A passage to sustainability

By By Edwin Firmage

By Edwin Firmage

Tolle filium tuum unigenitum, quem diligis, Isaac, et vade in terram visionis.

Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go into the land of vision.

8212;Genesis 22:2

Each of us is the living incarnation of every generation that has come before, and not just the generations of people.

With the completion of the Human Genome Project, we begin to understand just how much of us we share with the rest of nature. As much as half of my protein-coding genes are identical to those of simple forms of life such as a fungi, algae and amoebae. About 75 percent of my protein-coding genes I share with all animals. I share 99 percent with all vertebrates, from mice to giraffes. I, as a human being, am just the one percent of my protein-coding genes that are unique to my species. I, Ed Firmage, am a tiny fraction of one percent of my genes.

The realization of the eternity that is at work in us and for which we now act as stewards must humble even our pride. When I hike, the cells in my muscles use intelligence acquired hundreds of millions of years ago to convert blood sugar into energy. When I breathe and the cells of my body metabolize oxygen, they use intelligence acquired even farther back in time. When I see a grizzly bear on the trail and my body starts pumping adrenaline to turn me into a superman capable of leaping into pine trees, it is using animal intelligence acquired even before my fishy ancestors left the ocean and began walking on land.

Most of what takes place inside me, and virtually all that is required to keep my body alive, happens without the slightest involvement of consciousness.

Each of us is a walking miracle. And every other living thing8212;bacterium, a pine tree and a grizzly bear8212;is a miracle. What distinguishes us humans from these other miracles is the consciousness, or at least the possibility of consciousness, that we and they are miracles.

The question before us now is what we will do with this consciousness, for we have come to understand that our way of life threatens all life. The procession that began four billion years ago will not continue for millions of species, including perhaps our own, unless we change dramatically now, at this meeting of eternities. No other task that we undertake in our lifetime will be as important as this.

Our climate challenge is the most difficult task our species has undertaken. But, precisely for that reason, it can also be the most beneficial.

Ultimately, what we face today is less a technical than a spiritual problem. We’re in a mess because of a failure not of technology, but of ethics. As much as we need clean energy, we need an environmental ethic even more. Our operative ethic, to the extent that it can be called an ethic, is entirely instrumental. People, other living beings, “natural resources,” are all equally and simply a means to an end.

In the words of C. S. Lewis, “What we call man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.” Success in sustainable living will depend on our finding an alternative ethic.

In fact, we have the makings of such an ethic already, deep in our past if not our present. Sustainable living embodies the ancient imperative, found in every major religious tradition but equally ignored everywhere, that we must treat other people as we want them to treat us.

Sustainable living rejects in principle the instrumental view of nature and extends this golden rule to all living beings. Sustainable living is, therefore, living in community with all other people and all other beings, recognizing their equal and inalienable right to the earth’s bounty. Sustainable living is the living sense of our connection to the rest of life. Long before we became businessmen, we humans were wildlife artists. In the childhood of our species, we worshipped other forms of life. Our oldest manifestations of spirituality are rooted in our connection to the living world. Sustainable living is therefore ultimately about rediscovering our spiritual roots.

What we are headed for now is a singularity of both necessity and opportunity. It’s a turning point, for better or for worse. It’s a rite of passage. We are a young species on the brink of adulthood, and we are seeking a vision of what we can be. We are Crazy Horse and Black Elk going to the mountains on a vision quest. We are Abraham taking Isaac, as St. Jerome puts it, “to the land of vision,” to Moriah, where we will find what we are truly made of.

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Editor’s Note8212;Edwin Firmage is a U alumnus, a board member for HEAL Utah and involved with Post-Carbon Salt Lake.

Edwin Firmage