© Catherine Ishida 2009. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
April 26, 2009

Simple Ideas Aren't Always Simplistic

The physicist Richard Feynman, started out his famous Lectures of Physics by asking the following question:

What "if, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?"

He was asking what idea, what hypothesis, would be most helpful to make sense of the physical world.

His answer was that if the surviving creatures could remember the "the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms - little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another" they would be well on their way to rediscovering the laws of the physical sciences.

Feynman went on to outlining basic physics, weaving into his lectures again and again, the atomic hypothesis, and how it helps explain the phenomena we observe in nature.

Like the atomic hypothesis, a simple idea isn't always simplistic. It can be the thread by which we weave a whole way of life.

Question: What Single Idea Can Prevent Cataclysm?

Today, I want to ask a slightly different question. What if, in some cataclysm, all of human civilization were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information they need in the fewest words so they will not have to face another cataclysm?

What idea, what hypothesis about the nature of the world would be most helpful for creatures to create a culture that doesn't self-destruct?

Danger of Collapse is Real

Sadly the premise itself, the possibility of the destruction of entire civilizations is not hypothetical. Civilizations come and go, and sometimes just disappear.

Think of the Mayan temples rising out of the jungle or the moai statues on Easter Island. Imagine the people who built these things. They were probably quite like us: intelligent, creative, and well organized. They liked big monuments, and they also had self-destructive tendencies.

What caused these civilizations to disappear? If you like, there is a lovely little web site on the internet with readings and activities for young people to learn about how war, drought, other natural disasters, disease, overpopulation, economic disruption, internal power struggles, over-farming, and other environmental damage have caused resourceful and sophisticated civilizations to collapse.

Civilizations have come and gone for many reasons. What's different today, is that the impact of war, disease, and environmental destruction can be global.

Growing up in the 70s and 80s, I remember a time when the possibility of a global nuclear catastrophe stemming from the cold war between the US and USSR felt really real. In Japan, my elementary school would have emergency drills. A siren would go off, and all of us would take the seat cushions off our chairs. They were designed to convert to padded hoods, that we would put on our heads before crawling under our desks. With the siren blaring in my ears, my mind would fill up with all the images I had seen of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Once the sirens went off, our teachers would shuffle all us kids into the gym or the school courtyard, and tell us how well we did, and that if something really bad really did happen, they would protect us.

The threat of a nuclear war on a global scale, triggering a nuclear winter that would plunge the Earth into a toxic ice age, feels a little less immanent now, but a feeling of immanence may not be the most reliable way to tell if a danger is real.

In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond, warns that environmental collapse maybe a greater concern for societies, precisely because it doesn't always feel immanent. Environmental catastrophes sneak up on us gradually. Damage accumulates until it reaches a tipping point, and the system rapidly collapses.

Diamond shows that time and time again, people have ignored the warning signs, and let their civilizations self-destruct.

Today there are warning signs a-plenty that our environment is under stress. Can you think of any?

Deforestation, depleted aquifers, loss of topsoil and desertification, the destruction of the ozone layer, the collapse of fisheries, loss of biodiversity, global warning due to human green house gas emission.

Now is Not the Time

I'm an astronomer by training, so let me offer my professional opinion:

  1. Earth is irreplaceable. If we make this planet uninhabitable, the best that we can do would be like the scenario in the movie Wall-E. We will have to make a space ship with some replica of the Earth's ecosystem and hover in space forever. The Universe is very big, so its likely that there are other Earth-like planets out there. But the Universe is so large, that the chances of our moving there in anything like the life-span of hundreds of generations, is small.
  2. In the long run, an end to life on Earth is inevitable. The Sun has a finite lifetime. When it begins to die, it will become so bright that the Earth's atmosphere will just evaporate.
  3. Now is not the time. There is still three billion years or so before the increasing energy output of the Sun will make life on Earth unsustainable. There is no reason for us to deliberately speed up the process.
Now is not the time.

Now is not the time. As a warm-blooded, soft-fleshed mammal, there is a voice inside of me that screams: No. No, don't take this world away from me. How can we so calmly talk about its destruction! I love this world, and its mine!

An Evolutionary Hypothesis Can Help Us Understand Who Humans are in Relation to the Rest of the World: We Are Family

If I had to choose one sentence, one hypothesis, to pass on to the survivors of a devastating cataclysm, I would choose the evolutionary hypothesis, with an emphasis on our ecological interdependence.

All life on Earth, its 30 million species of which humans are one, originated from the same single cell organism and have evolved together to form a complex interdependent ecological system that is both robust and delicately balanced.

Life on Earth is a family that shares a common history of evolution, a common ancestry, and a common dependence on Earth and Sun and each other.

The idea that all life in Earth is family is an old idea - an old idea worth putting at the center of our understanding of the world, and to ground in the knowledge that this family is an ecosystem that has evolved together over time.

Who humans are and what our relationship is to the large whole is a fundamental theological question.

We could, for example, try to derive the first six principles of the Unitarian Universalist Association from the seventh principle, "Respect for the interdependent web of which we are a part."

But that would be an intellectual exercise.

How does the understanding of our family-ness, our awareness of our ecological and evolved selves inoculate us against self-destruction?

Care for Earth From a Place of Love

Justine Burt, a member of this congregation and an advocate for the environment, recently wrote in a blog:

"I hate Earth Day the same way I hate Christmas and Thanksgiving. Should we only care about the Earth one day a year? Should we only seek peace on Earth and be thankful one day a year? Of course not. We should integrate caring for the Earth, working toward peace and being thankful into our every day lives instead of just celebrating every once in a while."

Why? Why should we care for the Earth?

"Should" is a word that has never quite worked for me.

Caring for the Earth - being ecologically and environmentally sustainable is not about global warming per se or any particular crisis. It's not about our personal need to be "good" or nowadays to be "green" and "hip."

Caring for the Earth is about understanding the world in a way that the human community can resist self-destruction. It's about living in a way that is grounded in that understanding.

What does work for me is knowing that I love life on Earth. It's probably a characteristic bestowed upon me by evolution. Love for life is an excellent survival trait.

If I love the Earth, then I suspect there is a good chance that you, and maybe all humans, love it too. Clearly we don't always remember. Maybe it is too frightening to remember. If we care too much, we will feel the pain of the loss.

I don't know how much of the Earth's ecosystem we can loose before triggering a cataclysmic collapse. I really don't want to know how much of life on Earth I personally can loose before life isn't worth living.

Loving Can Be Painful

There is an exercise called the grim reaper that is designed to help people understand the experience of loss. On nine cards, people are asked to write down the names of three people that they love, three activities that bring them joy, and three skills that they treasure in themselves. People then place their cards in a grid on a table in front of them. Then the Grim Reaper beings making rounds, randomly taking away cards from a person or not. After each round, people are asked if they wish to continue, or fold.

Imagine doing this exercise with all the places in nature you love. I think of the gently scented pine wood forests with their spongy carpet. The warm, rocking waves of Hawaii's beaches, the sweetness of the air in spring as flowers blossom, the green and black hummingbird that so startled me and forced me to stop and smell the flowers. The list can go on and on.

Then I think of the grim reaper poisoning oceans, tearing down forests, melting the ice caps. It makes my eyes hurt. My eyes tear up the way they did on hot summer days, growing up in Tokyo, when photochemical smog made it too toxic to play outside. The pain is even worse when I think that in some way I am the grim reaper.

The planet will be fine without humans. Perhaps even better off. We are the ones that have to choose to survive, in a way that we might actually be willing to live.

Community Helps us Turn Pain into a Source of Energy

Leisa Huyck, an environmental scientist and student at Starr King School for the Ministry writes:

"When they learn of the extent and depth of the current ecological crisis, many people become paralyzed with fear and grief, and cope by going into denial. This serves only to exacerbate the crisis. We must learn to metabolize our grief, to come together in community to support one another as we feel our pain. Only by feeling our real feelings - of love, of grief, and of anger for our beautiful planet - will we be able to convert them to the energy necessary for the changes we know are necessary to save life on earth. This is best done within the supportive container of community."

So here we are.

In our Sunday worship services at the Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation, there is one piece of liturgy that we repeat week after week. Any guesses?

"We light this chalice
To remind ourselves to treat all people kindly,
Because they are our brothers and sisters;
To take good care of the Earth, because it is our home..."

Lets forget the second half for a moment. We don't need to be good or altruistic. We just need to love, and maybe feel a bit possessive about our brothers and sisters and our home.

Remember that we are not alone in holding these values. Remember that when you choose how to travel, when you set your thermostat, when you go shopping, when you demand organizations local and national to respond the dangers of global warming, when you feel alone and isolated, when you feel put upon by all the other demands of life.

Good News

When informed by a shared value, our small and imperfect choices will add up.

And it has.

Ten days ago, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency publicly acknowledged that "greenhouse gases contribute to air pollution that may endanger public health or welfare." This is one of the best signs that collectively we are starting to move away from denial to active engagement with the challenges to our long-term well-being.


Let me end by quoting Buddhist teacher Joanna Macy:

"Each of us, I believe, is a gift the Earth is giving to itself now, a unique gift. Every anguish, betrayal, disappointment can even help prepare us for the work of healing. You don't need to be extraordinary. If the world is to be healed through human efforts, I am convinced it will be by ordinary people, people whose love for this life is even greater than their fear. People who can open to the web of life that called us into being, and who can rest in the vitality of that larger body."

Back to Top