Monday, August 27, 2012

The perspective of cosmic evolution gives us hope back

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia and in Portuguese on his blog. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

Let's forget our normal view of things for a moment and try to read our current crisis in the context of cosmic time. Maybe we would understand it better then, and we would relativize it and rise above it because of hope.

Cosmic time

Let's imagine that the roughly 13 billion year history of the universe has been condensed into a single century. Each "cosmic year" would be equivalent to one hundred thirteen million Earth years.

From this point of view, the Earth was born in the 70th year of the cosmic century and life appeared in the oceans, to our surprise, a little later in the 73rd year. For nearly two cosmic decades it remained practically limited to unicellular bacteria.

In the 93rd year, a new creative phase began with the onset of sexual reproduction of living organisms. These, along with other forces, were responsible for changing the face of the planet, as they radically transformed the atmosphere, the oceans, the geology of the Earth. This allowed our planet to support more complex life forms. Much of the biosphere is the creation of these microorganisms.

In this new phase, the evolutionary process accelerated rapidly. Two years later, in the 95th year, the first multicellular organisms appeared. A year later, in the 96th, we see the appearance of nervous systems, and in the 97th, the first vertebrate organisms. Mammals appear in mid-98th, that is, two months after the dinosaurs and a huge variety of flowers.

Five cosmic months ago, asteroids started falling on Earth, destroying many species, including the dinosaurs. However, a little later, the Earth, as if it were taking revenge, produced a diversity of life like never before.

It was in this era, when the flowers appeared, that our ancestors entered the stage of evolution. Then they became bipedal (twelve cosmic days ago), and as homo habilis, they began using tools (6 cosmic days ago), while the homo erectus conquered fire (just one cosmic day ago). Twelve cosmic hours ago, modern humans (homo sapiens) emerged.

In the evening and during the night of this first cosmic day, we lived in harmony with nature and alert to its rhythms and dangers. Until forty minutes ago, our presence had had little impact on the biotic community, at which point we began to domesticate plants and animals and develop agriculture. Thereafter, interventions in nature became increasingly intense until, twenty minutes ago, we began to build and inhabit cities.

Only two minutes ago, the impact became really threatening. Europe became a technological society and expanded its power through colonial exploitation. In this phase, the world-plan was formed, creating a center with several peripheries and the gap between rich and poor.

In the last twelve seconds (after 1950), the rate of exploitation and ecological destruction accelerated dramatically. In this short time, we felled nearly half of the great forests. In the next twenty cosmic seconds, the Earth's temperature will rise 0.5°C and soon could rise to 5°C, endangering much of the biosphere and millions of people. In the last five cosmic seconds, Earth has lost an amount of land equivalent to all the arable land in France and China and has been inundated with tens of thousands of new chemicals, many of which are highly toxic, threatening the foundation of life.

We are now destroying 27-100 thousand living species annually. In the next 7 cosmic seconds, some scientists estimate that 20 to 50% of all species will disappear. When will this stop? Why so much devastation?

Answer: so that a small portion of humanity might privately or corporately enjoy the "benefits" of this project of civilization. The richest 20% currently earn two hundred times more than the poorest 20%. At the beginning of 2008, before the current financial and economic crisis, there were 1,125 billionaires who together held $4.4 trillion, that is, roughly double the annual income of the poorest 50%. In terms of income, the richest 1% of mankind received the equivalent of the poorest 57%.

Earth time

Our planet, fruit of over four billion years of evolution is being devoured by a relative human minority. For the first time in the history of the evolution of mankind, the above mentioned problems are being caused by the minority, and also, to a lesser extent, by all of us. The dangers created are putting our future and our way of life in jeopardy.

However, if on the one hand we emphasize the gravity of the crisis, on the other hand, we don't want to project apocalyptic visions that would only cause us paralysis and despair. If these problems have been created by us, they can also be solved by us, even if some are now irreversible. This means that there is hope of solving them satisfactorily.

Indeed, anyone who accompanied the Peoples' Summit last July in Rio de Janeiro or participated in the World Social Forums realizes that there are thousands and thousands of aware and creative people from all over the world who are working on the formulation of practical alternatives that can enable mankind to live in dignity without affecting the health of ecosystems and of Mother Earth.

We have the information and knowledge needed to solve the current crisis. What we lack is activating the emotional and cordial intelligence that arouses saving dreams, solidarity, compassion, feelings of interdependence and universal responsibility in us.

It's important to recognize that all the threats we're facing are symptoms of a chronic cultural and spiritual illness. It affects us all and especially the 20% who consume most of the world's wealth. This crisis forces us to think of a different paradigm of civilization, because the current one is too destructive. It is what we have been writing frequently in our articles.

Times of crisis can also be times of creativity, times in which new visions and new opportunities appear. The Chinese word for crisis, weiji, is the result of combining the characters of danger and opportunity. This is not simply a contradiction or a paradox; the real dangers force us to find the root causes and seek alternatives so as not to waste opportunities.

In our culture, crisis is derived from the Sanskrit kri meaning "to purify and refine". Therefore, it's about a process, certainly painful but highly positive, of purification of our visions, which acts as a crucible of our spiritual and ethical attitudes. Both meanings, Chinese and Sanskrit, are enlightening.

Our time

We need to revisit the sources of wisdom of the many cultures of humanity. Some are ancestral and come to us through the most diverse cultural and spiritual traditions. The category of "living well" of the Andean cultures is essential. Others are more modern such as deep ecology, feminism and eco-feminism, transpersonal psychology and the new cosmology, derived from the science of complexity, astrophysics and new knowledge about life and the Earth.

I close with the testimony of two notable American environmentalists and educators, Macy and Brown, who state: "The most remarkable feature of this historical moment on Earth is not that we are on the way to destroying the world — we've actually been on the way for quite a while. It is that we are beginning to wake up, as from a millennia-long sleep, to a whole new relationship to our world, to ourselves and each other." (Macy and Brown, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World, New Society Publishers, 1998). This new understanding will enable the long-awaited Great Transformation. It will come by the grace of evolution and God.

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