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My kid sister Tonia writes for the Millbrook Independent, a weekly, and is deeply involved in local conservation issues in the Housatonic and Hudson River Valleys. She is in fact the New York watershed manager for the Housatonic Valley Association and is the riverkeeper of the Ten Mile River, one of its tributaries, which runs by her house. One of the most interesting places on her beat is the Carey Institute of Ecosystem Studies, which gets really interesting speakers.

Here’s her story about one of its events

The New Story of the Universe

By Antonia Shoumatoff

Conceiving of a new story of the universe is a tall order. But that is what a small group of physicists, philosophers and cultural historians are doing in order to stem the tide of species destruction which they see happening all around us.

Inspired by the great cultural historian, Thomas Berry (he sometimes called himself a geologian)  Mary Evelyn Tucker and evolutionary philosopher Brian Swimme produced a film Journey to the Universe that was screened at the Cary Institute last Friday, February 10.  The film and the lecture by Tucker melds science and the sacred in a poetic and inspiring way that actually may help trigger a new way of looking at the big picture.

Tucker and her husband, John Grim, are trustees of the Thomas Berry Foundation as well as the founders of the Forum on Religion and Ecology.  They teach at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies as well at in the Department of Religious Studies and the Divinity School.

Mary Evelyn is a charismatic super-star in the newly-emerging field of spiritual ecology.

Berry said that we are in between the creation story and the scientific story depending on how fundamentalist our views are of seeing the evolution of our universe.  In his famous essay, “The New Story,” he said “We have a new story.  Science has given us a new revelatory experience.  It is now giving us a new intimacy with the Earth.”

The film is the product of profound dialogue between many disciplines, including geology, plate techtonics, zoology and cell biology with an extraordinary roster of scientific consultants.  What comes through is the comprehensive understanding between the three visionaries of the immense complexity of developing multiple ways of understanding “the text of our universe” as Tucker stated in her lecture.  She said that we also need the humanities to understand the emergence of our story over time.

The film speaks of “self-aware sentience” and “self-organizing principles and self-amplifying loops” which demonstrate the capacities of living systems to learn, adapt and evolve.  She suggests this is what we, as an overly-populated species on a finite planet, need to do if we and other species are to survive.  The narrative demonstrates how the ethos of seeing nature as a resource we could exploit rapidly altered the dynamics, altering the oceans, the air and the land to the point where 2 to 3 thousand species per year are becoming extinct.

The point of the film and the fascinating dialogue with Mary Evelyn Tucker and the audience after the screening, is to shift from our destructive to our creative side by changing how we see the symbolic consciousness of greed that has seized control of us.   If we understand that we are facing death, the death of our planetary support systems and start experiencing the natural world as sacred, we will collectively stop doing these destructive things.  But it takes a fundamental shift in our belief structure, and that will be  not be easy.

Mary Evelyn Tucker is part of a movement among world religions to develop ecological ethics “to help solve the world’s environmental crisis” proclaims a Yale-produced video.  Indeed, her presence is perhaps even as fascinating than the film.  She is a Confucian scholar and said: “What if we thought of ourselves as the mind of heaven and Earth?  It’s a Chinese thought….”  She also pulled out an article from her pocket on Vaclav Havel in which he was despairingly asked: “How can we ever change the Big System?”  He responded saying “If you start small one day you may be very surprised……”

Brian Swimme, known as a mathematical cosmologist, earned a Ph.D in mathematics, came under the influence of Thomas Berry who introduced Swimme to Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a religious philosopher. Among Swimme’s books are The Universe is a Green Dragon ( 1984), The Universe Story (1992with Thomas Berry and The Hidden Heart of the Cosmos (1996). He has made a film and programs for network television and teaches at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Swimme talks about the fragility of planet earth, and relates to the Gaia traditions of eastern and primitive religions that worship Earth as the mother of creation.

The point of departure for the new story of the universe is to treat the creation story of Genesis in its historical prospective and not as the operative myth for our everyday actions.  Ecological ethics helps us understand that man is but one of millions of living species and that the Earth was not made for us to exploit and despoil. When we do exploit natural resources, we do so at our peril.


This was followed by an editorial by Stephen Kaye, the Independent‘s editor, who Tonia says feels that the most important thing he and all of us can be doing is what we can to help reverse our destruction of the planet and its biocultural diversity :

“The new story of the universe”, a story that appeared in the February 15th issue of this paper written by Antonia Shoumatoff may have seemed a put-on.  Why is small town newspaper talking about a story of the Universe?  Haven’t we exceeded our mission statement?

Not at all.  We have defined our community broadly.  We live in a community, one that extends well beyond the geographic borders of our towns.  We are all part of a greater community and that greater community is of great concern to us.  It includes, for instance, the survival of man as a species of life on this planet.  It also includes our concern for this planet as our home.  It was exactly this level of thinking that took place at the Cary Institute when Mary Evelyn Tucker discussed a film she made with Brian Swimme.

The point of the film is to bring home the shared responsibility we all have for the future of this planet, lovingly called Earth. In many circles, the Earth can be the object and the subject of love.  It had long been so, but we have forgotten. Our ancestors worshipped Nature in the form of the Sun, Water, and Earth, or the soils that bore fruit by way of vegetation.

We moved away from Nature as that which we worshipped to an omnipotent, omniscient and omni-present God; we turned our back on Nature as an object having spiritual strength and conquered it, as it if was something we could subject. We bought the line that the earth and its bounty were made for our use.  We used it, and now have abused it.  In the language of the law books, we have wasted our inheritance: we have committed the actionable tort of waste.

Our children have a right to inherit, but we will pass on to them not only our debts, but a land denuded of its forests, a sea diminished by its warming and acidification, air loaded with contaminants and a land altered by our extraction activities, our mines and wells, and our pattern of settlement that destroys nature, interferes with the ecosystems, imperils the future.

These cataclysmic announcements in a small town newspaper may seem out of place.  They are only what Thomas Berry, a Jesuit priest had been saying for much of his life. His book The Dream of the Earth (Sierra Books, 1988), contains the outlines of his thought.  It was he who influenced Brian Swimme, and they became colleagues.  It is also the message of E.O. Wilson, a Harvard biologist and prolific author who has won two Pulitizer Prizes.

We take it as our role to bring global thinking down to our backyards, where we can make a difference.  We can and do go through what we call the environmental review process whenever government makes a decision that could affect the environment.  That process is our way of making sure we don’t continue despoiling planet Earth.  It’s our way of saying we will respect the environment, protect the ecosystem, pass along to our children an earth that is clean, healthy and functioning.  We do, therefore, place great importance on the process by which environmental impacts are measured and judged.  Every assault on nature should be carefully weighed, every threat considered. We do this at the town level.  In doing this, we do it in respect of what Thomas Berry and his followers are saying: take care of the Earth. It is the only one we have.

Yay Millbrook ? you are an inspiration for every community in this republic that has lost its mission. A poster child for thinking globally and acting globally.

The only thing I question is the statement that back in the day when we were in harmony we worshiped it as God. In fact, we worshipped multiple nature spirits, most of them goddesses. They were banned in the second council of  Nicea conference in 778 A.D.. Since then we Judeo-Christians and Muslims have been bowing down to the Big Guy in the Sky and following the most unfortunate injunction in Genesis that it’s all here for us, to consume so be can be fruitful and multiply. This is what has brought us to this critical crossroads in our history on the planet.






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