April 19th, 2020 Sunday Service Message: Earth Day – Caretakers of the Earth

Earth:  This Is It, People!

I was born in Cleveland, OH in 1962.  I was too young at the time to remember the social unrest of the 1960s such as assassinations of politicians and civil rights leaders, or the widespread protests against the Vietnam War.  However, what I do remember is the rank and wretched pollution and stench in the city center.

As a Westsider, we would drive along the Shoreway to visit family on the Eastside of town, demarcated by the Cuyahoga River (more on the river in a moment).  During the warm months when we drove with the windows down (air conditioning in cars was not yet universal), we had to roll them up as we passed the lake shore because of the stench.  Lying on the beach for miles and miles were many thousands, perhaps millions, of dead fish.  This was common.  The pollution from steel mills and other manufacturing facilities was just pumped into the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie with total impunity.

Occasionally, we would visit other family on the Southside of town.  Driving on Interstate 77 near the industrial portion of Cleveland and Newburgh Heights was even more noxious than driving on the Shoreway.  Smokestacks from the steel mills poured tons of soot and other toxins into the atmosphere every day.

As a seven year old child in 1969, my main concerns were baseball, learning to ride a bike, and playing with toy lunar landers made popular to celebrate the Moon Landing that summer.  I was totally oblivious to the events of June 22, 1969 that helped make Cleveland infamous.  That day, a passing train emitted some sparks from the rails and ignited the massive oil soaked debris floating on the Cuyahoga River.  Contrary to what many people may think, this was not the first time the Cuyahoga had caught fire, but at least the thirteenth time.  (Okay, okay, I get it now!)

Sparked, in part, by the events in Cleveland (pun intended), and building on the previous federal legislation of the Resources and Conservation Act of 1959, on January 1, 1970 President Richard Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Protection Act of 1969.  A zeitgeist for better stewardship of the planet was building.

Now, fifty years later, our planet is a cleaner, healthier place.  Other countries have also enacted measures to protect their environments.  As a global community, we still face some very large challenges.  Growing human population (3.7 billion people in 1970 vs. 7.8 billion people in 2020), deforestation, over-fishing, and depletion of non-renewable natural resources present new issues we must manage.

But there is good news – humans as a species are not only better equipped to take positive actions for conservation, preservation, and the re-establishment of natural environments less impacted by human habitation, but are more willing to do so than two generations ago.

There has been a long-held concept in the Christian west, that humans were given “dominion” over all of creation, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”  Genesis 1:26-28.  To many people, for a very long time, this meant the natural resources of the planet were ours to use by divine consent.  Add to that the idea that our lives are only a preparation for the afterlife, and what happens on earth is insignificant by comparison, and it is easy to see how use of resources turns to abuse; utilization turns to wanton exploitation.

The Environmental Protection Agency was formed, at least in part, because of a recognition that it was in the “selfish” best interest of humans not to “poop where we sleep.”  But also because ego-centric theology and philosophy were losing their grip, and the scientific understanding of the interconnectedness of life was increasing.

Rev. Joanne points out that each person is not only a person, but a biome.  We rely on many types of bacteria in our bodies to be healthy.  It is estimated that our bodies are home to more than 40 trillion bacteria at any given time.  The human body is comprised of approximately 37 trillion cells.  So are you more you or more bacteria?  We are interconnected with the natural world whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not.

The global COVID-19 pandemic has given humanity a crash course in Interconnectedness 101.  We have always been interconnected, but with the advent of highspeed global travel, what may have taken 12 months to spread from Asia to Europe or from Europe to Asia (or to or from the Americas, Africa, or Australia take your pick) can now spread in 12 hours.  But this is a two way street.  Just as infectious disease can spread rapidly, so can our ability to help one another by sharing information and resources, and equally important, compassion and understanding.

On December 24, 1968, Apollo 8 took the photo Earthrise as it orbited the moon.

The Blue Marble photo was taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on December 17, 1972, and became a symbol of the Earth Day and Environmental movements. 

And on February 14, 1990 Voyager 1 turned its cameras toward Earth from a distance of 3.7 billion miles as it was preparing to leave the solar system taking a photo known as The Pale Blue Dot.  

These three images alone should be enough to remind us of how precious is our life, how precious is our planet, and that we must be the best stewards possible now and forever.

Carl Sagan, astronomer, philosopher, author, and humanitarian gives us much needed perspective:

Look again at that dot.  That's here.  That's home.  That's us.  On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.  The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

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.  Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

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.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life.  There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.  Visit, yes.  Settle, not yet.  Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.  To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.1

There is no mention of God within this monumentally important statement (religion is not the same as God).  But it does not need to in order to be correct, meaningful, or inspiring.  Unity teaches that God is within each of us and, as Rev. Joanne reminds us, that God lives and moves within not just us, but all of the universe.  When we recognize that fact, we can then take the actions we need to as individuals, as nations, and as a global community to be proper stewards of “the only home we’ve ever known.”

Scripture:

Your statutes are always righteous; give me understanding that I may live.  Psalm 119:144

Spiritual Practice:

This week, meditate on the idea “what one thing can I begin doing right now that will help to preserve our planet?”  Listen, really listen, to you inner voice, then take the next right step toward that action.

Greg Skuderin

1Sagan, Carl (1997). Pale Blue Dot. United States: Random House USA Inc.