The title for today’s sermon is “Does the Earth Need Us?” The answer is “No”. I guess we could now sing our closing hymn!
Well, stick around here for a few more minutes anyway. Truth to tell this has to be one of the more “Duh…” sermon titles I’ve ever dreamed up. We’re living on a planet after all, that got along perfectly well for some 4-5 billion years—depending upon who is counting—without a single human being anywhere on it; and needing nothing at all, other than certain natural and cosmic laws remaining in effect to keep itself going. Nothing short of getting wiped out by a giant meteor posed any kind of a threat to its existence.
It took the late breaking arrival of a supposedly intelligent species before the question that comprises this sermon title of mine could even be raised. And therein lies the rub. Because while the Earth-centered response to the question I’m posing is an obvious ‘No,’ our human-centered answer, particularly in the Western World has actually been ‘Yes.’
I’ll come back to this point in more detail a little later, and will only note now that practically all of Western religions and Western schools of philosophy—for all of the differences that exist within and amongst them—they practically all assume the centrality of human beings on our planet. And there’s another “Duh…” for you; of course they’re going to assume the centrality of human beings, since all earthly religions and philosophies and worldviews are, after all, products of the human mind.
I’ll pick up this thread a bit later. But first this by way of a backdrop:
A little over five years ago, in March of 2012 you, the FCU congregation, were acknowledged by our UU Association as a “Green Sanctuary Congregation.” Under this program our UUA suggests 19 projects—broken out into four categories—which congregations can take on to demonstrate their awareness of and commitment to ecological justice. Over a four year period, from 2008 t0 2012, you accomplished that and got Green Sanctuary certification.
One of the remaining items on my “to do” list for this interim ministry period is to see where any interest may lie in revisiting this effort. I don’t mean starting all over—there’s no need for that—but to do some monitoring of how you’ve done since then, and what you still might wish to do. At the conclusion of the report that the Green Sanctuary Task Force submitted to your 2012 Annual Meeting were these words: “We note that with the disbandment of the task force its ultimate success will be measured through future congregational action, behavior, planning, and thinking.”
That’s the conversation I’d like to have today following our service. What kind of future “congregational action, behavior, planning, and thinking” might you wish to take on. I’ve invited the original task force members who are still involved here to be a part of that discussion, and it’s open to any others who would like to join in. We’ll be in the Emerson Room at 11:30.
Okay, back to the broader topic for today: Mr. Alan Weisman came out with his book The World Without Us some ten years ago, and I still find it as fascinating as ever. In it Mr. Weisman uses a very fanciful premise to play out some very factual, and scientifically based, scenarios. Weisman is an award-winning journalist, and his book is an outgrowth of an article he wrote in 2005 for Discover magazine titled “Earth Without People.”
This is not a doomsday, we’re-all-going-to-die-if-we-don’t-shape-up kind of book. It just imagines that we human beings are already gone without specifically saying how that happened. Maybe we’ve all been mass evacuated to another planet. Weisman doesn’t say. But to give you the book’s basic framework I’ll share a bit from its opening chapter:
“Let’s try a creative experiment: Suppose that the worst has happened. Human extinction is a fait accompli. Not by nuclear calamity, asteroid collision, or anything ruinous enough to also wipe out everything else…nor by some grim eco-scenario in which we agonizingly fade…Instead picture a world from which we all suddenly vanished. Tomorrow…Leave it all in place but extract the human beings…How long would it take to recover lost ground and restore Eden to the way it must have gleamed and smelled the day before Adam, or Homo habilis, appeared?…How would it undo our monumental cities and public works, and reduce our myriad plastics and toxic synthetics back to benign, basic elements? Or are some so unnatural that they’re indestructible? And what of our finest creations—our architecture, our art, our many manifestations of the spirit? Are they truly timeless, at least enough to last until the sun expands and roasts our Earth to a cinder? And even after that might we have left some faint, enduring mark on the universe; some lasting glow, or echo, of Earthly humanity…?”
Now, the only thing I’ve ever heard of that would cause such a situation as instant human disappearance is an event called “The Rapture,” and I’m not going near that one and neither does Weisman. The rest of the book, then, is Weisman’s playing out of the scenario he poses and the questions he raises. He draws very heavily on his knowledge of science and engineering in so doing. The book does have a bit of a science fiction flavor to it. In the interest of time I can only offer a few brief examples of all the places Weisman goes. I suggest you read the book if you want to get the whole dose. For today, try these on for size:
In New York City there is enough water constantly flowing underground that pumps have to be in constant operation in order just to keep the subways from flooding. If these pumps stopped running for only 2 days the subways would flood. Left untended for 20 years, the water would work its way up through the pavement and wash it away, Lexington Avenue would become a river. With no one to tend them, the worlds 400+ nuclear power plants would melt down; and our petro-chemical plants, again left untended, would soon start throwing out all kinds of toxins for many years to come. All of which could take out a few species here and there.
But not to worry; since the Earth still has some 4-5 billion years left before our sun expands into a red star and burns up all the inner planets, it will just eventually clean up all of our messes and our leavings and pretty much go back to the way it was before we human types came along. I say, pretty much. Things like non-biodegradable plastic bottles, bags, and Q-tip shafts—Weisman maintains—are basically indestructible over any stretch of time. [Imagine that: These little things we clean our ears out with—we can’t get rid of ‘em. They’re gonna outlive the very Earth.] And Weisman fancifully wonders what some subsequent species, who might attain something approximating our own human mental capacity, would make of Mount Rushmore; noting that the Abraham Lincoln who is carved there in granite will last much longer than the Lincoln on our copper pennies.
And on it goes. Here and there, now and then, the author takes the reader to a few isolated spots on the planet where the Earth has retained much of its primeval character. This is to give us some idea of where the Earth would be going, or going back to, once we are out of the way.
Okay, it’s an interesting book. It’s well researched and written; and it’s a good read. But what’s the point? Weisman treads very lightly when it comes to offering any philosophical, or religious, or spiritual reflection on all the data—speculative data to be sure—that he puts out. He, by and large, leaves that part to his readers. So I’ll take it up.
The first thing I came away with after reading the book was a sense of how tenuous—for all of the many and sometimes vast human civilizations we have erected—our grip on this planet actually is; and in what fragile ways we actually cling to it. The second, and closely related, conclusion I came to was how foolish we human beings have been to place ourselves at the center, and at the apex, of creation. For while our common sense tells us that no, the Earth does not need us to be here; we still act and believe as if the Earth were somehow waiting around for us to show up to give it some reason for being here.
Think about the fundamental creation story that lies at the heart of the Judaic and Christian traditions—and by extension the basic mind-set of Western Civilization. It’s actually two stories grafted together in the first two chapters of Genesis. And it does not matter whether you read the story on a literal, mythical, metaphorical, or allegorical level. It doesn’t matter what kind of a believer or non-believer you are when it come to the religions that have told this story over the past couple or millennia and more. It doesn’t even matter if you’ve never heard of the Genesis creation accounts. We all live out, and participate in, its implications.
In this story The Creator starts with the heavens and the earth, and then moves to water, and then to plants, and then to animals, and finally brings on the human beings. The whole creative process is treated as a prelude, or as an opening act, for the grand entry of the first human beings, who are called Adam and Eve in this account. And those humans are told that they are to have dominion over the Earth.
Living out the implications of this story has given us some great and wonderful civilizations, amazing human creativity in the areas of science and the arts, and an earthly home that we’ve been able to largely shape to our liking. But it has also brought out the destructive side of our humanity in ways that have greatly despoiled our earthly home, and have left open the question of whether or not it will continue to sustain and nurture us if we keep treating in the manner that we do.
In addition to all of the necessary, and yes crucial, measures we need to be taking to live in a more ecologically responsible and eco-friendly way—and our Green Sanctuary program is one of the ways we explore and put into practice such measures—we also need to re-envision our whole relationship to and with this planet for whom we are late-comers.
On this point I’m actually going to take slight issue with myself about something I said earlier in this sermon. I said that all of the world’s religions and philosophies assume the centrality of human beings. That is not entirely true. Many of them do, but that is changing. We here in the West are coming to appreciate the more Eastern based concept of a circle of life, of which we human are but one component. We’re learning to appreciate some of the wisdom of the indigenous people of the land we now call the Americas, who held to a similar view. Back in 1985 we UUs brought this understanding into our Purposes and Principles when we affirmed “Respect for the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part.”
And remember I said the creation narrative is actually two narratives grafted together by whoever the original editor of Genesis was. An examination of those two Biblical creation accounts is instructive along these lines. It is the first account, in Genesis One—and that runs a few verses into Genesis Two—that calls on the humans to “have dominion over the earth.” But, in the creation narrative, that picks up in the early part of Genesis Two (and which Biblical scholars say is actually the earlier version of the two), we read: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” Tilling and keeping the Earth is not the same thing as having dominion over it. For the sake of our lives on this planet we need to learn to appreciate that difference.
I say “for the sake of our lives on this planet.” It’s not really our lot, as human beings, to “save” this planet; and a bit arrogant to think we can. As Weisman indicates, we could do our absolute worse to the Earth, and make ourselves extinct in the process, and the Earth would gradually heal itself—it would, after all, still have a few more billion trips around the Sun to, as Weisman notes, to clean up our messes. It could then return to its pre-human state; except for those Q-tips, I guess. We need a healthy planet, then, for the sake of our own human lives. Whether we accomplish that or not, this planet will, over the eons of time, take care of itself.
I’ll move to finish up for today by returning to a reading we’ve used in a previous service. It’s the one from the essay by the late astronomer Dr. Carl Sagan titled “A Pale Blue Dot.” Many of you, I’m sure, are familiar with it.
In February of 1990, as the Voyager I spacecraft was making its way out of our solar system the NASA engineers turned it around so it could take a picture of the planets before going on out into deeper space. Its picture of Earth, from nearly 4 billion miles away, was that of a pale blue dot. Carl Sagan used this image for an essay, and later in a book, he wrote about it. Here are a few lines:
“If you look at [this picture] you see a dot. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you know, everyone you love, everyone you’ve ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines…
“The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.
“Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity—in all this vastness—there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us…To me [this] underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish this pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
The words here that I would especially hold up for us today are these: “Our posturing, our imagined self-importance, the delusion [emphasis added] that we have some privileged position in the universe are challenged by this point of pale light…”
If we can in fact move beyond what Sagan rightly calls the delusion that we have a privileged position in the universe—and on our planet here as a part of that universe—then perhaps we will truly seek and find ways to both deal more compassionately with one another as well as preserve and cherish this only home that we have.
I’ll end with this. In the literature describing the UUA’s Green Sanctuary program we find these words: “A Green Sanctuary is a congregation that lives out its commitment to the Earth by creating a sustainable life style for its members as individuals and as a faith community.” This is what you committed to in becoming a Green Sanctuary congregation five years ago. Perhaps it’s time to check in and see how we’re doing since them.
I’m mixing up my color metaphors a bit here, but we should be thinking of Sagan’s pale blue dot as a Green Sanctuary of its own. We need to regard the Earth as a Green Sanctuary.
A sanctuary is a sacred and holy place—and is to be treated as such. A sanctuary is where one goes for sustenance and nurture and renewal; and we need to care for the Earth so it can be such a sanctuary for us. For in the end, as Mr. Weisman does correctly point out in the midst of all his fantasizing, the Earth will make of itself a Green Sanctuary whether we choose to inhabit it or not.
November 5, 2017