Beyond Anthropocentrism

The day has finally come, and a critical landmark in the saga of global climate change is occurring as we speak—and hardly anyone has noticed. The Carteret Islanders of Papua New Guinea have become the world’s first entire community to be displaced by climate change. They’re the first official refugees of global warming–and they’re packing up their lives to move out of the way of ever-rising waters that threaten to overtake their homes and crops. The island they call home will be completely underwater by 2015. . . . On the Carterets, king tides have washed away their crops and rising sea levels poisoned those that remain with salt. The people have been forced to move.

I have preached many Earth Day sermons.  They have always flowed from the belief that the Earth can be saved from human destruction.  I no longer believe that.  It was actually in the course of creating this sermon that I came to that realization.  When I first planned on doing this topic, it was going to be an urgent plea for us to address this crisis before it’s too late.  Then I read a couple of articles by Joanna Macy and one about Paul Kingsnorth, and they helped me to realize that it’s too late.

Oh, the Earth will survive.  Probably some forms of life as well.  But complex organisms like human beings and panda bears will cease to exist.  Life as we know it will cease to exist. And it’s coming soon.

Some refer to it as the Sixth Mass Extinction. Animal and plant species are dying out at a spectacular rate.  There have been only five mass extinctions since life emerged, 3.5 billion years ago.  Now human activity — greenhouse-gas emissions, urbanization, the global spread of invasive species — is driving the planet toward a sixth.

We’ve been hearing the facts, and they are increasingly daunting.

The year 2013 was one of the hottest years ever recorded on Earth.  The first decade of the 21st century was the hottest in recorded history. In 2007, the Arctic sea ice shrank to a level not seen in centuries, and it keeps on shrinking.  This causes sea levels to rise, threatening islands and coastlines, like the Carterets and places like New Jersey when hurricane Sandy paid a visit.  We’ve long since passed the carbon dioxide level of 350 parts per million in the atmosphere, the level identified as the maximum to avoid the most devastating consequences.  (Smith, 4/17/14)

And some of us have been doing what we can to keep the consequences to a minimum.

We drive our Priuses, recycle everything we can, use recycled paper towels and toilet paper. We do all we can because we are responsible citizens of the Earth.  Who besides me feels guilty leaving appliances plugged in or throwing plastic in the trash?

Maybe some of us go further.  We protest pipelines and mountain-top removal mining.  We give money to organizations we thing are making a difference.

But it’s not enough.  And it’s too late now to turn the tide of climate change, no matter what we do.

You’ve probably heard by now that if you put a frog in boiling water, it will jump out.  But if you put a frog in cool water and gradually bring it to a boil, the frog will slowly cook to death.  It won’t realize the danger it’s in.

This is a common metaphor for the predicament we’re in.  We’re in the pot, and it’s getting hotter and hotter, and unlike the frog, we have scientists who can tell us that we’re cooking.  (There’s a cartoon I’ve seen recently of some frogs sitting in a pot of water on a burner.  One with a shirt that says “scientist” says “We’re cooking to death”.  Another with a scientist shirt says “We’re boiling to death”.  The third on has a shirt that says “climate denier” and he says “See? There’s no consensus!”)   But in spite of our knowledge, we still sit in the water that’s heating up, even though we’re aware it’s about to come to a boil.

The problem isn’t that we’re lazy or dumb or don’t understand the issue.  It’s not even that we’re greedy or ignorant.  It’s just that we’re acting from our nature, from our survival instincts, which don’t project beyond our immediate environs, and don’t project into the future. How many people start planning their retirement in the 20’s?

The world as we know it is coming to an end.  It looks bleak.  And yet we must continue to live with respect for the Earth and all her inhabitants.  Not because we think we can change the outcome, but because it’s the right thing to do.

And therein lies our hope.  That we can still act nobly even in the end.

Writer and activist, Buddhist and Deep Ecologist Joanna Macy says, “So there is some source of blessing on us, even as we die.  I think of a Korean monk who said ‘Sunsets are beautiful too, not just sunrises.’  We can do it beautifully.  If we are going to go out, then we can do it with some nobility, generosity and beauty, so we do not fall into shock and fear.” (Macy, “It Looks Bleak”)

Sunsets are beautiful too.

And British author Paul Kingsnorth asks “What do you do when you accept that all of these changes are coming, things that you value are going to be lost, things that make you unhappy are going to happen, things that you wanted to achieve you can’t achieve, but you still have to live with it, and there’s still beauty, and there’s still meaning, and there are still things you can do to make the world less bad? (Smith, 4/17/14)

We are just a part of an interconnected web of existence, and other life forms have the same rights to live and even thrive that we do.  Instead of viewing other beings as things, we need to be in right relationship with them, respecting them as full agents, not as means to our ends.  This includes not just cats and dogs and elephants and dolphins, but bees and trees and mountains and streams.  It includes spiders and jellyfish and the beings we eat.  It means being kind to the cows and chickens we are raising for slaughter, letting them have full lives until it is time to kill them.

I get angry when I hear people talk about what sets human beings apart from animals.  I have come to the realization that the reason we’re so fond of trying to come up with things that separate us from other animals is to justify our exploiting them.  We exploit everything and everyone around us; it’s all about survival; there’s nothing moral or ethical in the way we relate to others; we grab what we think we need without thought for what others might need.

But the goal isn’t to keep our species going at the expense of all the others, though sometimes it seems that way.  Indeed, it isn’t even possible.  This is not a game where there are winners and losers, and some have to lose in order that others can win.  This isn’t Monopoly.

We are part of an interdependent web of all existence, and what we do to any part of the web affects the whole our deeds come back to haunt us.   Call it Karma.

For instance, the cane toad was introduced originally in the 1920s and 1930s to control pests in agriculture and is now threatening native species from the Caribbean to Australia. Other invasive species are spread accidentally: A Caspian Sea tanker dumped its ballast water — and the Asian zebra mussel — into the Great Lakes a little more than a decade ago. Now the tiny mussels threaten to smother 140 native mussel species.  (The Nature Conservancy)

We are just one animal among many creatures that inhabit this planet, yet we’ve taken over, and we’re destroying the conditions for life for ourselves and many others.

As Deep Ecologist John Seed says, anthropocentrism, “the idea that humans are the crown of creation, the source of all value the measure of all things, is deeply embedded in our culture and consciousness.”   But this is the viewpoint of hubris, this is the view that has gotten us into trouble.  This is the way of seeing our place in the universe as privileged.  We are accustomed to seeing all that exists as resources for our use and benefit.  Nothing is sacred, nothing is holy.

Adopting an ecocentric view, on the other hand, helps us see our true place in the universe.  It is thus freeing, because the truth always sets us free–even as it imposes ethical restrictions on us as to how we relate to other beings.

Human beings are not outside of nature, but part of it.  The shift that’s needed is the equivalent of the Copernican revolution.  Copernicus saw that the earth revolved around the sun, not the sun around the earth, and the earth was no longer the center of the universe.  We need to see that the world does not revolve around humanity; that we are not in fact the center or the pinnacle of life on this planet which all else exists to serve.

As it becomes more and more clear that the end is approaching, and that there is not much we can do to halt its approach; as sea levels rise and storms get more frequent, as competition for resources increases to the point of wars over water rights, for example; we are likely to see humanity turn even more self-centered and ugly than it already is.  It is natural survival instinct at play.

But we can rise above our natural instincts.  We can choose to behave not from fear, but from love.  It will take immense moral courage, and it will take supportive community.  It will take adjusting our needs, so that we take into account the needs of other species and not just our own.

For instance, “For Kingsnorth, the notion that technology will stave off the most catastrophic effects of global warming is not just wrong, it’s repellent — a distortion of the proper relationship between humans and the natural world and evidence that in the throes of crisis, many environmentalists have abandoned the principle that “nature has some intrinsic, inherent value beyond the instrumental.” If we lose sight of that ideal in the name of saving civilization, he argues, if we allow ourselves to erect wind farms on every mountain and solar arrays in every desert, we will be accepting a Faustian bargain.” (Smith, 4/17/14)

People will need a forum in which to be honest about their sense of dread and loss. Faced with ecological collapse, there has to be a space in which we can grieve.   As the changes accelerate, as the losses accumulate, we will need to confront the reality of our situation, and the resulting feelings.  We will need to grieve, and we will need to do it together.   Our Unitarian Universalist congregations can offer such a forum.

In order to be in right relationship with the Earth, we need to ask her forgiveness.  Something like what the author of our reading did for the deer by the side of the road.

Dear Earth, We apologize for the system, our system, of people and machines and industries that are bringing about this meaningless destruction.  We apologize for the indifference, which we all share, that is bringing about this mutilation.  We apologize to our children and our children’s children, and the offspring of other species as well that we have brought this about.

Meanwhile, we keep doing all we can to honor the inherent worth and dignity of the natural world, we practice a reverence for life, we continue to find beauty in the world, even at sunset.  We continue, above all, to act from love, with nobility, generosity and beauty, recognizing our place in the interdependent web and accepting, with humility and grace, our situation.  There is still beauty and there is still meaning, and there is still much to do to make the world less bad.  Please join me in that work.