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A Rosetta Stone for the Ecozoic Era

By K. Lauren de Boer

EarthLight Magazine #53, Spring 2005 -- Vol. 14, No. 4



For some years now, I’ve had an odd kind of Rosetta stone on my desk. It consists of a crude line drawing of a short-legged horse on a slip of paper tucked inside a small plastic packet. Instead of Egyptian hieroglyphics on basalt, the fibers of the paper hold an entirely different lexicon–the DNA of an actual horse. Written on the paper are the words: "Save the Przewalski’s horse." It was given to me by biologist and geneticist Oliver Ryder [1] after a talk he gave on the status of the horse, an endangered species native to the steppes of Mongolia. As he passed the packets out to everyone in attendance, he ended his presentation by raising the question: "What does it mean that you hold this in your hand?"

I sat contemplating the picture of the Przewalski’s horse, sensing at the time that the question held great richness, but having no immediate verbal response. But over time, the presence of the slip of paper on my desk has fostered questions in me, some which go to the heart of human identity on planet Earth today. If the original Rosetta stone gives clues to understanding the human condition, perhaps this "stone" in my hand would yield clues to the paradoxes of species extinction at human hands.

The Mongolian name for the Przewalski’s horse is takhi, which meaning "spirit" or "spiritual." While horses in general are an integral part of the largely semi-nomadic Mongolian culture, the takhi is special and a symbol of their national heritage. Pushed away from scarce watering holes by human activity, the last takhi seen in the Gobi region was in the 1960s. The 1,200 some horses alive today are descendents of 12 individuals captured and bred in zoos. Some have gradually been released back to the wild.[2]

A number of things come to mind now as I contemplate the drawing of the horse in my hand. The fact that it contains DNA attests to the enterprise and creativity of my own species. Our science and technology has allowed us to map the genome of a species, to capture genetic material, to handle it, study it, freeze it, clone it, and now, even market it. We hold the fate of other species in our collective hand. Furthermore, we can reflect on the fact that one species (the human) contemplates another species–wondering, grieving, decrying their demise, aware that we are aware of it all. It’s an amazing thing for a planet to bring forth a species that through choice, can shape its own trajectory. And it’s an awesome responsibility that our choices so deeply shape the fate of other species.

Since I first received the gift of the Przewalski horse from Oliver Ryder, the Human Genome Project achieved its goal of mapping the entire human genome. A discovery resulted from this remarkable accomplishment that will give us all something to ponder for years to come: Our genome is 98.5% identical to that of the chimpanzee; about 60% to that of the fruitfly; and more than 85% of the protein-coding regions of the human and the mouse are identical. The field of "comparative genomics" is now mapping other species for comparison as well. It seems that we truly are kin to other species on Earth and we may have to look beyond the genome to find what makes humans truly unique.

Another reflection: It’s a wonder and a comfort that there are those of us who do care about the fate of the takhi and other threatened species. In fact, we can care enough to collectively enact something like, say, the Endangered Species Act. To work to "save" another being from annihilation at all is an indication of our capacity for compassion beyond our own kind.

I find a strange sense of irony in the thought that takhi means "spirit." This unique and unrepeatable member of the Earth community is almost gone and its wildness has been stripped away by relegating it to "zoo propagation" programs. Just as the horse has been usurped from the wild, pushed to the margins by human activity, we’ve usurped spirituality from the wildness of our souls. One of the strangest, most contradictory phrases of our time, I think, is "secular environmentalist," because anyone working to ameliorate Earth’s destruction today is doing spiritual work.

Reflecting on the "Rosetta stone" of DNA can elicit nothing at all. Or, if we allow ourselves the sensitivity to take in the painful reality of species death, our reflection can lead us to compassionate action.

This action is so urgently needed because our impact on Earth’s great community of life has now reached unprecedented magnitude. Just within the last month, a report commissioned by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA), was issued. Involving the work of 1,360 scientists in over 90 countries, it is the most comprehensive survey ever into the state of the planet’s life-support systems. It specifically assesses the impact of ecosystem change on human well-being. The findings, summarized in a statement published by the Board of the MEA, give stark

warning: 60% of Earth’s ecosystem services have been severely degraded; wetlands, forests, savannahs, estuaries, coastal fisheries, and other habitats that recycle air, water, and other nutrients for all life are being irretrievably damaged. An estimated 24% of Earth’s land surface in now cultivated. Humans now use between 40%-50% of all available freshwater running off the land. Flows from rivers has been dramatically reduced–for parts of the year, the Yellow River in China,the Nile in Africa, and the Colorado in North America dry up

Life Mandala by Meganne Forbes --  www.meganneforbes.com

before reachingthe ocean. Species extinction is now up to 1,000 times the normal background rate. A quarter of all fish stocks are overharvested; an estimated 90% of the total weight of the ocean’s large predators–tuna, swordfish, and sharks–has disappeared in recent years. Since 1980, 35% of mangroves have been lost, 20% of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed, and another 20% badly degraded. Nutrient pollution from agricultural runoff has created coastal dead zones; the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, into which the Mississippi flows, measures 7,000 square miles.

Among the key messages of the report is that pressure on ecosystems will increase globally in the coming decades, unless human attitudes and actions change. The report recommends ultimately that a coordinated effort be made internationally to make policy choices that will protect ecosystems.[3]

It’s unlikely, however, that simply making the right policy choices will be enough. Two more fundamental shifts are required as well: a values change that honors the spiritual, psychological, and aesthetic value of preserving the diversity of life; and a shift of control from the unhealthy alliance of multinational corporations and governments toward empowerment of local communities. Since local communities are often the guardians of spiritual values as well as natural resources, these two overlap.

Our world economy today is primarily driven by market forces and greed. It tries to sell us the lie that we find joy at the mall and our deepest needs for love, meaning, and connection can be met by purchasing the newest product.

It’s past time to embrace a vision more worthy of the human spirit. And it’s within the context of community that we will find practices that will embed a more joyful vision into our hearts and minds.

I feel that to practice spiritual ecology is to live community in the deepest sense. Through this practice, we affirm the best of our science and honor the intelligence of our spirit. The articles in this issue of EarthLight explore the meaning of community in a larger sense and in the long-term. Nina Simons (page 8) writes of the relational intelligence we’ve largely forgotten in a culture that’s tipped toward rationality as the measure of all knowledge. John Seed (page 10) reminds us that living in words is not enough–we need ritual practiced in community to truly shift our deepest biases against other life and move beyond anthropocentrism. Mary Gomes (page 14) gives us a powerful ritual that enables us to collectively grieve the passage of lost species. Elizabeth Carothers Herron’s gifts us with a beautiful essay on how Grace might emerge when we open our sensitivities to other species. Diane Pendola end the section with a reflection on how Earth liturgy can join us again to the "great communion of being." Articles by Paula Gonzalez, Cindy Spring, Diana Leafe Christian, and Aliyah Meena Shanti, all give us inspiring examples of communities taking root and taking action to defend, foster, and learn from the Earth. We end with Sharon Abercrombie’s powerful story on Dorothy Stang, someone who gave her life in defense of the poor and the rainforest. We dedicate this issue to her memory and spirit.

In kindred spirit,

K. Lauren de Boer, Editor, EarthLight Magazine

klauren@earthlight.org

 


    Notes:

    1. Oliver A. Ryder heads the Genetics Division at the Zoological Society of San Diego. He also directs the "Frozen Zoo," a unique genetic resource bank.

    2. Meadows, Robin, "Takhi: The Last Wild Horse," The Zoogoer, Smithsonion National Zoological Park, Sept./Oct., 1997.

    3. A copy of the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and a summary report from its board, "Living Beyond Our Means: Natural Assets and Human Well-being" can be downloaded at www.millenniumassessment.org.

 


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