Reflection on Journey to Earthland
Mary Evelyn Tucker
Paul Raskin’s essay is a comprehensive view of our challenges at present and a valuable stimulus to our collective thinking. I am continually appreciative of Raskin’s careful analysis, clear writing, and thoughtful conclusions. I have great sympathy for so much of what he says in this essay, as well as for the work he has done over many decades.
As a student of world religions and cultures who has studied and lived in East Asia over the last forty years, I understand the importance of social location. However, I think there are common aspirations around the planet now that would suggest we are moving into a new phase of planetary civilization. Economic sufficiency is certainly a shared goal, for example, along with supporting democratic institutions. Maintaining healthy ecosystems is being added to these goals. These are primary agendas toward achieving sustainability. At the same time, deeper questions of meaning and purpose are arising.
My husband, John Grim, and I see this every time we show our film Journey of the Universe on different continents. People are asking, what does life mean? What significance is there in realizing that I am connected to a 13.8 billion year universe? How do I relate to the ecosystems of a living Earth? What should I do beyond acquiring goods? Sustainable development and economic justice are critical first steps in the Great Transition, and we have a long way to go in this regard. But sustainable life is what is now at stake. There is a growing awareness of this around the planet, even with people living in dire circumstances. A question barely considered a decade ago is being asked in many parts of the world: Will we survive as a species? What is the fate of the Earth itself? This critical juncture of our planetary history is in evidence from indigenous peoples' protest movements across the Americas to the more than 80,000 local protest movements each year in China regarding environmental issues such as land grabs and displacement of peoples along with massive pollution of air, water, and soil.
These shared questions regarding our critical moment were clear in a summer session this past June in western China at Yunnan Minzu University (a minority peoples university). The students and professors were intensely concerned about our planetary future. And they were aware of the Chinese government’s attempts to create a new “ecological civilization” in the face of ecological disruption. This was true in Korea as well, where we also taught. The President of Kyung Hee University articulated the need for a larger vision of a way forward toward planetary civilization.
This search for a broader perspective has been my experience in East Asia over the last forty years and similarly in some parts of South Asia as well. Granted, this is a result of the people with whom we are in contact—educators and environmentalists, along with religious leaders and laity. However, one of the reasons my husband and I started the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology was to bring cultural diversity from these regions and other parts of the world to bear on questions of our shared planetary future. How can the enduring values of the world’s religious cultures be brought forward for transformative ecological and social change? In this process, how can unity and diversity be respected?
It is not just sharing the fruits of economic modernity that is at stake, but the shaping of a vibrant future that draws us forward toward common goals. This will be realized through new politics, economics, education, and social changes. Certainly a global citizens movement (GCM) is indispensable to this, as Paul Raskin argues. But I would suggest that shaping the future also raises even more fundamental questions of who we are as humans. And this is something we are curiously ill-equipped or unwilling to address. We have many of the solutions to the Great Transition at hand, and Gus Speth is identifying some of these in his Next System project1. For example, we have much of the technical ability and investment skills to build a new energy economy. We still lack the political will and social cohesion to do this. Why?
In part, this is because we have not created or identified an inclusive vision (or visions) to inspire humans to move into the next phase of planetary civilization. We have numerous pieces of a new vision, but they need to come into view in a way that can inspire and transform. After all, as Thomas Berry often said, “The dream drives the action.” If we wish for cultural solidarity, we will also need to connect it to Earth solidarity. We need a binding story or stories.
Our modern Enlightenment story has been appropriately based on broad humanistic principles. This story has shaped the modern era and brought many benefits politically and economically. But this secular vision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has become so entangled with the American dream of material prosperity and economic success that it is unable to take us to the next stages of cultural evolution. We now have common questions about the direction of civilization, our viability as a species, and the meaning of our lives. These comprehensive and existential questions are something we need to examine, not ignore.
If we are to create a “flourishing planetary civilization” as Raskin says, we need something more than a political or economic plan, as indispensable as these are. Most key modern institutions that we care about arose from a shared vision grounded in an aspirational text—the United States from the Declaration of Independence, the French Republic from the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the United Nations from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We also now have a Declaration of Interdependence in the Earth Charter arising from the 1992 Rio Earth Summit and drafted over a decade of intense worldwide consultation. How can this be brought even more effectively into our discussions and collective thinking?
In this spirit, Raskin’s essay acknowledges that “finding common purpose” for a GCM “will take a global vision” that respects difference with unity. He observes that “[a]n enduring movement forms a like-minded community where participants can reshape identities, establish sympathetic bonds, and invest allegiance.” My suggestion is we have various sources of this emerging already. We need to identify these sources more explicitly and weave them skillfully into this conversation. This is not simply to highlight an unobtainable utopian vision; rather, it is to draw on the aspirations born over many centuries (some of which are cited in Raskin’s essay) that we are part of a larger whole. This sense of the whole has humanistic and spiritual resonances. But now we are drawing on cosmological and ecospheric reverberations as well. We have a new story of cosmogenesis, namely, the dynamic unfolding universe out of which we are birthed. This may be one of our unifying forces along with the myriad efforts at transformative change.
We are sensing that, with all our differences, we are also creating something new—a shared planetary future. This will require various elements, some of which are an expanded ethics, a declaration of interdependence, a movement toward global citizenship, an integral ecology, and a universe story. All of these elements, and many others such as a new economy, are emerging in our time, which would illustrate that we are already part of a nascent multicultural planetary civilization. The fuller realization of this planetary civilization will take many decades, if not centuries. We will not see the fruits in our lifetime, but we can lay down the foundations.
A Great Transition would thus need the following:
(1) An Expanded Ethical Vision: As the ecologist and writer Aldo Leopold noted more than sixty years ago, we need to extend ethics to include the land and the biotic community. In advocating this, he declared a land ethic to be an evolutionary possibility and an ecological necessity. Similarly, as environmental ethicists are saying, individualism can be enlarged to embrace a communitarian ethics and a broader ethics of care. Life needs to be envisioned beyond humankind to include the interdependence of all life. Liberty is no longer sufficient as a context for the rights of humans alone, but for the responsibilities we have to the community of life. The pursuit of happiness of individual humans needs to embrace the flourishing of the larger Earth community. This reenvisioning of the ethics of the Enlightenment mentality is what the Earth Charter offers as well.
(2) A Declaration of Interdependence: The Earth Charter holds an inclusive vision even beyond the Declaration of Independence or the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It provides integrated principles for ecology, justice, and peace. And this is within a cosmological and ecological context stated in the preamble: “Humanity is part of a vast evolving universe. Earth, our home, is alive with a unique community of life.” The Earth Charter represents a new phase in our recognition that we are profoundly connected to and dependent on the Earth community. Our identity is thus expanded beyond the nation state to the planet itself.
(3) A Movement toward Global Citizenship: This is what the Great Transition Initiative has fostered tirelessly—a sense of “planetary identity beyond civil, political, or social allegiances.” This is indispensable to creating our shared future, and it is already emerging. It will benefit from a comprehensive geo-biological context. This has been fostered at the American Museum of Natural History in the Hayden Planetarium when visitors were presented with a passport to global citizenship after their visit. This global citizenship rests on a broadened context of the unfolding evolutionary history of comic, Earth, and human emergence. Such a basis for kinship is also present in the papal encyclical Laudato Si'.
(4) An Integral Ecology: In the encyclical, Pope Francis is highlighting an integral ecology that brings together concern for humans and the Earth. In this context, Francis suggests that ecology, economics, and equity are intertwined. Healthy ecosystems depend on a just economy that results in equity. Endangering ecosystems with an exploitative economic system is causing immense human suffering and inequity. In particular, the poor and most vulnerable are threatened by climate change, although they are not the major cause of the climate problem. The Pope acknowledges the need for believers and nonbelievers alike to help renew the vitality of Earth’s ecosystems and expand systemic efforts for equity. He provides a cosmological and ecological context for this.
5) A Universe Story: This broadened context is what Thomas Berry envisioned and wrote about with Brian Swimme in 1992 in their book The Universe Story. Nearly twenty years later, Swimme and I created the “Journey of the Universe project,” which includes a film, book, and series of conversations.2 Drawing together the sciences and the humanities, this story offers a large-scale perspective of what it means to be human in a universe that has brought all of life into being. Within this dynamic evolutionary framework, we can sense how we are related to other life forms. The aim is to have a shared evolutionary story, which inspires the great work of transformation in many areas ranging from economics, politics, and social justice to education and the environment. Cosmogenesis is envisioned here as a comprehensive context, a “living cosmology” for transformative change where natural and human systems can be brought into alignment.
In conclusion, Paul Raskin calls us toward a commonwealth of sympathy: “As connectivity globalizes in the external world, so might empathy globalize in the human heart.” This kind of empathy is what will form a foundation for a planetary civilization. And this is richly described by Thomas Berry as well: “The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.”3 This, I would suggest, is indispensable to creating a multiform planetary civilization.
2. Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry, The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era—A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos (San Francisco: Harper, 1992). See also http://www.journeyoftheunivere.org.
3. Thomas Berry, “The Great Work,” in The Great Work: Our Way into the Future (New York: Bell Tower, 1999).
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Journey to Earthland
The Great Transition to Planetary Civilization
This new volume by GTI Director Paul Raskin elucidates our dire global moment and charts a path to a flourishing future.Get your copy: