Thoreau and the Roots of Earth Day & the Ecology Movement

Rev. Furrer preaches on the Transcendentalist Unitarian Henry David Thoreau and his legacy.

Transcendentalism = Insofar as God is knowable it’s in the direct unmediated experience of nature.

H.D. Thoreau (1817-1862)      Surveyor, pencil maker, activist, writer, and all around iconoclast. HDT praised simplicity and staying put. He walked everywhere. And HDT was among the first American writers to consider the culture of Native Americans worthy of study and respect.

John Burroughs (1837-1921) naturalist and nature essayist, active in the U.S. conservation movement.

John Muir (1838-1914) was an even more successful advocate for the preservation of the wilderness in America. Father of the National Parks. “Everybody needs beauty…places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul alike.”

Muir had enormous influence, including—with the beginning of the 20th century—with the President, Theodore Roosevelt: the greatest of the conservationists.

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Rachel Carson (1907—1964) whose book Silent Spring and other writings are credited with advancing the environmental movement. Although Silent Spring met with fierce opposition by chemical companies, it spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, the banning of DDT, and the beginnings of a grassroots environmental movement leading the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency—currently under siege by the Trump Administration.

In 1975 geochemist Wallace Broecker published an article in the journal Science that included the phrase “global warming”—the first time the phrase was used in a scientific paper. In it, he argued that humans were changing the climate by emitting CO2; it just wasn’t evident yet—but soon would be. Right on cue the very next year temperatures started rising and have continued ever since on the trajectory Broecker predicted.  

Our 7th UU Principle (Respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are part) would have us go beyond environmentalism and into ecological consciousness—in which nature isn’t something that surrounds us, but something we’re in dynamic interrelation with.

The Gaia hypothesis, formulated by chemist James Lovelock and co-developed by microbiologist Lynn Margulis in the 1970s, proposes that living organisms interact with their inorganic surroundings on earth to form a synergistic and self-regulating, complex system that helps to maintain and perpetuate the conditions for life on the planet. Lovelock named the theory after Gaia, the primordial goddess who personified the earth in Greek mythology. [Co-evolution i.e., the idea that organisms co-evolve with their environment; this morning’s Henry David Thoreau READING about turtles…] Topics related to the Gaia hypothesis include how the biosphere and the evolution of organisms affect the stability of global temperature, salinity of seawater, atmospheric oxygen levels, the maintenance of a hydrosphere of liquid water and other environmental variables that affect the habitability of earth.

In the years since the Gaia, other scientific work has focused on what co-evolution means regarding humankind’s self-ascribed position as the “crown of creation” with “dominion” over all other life. Consider the work ofAmerican physician, psychoanalyst, and philosopher, John Lilly, a pioneer scientific researcher in attempting to communicate with dolphins. Or that of Dian Fossey an American primatologist and conservationist, known for her extensive study of mountain gorilla groups from 1966 until her 1985 murder. Jane Goodall has carried on Dr. Earle’s work.

The idea that species other than human have consciousness has been expanded by the work of author, journalist, and activist Michael Pollan. “Plants are intelligent,” Pollan writes,

“…not necessarily the way we think of intelligence, but in a way appropriate to themselves. We human beings can do many things—things plants can’t do. Yet they can do things we can’t, like climbing out of a steel cage. Or eating sunlight. If you define intelligence as the ability to solve the novel problems reality throws at the living, plants surely have it. They also possess agency and an awareness of their environment and a kind of subjectivity—a set of interests they pursue—and so a point of view.”

Drs. Lilly, Fossey, Goodall, and Pollan’s research indicates that the blessing of consciousness is distributed more broadly than among only ourselves, breaking the human monopoly on subjectivity that we moderns take as a given. To most humans, people are the world’s only subjects, with the rest of the world made up of objects. (The more egocentric among us even treat other people as objects.) Worse than that, virtually all Republicans (and plenty of Democrats, too) believe that industrial growth and consumerism are good things. Their worldview sees the planet as essentially a machine and human society as a corporation or syndicate drawn together to benefit its members by optimal use of natural resources. If, as such folks sincerely believe, our planet is like a machine, then its parts can be replaced and are only externally related; moreover, reality is not alive—we can use it and discard it when worn out.

But the conservationist, environmentalist, ecologists I’ve been holding up this morning see the planet more like an organism or community that survives and prospers through the interrelationship and interdependence of its many parts, both human and nonhuman. Their ecological worldview—like that of the Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson and a growing consensus of scientists—sees the world more like an organism: a body the parts of which cannot be replaced (though some of them can be renewed through growth).  Since the parts are internally related and alive, we are not only responsible for the world’s well being; we can also sympathize with those parts that are suffering or in pain. In simple non-theological, non-scientific language, the ecological worldview claims that as planetary housemates we must abide by three main rules: take only your share, clean up after yourselves, and keep the house in good repair for future occupants.

In the spring of 1970 former Vice President Al Gore and I both took a new course offering at our respective colleges that changed both of our lives: Ecology. In his award-winning movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” former Vice President Gore discusses the college class he took that same semester—and how it became the impetus for all his efforts to awaken people to the growing danger of climate change.

There is an overwhelming consensus among the world’s weather experts that we can expect a 2.5 degree Celsius warming of worldwide temperatures by the year 2050 and perhaps up to six degrees by the end of the century. This is significant; the earth’s temperature during the last Ice Age as five to six degrees cooler than it is now. Raising it that much would be devastating from the human point of view: desertification of the chief grain-producing lands, scarcity of fresh water, loss of trees, flooding of coastal areas and inlands, the spread of tropical diseases, violent weather events, shortages of food, and so on. Global warming will change life as we know it and has already begun to do so. Through our hyperactive, consumer lifestyle we have triggered fearful, though still largely unknown consequences for the weather system in which we and everything else on the planet exists. Meteorologists do not know how serious this will actually turn out to be, but some are increasingly afraid of the prospect of a runaway greenhouse effect—the crossing of the line into irreversible temperature increases. Yikes!

Such a specter led the late Kurt Vonnegut [1922-2007], a lifelong Unitarian Universalist, to close his final book with the lines

When the last living thing has died on account of us,

How poetical it would be if Earth could say,

In a voice floating up, perhaps

From the floor of the Grand Canyon,

“It is done. People did not like it here.”

Is that our fate? I surely hope not and am resolved to find ways to lesson my carbon footprint on the earth and simplify my life: the heart of Thoreau’s philosophy. May we all learn to do likewise….

In the last entry Dian Fossey wrote in her diary, written the night she was murdered by commercial and political interests threatened by her research, she wrote:

“When you realize the value of all life, you dwell less on what is past and concentrate more on the preservation of the future.”

So may it be for all of us.          Amen.