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This Pale Blue Dot

Notes from a passenger on Spaceship Earth.

Cassini image of Saturn with Earth as blue dot in rings
Cassini image of Saturn
detail is Earth as Pale Blue Dot
Before I begin, let me make one background comment. Last June, I attended the Atlantic Seminar in Theological Education for a week in Truro, NS. This Seminar has been held annually for over 40 years in the second full week of June. The subject this year was Elemental Faith - Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. There were two guest lecturers: Dr. Heather Eaton, a professor at Saint Paul University in Ottawa, and Larry Rasmussen, a lay theologian in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. Heather's primary area of interest is religious responses to the ecological crisis; Larry's is Christian ethics from a variety of perspectives. Each speaker delivered four lectures during the week, and engaged in several question and answer sessions. Much of what I will say this morning is based on their material at the Seminar; it will not be cited as a source each time. But when I refer to Heather or Larry, you'll know who I mean.

Where we stand makes all the difference in what we see. If I stand in my front yard around 6 o'clock or so, I look east across Lake George at the far shore in that wonderful glowing late afternoon light that arrives just before sunset. Looking behind me, to the west, I see the house, and if I peek around it, I see a dense stand of trees. Behind them, I know though I can't see it, lies the large hill where we once lived. If my good friends on the opposite shore of the lake look out at the same time, they would have that late afternoon light right in their eyes and so probably couldn't see too much. But they could reasonably expect to soon see a glorious sunset, one which would be invisible to me. Behind them to the east, they would see only the trees, no matter the time of day. But around 7 yesterday morning, I looked east and saw the first light of the false dawn, heralding the sun's rise an hour or so later, which announced a new and promising day. Yet we both live on the shores of the same lake.

One of the pleasures of living on a lake well removed from any nearby city is the darkness of the nights. Stars are a wonderfully mystical experience. Yet even where I live I can see only so far. My view is very long looking up, but in every other direction it includes trees as the horizon line, and I can only imagine what might lie beyond those trees. The photograph on the cover of the bulletin - often known as the blue marble photograph - was taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts in December of 1972, as they left earth orbit and began to make their way to the moon. It has been called the most widely circulated photographic image in history, and I suspect that is true. The astronauts were looking at the same earth that you and I see daily but, because of where they were standing (well, floating), they saw something very different from what you and I see. And having seen the photograph ourselves, we will never again be able to see the earth around us in the ways we once did.

We usually call this pale blue dot Planet Earth, but that is really a misnomer. It really should be called Planet Water, since (I'm quoting Larry here) the surface is 70% water, but some late-arriving mammals evidently thought only dry ground really counted, despite the fact that life emerged from the sea, with all life that has ever been, descending from a single cell that came into being about 3 billion years ago. Incidentally, you, too, are 70% water, with the same salinity in your veins and ducts as the sea's. Easily the most important and dramatic nine months of your life found you growing in salt water, the warm salty waters of your mother's womb, and you were born into the dry ground world when your mother's waters broke." You were in the ocean, and the ocean is still in you. Remember that the next time you shed tears of joy and sorrow, and remember your home, Planet Water."

So what do we see, when we look around us at Planet Water? As beautiful as the photograph is, what we see, using not just vision but all our senses, isn't pretty. Heather refered to a crisis of planetary systems. At the head of the list, certainly, is climate change. It's not that the climate has never changed in the past; it most certainly has. But climate is a planetary system, and is self-regulating if it is left to its own devices. The problem we face now with climate change is that our human actions (and inactions) have tremendously accelerated the rate of change, and it is the rapidity of that change that is so hard on evolutionary processes. I feel quite confident that the mean temperature of the planet has varied by a degree or two or three or four a few times over the last 3 billion years or so, and the planet hasn't collapsed. But I very much doubt that it has ever happened with such extreme rapidity as is happening now.

We also see, if we look around carefully, some very serious problems with water. Water, like climate, is a planetary system. This means, among other things, that what is done here has an impact there, and what is done there has an impact here, wherever on the planet here and there happen to be. The hydrologic cycle (ocean evaporation, condensation, precipitation, run-off back to the oceans) is world-wide, continuous, and very large. The estimated volume of water involved is just over 500,000 cubic kilometers. One very important point to note about the hydrologic cycle is that it is a closed system. There is no source of new water. What we have now is all we will have, ever. And that supply is absolutely crucial. Water is a part of every living cell on earth. As Larry commented,Millions of critters have lived without love, not a single one without water.

And we are messing up this precious water supply pretty badly. Agricultural run-off is creating huge dead zones where rivers empty into the oceans. From a variety of sources, the ocean are becoming seriously polluted. The toxins created by human activity are now are found in every part of every ocean, as well as on land and in the air. For a variety of reasons (not least of which is over-fishing), the oceans now hold about 17% of the fish stocks they held 100 years ago. We are modifying the water systems in ways whose effects we cannot accurately predict. It has been suggested that the massive Three Gorges dam in China, the largest hydro-electric dam in the world, may have played a significant role in the earthquakes which did so much damage not long ago in central China.

The list of problems goes on and on, but the list of possible responses is much shorter. Marq DeVilliers, in his book Water: the Fate of Our Most Precious Resource, suggests a short list of possible alternatives. Option A is technological innovation. Option B is conservation: simply use less. Technological innovation could help a lot here. It would also help if there were simply fewer people around to use the water. Option C is, quite simply, steal it. This is the option of violence. Water is indispensable, relatively scarce, and very unevenly distributed across the globe. These realities can easily bring out our worst natures and our most aggressive action. Water wars are not difficult to imagine. Water is one of the four primal elements - earth, air, fire, and water. These have been recognized as essential to human life for millennia, and more recently as essential to all life. We're not doing much better with earth, air, and fire than we are with water. Time prevents looking at these three in depth, but I think you are already familiar with the litany.

  • Arable land is being paved or built on at an astonishing rate, desertification is happening in various areas of the planet, forests are being removed for a variety of reasons, and in that process we are losing one of our primary means of maintaining the air, through photosynthesis. The soil - the substance of earth - is being slowly killed by overuse of industrial agricultural practises, many of which use oil-based technology.
  • Fire, for which our modern equivalent word would probably be energy, is also a problem. Some 75% of the energy we humans use comes from fossil fuel, and we are depreciating the supply of such fuel about 100,000 times as fast as it is being replenished. That is clearly a process which absolutely cannot continue indefinitely. The supply will end.
  • Air, including that portion of the atmosphere which we can actually breathe, is not faring any better under our care. Air is the almost miraculous layer which allows the sun's heat to pass through it virtually unnoticed. Yet, because of the water vapour and CO2 which the air holds, it captures some of the heat which is radiated back from the earth's sun-warmed surface. It is this intimate interaction which provides the life-supporting climate we enjoy. To quote Larry, Were not air and water on such intimate terms, we would not be. End of story. And there is not much of this air. If the earth were the size of a basketball, the layer of air would be the thickness of a finely applied coat of varnish.

These four primal elements, earth, air, fire, and water, are intimately intertwined and mutually interdependent. Let me give you just one example. Do you know what the largest structure created by life on earth is? It is not China's Three Gorges Dam, nor a huge building, nor a great piece of machinery. It is, rather, the Great Barrier Reef, which stretches for some 1,800 km along and beyond the northeast coast of Australia. Like all coral reefs, it is a living system, built by an astonishing symbiosis between coral polyps and a particular strain of algae. Reefs like this are important. They occupy less than .2% of the ocean's surface area, yet are home to almost a quarter of its total marine life.

Hold that image in your mind for a moment, while I tell you a bit of ancient history. (I'm drawing here on an article entitled The Age of Breathing Underwater, by Chris Turner, in Walrus Magazine, October, 2009.) A little over 500,000 years ago, Alberta was covered by a tropical sea (talk about global warming!!), and was home to a good number of reefs. The reefs of that age were made by algae instead of coral polyps, but were otherwise very similar. There was one in particular, beneath what is now the town of Leduc, where the porous rock of the Late Devonian period trapped the remains of a staggering abundance of carbon-based life about 400 million years ago. Across the intervening millennia, those remains were slowly crushed into pools of thick black ooze buried a mile underground. The earth cooled a bit, the waters receded as more water was locked up in ice, the earth shifted as tectonic plates made their ponderous journeys, and now Alberta lives on a rich oil diet, thanks to a natural process which took around a half a billion years ago.

Remember the Great Barrier Reef, teeming with vibrant life? Many scientists agree that the Great Barrier Reef will die around the year 2050. And why? There are two reasons. The first is that the warming of the ocean water is turning the single-celled algae which sustain the reef toxic. It's a process known as coral bleaching. The second, and far more important, reason is ocean acidification. As the air contains more and more CO2, more and more of it is dissolved into the oceans and forms a weak carbonic acid. This gradually reduces the pH level of the oceans (so far from about 8.2 to 8.1, on average). It doesn't take much of a change in pH levels to be disastrous to the reefs. And where did all this excess CO2 come from? Primarily from human industrial activity, which means primarily from burning fossil fuels (mainly oil), many of which were once coral reefs themselves. The primal elements are deeply and intimately intertwined, and changes to any affect all. Here is really there, and there is really here. We are all interconnected.

How on earth did we get to this point? Heather suggested, and I agree, that we became addicted to the wrong myth. We live by our myths; our fundamental stories shape us in countless ways. We have become addicted to the myth of the industrial vision, and have conformed ourselves to its demands. It isn't working. As any ex-smoker will tell you, breaking an addiction is not easy. There is a sense of hopelessness which often threatens to overwhelm both the person and the process of addiction breaking. To combat this, to break our addiction, we need to do several things.

We need to find and form supportive communities, lest we engage this process alone. We need to both seek and be models of a new behaviour, one which honours the earth as part of us and us as part of the earth, indivisible. We need to find actions within the range of our competence (which is greater than we think), and then take those actions. We need to live in and into hope. This hope is not mere optimism, for optimism is about results, while hope does not hang on results. Hope is a mixture of anger and courage, an orientation always towards life. It is a stance from which we meet, greet, and engage the world around us.

Above all, we need to have and to develop a vision. I say both have and develop because that vision is never static. It will evolve, and change, and grow, and shift. It must, if it is to draw us forward in our efforts. That vision must teach us to view the planet in much the same way we view our own arm or leg - an integral and essential part of us, as we are an integral and essential part of it.

Thomas Berry has pointed out that planetary health is primary; human health is derivative. Our industrial myth reverses those two; we need get them back in the right order. For the common good which we seek cannot be achieved without attending to the good of the planetary common.

Heather reminded Seminar participants of the slogan from the sixties, Think globally, act locally. It made sense then, and still does. But in the context of our ecological crisis, Heather added two words: Think globally, act locally, meditate hourly. The time to start the process of change is never more than 60 minutes away.