OUR SPIRITUAL CRISIS IN THE ANTHROPOCENE EPOCH
By Dr. Michael W. Fox “To understand is to forgive.”-Blaise Pascal
In this time of human evolution where we have become the dominant species on Earth, creating the Anthropocene epoch, we face an existential spiritual crisis. The Anthropocene Epoch is an unofficial unit of geologic time, used to describe the most recent period in Earth’s history when human activity started to have a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems. By spiritual I allude to our non-material state of well-being and those values, beliefs and ethics by which we live. This is independent of the often-unjust moralistic fabric of the times and cultures; and is affirmed by our emotional and mental health and the caring and loving relationships we celebrate, enjoy and enjoin in our lives and hearts.
It is in this Anthropocene epoch that we come face to face with the consequences of our actions and beliefs, a call for accountability for the state of the world in which we indubitably do more harm than good. Many currently suffer from eco-anxiety. The American Psychology Association describes eco-anxiety as “the chronic fear of environmental cataclysm that comes from observing the seemingly irrevocable impact of climate change and the associated concern for one’s future and that of next generations.” The violence of person against person mirrors our long history of violence against Nature and other animals.
The many broken hearts of survivors and witnesses to war, terrorism, domestic violence, “natural” disasters and other psychophysical traumas call for a Great Healing which is only possible in an empathic society where social justice, eco-justice and economic justice are in concord with the Golden Rule extended to include all sentient beings.
Compassion fatigue has both physical and psychological consequences including exhaustion, frustration, anger, guilt, disrupted sleep and appetite, weakening of the immune system, illness including psychosomatic disorders, anxiety, depression, despair, alcoholism, drug addiction and suicidal ideation. It must be recognized early as a situational and relational psychophysical crisis and supportive intervention sought and provided by sympathetic and understanding, friends and relatives as well as professional stress-management therapists.
Compassion fatigue may include a diminution of empathy but it is the antithesis of the empathy deficit disorder. This is an endemic psychopathology involving desensitization, objectification, separation, redirected aggression and disassociation as exemplified in various degrees by the rapist, trophy hunter, animal torturer, serial killer and mass-shooter.
The climate and plant and animal extinction crises are a consequence of our collectively ignorant, harmful and destructive existence. The looming food, public health and economic security crises are also a consequence of our non-sustainable numbers and appetites. This must all change if we are to evolve rather than continue to devolve and possibly perish or see ever more millions die in wars, famines, pandemics, floods, fires, droughts and unlivable temperatures.
LIVING IN ACCORD WITH NATURAL SYSTEMS
The mythic quest for infinite economic growth and the reality of an ever-increasing population have combined to trigger and accelerate climate change and the annihilation of the Earth’s biodiversity and metabolic, ecologic and other natural systems and processes. Yet it is precisely and only upon the functional integrity and interdependence of these natural, organic systems and our consonance with them that the health of our economy and species are secured along with that of other animal and plant species.
My colleague the late Dr. Barry Commoner, who invited me to join his Center for the Biology of Natural Systems while I was at Washington University St. Louis as a tenured associate professor of psychology in the late 1960’s, sought to make this symbiotic consonance a reality. One of Commoner’s lasting legacies is his four laws of ecology, as written in The Closing Circle in 1971. The four laws are: 1. Everything is connected to everything else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all. 2. Everything must go somewhere. There is no “waste” in nature and there is no “away” to which things can be thrown. 3. Nature knows best. Humankind has fashioned technology to improve upon nature, but such change in a natural system is, says Commoner, “likely to be detrimental to that system” 4. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Exploitation of nature will inevitably involve the conversion of resources from useful to useless forms.
When our politics and economics, health care, education, agriculture and all other commercial and industrial activities are designed to be integrated mindfully in concord with natural organic systems, we may yet save us from ourselves and the nemesis of socio-economic and ecological collapse. Responsible self-governance in harmony with natural systems is a keystone bioethical (science-based ethics) principle for a viable future.
The late, legendary theoretical physicist Prof. Paul Hawken opined: “At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way to be rich.”
Nature has become our nemesis rather than sustaining provider because in satisfying our material needs, we have sacrificed the spiritual that enabled and ennobled us to live in harmony with all our relations that make up the life community of planet Earth. When we disrespect and disregard these relationships —our sacred connections and duties to preserve and protect according to the Anishinaabe, we bring on what the Hopi Indians call Koyaanisquatsi, life out of balance.
Some pray to their God while others doubt the existence of God in a world of predation and animal and human violence and suffering. Many contend that God helps those who help themselves. But those who help others, including other species, enjoy the sense of grace that comes with empathic suffering and compassion-in-action that can never be experienced by those who simply pray for personal salvation.
The spiritual and environmental crises we face today are clearly and fundamentally due to our lack of understanding and respect for the sanctity of all life that engages us spiritually in a hallowing covenant of planetary care. This responsibility continues to be abdicated by most current technologies and industries that pollute the planet, and along with the burning of fossil fuels, jeopardize our physical health. The collective, miasmic and delusional psychoses of egotism and anthropocentrism can be rectified and prevented by right example through right living; right education, right industry and by embracing equal justice for all sentient beings.
JUSTICE FOR ALL-AND EARTH- NOW IN GREATER JEOPARDY
Many of you will be sharing my dismay and disgust at the recent rulings from the Trump-centric majority in the U.S. Supreme Court with regard to expanding gun rights, undermining women’s reproductive rights and eroding the wall separating church and state.
Now, to cap it all, in a detailed posting from the science journal Nature, the US Supreme Court has prohibited the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from crafting broad regulations to drive the country’s power industry away from coal and towards cleaner energy sources such as wind and solar. The court’s ruling could make it much harder for the administration of President Joe Biden — and its successors — to curb greenhouse gases as promised under the 2015 Paris climate agreement. And that spells bad news for the planet, because the United States is both one of the largest emitters of greenhouse gases in the world and a crucial player in the countries tackling global warming.doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-022-01796-8 US Supreme Court hobbles the EPA’s authority over climate … https://www.nature.com › news
This makes the Disunited States of America a pariah among nations striving to prevent the looming catastrophic consequences of our collective contributions to global warming, climate change and associated loss of biodiversity. Experts predict more frequent, more intense and longer-lasting floods, droughts, hurricanes, forest fires, crop failures, pestilence, famine, plagues, political crises, loss of wildlife and habitat and a U.N. estimate of 200 million and probably many more environmental refugees by 2050. Without putting a cap on carbon emissions the extinction of life on planet Earth will be inevitable with a percentage loss of biodiversity that will make existence ever more of a challenge for our children’s children, a legacy and impact which we can still avert, or at least minimize, if we chose and fight for justice for all.
The Supreme Court rulings violate the core principles of social, economic and ecological/environmental justice and rule of law, failing to protect and serve the common good and the good of the Commons. A longstanding precedent allowing plaintiffs living in their homes and properties in Iowa suffering reduced quality of life from air and water pollution caused by neighboring hog factory farms, ( with a carbon footprint equivalent to that of a small town) was was reversed by the Iowa Supreme Court.
Iowa is the nation’s leading pork producer with 23 million pigs. According to Associated Press reporter David Pitt (‘Iowa hog farm ruling reversed’, Star Tribune, July 1st 2022) . Justice Thomas Waterman of the Iowa Supreme Court wrote regarding this decision that “protecting and promoting livestock production is a legitimate state interest, and granting partial immunity from nuisance suits is a proper means to that end.” Climatologists, public health experts and others are calling for the phasing out of such livestock production systems since they are a major contributor to the climate crisis and spread of diseases and antibiotic-resistant bacteria into the human populace.
While some may chose to live simply rather than high off the hog so that others may simply live, the fact remains that our fossil fuel based civilization, manufacturing and consumer activities and expanding populace with more disposable income are limiting the options for future generations.
Some climate changes - warming and destructive weather - happen naturally from alterations in Earth’s solar orbit, and the extent of Earth’s axis tilt. But anthropogenic factors compound the severity and duration of such climatic events. Climate change deniers need a reality check and I commend all concerned to read the book by David Wallace-Wells, The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming. The Dugan Books NY 2019. The existential, if not evolutionary call for global collaboration to address the climate crisis, as through a United Environmental Nations, is louder than ever. As Wallace-Wells asserts, “we have all the tools we need, today, to stop it all: a carbon tax and the political apparatus to phase out dirty energy; a new approach to agriculture and a shift away from beef and dairy ( I would add pigs!) in the global diet; and public investment in green energy and carbon capture.”
The rise and fall of past civilizations and empires and their nemesis-depletion of natural resources, relative overpopulation and over-consumption, famine, plagues, pestilence and war-as history informs, were regional. Now we face a more global nemesis of the fossil fuel age capitalism, colonialism and non-sustainable agriculture and other polluting industries delinquent in eco-justice and social justice compounded by anthropogenic and natural process climate changes.
It is time for us all to step back, which is not a setback for the national GNP but the survival imperative of planetary CPR-conservation, restoration and protection- of the natural environment upon which our lives and all life depend. Stepping back will facilitate the economic and social transition to a post-industrial, post-fossil fuel era of mindful consumption. But only if we vote to secure the collective political will: An informed majority answering the call for personal responsibility, austerity/voluntary simplicity ( to minimize our carbon footprint and its collateral harms to the life community) and benevolence toward others be they human or non-human; all planetary citizens worthy of equal respect and consideration.
CHRISTIANITY EVOLVING TO EMBRACE ALL LIFE
The late James Morton, Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Harlem, NY, sees ecology “as the body of Christ, through which we of the earth community learn our sacred connections.”
For Catholics, the June 18th 2015 environmental encyclical Laudato Si’ by Pope Francis is an antidote to what he calls “the tyranny of anthropocentrism,” ending with the closing payer “Awaken our praise and thankfulness for every being that you have made. Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined to everything that is,” In this encyclical letter, Pope Francis has incorporated much of the philosophy and terms of the animal liberation and “deep” ecology movements to which I and others contributed. He asserts:
• “The misuse of creation begins when we no longer recognize any higher instance than ourselves, when we see nothing else but ourselves.” • “Because all creatures are connected, each must be cherished with love and respect, for all of us as living creatures are dependent on one another.” • “It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly.”
It is notable that The Ark, the outstanding magazine of Catholic Concern for Animals was first published in the U.K. in 1937! https://catholic-animals.com › magazine
In religious terms I see the apprehension of panentheism (meaning God in all and all in God, as distinct from pantheism) through empathy and boundless compassion in secular terms of the science and ethics-based movement toward One Health: And thus, One Economy for One Earth which all who believe in One God (or many or none) cannot deny.
According to a 2015 Pew research survey, views about climate change vary by religious affiliation and level of religious observance. Hispanic Catholics (77%), like Hispanics overall (70%), are particularly likely to say the Earth is warming due to human activity. Most of the religiously unaffiliated (64%) and 56% of black Protestants say climate change is mostly due to human activity. By comparison, fewer white mainline Protestants (41%) view climate change as primarily due to human activity. White evangelical Protestants are least likely to hold this view; 28% among this group say the Earth is warming primarily due to human activity, 33% say the Earth’s warming is mostly due to natural patterns, and 37% say there is no solid evidence that climate change is occurring. (https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2015/10/22/religion-and-views-on-climate-and-energy-issues/).
Now it seems evangelical Protestants are seeking the light. The interview on PBS, Amanpour and Company, with Walter Kim, President of the National Association of Evangelists on September 16th 2022, urging Christians to combat climate change as a spiritual challenge that especially harms the poor with floods, droughts, pollution, disease and famine, creating millions of environmental refugees is a call long overdue. ( https://www.pbs.org › amanpour-and-company › guests).
According to the Pew Research Center, 54 percent of White evangelicals now say that human activity, such as the burning of fossil fuels, contributes to global climate change.
It is evident that the Climate Crisis is awakening environmental awareness with ecocentrism transcending the anthropocentrism that has limited progress, which some might call a significant step in our evolution at both religious and secular levels and the influence on public policy and how we chose to live as our numbers and appetites increase on a planet of finite resources.
UNDERSTANING OUR PLACE IN NATURE
Through various religious, spiritual rituals, and our communion in Nature, we of the Earth community may gain the understanding needed to heal ourselves and the Earth, The wičháša wakȟáŋ (“medicine man, holy man”) and eccentric shaman/ heyoka, of the Oglala Lakota people, Chief Black Elk, put it this way: “It is from understanding that power comes; and the power in the ceremony was in understanding what it meant; for nothing can live well except in a manner that is suited to the way the sacred Power of the World lives and moves.” https://bookroo.com/quotes/black-elk-speaks
Black Elk witnessed and suffered the genocide of his people just as many people today are suffering as they witness the ecocide and speciecide of planetary life due to human incursion and mass-extermination. As he foresaw, we must either evolve or perish as a species unworthy of the self-anointed name of Homo sapiens, man the wise.
As the late Albert Schweitzer, MD, advised, “Until he extends the circle of his compassion to all living things, man will not himself find peace.” Reverential respect for all life is the foundation of One Health in recognition of the interdependence of human and non-human, animal, plant and micro-orgasmic life; of a global democracy; of justice and rule of law; and of a viable and sustainable economy. The Gaia Hypothesis proposed by British scientist, the late James Lovelock in 1972, is based on the fact that living organisms on the planet interact with their surrounding inorganic environment to form a synergetic and self-regulating system that created, and now maintains, the climate and biochemical conditions that make life on Earth possible. Respect for all life is therefore enlightened self-interest. My friend Thomas Berry famously put it this way: “The universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects.”
Existentially, dystopian and dysbiotic conditions will only intensify until we adopt the Seventh Generation Principle based on the ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future. This is the basic principle of empathic consequentialism on which I elaborate in my book Bringing Life to Ethics: Global Bioethics for a Humane Society.
As we embrace the beauty and wonder of intelligent, sentient life around us and within us we begin to understand and appreciate the myriad of sustaining and regenerating relationships we have and need for our physical and mental health and ultimate spiritual well-being.
The flashing display of a red-winged blackbird dipping one wing to show his crimson plume while bursting into song as I walked our dog beside a local stream eclipsed in my mind all the neon lights from New York to Singapore. After all, he was more ancient, original and authentic and a part of me that could never be a part of the Technopolis and its dystopian state.
When our minds are opened by our hearts into empathic communion, we become open to the life around us and within us. So, it was with our ancestors who acquired the feral wisdom of the herbs and fungi that can heal, nourish, poison and kill. In our recovery of this spiritual sensibility, we may come to deserve the self-anointed title of Homo sapiens, Man the wise.