Tuesday, February 27, 2018
Recently, Rick, the pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Salem which I have recently joined, invited me to collaborate with my new friend and fellow parishioner Angela, who is in charge of the landscape committee for the church, in preparing an Earth Day service next April. Pursuant to this, here is a draft of a possible sermon I might deliver on that day:
Working Title: "A Gaian Future--or No Future."
If you saw the title of my sermon this morning, you might reasonably ask, "What do you mean by 'A Gaian Future?'" Or more briefly, "Huh??"
"Gaian" is a recently coined adjective or identity label--which is, in fact, the only label with which I am fully comfortable, since it excludes nobody at all. I am a Gaian, and so are you. And so is every living organism on the planet, from the simplest bacterium to Donald Trump. (Yes--even Donald Trump is a Gaian, whether he knows it or not!)
So what is a Gaian? The broadest definition I know is the one that includes everything from bacteria to corrupt political leaders. It is a living, breathing being, an inhabitant of Gaia, which is the ancient Greek name for Mother Earth. This name has more recently been recycled by both scientists and visionaries, starting with British biochemist James Lovelock and American bacteriologist Lynn Margulis, to refer to the theory, now generally accepted among Earth scientists, that life and our planet coevolved--and that the processes of life create and sustain the conditions that, in turn, sustain life. For example, without plants and photosynthesis, there would be no free oxygen available on the planet--it would all be bound up with carbon, as it is on Venus and Mars. Without topsoil, there would be no plants or fungi--and vice versa. And without plants or fungi, animals--including ourselves--could not exist. Gaia--powered by solar energy and interweaving earth, air, and water into a miraculous and self-regenerating web of life--is our biological support system, the condition of our very existence.
So if we are all Gaians, what use is the term? Quite simply, it is something that we, in our global industrial civilization, have forgotten. We are taught to think of "nature" as either a resource or a refuge--but not as a system of which we also are a part, interacting with every breath. If we think of nature as a resource, we think it has no value at all until we transform it into commodities, whether by mining, clearcutting, or pesticide-soaked monocultures. If we see it as a refuge, it is still "out there"--remote from our daily lives. So I think we need this new name Gaia to refer to what we have forgotten--that we also are a part of, and not apart from, nature. And unless we find a way, not simply to remember this fact, but to incorporate it into every decision we make, we have no future.
So what might a "Gaian future" look like? And how would we get there?
I think of a Gaian future as one in which it is axiomatic, and generally recognized by everyone, that--as Martin Luther King once said, "whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly." And that this understanding of our global interconnectedness informs all our institutions, becoming the foundation of our educational system, from Kindergarten to graduate study. We can't possibly know what a Gaian future would look like--we can only know, today, that it is our only remaining alternative to oblivion, whether through climate change, nuclear war, societal collapse, or whatever. The creature that parasitizes its own biological support system destroys itself.
So how to we get to a Gaian future? I don't pretend to know in any detail, but I am quite sure that it starts in the same way that ecosystems start: by planting seeds, both literal and figurative, from the ground up, not from the top down. And it starts with each of us, and radiates outward, building upon itself--just as an ecosystem is self-regenerating and self-diversifying. So here is one such seed of thought, which I like to call the "Gaian Categorical Imperative:"
In every decision, we must strive to assume responsibility for the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our communities, and our planet.
Health, competence, and resilience are the three survival conditions of every living organism, from bacteria to blue whales. We all need to eat food, drink water, and breathe oxygen, in order to maintain the internal homeostasis of our bodies. Second, we need to develop and hone skills to survive and prosper within a specific ecological niche, whether that niche is a wetland, an organization, a city, or a nation state. Finally, we all need the resilience--the flexibility--to adapt to unpredictable changes in our niche--whether from a warmer climate, a threat from others, or a catastrophe. In short, we all need to eat, survive and reproduce--not only ourselves, but also our communities and our ecosystems.
Since we are part of larger communities, whether families, organizations, or cities and states, we also need to preserve the health, competence, and resilience of these. If a person promotes his own interests at the expense of the community, he will probably end up in jail. But if a corporation promotes their own interests at the expense of the community or the biosphere, they become rich and powerful. Obviously, this is the mark of a dysfunctional civilization, a civilization that is parasitizing Gaia.
To restore the health, competence, and resilience of ourselves, our community, and our planet, and to create a Gaian future from the ground up, I therefore recommend three essential disciplines, that we can all undertake, starting this moment:
(1) Meditation; (2) Satyagraha; (3) Permaculture.
Meditation, practiced by every authentic spiritual tradition on the planet, takes many forms, but these forms all boil down to three simple injunctions: Breathe, Observe, Let Go. And repeat as often as necessary. By this means, we recharge and restore the inner equanimity and compassion we need to become healing agents in our community and on our planet.
Satyagraha was Gandhi's term for becoming a healing agent in a dysfunctional culture and society. It consists, he said, of three practices: Ahimsa, Satya, and Swaraj.
Ahimsa means doing no harm--practicing absolute, unconditional compassion for everyone and everything. In the political realm, it means nonviolence, and a nonviolent disposition in a politically charged environment is best maintained by regular meditation practice.
Satya means speaking truth to power, mindfully, strategically, and relentlessly. We may recall, for example, the magnificent courage, eloquence, and integrity, under duress, of any of the great Satyagrahis: not only Gandhi, but also King, Mandela, Vaclav Havel, Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and Wangari Maathai. (And of course, most recently, the courageous and articulate students at Parkland High, standing up and speaking truth to the NRA and the politicians in their pocket).
Swaraj means "self-rule" or "self-reliance," which Gandhi symbolized with his spinning wheel; that is, unplugging from dependence on the forces of greed, oppression, and ecological degradation in every way we can, and creating local self-reliance.
Permaculture, then, is Swaraj in practice: a design methodology and a cultural movement, catching on at the grassroots all over the planet, that is predicated on three interrelated ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. It is a systematic and flexible Gaian approach to design, whether of gardens, farms, or cities, that is based entirely on ecological principles.
By adopting such principles, precepts, and practices, I am confident that we can be the change we seek to make, and co-create a Gaian future for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.