Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sticker Shock

I was frightened the first time I saw it. The words were plastered to the bumper of a science professor's car, and although their purpose eluded me, I couldn't help feeling a deep sense of foreboding when I read the statement:
"The Universe is Expanding and Everything is On Schedule."

"On whose schedule?" I wondered. On whose agenda, with what printing press? And if everything was expanding, did that mean the very stuff of life itself was being pulled gradually apart? I wasn't sure of its meaning, but that odd little bumper sticker disturbed me enough that I started averting my gaze when I walked through that parking lot on the way to class. Perhaps it was right--it probably was--but I didn't know how it should impact my life and it made me feel anxious. I resolved to avoid it. And yet, every time I walked through that lot and averted my gaze, that sticker's text would swim back into my mind's eye. The very discomfort of it had imprinted it, indelibly, on my awareness.

Last Friday we went to see environmental writer and educator, Bill McKibben. His lecture was part of a series entitled, "Sustainability: Transitions to Resilience." But what McKibben really came to talk about was his current work, a worldwide consciousness-raising initiative called "" 350 parts per million: the level of carbon in the atmosphere above which "life on the earth, as we know it, becomes unsustainable." He spoke with great excitement of displays created on every continent, images sent in from desert villages, metropolitan high-rises, rain forests and glaciers, all proclaiming "350 ppm." Then, almost as an aside, he mentioned that the level of carbon NOW in the atmosphere is actually around...oh, 390 ppm. Oh. Dear.

I found myself right back in that university parking lot, staring at the back of that science professor's car. Two little numbers--two little factoids backed up with reams of evidence--had sent me plummeting into anxiety and fear, despair and depression. Where's the sustainability, the "transition to resilience" in THAT?

Science and religion both have their sacred litanies, their liminal lists of power and persuasion. The litany of environmental degradation inspires its own special terror and awe:

More plastic in the oceans now than plankton...
More heat and moisture in the air than we've ever known...
More cancer-causing poisons in water and soil...
The coral reefs dying...
The topsoil being stripped away...
The Arctic Ocean ice-free in our lifetime...
Less than 5% of the old-growth forests left...
1% of species going extinct every year...

How long, O Earth? How long?
We believe, O Earth.
Help our unbelief.

Despair and depression serve neither the Earth nor the God of Creation. Of this I am convinced. But how shall we respond, in the face of such overwhelming and condemning facts? How shall we pry ourselves off the dead center of ignorance and denial? How shall we transform the self-medicating culture of wasteful, careless consumption that is leading us toward our collective death?

An unquiet mind is a fertile, creative space. So is a troubled heart. Perhaps this is where we begin: in that wild teetering on the edge of the void, where the view can, by turns, terrify and inspire. Perhaps it begins with a willingness to engage, fully, with claims both profound and irreverent, to reach out our aching arms and enter the dance with partners we never thought we'd claim.

I'm still not sure about that bumper sticker. I'm still not sure about its creator's intent. I'm no more certain how to live in an expanding universe than I am sure of how to live in a world that appears to be dying. But bumper-sticker statements offer little in the way of wisdom, and science and technology have failed us--and our planet--repeatedly.

I'm not saying I deny the harsh evidence. I know the great evil and great destruction of which we are capable. But here is what I believe: that our deepest identity is that of creatures, and as creatures we are connected to the entirety of the Cosmos, the Community of Life. I believe we are called, as human creatures, to meet our present challenges with all the soaring, joy-bringing creativity we can summon from the core of our beings. If the universe is expanding, we dare not shrink away into depression and silence.

We had best open our hearts, open our ears, expand our lungs and learn how to tune our voices to Creation's own harmonies. We had best reach out our hands to heal the weary earth. We had best learn how to unplug from all the pretty little energy-sucking techno-pacifiers and reconnect ourselves to the Creating, Redeeming, Sustaining powers of the Universe itself.

And that won't fit on a bumper sticker.

(image source: galaxy)