Environment Day 2016


“When you trek up a mountainside and pass over a ridge
into a gorgeous vista of peaks bathed in the colors of sunset,
and when later that night the stars spangle out over your tent and an alpine lake,
reflecting back their own infinite mass, don’t the words that come to mind
feel strangely religious? Awe. Wonder. Beauty.
Surely this, if nothing else, reassures us
that the chasm between science and religion
is not as wide as it all-too-often feels”
(Mary Evelyn Tucker, 2016)

It was Christmas Eve in December 1968.
Apollo 8 was orbiting the moon, the American astronauts 
busy photographing possible landing sites
for the missions that would follow.

“On the fourth orbit, Commander Frank Borman decided to roll the craft away from the moon and tilt its windows toward the horizon – he needed a navigational fix. What he got, instead, was a sudden view of the earth, rising.   “Oh my God,” he said. “Here’s the earth coming up.” Crew member Bill Anders grabbed a camera and took the photograph that became the iconic image perhaps of all time” (McKibben 2010:2).

The space agency NASA gave the image the code name AS8-14-2383
But we now know it as “Earthrise”, a picture
“of a blue-and-white marble floating amid the vast backdrop of space, set against the barren edge of the lifeless moon” (McKibben 2010:2).

This image, along with another of Earth from space,
called “Blue Marble”, and taken by crew on board Apollo 17 four years later,
has appeared in TV mini-series,
scientific publications and school text books,
on greeting cards, a postage stamp, and advertising posters,
not to mention having their own pages on Wikipedia!

As the other Apollo 8 Crew member, Jim Lovell, put it:
“the earth… suddenly appeared as ‘a grand oasis’” (McKibben 2010:2).

But author and environmental activist Bill McKibben has pointed out:
“…we no longer live on that planet” (McKibben 2010:2).

Not that the world has ended.
It hasn’t.  You and I are still here – south east of the Wallace Line.
Earth is still a fragile web of interconnected and
interdependent forces and domains of existence.

It is still the third rock out from the sun,
located in a galaxy called the ‘Milky Way”,
“three-quarters water. Gravity still pertains; we’re still earthlike” (McKibben 2010:2).

What has ended is the world as we thought we knew it.
That ‘grand oasis’ has changed in profound ways.

“We imagine we still live back on that old planet”, says McKibben,
“that the disturbances we see around us are the old random and freakish kind. But they are not. It’s a different place. A different planet. It needs a new name” (McKibben 2010:2).

That ‘different planet’ has been brought about by global warming.
The sudden surge in both greenhouse gases and global temperatures.
And “a series of ominous feedback effects” (McKibben 2010:20).


Today is Environment Day 2016.
So I reckon it is important for us to be reminded
about the place we call Earth, and its environs.

Especially as many of us are lovers of ‘sun, sand, and surf’.
That’s why we live where we do!

In the world of science, the most widely accepted modern estimate of the Earth’s age
is approximately 4.5 billion years. While the universe - that whole
“complex, interrelated and interacting... matter-energy in space-time...
of which humans are an integral part...” (Gillette 2006:1)
is approximately 14 billion years old.

Yes… 14 billion years ago in what is commonly called a Big Bang,
the universe is very large indeed:
perhaps consisting of 200 billion galaxies, 
each of which likely contains 100 billion stars!

Science is saying and has been saying, again and again:
this 14 billion year old universe must be regarded
as a whole:
it is of intrinsic value, and each part,     
individual atom,
participates in that intrinsic value as each part or web, participates
in this wonderful web of life.

Each part, rather than one species or organism
separating itself out as more important than the rest.

Karl Peters, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Religion, and former
President of the Centre for Advanced Study of Religion and Science, writes:
“Our planet, its life forms, and our own bodies contain the oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, iron, and other elements from earlier exploding stars. We are ‘star stuff’
– a part of the matter that was created earlier in the universe’s history” (Peters 2002:15).

Turning to the world of religion past one story seems to have ruled.
The popular belief that a mythical story in a collection of stories called Genesis,
mandates the claim that humans are to dominate nature.

Further, the god G-o-d, in terms of this story, is pictured as a sky-God.
Earth came into existence in October 4,004 BCE.
And in turn, human beings, as bearers of God's image,
are regarded essentially as ‘souls’ taking up
temporary residence in their earthly bodies.

This popular religious belief was seriously challenged by Lynn White,
in what is now his famous 1967 article,
The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis’.

An article published several months before Apollo 8 was orbiting the moon.
An article some have suggested should be compared
to Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses” (Santmire 2000:11).

In that article White suggests
Christianity's attack on so-called pagan religion
effectively stripped the natural world of any spiritual meaning.

Indeed, Christianity replaced the belief that the ‘sacred’ is in rivers and trees,
with the doctrine that G-o-d is a disembodied spirit
whose true residence is in heaven, not on earth.

The impact of this religious teaching has tended to empty
the biosphere of any sense of God's presence in natural things.

White writes:
“By destroying pagan [religions], Christianity made it possible to exploit nature in a mood of indifference to the feelings of natural objects” (White 1967).

White goes on to suggest, in this sense the ecological crisis:
     global warming,
     irreversible ozone depletion,
     massive deforestation,
     higher than acceptable methane gas concentrations, 
is fundamentally a spiritual crisis. 

Perhaps that’s reason enough for us today
to share in the celebration of Environment Day.


Bill McKibben says it is a different Earth now.
And being ‘different’ means reshaping our society:
from big to smaller, from growth to maintenance,
from expansion to scale down, from global to neighbourhood.

Business as usual is not an option.
As Professor Tim Jackson’s recent paper for the Sustainable Development Commission, says:
"Prosperity for the few founded on ecological destruction and persistent social injustice (two billion survive on less
than $2 a day) is no foundation for a civilised society. We need to invest in  change so we can flourish within the ecological limits of a finite planet.”

In light of all this science it is a good day to remind ourselves that
      “Out of the stars in their flight,
      out of the dust of eternity,
              here have we come…” (Weston 1993).

In light of both science and progressive religion it is also a good day
to ask a couple of related questions:
(i)  How old are we really?
(ii) How long will we continue?

To the first question Old religion says 6,016 years.
Where did it get that answer?  The Bible!
On what evidence?  The Bible!
I have long grown tired of that kind of fundamentalist circularity.

Progressive religion and science responds:
“[p]henomenally, a few decades; culturally, a few centuries or millennia; biologically, millions of years; cosmically, about 15 billion years” (Peters 1992:412).

To the second question: ‘How long will we continue?’
Old religion says until ‘Judgment Day’ or ‘parousia’, or the ‘Second Coming’,
(which some said was due to happen back in October 2011!),
- all dancing “in disordered pandemonium” (Cox 2004:290).

Progressive religion and science responds:
“[p]henomenally, a few more decades or less; culturally, maybe a few more centuries; biologically, millions of years or, if we do not destroy
ourselves first, perhaps until our sun dies five (5) billion years from now; cosmically, until the universe ends, which may be never…” (Peters 1992:412).

Progressive religion’s answers are a kind of hopeful cosmic recipe
for the functioning of all things.
But above all, progressive religion says religion is human.
It is about us. It is about manipulating our brains
"so that we might think, feel, and act in ways that are good for us, both individually and collectively” (Rue 2005:1).

Today is marked as Environment Day 2016.
It’s important.
It’s worth celebrating.

‘Global warming’ is not a future tense statement.
It doesn’t just concern our grandchildren.
It concerns us.
It will not go away – despite the babbling mouthings of the Alan Joneses
and Ray Hadleys and Andrew Bolts (or other ‘right-wing’ commentators) of this world.

Earth is a precious living habitat.
Earth is a fragile web of ecosystems (Habel 2009:43-46).
The universe is not a-part from us. We are it.

As a religious naturalist I, along with others, claim that the Sacred is fully present, 
hidden in the ordinary details of a life, any life.
Expressed in ‘creativity’ and ‘mystery’, ‘awe’ and ‘wonder’.

Allow yourself to be shaped by this creativity and this wonder.
But where to start?

Start with your own life.
Start with the fifty trillion cells of your body
that are converting energy to make protein right now
so you can hear these words and read the Service notes.

“We carry with us in our bodies the very environment in which we evolved”, writes theologian David Bumbaugh.
“The heat of our bodies is the heat of stars, tempered to the uses of life. The salt in our blood and in our tears is the salt of ancient oceans, encapsulated and carried with us, generation upon generation, into strange and distant places and circumstances. The past is not dead. It lives in us even now. The evolutionary universe, the ancient environment, the emergence of complex life—all are recapitulated in every moment of our existence…" (Bumbaugh 2003).

Or, if all that sounds too bio-historical and cosmological…
(i) start with the awareness that the body you are carrying around now
won’t be the body you’ll be carrying around seven years from now.
It will have completely rebuilt itself from the inside out.

(ii) or start with your own irrepressible urge to be more,
to realise the fullness of your potential,
or to fashion the best life possible from
your precious years on Earth (Sanguin 2012:138).

The miracle of life is not to walk on water.
The miracle of life is to walk on the green Earth in the present moment
“in this our ecologically-ordered cosmos, pervaded as it is by glorious creativity” (Kaufman 2004:127).

Bumbaugh, D. “Toward a Humanist Vocabulary of Reverence”. Delivered at the Boulder International Humanist Institute, Fourth Annual Symposium, Boulder, Colorado. 22 February 2003. <http://www.uua.org/sites/live-new.uua.org/files/documents/bumbaughdavid/humanist_reverence.pdf>
Cox, H. G. When Jesus Came to Harvard. Making Moral Choices Today. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2004.
Gillett, P. R. “Theology of, by, and for religious naturalism” in Journal of Liberal Religion 6, 1, 1-6, 2006.
Habel, N. An Inconvenient Text: Is a Green Reading of the Bible Possible? Hindmarsh: ATF Press, 2009.
Kaufman, G. D. In the Beginning… Creativity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004.
McKibben, B. Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. Melbourne: Black Inc., 2010.
Peters, K. E. Dancing with the Sacred. Evolution, Ecology, and God. Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002.
----, “Interrelating nature, humanity, and the work of God: Some issues for future reflection” in Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science 27, 4, 403-419, 1992.
Rue, L. Religion Is Not About God. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005.
Sanguin, B. The Advance of Love. Reading the Bible with an Evolutionary Heart. Vancouver: Evans & Sanguin Publishing, 2012.
Santmire, H. P. Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology, Minneapolis: AugsburgFortress Press, 2000.