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Environmentalism for the unscientific mind

By Janice Kennedy
Ottawa Citizen
September 20, 2011

It's like money. I'm quite happy with it, and I might be happier with more of it. Just don't discuss it with me. Talk of "portfolio," "net worth," "leverage," or any item in that alphabet soup of money management (RRIF, RRSP, TFSA, GIC ...) makes my eyes glaze over.

For me, that's what environmentalism is like.

I know it's crucial, and I understand our environmental responsibilities. Just don't make me listen to details about ecosystems, biodiversity, sustainability and proposals for alternative sources of ... well, anything.

The. Eyes. Glaze.

It comes, sadly, from a genetic predisposition toward the non-scientific. I appreciate the importance of science, but I'm just not equipped to like it.

So when the question of this planet's future comes up, and a consensus of the world's greatest scientific minds tells us that a) we are leaving behind a catastrophic carbon footprint, and b) the resultant global warming, unchecked, will be the death of us - I believe them. I trust a consensus of great scientific minds. Even if I don't want to hear too many technical details.

People like me - and I don't think I'm unique - need something else to engage us in the great and necessary crusade to save the planet.

On a recent trip to British Columbia (where day after sunny day of warm weather had me thinking almost fondly of climate change), I spent an afternoon at the gleaming new aboriginal museum and cultural centre in Whistler. The centre, an initiative of the Squamish and Lil'wat First Nations, encourages an appreciation of their peoples' history, traditions, legends, art. But it does something else, too.

It brings to life the truth we've always known about the essential First Nations spirit. In the displays and film and remarks by softspoken young guides, that truth is evident: there is an intimate bond, both physical and spiritual, with the natural world.

"We are part of the Earth," the aboriginal message makes vibrantly clear, "and the Earth is part of us."

It is a powerful theme. Fully understood, fully embraced, it could be the world's salvation.

That theme is also the underlying notion of a remarkable new film making its Ottawa premiere next week. Journey of the Universe: The Epic Story of Cosmic, Earth and Human Transformation blends the purity of scientific discovery with the poetry at our human heart's core. It is beautiful, fascinating and utterly challenging, in every fine and productive sense of the word.

In fact, the film, to be shown Friday evening at Saint Paul University, will be followed by a day-long conference meant to explore some of those challenges.

(Although there is a fee for the conference, the film is free and open to the public, space permitting. For more info, check out the event's link at ustpaul.ca or the film's site, journeyoftheuniverse.org.)

The cinematic tour guide for this most amazing of journeys is the personable Brian Thomas Swimme, an "evolutionary philosopher." What he does, in essence, is bring his audience along on a trip back through time and space to nothing less than the origins of the universe, in all its vast and awe-inspiring complexity.

Then, gently (because he seems to be fully aware that he is addressing laypeople without scads of detailed knowledge), he nudges us along the path of a 14-billion-year journey to witness the "elegant explosions of energy" that have evolved into the universe we know - the planets, the land formations, the fish, the butterflies, the music of Bach.

Underlying the journey constantly is the sense of wonder that questions the nature of the creativity behind the unfolding universe. Underlying it, too, is the implicit charge to humanity.

"We are not living on an Earth," says Swimme. "We are actually participants in a vast, intricate system that is something like a living cell."

If we understand that, if we come to realize that we are, literally, not the centre of the universe, we can begin to understand something else as well.

We can begin to understand that our evolution means we humans, "genetic cousins to every living being," are only one tiny constituent of a vast whole. And, understanding that evolution, we can begin to understand its fragility. We can begin to understand that, left to our traditional arrogance and age-old misconception about our place in the universe, we could really, really screw things up.

But in Swimme's capable hands, and set amid the stunning scenery of a Greek island that becomes his microcosmic metaphor, it is a message of hope that even the most unscientific mind can appreciate.

"These energies coursing through us," he says, "may indeed renew the face of the Earth."

That is something scientists have realized for some time, and something the aboriginal spirit has always understood. Now perhaps the rest of us can begin to catch up.

Janice Kennedy writes here Saturdays. E-mail: 4janicekennedy@gmail. com.


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