Video talk excerpt, Living in Cosmic Consciousness with Duane Elgin,
recorded at the United Palace in New York City on December 3, 2017.
We are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country, home.
For at least 50,000 years, humanity has been on a journey of separation—pulling back from nature and becoming ever more differentiated, individuated, and empowered. In recent decades, we have become so dominant as a species that we are producing Earth-changing trends—global warming, species extinction, unsustainable population, massive famines, waves of migration, and more—that threaten humanity’s future. Now, with stunning abruptness, humanity is being challenged to turn from the familiar path of progressive separation to an unfamiliar path of global caring and cooperation. The transition from self-serving separation to world-serving cooperation confronts us with an evolutionary crisis: Who are we? What kind of Universe do we live in? Where are we going?
Because we are confronting the limits of the Earth’s ecosystem to carry the burden of humanity, we are also confronting our assumptions about the nature of the Universe and our evolutionary journey. Do we continue our rapid march into materialism, grounded in the assumption that we live in a Universe that is indifferent to humanity and comprised mostly of dead matter and empty space? Or do we open to a transforming insight from the combined wisdom of science and the world’s spiritual traditions: The Universe is not dead at its foundations but is profoundly alive and we humans are an integral part of that larger aliveness? In the words of Plato, “The Universe is a single living creature that contains all living creatures within it.” Life within life within life.
Our view of the Universe profoundly impacts how we live in the world. If we think we live in a Universe that is comprised of non-living particles without meaning and purpose, then it makes sense to exploit that which is dead on behalf of ourselves, the most visibly alive. Alternatively, if we have direct experiences of connecting with the aliveness in nature and the world around us, then it is natural to respect and care for the countless expressions of aliveness. These are two radically different ways of looking at the Universe and, in turn, produce dramatically different views of our identity and evolutionary journey. This leads to a startling conclusion: The most urgent challenge facing humanity is not climate change, or species extinction, or unsustainable population growth; rather, it is how we understand the Universe and our intimate relationship within it. Our deepest choices for the future emerge from this core understanding.
Evening sun in the Andes, Chile | photography ©Yuri Beletsky
At the Evolutionary Crossroads
How have we come to such a critical crossroads in our evolutionary journey? First, in the last several hundred years, we have been spectacularly successful in exploiting the abundance of the Earth’s resources to create a short period of unprecedented material prosperity for a minority of the Earth’s population. This burst of affluence emerged from a worldview described as ‘scientific materialism,’ which regards the Universe as unaware of and indifferent to human existence in the unthinking and unfeeling dance of dead particles in a cosmic system without purpose or meaning. Second, based on this worldview, we have been consuming the Earth’s resources far beyond her rates of regeneration. Short-term material prosperity is being gained at the cost of long-term ecological ruin. As Wendell Berry reminds us, nature “has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.” We are creating by our own hand a long-term future that is unforgivingly inhospitable for advancing human civilization.
We are now being compelled by circumstances to come together—collectively and rapidly—to cope with profound climate disruption, massive human migrations, unsustainable population growth, critical shortages of key resources such as water, the threatened extinction of nearly half of all animal and plant species, and much more. As world-changing trends of enormous magnitude converge and amplify one another, the people of Earth will confront the unyielding reality that, unless we wake up and work together, we have only the legacy of a grievously wounded Earth and impoverished future to leave to our children and grandchildren. We require a new pathway ahead and are reminded of Einstein’s famous words that “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them.”
We are moving through a perilous phase of planetary transition. Will we have the species-wisdom to make deep, structural changes in our manner of living and turn toward a more sustainable future? If not, the alternatives are the collapse and even extinction of human civilizations. It is unwise to be complacent about the possibility of collapse as this has happened numerous times throughout history. More than 20 major civilizations have collapsed over the millennia, including the empires of the Romans, Mayans, Aztecs, Easter Islanders, Anasazi, Mesopotamians, and the Soviets. Importantly, many examples of collapse involve climate change as a key, contributing factor.
Although collapse has occurred numerous times in the past, today is different in one crucial respect: There are no frontiers left. The circle has closed. The entire world has become a single, integrated system—economically, ecologically, and socially. Never before has the entire planet been at risk of collapse and taking all the world’s civilizations down at the same time. Humanity has never before experienced the collapse of an embryonic but truly global civilization such as exists today. Our time of planetary transition is truly a great transition, unprecedented in human history and deeply formative in shaping the long-range future.
To move swiftly through this perilous time of planetary transition requires unprecedented breakthroughs in how we live and relate to one another. Yet, cooperation will be difficult in a world that is unraveling and where most people are coping with chronic, planetary-scale, traumatic stresses. A natural tendency is for people to separate and seek islands of safety to ride out the disruptive storms of transition that are beginning to blow through the world. However, if we pull apart and seek our personal security by retreating from the world and isolating ourselves, then systemic problems are certain to escalate and produce the very future of ruinous collapse we most fear.
The Remarkable Invitation
Being unflinchingly realistic, it does not seem likely we will turn away from our current path of separation—with its growing inequities, overconsumption of resources, and deep injury to the Earth—unless we discover a pathway into the future that is so truly remarkable, transformative, and welcoming that we are drawn together by the magnitude and promise of its invitation. Just in time, that pathway is being revealed by insights converging from science and the world’s wisdom traditions. We are discovering that, instead of struggling for meaning and a miracle of survival in a dead Universe, we are being invited to learn and grow forever in the deep ecologies of a living Universe. To step into the invitation of learning to live in a living Universe represents a journey so extraordinary that it invites us to transcend the wounds of history and begin a process of healing and reconciliation to realize a remarkable future we can only attain together.
Great Nebula of Orion, birthplace of thousands of stars | photography ©Yuri Beletsky
The Nature of Our Cosmic Home
In contemplating a great turn toward this new pathway of evolution, it is important to ask: Is the Universe truly as Plato described—‘a single living creature’ that contains all living creatures within it? Seeing the Universe as a super-organism with a permeating aliveness is not new—this was humanity’s basic understanding for tens of thousands of years until gradually replaced by the worldview of scientific materialism roughly 300 years ago. Since then, the scientific community has been employing its ever more powerful tools to explore the nature of reality and has discovered a Universe of astonishing depth and subtlety. In turn, the ancient intuition of a living Universe is now being reconsidered freshly as science cuts away superstition to reveal the cosmos as a place of unexpected wonder, depth, and sophistication. Here are six key attributes emerging from science and cosmology that point toward a living Universe:
- A Unified Whole: In the last several decades, scientific experiments have repeatedly confirmed ‘non-locality’ and the discovery that the Universe is a deeply unified system at the quantum level that communicates with itself instantly, across impossibly vast distances. To illustrate, at the speed of light, it takes more than eight minutes for a photon to travel from the sun to the Earth and more than 14 billion years to travel across our visible Universe. Yet, quantum physics demonstrates these unimaginably vast distances are traversed and transcended, instantaneously, in the quantum realm. Science no longer views the Universe as a disconnected collection of planets, stars, and fragments of matter. Instead, the Universe is fully unified and connected with itself at every moment. In the words of the physicist David Bohm, the Universe is ‘an undivided wholeness in flowing movement.’