Dr Santo D'Agostino, Professor of Mathematics and Physics.
Most people have become disconnected from the environment in which we live. The environment sustains our lives, in diverse ways, but the chain of steps between the environment and us has grown ever longer over time, so that we have lost direct connection to it. We no longer hunt and gather our own food, but our food passes through many hands in many steps before we buy it in grocery stores. Other products we need for our sustenance also pass through a long chain before they reach us, but their origins are also in our environment. So we have lost direct links to the environment, and our lives are dependent on these long chains of support.
Some of the links in these chains are helpful and perhaps most are worth maintaining, although some could be usefully modified. For example, our bodily excretions pass through sewage-treatment facilities before being returned to the environment. But many of our systems are steadily degrading our environment, and eventually they will extinguish our civilization if we remain unaware. The machinery that runs our system of life belches out poisons that pollute our air, water, and soil, and change our climate so rapidly that we are reaching an unstable and unpredictable state. We have been degrading the environment to a degree that makes life unsustainable for the plants and animals that we depend on for survival. To make matters worse, we plunder the plants and animals so drastically that collapse of entire ecosystems is imminent. We humans are collectively ecosystem pillagers and murderers, but we are so collectively indifferent to our criminality that it would be more accurate to think of us collectively as a soulless machine, mindlessly consuming the rest of the biosphere.
Recovery from this precarious and perilous state requires us to return to a profound respect and love for our environment, which will then lead to proper care-taking. The best way to do this for individuals is to reconnect with the environment directly, by being outside of our homes in nature frequently and regularly, and to better understand our environment and how we depend on it. We must change our minds, from consuming machines, to embedded participants in a larger life. We must return to the mindset, if not the way of life, of some of our ancestors.
The ancients were very connected to their environment, as it was a matter of life and death. If crops were planted too early, then they might freeze in a spring frost; if they were planted too late, they might not mature in time for harvest before the fall frosts arrived. Knowing when to plant required a deep understanding of the rhythms of the Earth, and a recognition of its signs. Migrating animals have their patterns of behaviour as well, and ancient humans studied these carefully so they could harvest a few of them for the survival of their communities. Carefully studying the sky, the Earth, and the plants and animals around them, the ancients could anticipate changes in weather, changes in seasons, patterns of life.
For the ancients, the environment also included the heavens, for knowledge of the cycles of the Sun, Moon, and stars was also a matter of life and death. By understanding the motions of celestial objects, the ancients were able to predict the cycles of the Earth as well. They were able to produce reliable calendars, and thereby determine the best times to plant crops and to embark on hunting expeditions.
The ancients were deeply connected to animals, plants, each other. Indeed we are all one.
Understanding the patterns of the environment to make reliable predictions about the future is the beginning of scientific thinking. As our ways of scientific thinking have evolved, we have developed tools that can help us better engage with the universe around us. One of the best things scientific ways of thinking can do for us is to help us connect with the mysteries around us, and in doing so, help us connect to the divine.
One of the wonderful things we have learned from scientific ways of thinking is that we are stardust, literally. In the very early evolution of the universe, practically the only atoms in existence were hydrogen atoms and helium atoms, in a ratio of about three hydrogen atoms for every helium atom. (There were also trace amounts of lithium atoms.) Yet our bodies (and the rest of the world around us) are made up of many other different types of atoms; where did these "heavier" atoms come from? In the early universe many giant stars formed, whose life cycles were relatively short. During the stable portions of their life cycles, the nuclear reactions in their cores produced some heavier atoms. At the ends of the stable portions of their life cycles, these giant stars transformed dramatically (including comprehensive explosions called supernovae), and in the transformation process atoms that were even heavier were produced. And, most significantly, the explosions dispersed these heavier atoms widely throughout the universe. Eventually, some of these atoms formed the planets, including Earth, and some of these atoms formed our bodies. The carbon, oxygen, etc., that make up our bodies was produced in stars.
The more we learn about these deep connections, the more we can appreciate the world, including all that is still mysterious to us. Knowing that many of the constituents of our own bodies were produced in stars connects us to these stars, in a way that is both scientific and poetic. By widening our perspective in this way, we can be encouraged to adopt a wider perspective to our fellow inhabitants on Earth, and its environment that sustains all of its life.
Lions eat wildebeests, and so the wildebeest sustain the lions. Yet lions eat primarily the oldest, weakest, and slowest wildebeests (the very young are also vulnerable), and so they help wildebeest herds stay healthy. They also prevent the wildebeest herds from overpopulating their shared environment, in which case they would quickly destroy their environment by overgrazing the land. In this way, the lions also maintain the shared environment for all the creatures that it sustains.
Salmon live much of their lives in oceans, but return to rivers to spawn. Some of the returning salmon are eaten by bears, who scatter their carcasses in the forests surrounding the rivers. The salmon carcasses decay thanks to microbes, and the decay products fertilize the trees in the forests, helping them to flourish. The flourishing trees return the favour to the salmon by providing shade that helps to protect their eggs and their fry.
These are but small examples. All life is connected. We humans, however, have lost awareness of these deep connections. When early European settlers arrived in North America, the fish were so plentiful off the coast of Newfoundland that they could dip a bushel basket into the ocean and lift it out full of fish. But we humans do not sustain ourselves intelligently, the way lions, bears, and all other creatures do; we consume like soulless, insatiable machines, and so the fish are rapidly disappearing from our seas.
As in most things we try to learn, once we learn a little bit, we are encouraged to learn more. When we learn a little bit more, we begin to feel proud of ourselves as knowledgeable. But if we persist and learn a lot more, which is possible only for a limited number of fields, then we will reach a point where we finally become aware of the vast territory of the field that we do not know anything about. At this point we realize how little we know, and we feel humbled. This is only possible when our knowledge and understanding have grown beyond a certain point. Once we have felt this feeling a few times, for a few different fields, it then becomes easier to feel humble and in awe at other fields that we know relatively little about.
In modern times, these connections have become more tenuous, less clear. We see the world through a glass darkly. Our understanding of the world is superficial and instrumental. We lack love.
We have learned to separate the world into "us" and "them." We do so politically, and we also do so in our approach to the fragile environment that we unconsciously think will sustain us forever, no matter how much we abuse it. We push into nature, destroying more and more wildlife habitat as we settle more and more of the world, pushing wildlife into ever smaller spaces. When we take away the wolf's food, the wolf begins to eat our livestock. Our response is to destroy the wolves. But the unintended consequence is that the mice grow unchecked and eat all of our grain. We have committed this kind of crime countless times. During the Chinese great leap forward, Mao declared that all sparrows should be killed because sparrows eat cultivated grain which was needed for human consumption. But in the absence of sparrows, grasshoppers grew unchecked and destroyed the grain.
We know only a little and feel like all-knowing gods. We lack humility because we see ourselves above and beyond nature, instead of being deeply embedded in nature and realizing that we are just a small part of the very complex web of life.
How can we individuals best strengthen our connections to the larger world? That is, how best to develop our awareness of these deep connections, instead of remaining unaware?
We can strive to learn more about how the natural world works, so that we can better appreciate its complexities and stop abusing our environment with thoughtless and selfish actions. In this way we can ultimately understand that all life is one, and that when we harm the wolves and the fish we also harm ourselves and our fellow humans. Eventually, when we can expand what we consider to be "us" widely enough, there will be no more "them." We will thereby understand that we are all one.
Besides mentally understanding that all life on Earth is unified, we can seek to experience this understanding. We can devote more of our time to being out in nature, instead of inside our buildings, so that we may experience the beauty and awe of life in all its varieties. We can also seek to make a more energetic connection with nature, in the sense of subtle energies. We can do this by cultivating our own ability to sense subtle energies, through practices of meditation, qigong, yoga, and any of the many other spiritual modalities.
Such developments of our capacities to sense subtle energies and commune with our fellow life forms using subtle energies naturally goes together with strengthening our connections with our own individual inner selves, with our family members and friends, with our community members, and with the wider natural world.
Ultimately the problems we face are the results of an excess of fear and a corresponding stunting of our ability to love and to express our love. The solutions of all of our problems involve cultivating our courage so that we may cope with our fear without inhibiting expressions of our love, and at the same time cultivating our love, so that we may act in accordance with our true natures.
The question we must ultimately ask ourselves, continuously, is do we love ourselves and our fellow life-forms enough to take action and do the right things. Such activations of our imaginations, combined with deeper scientific understanding of our natural world, are the routes to our survival.