David Korten spoke (remotely) for the April 23, 2023 Earth Day service at Saltwater UU Church in Des Moines, WA, at the invitation of Dick Burkhart and Saltwater’s Climate Action Network.
It is my delight to join you all to share my Earth Day thoughts on “Earth, Religion, and the Human Future.” My thanks to Rev Kristen Kuriga for leading it. And to the Saltwater Climate Action Network and my longtime UUJEC friend and colleague Dick Burkhart for organizing it and inviting my participation.
Earth Day 2023 marks the 53rd anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement. This is perhaps the most important Earth Day since its initiation in 1970.
We are fast running out of time to acknowledge and engage the full implications of the reality that we are the people of a finite living Earth. Our future, and fulfilling our human role in the unfolding of creation, depends on learning to live together in ways consistent with that reality and the 7 UU principles.
The consequences of our human misdirection are playing out in four emergencies that have disrupted the lives of every person on Earth. And they distract us from the work of envisioning and creating the world we truly want.
The first. The environmental emergency that results from consumption beyond what a finite Earth can sustain.
The second. The viral pandemics that are a byproduct of our human disruption of nature.
The third. War driven by violent competition for what remains of Earth’s productive land and resources.
The fourth. The extreme and growing financial inequality that results from and further empowers those dedicated to exploiting the human crisis for financial gain.
All four emergencies reflect our failure to recognize and adapt to our true nature as living beings born of and nurtured by a finite living Earth.
Rather than fulfilling our responsibilities as living beings to secure the wellbeing of life, we organize as financial beings who assume that if we create enough money, we can forever grow our human population and consumption on this finite living Earth. Killing Earth to grow money is both the ultimate human stupidity… and the ultimate violation of our moral responsibility to Creation.
It represents a profound failure of the institutions of religion to which we turn for moral guidance. Life is sacred. Money is nothing but a number that has no meaning or utility beyond the human mind.
The barriers to corrective action are immense and the institutional implications are breathtaking. But the ultimate barriers reside mostly in the human mind, which can—and must—quickly change.
Hope lies in our ability to draw from all the many sources of human understanding to actualize our full potential as caring, creative, responsible members of Earth’s community of life. Spiritual understanding of the profound mystery and interdependence of life is essential.
Early human experience brought an intuitive understanding of life’s interdependence that is beautifully captured in the South African concept of ubuntu, which translates, “I am because you are.”
Guided by this simple and essential truth, early humans self-organized as small, relatively isolated communities who knew, cared for and depended on one another. Together, they created their means of living through their labor from what nature provided in their place.
As the human population grew, communities found themselves competing for control of the territory on which their means of living depended. This led to organizing as competing nation states—and eventually as competing transnational corporations—using a combination of military, police, and economic powers they centralized control by the few of the means of living of the many.
Life, by its nature, self-organizes from the bottom up as interconnected living communities. This allows members of each community to constantly adapt to local conditions to meet their needs in ways consistent with the wellbeing of all of life.
Contemporary humans, organize not as communities of place. But rather as hierarchies of individuals competing for power to expropriate the products of the labor of nature and people below them. These top-down structures limit local control and suppress local adaptation.
The winners consume massive resources to maintain the structures of domination and reward themselves with lives of extravagant—ultimately dehumanizing—consumption. The competition drives conflict. The overwhelming evidence of system failure destroys institutional credibility.
To secure our future, we must learn to live as interconnected/interdependent living beings on a finite living Earth.
Using tools of science that were beyond the means of our ancestors, we are coming to a profound understanding of life to which our ancestors had no access.
Take our most intimate experience of life, our own body. The vessel of our individual consciousness. And the instrument of our agency.
Each human body is composed of 30 to 40 trillion living cells that in turn depend on the support of comparable trillions of microbial cells, including wondrously varied forms of bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Each cell makes constant decisions essential to our body’s ability to serve our consciousness. This is just one human body.
Earth is a vastly larger and more complex organism. It too survives as a living being only for so long as its countless individual organisms self-organize as a living community to create and maintain the conditions of climate, pure air and water, fertile soil, and much else on which Earth’s life depends.
As science has discovered, it did not just magically come to be. It was a difficult journey of mutual learning over some 3.7 billion years. During this time, life evolved from rudimentary microbes to living organisms of ever greater physical and cognitive abilities. An unbelievable and incomprehensible miracle.
Creation continues to unfold. And life continues to learn. We, the human species, must do the same.
Our distinctive human ability to shape the future of life on Earth with conscious collective intention is a defining aspect of our distinctive nature. We have yet to acquire the wisdom, however, to use this ability responsibly.
The frontiers of science are rapidly deepening our understanding of creation’s extraordinary complexity and interdependence. Quantum physics tells us that relationships, not particles, are the foundation of what we experience as material reality.
Biology is finding that intelligent life exists only in diverse communities of choice-making organisms that together create and maintain the conditions essential to their individual and collective existence. The social sciences are finding that the most equal human societies are the healthiest. And humans get their greatest satisfaction from caring for other living beings.
For thousands of years, humans have turned to religion for our deepest understanding of creation, of our place and purpose within creation, and the ethical principles we must apply in our relations to one another and Earth. Most of our religious teachings, however, are the product of long-ago times.
Christianity, the faith that now claims more than two billion adherents, is one of the most recent of major religions. It looks to the authority of the words of a teacher named Jesus who lived some 2,000 years ago. Earth’s total human population was then an estimated 300 million, mostly illiterate people.
Most could communicate only by meeting directly with one another. Neither Jesus, nor any other human of that time, had any means to examine creation’s distant suns and planets or the complex and ever active invisible inner workings of seemingly solid matter and living organisms.
We are now a world of nearly 8 billion mostly literate people with a capacity for instant communication with one another. And we possess instruments that allow us to view previously invisible worlds.
We look to outer space to observe the beginning of time. We observe the complex and dynamic worlds of sub-atomic particles and microorganisms. Together these observations give us ever deeper understanding of creation and the human place within it.
And yet we are also a deep trouble world because we organize as a now global species around a false religion. We call it economics. It poses as a science, but it is dedicated to the worship of money. And it denies or ignores all this new learning from actual science.
And far from being a true eco-nomics, it is an individualistic money-centric ego-nomics that values life only for its market price. It ignores the most basic human needs and our responsibilities as living beings to the finite living Earth community that birthed and nurtures us.
It seems that to the extent the world’s authentic religions have been concerned with the wellbeing of living people and Earth, they have spoken too softly, been ignored, or have abdicated their essential role in providing humanity with an ethical compass true to our nature as spiritual beings.
We are in desperate need of a coming together of the world’s religions—not around a new spiritual leader or religious text. But around a process of collective learning as we envision together a possible future grounded in an ethical frame consistent with traditional indigenous understanding, the best of established religious teaching, and breakthrough findings on the frontiers of science.
We will learn together, drawing from all our many sources of understanding. Or we will join the ranks of the many failed species that once thrived, but are now extinct.
Let us thus embrace our crises as an epic opportunity to actualize our human desire and potential to love and to care for one another and Earth.
Far from calling us to sacrifice for the wellbeing of Earth, the emerging vision of an ecological civilization requires only that we relieve ourselves of forms of consumption that are ultimately self-destructive and contribute nothing to human wellbeing.
So much of it is for war. Obsessive frivolous consumption driven by advertising rather than need. Planned obsolescence. Financial speculation and cryptocurrencies that consume enormous human and energy resources while producing nothing of real value. Long global supply chains designed to maximize global corporate profit. And cities designed to accommodate cars rather than people and office space for activities best eliminated.
Our distinctive ability to reshape our relationships with one another and Earth resides in our ability to choose with conscious collective intention our culture, institutions, technology, and infrastructure. Making the urgently needed changes in these choices is a very ambitious goal. And far from having the right answers, we have barely begun even to ask the right questions.
We have made some very bad choices. We can make better choices. And we now have the communication tools to do so.
Can we do it with the required speed? We will know only if we try.
Let us begin with a set of guiding ethical principles grounded in our best current understanding of our true nature and potential as living beings.
The 7 principles of Unitarian Universalism formalized in 1985 come to mind as a starting point. Especially, Principle 1: “The inherent worth and dignity of every person.” Principle 2: “Justice, equity, and compassion in human relations.” And Principle 7: “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.”
In the year 2000, the Earth Charter launched with its call to “join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace.”
In 2015, the Parliament of the World’s Religions issued a Declaration on Climate Change that closed with these words:
“The future we embrace will be a new ecological civilization and a world of peace, justice, and sustainability, with the flourishing of the diversity of life. We will build this future as one human family within the greater Earth community.”
In that same year, 2015, Pope Francis issued his Laudato si’ encyclical. A product of deep study and long debate by a diverse body of Catholic thought leaders, it calls the world’s people to care for one another and Earth. On May 25, 2021, the Vatican launched the “Laudato si’ Implementation Action Plan applying the encyclical’s principles of care for Earth’s community of life to every aspect of Church activity.
If the Catholic Church can pull this off, why not every other church? Why not every other religion? Might this be a model for interfaith discussions? Might Unitarians have a distinctive role in advancing dialogue centered on three defining questions:
- What do we truly believe about our human nature and the purpose of our existence?
- If these beliefs are correct, what are the implications for what we must do together as a now interconnected global species with distinctive responsibilities?
- What are the implications for the institutions of religion and how they relate to one another?
Let our joyful celebration of the gift of life reawaken us to our true nature as caring living beings and to the potential that resides with us to create a future in service to the wellbeing of life.
The time is now. The choice is ours. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.