We are undeniably experiencing a crisis in the fundamentals that sustain our form of inhabiting and organizing planet Earth, and of dealing with Nature's goods and services. From our present perspective, they are totally wrong; they are dangerous and threaten the life-system and Earth-system. We have to do more.
Two founding fathers of our form of seeing the world, Rene Descartes (1596-1650) and Francis Bacon (1561-1626), were their principal formulators. They saw matter as totally passive and inert. The mind existed exclusively in human beings. Humans could feel and think, whereas other animals and beings behaved like machines, lacking any subjectivity or purpose.
Logically, this view enabled humans to treat the Earth, nature and other living beings as things we could dispose of at our pleasure. This understanding is behind the savage industrialist process, that still persists today, even within the so-called progressive universities, that are hostages to the old paradigm.
Things, however, are not like that. Everything changed when Albert Einstein proved that matter is a very dense field of interactions, and even more, that in reality, matter does not exist in the common sense of the word: matter is highly condensed energy. As I heard in 1967 from Werner Heisenberg, one of the founders of the physics of subatomic particles, quantum mechanics, in his last semester of classes at the University of Munich, one cubic centimeter of matter is enough that if even that small amount could be transformed into pure energy, it would destabilize our entire solar system.
In 1924, Edwin Hubble (1889-1953), discovered with his telescope on Mount Wilson, in Southern California, that not only the Milky Way, our galaxy, exists, but hundreds of them (now we know that a hundred billion galaxies exist). Hubble noticed that, curiously, the galaxies are expanding and growing ever further apart at unimaginable speeds. This discovery led scientists to suppose that the observable universe had been much smaller, a tiny dot that later inflated and exploded, giving birth to the expanding universe. A very small echo of that explosion can still be identified, which allows us to date that event as having occurred some 13.7 billion years ago.
One of the main contributions that is dismantling the old vision of the Earth and nature comes from Ilya Prigogine (1917-2003), the Russian-Belgian Chemistry Nobel Laureate. He abandoned the idea that matter is inert and passive, and proved experimentally that under certain conditions, chemical elements can organize themselves into complex models that require the coordination of billions of molecules. These molecules do not need instructions, nor do human beings enter into their organizing. There are not even genetic codes to guide their actions. The dynamics of their self-organizing are intrinsic, like that of the universe, and govern all interactions.
The universe contains a self-creating and self-organizing dynamic that structures galaxies, stars and planets. Once in a while, starting from the Background Energy, new complexities arise that, for example, cause the appearance of life, consciousness, and human life.
This cosmic dynamic has its own time-line: the time of the galaxies, of the stars, of the Earth, of the different eco-systems with their representatives, each with its own time, of the flowers, of the butterflies, etc. Living organisms in particular have their own biological times, one for the micro-organisms, another for the woods and the jungles, another for the animals, another for the oceans, and another for each human being.
What have we done to bring about the present crisis?
We invented a time that is mechanical, and always the same in every clock. Mechanical time directs life and all the processes of production, without paying any attention to other times. It subjects Nature's time to technological time. A tree, for instance, may take 40 years to grow and a chainsaw can cut it down in two minutes. We do not cultivate respect for the time of each thing. That way we do not give them time to regenerate after we have devastated them: we contaminate the wind, poison the ground and fill all our food with chemicals. The machine becomes worth more than the human being.
Not giving ourselves a Sabbath, Biblically speaking, so that the Earth may rest, we extenuate, mutilate and leave her to become almost mortally ill, thus destroying the conditions of our own subsistence.
We are living at this moment a time in which the Earth herself is becoming conscious of her own illness. Global warming indicates that she is entering into a different time. If we continue mistreating her, and do not help her stabilize in this new time, we can count the decades left before the trials of desolation, due to the unconscious errors formulated centuries ago, that we have not corrected, but have stubbornly reaffirmed.
With Mark Hathaway, I wrote The Tao of Liberation, which was awarded a gold medal in science and cosmology in the United States.
- Leonardo Boff, Theologian-Philosopher / Earthcharter Commission