Earth of two generations ago. Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels hovered around 275 ppm for all of human history up until 200 years ago. On the first Earth Day in 1970, C02 had reaced 325 ppm but back then most of us were blithely, blissfully oblivious to what rising C02 would mean. In 1988, we reached the 350 ppm safety-line. At 350 ppm of carbon dioxide, the planet survives. If we get above 350 for very long, or if we get very far above 350, then we will trigger tipping points and irreversible impacts. The journal Nature said that above 350
"we threaten the ecological life-support systems that have developed in the late Quaternary environment, and severely challenge the viability of contemporary human societies,"
Yet we've been above 350 for 36 years now, and as of May 2022 the global average concentration of C02 in the atmosphere was 421 ppm, and we are still adding about two more parts per million every year. In fact, scientist Kevin Anderson projects that even if rich countries adopt draconian emissions reductions within a decade, it is improbable that we will be able to stop short of 650 ppm of C02.

Our planet is already not what it was 54 years ago. What I would like to do today is take a look at a theory out there that it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself and how climate change might seem to fit that theory. I will, however, be taking the chance to note that reality is never depressing. I'll mention some practical features of how we will live on this Earth that is already not the one many of us were born on. And I'll point to the spirituality - particularly the Ecospirituality, the connectedness to the sacredness of the Earth - that we need for this new Earth. I'll conclude that maybe the nature of intelligent life is not to destroy itself, but more often to work its way to the emergence of a peaceful, sustainable way of life in which the beings delight in the home they have.

The theory that it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself emerged as one possible response to the Fermi paradox. And what is the Fermi paradox?

The brilliant Italian physicist Enrico Fermi, born 1901 , reasoned as follows:
  • Our Sun is a young star. There are billions of stars in the galaxy that are billions of years older.
  • There is a high probability that some of these stars have Earth-like planets which, if the Earth is typical, may develop intelligent life.
  • These older stars with Earth-like planets would be way ahead of us in developing interstellar travel.
  • At any practical pace of interstellar travel, the galaxy can be completely colonized in a few tens of millions of years.
  • Given billions of stars that have billions of years of head start on us, a few tens of millions of years is nothing.
It follows, concluded Fermi, that the Earth should already have been colonized, or at least visited. But Fermi did not think there was any convincing evidence that we had been. Moreover, not only have we not been visited, we haven't even spotted a sign of intelligence elsewhere in our galaxy. Hence Fermi's question: "Where is everybody?" This question has come to be known as the Fermi paradox.

One theory that has been proposed as an explanation of why we haven't encountered or seen other intelligent life is that it is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself. The theory is that, on any planet that evolved species that developed civilization and then technological civilization, those species will "usually or invariably destroy themselves before or shortly after developing radio or space flight technology. Possible means of annihilation include nuclear war, biological warfare or accidental contamination, climate change." It's a conjecture some scientists have offered - just one of many possible answers to the Fermi paradox.

Is it inherent in the way that intelligence emerges that a species will arrive at enough intelligence to be able to destroy itself before it arrives at enough intelligence not to? Yes, intelligence emerges in response to competition for scarce resources. As long as resources are plentiful, species don't need to outsmart other species, and all species remain comparative simpletons. So, yes, wherever intelligence emerges, it necessarily comes with the aggressive competitive drives that spurred that intelligence to develop in the first place.

When that ancient competitive aggression and drive to consume resources, extend longevity, and reproduce suddenly becomes paired with powerful new technology: boom. That "boom" need not mean that the civilization entirely self-destructs, only that it becomes once again nontechnological.

According to this conjecture, this has already happened on billions of other planets and is now happening here. The result of that rising C02 is that the top 10 hottest years ever recorded have all been after 2000. An average temperature increase of 1.1 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures has already happened. The increase is expected to reach 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2040, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We are on track to reach 2.7 degrees Celsius hotter by the end of the century even if current pledges from governments around the world to decrease emissions by 2030 are met.

In the 20 years, 1980 to 2000, the number of distinct weather-related disasters affecting the United States and doing at least a billion dollars of damage averaged 4.75 per year. In the 20 years, 2004 to 2024, the number of distinct weather-related disasters affecting the United States and doing at least a billion dollars of damage averaged 13.35 per year. That's 2.8 times more billion-dollar weather-related disasters that in the 20 years from 1980 to 2000. This is from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and their cost estimates for weatherrelated disasters are adjusted for inflation, so it's a true increase of almost 3 times more major disasters per year.

Is this intelligent life destroying itself? Three and a half billion people live in places particularly vulnerable to climate change. By 2100, 50-75% of the world population will see periods of "life-threatening climatic conditions" - mainly heat and rainfall. Food insecurity and water shortage will lead to humanitarian crises, conflict and displacement, with heaviest impact in parts of Africa, Asia, Central and South America, small islands and the Arctic. 350.org, summarizes:
"Glaciers everywhere are melting and disappearing fast, threatening the primary source of clean water for millions of people. Mosquitoes, who like a warmer world, are spreading into lots of new places, and bringing malaria and dengue fever with them. Drought is becoming much more common, making food harder to grow in many places. Sea levels have begun to rise, and scientists warn that they could go up as much as several meters this century. If that happens, many of the world's cities, island nations, and farmland will be underwater. Meanwhile, the oceans are growing more acidic because of the C02 they are absorbing, which makes it harder for animals like corals and clams to build their shells and exoskeletons."
When we speak of climate change and the long list of planetary damages it wreaks, it's common to invoke grandchildren. "Preserve the planet for the sake of our grandchildren," we say. Or, "Let's not let our grandchildren have to deal with the problem with which we should be dealing." But the Earth of the first Earth Day is already gone. As Bill McKibben says:
"Forget the grandkids. It turns out this was a problem for our parents." (16)
At this point, maybe you're thinking: "Oh, such gloom and doom! It's depressing. It's stressful. Tell me something uplifting and inspiring, not this litany of disaster scenarios." I'm going to tell you the truth as best I can discern it. And here's a truth that I think happens to also be inspiring: Reality is never depressing.

Being in denial, being out of touch with reality, pushing it out of consciousness, so that it has to sneak around, come at you from behind, and crawl up your back (for reality eventually finds a way to get through to us), that's the source of depression. Struggling to resist irresistible reality - that's what triggers depression and stress. Reality is never depressing. Paying attention to reality is the antidote of depression. Mindful attention to exactly "what is" is a practice of cultivating joy, Even if "what is" is pain. Literally. For example, if you've got a throbbing knee pain or headache, bring all your attention to the pain itself, minutely noticing every detail of its sensation. This doesn't make the pain go away, but it does make the pain bother you Less, for as long as you sustain attention. Reality presents us with challenges, and those challenges become depressing or stressful problems only when we want to push them away, push them out of mind. Instead, engage, and connect.

The good news is: you and I are going to die. (This may not be news, though you might not have thought of it as good.) That's great news because it means we don't have to figure out how to live forever - get everything solved, all threats removed, so that we can then relax into our immortality. We don't have that responsibility. We only have this short time a day, a year, a few decades and all we have to do is show up for just a few decades, just this decade, this year, this day. That's all.

Hallelujah, we do not bear the burden of eternity. Knowing I am blessed with an ironclad exit strategy, knowing the divine takes form only temporarily in the body and set of ego defenses called "me," I am liberated. My task is no more than to manifest this transience that I am. My task is no more than that - and also no less. We are, each of us, called upon only to manifest and in our manifesting engage with the challenges that happen to arise for the few years we happen to be here.

Not denying the reality we face, nor retreating into some survivalist bunker, ours is the path of open-eyed and open-eared awareness, and the path of connection to both nature and neighbor. We shall choose neither despair nor defense, but new community.

On this 55th Earth Day, the Earth we celebrate is not the Earth of 1970 - but it still has technological civilization. Intelligent life has not destroyed itself yet, and maybe won't. Our odds get better the more of us have the courage to face reality exactly as it is - and this courage comes from spiritual discipline. This courage IS a spiritual discipline.

Our capacity to hold our world in love, whatever may come is developed in spiritual practice and in spiritual community. Where love is, fear and sadness are not.

Because of climbing C02 level, and the consequent climate change, the Earth of our ancestors and of our youth is gone. We now face the prospect of developing community on a new Earth. Our new Earth will rely more on local food, and on farming that doesn't use huge quantities of fossil fuel for its fertilizers, its pesticides, its machinery, or its product transportation.

Food will cost more. For many years now food, by historical standards, has been ridiculously cheap, partly because of agriculture subsidies and fossil fuel industry subsidies (which also subsidize the type of agriculture that intensively relies on fossil fuels). Even so, rising food prices will be a hardship for some, so food aid programs will need expanding. Our new Earth will rely more on locally-produced energy - solar panels and solar water heating on your own house, and windmills in your yard because transmission across power lines loses efficiency over many miles. We'll also use the internet and Zoom instead of flying and driving places -- a move that has already begun.

To sustain us in our new Earth we need the very thing that sustained many of us on the old Earth: a spirituality of connectedness with this earth, of reclaiming a way of living lightly, carefully, gracefully on this delicate home, rituals and practices and ways of thinking that nurture attention, and calm delight in the simple beauties of life. Ecospirituality -- which "means that our experience of the divine comes through the natural world." (Jeanne Mackey) — will sustain us, individually and collectively. As Steven Rockefeller writes:
"Our environmental problems will not be fully addressed until we come to terms with the moral and spiritual dimensions of these problems, and we will not find ourselves religiously until we fully address our environmental problems."
Emerging Ecospirituality recognizes not merely that we have a religious obligation to protect ecosystems, reduce consumption, and in general be responsible stewards of our environment, but that nature itself is sacred, has intrinsic value, and is due reverent care — not simply because it is God's creation and God tells us to, but because nature tells us to, and nature has that authority based on being sacred in itself.

Connecting to the sacredness of the earth is what saves us. Wanting stuff makes us stressed, and being stressed makes it harder to step back from our desires for a larger perspective. So what I'm talking about really is not impending grim necessity - but emerging wholeness, joy, and delight. We may make for ourselves a materially sparer and spiritually fuller life on our tough little planet.

Getting there won't be easy. It takes being focused and intentional, and it takes a lot of us paying attention together.

When Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) experienced unity with the divine, she gave the experience these words:
"I am the breeze that nurtures all things green I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life."
In riding a bicycle or driving a car we can quickly come to feel the vehicle as an extension of our own bodies. In the same way, the whole world is an extension of your own body. Yes, sometimes it does things you don't want it to and can't control, but the same is true of your joints and organs (increasingly so as the years go by!) Truly, everything in the world is your joints and organs, sinews and bones, glands, skin, and hair. And brain and mind. Says Joanna Macy:
"We are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our separateness. We can come home again — and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way."
We have, of course, no idea how things may have gone on other planets. If thousands or even millions of other civilizations have arisen in our galaxy, the reason we haven't heard from any of them, though, would seem maybe NOT that they destroyed themselves. It seems at least as likely the reason we haven't heard from them is that they haven't needed to go colonizing for more resources. The nature of intelligent life just might be not to destroy itself, but, more often, to work its way to the emergence of a peaceful, sustainable way of life in which the beings delight in the home they have.

Perhaps the galaxy is full of technological civilizations that found their way into the joy of living together with smallness of resource consumption and smallness of carbon footprint upon their planet. Perhaps Earth will be next.

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