First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany
 “Humanity vs. Biodiversity”
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore  January 30, 2005


Call to Celebration

We'll be exploring in our service today the ethical relationship of humanity to the diversity of non-human life on this planet.  Our opening words come from former Vice President Al Gore:

... for all of us --- there is an often poorly understood link between ethical choices that seem quite small in scale and those whose apparent consequences are very large, and that a conscious effort to adhere to just principles in all our choices --- however small --- is a choice in favor of justice in the world.  By the same token, a willingness to succumb to distraction, and in the process fail to notice the consequences of a small choice made carelessly or unethically, makes one more likely to do the same when confronted with a large choice.  Both in our personal lives and in our political decisions, we have an ethical duty to pay attention, resist distraction, be honest with one another and accept responsibility for what we do --- whether as individuals or together.  It's the same gyroscope; either it provides balance or it doesn't.  In the words of Aristotle: "Virtue is one thing."

For civilization as a whole, the faith that is so essential to restore the balance now missing in our relationship to the earth is the faith that we do have a future.  We can believe in that future and work to achieve it and preserve it, or we can whirl blindly on, behaving as if one day there will be no children to inherit our legacy.  The choice is ours; the earth is in the balance.


I heard a rebroadcast of a 2001 speech by Paul Watson, founder of the Sea Shepherd Society, on Alternative Radio, as I was driving one day.   Watson is one of those eco-terrorists you hear about.   He sails the high seas enforcing the International agreements prohibiting drift nets, whaling and protecting marine sanctuaries that are not being enforced.  This section of his talk was the inspiration of my sermon topic:

What really changed my life happened in 1975.   We’d come up with this idea to intervene in Soviet whaling operations.  We’d been reading a lot of Gandhi at the time and we felt that if we just put ourselves between the harpoon and the whales, they would not kill the whales.   We made a lot of plans and put this campaign together, went out on the high seas, chased down the Russian whaling fleet and found them 60 miles off the northern coast of California.   I suddenly found myself in this little rubber boat, Bob Hunter and I, and I looked back and there was this 150-foot steel harpoon vessel bearing down at us at 20 knots in heavy seas, and in front of me, eight magnificent sperm whales that were fleeing for their life.

Every time that harpooner swung that harpoon I was able to maneuver the inflatable raft to block them.  I was feeling pretty good about it, and it worked for about 20 minutes until the captain of that vessel came down the catwalk and yelled into the harpooner’s ear, then turned to us, smiled and ran his finger across his throat, and that’s when I realized that we were in some serious trouble.   A few minutes later, we descended into a trough, the whales rose up in front of us on a swell, the ship rose up on a swell behind us, and there was this horrendous explosion and this 150-pound harpoon equipped with a grenade tip flew over our head and slammed into the backside of one of the female whales in the pod.

  She screamed.  And it had never occurred to me that a whale could scream.   It was a human-like scream, and she suddenly rolled over with a thump and blood in the air, and the largest male in the pod rose up, dove, and slapped the surface of the water with his tail and disappeared.   And the others fled.


I had been told by the experts that that whale would now attack us, and we’ve all seen the woodcuts of Yankee whaling vessels being attacked by sperm whales, so I can tell you that it was with a great deal of anxiety that the two of us sat in that little rubber boat, waiting for sixty tons of a very angry animal to come up underneath us.  And as we waited there, the ocean erupted behind us, and I turned in time to see this whale hurl himself, throw himself straight at the harpooner on the Soviet vessel.

He was waiting for him, and very nonchalantly pulled the trigger and sent a harpoon, unattached this time, he didn’t have time to attach a cable to it, an unattached harpoon at point-blank range into the head of this whale as it came towards him.  And he screamed and fell back into the water.  

Blood everywhere, now, all around us.  And as he was thrashing about and rolling in pain on the water, I caught his eye, and he saw me.  And he dove again, and this time I saw a trail of bloody bubbles coming very fast underwater towards us.  This whale came up and out of the water, at an angle towards our small rubber boat, with water and blood pouring down on us.

I looked up, I could have reached out and grabbed one of those six-inch teeth that was right there.  And I looked up into an eye, an eye the size of my fist, and what I saw there changed my life for the rest of my life. I saw understanding.   The whale understood what we were trying to do.   Because the easiest thing for that whale to have done at that point was to hurl himself over and crush us, or seize us in his jaws, and he did neither.  Instead, with great deliberateness and in pain, he slid slowly back into the water beneath the waves, and I saw his eyes disappear below the surface, and he died.  

He saved our lives.  He could have taken our lives, but chose not to do so.   But I saw something else in that eye.   It was pity.  And not for himself or his kind, but for us, that we could commit such an act of blasphemy. 

I began to think of why we were killing these whales.   Why were the Russians killing those whales?   There was one product that they wanted: because spermaceti is high heat-resistant oil, it’s used in industrial machinery, especially for the manufacture of ICBM nuclear missiles.   Here we were exterminating an intelligent and sensitive and beautiful creature for the purpose of manufacturing a weapon meant for the mass extermination of humanity, and that’s when it struck home to me that humanity was insane, collectively insane.

That’s when I decided that for the rest of my life my allegiance would lie with whales and fish and birds and sea turtles, and not with human beings. That is why I do what I do.  So when people say to me that they don't agree with what I do, I really couldn’t care less. 

I was deeply moved by his story and the effect it had on Watson.   I recognized again how sheltered I am in the life I lead.   I’ve never witnessed whaling, nor the horrors of commercial fishing yet I’ve eaten all sorts of seafood and perhaps even used products that came from whales.  My hands have the virtual blood of sea life on them too.   Yet until I hear a story like this, I don’t feel it.

One response to beginning to identify and feel with non-human life forms is to expand one’s identification with life.   Rachel Carson is the most familiar writer to have raised our consciousness that human beings are not the only creatures that matter on this planet.  She popularized the discovery that DDT was killing birds by thinning their eggs so they cracked before the chicks were ready to be born.  The ban of DDT helped peregrines, ospreys, and other top predators recover their numbers.  Saving these birds has not come without a human cost.   No equally effective and environmentally safe alternative to DDT has been discovered.  The ban of DDT has increased deaths from Malaria from the tens of thousands to the tens of millions around the world.  Probably for the first time in history, the tables have been turned to protect non-human species.

Philosopher and mountaineer Arne Naess also began thinking about what an ethical framework might be constructed that had a higher value than human life.  In the early 1970’s, he began publishing his ideas under the name Deep Ecology, to distinguish it from an ecological perspective dedicated to serving human needs.   As you might imagine, his writing is very controversial.

Here is an eight point summary of those ethics:

1) The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves (synonyms: inherent worth; intrinsic value; inherent value). These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.

2) Richness and diversity of life forms contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.

3) Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.

4) Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.

5) The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.

6) Policies must therefore be changed. The changes in policies affect basic economic, technological structures. The resulting state of affairs will be deeply different from the present.

7) The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent worth) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great.

8) Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

-- Arne Naess and George Sessions --

The ethics of Deep Ecology find both a home and some resistance in the values of Unitarian Universalism, particularly our seventh and our first principles.    These ethics are quite compatible with the idea of affirming the interdependent web of existence.  But what about the inherent worth and dignity of all people?   Should the rights of the biosphere trump the rights of human beings?  What if that meant not having any more children or finding new employment or making sacrifices in possessions and uses of materials, plants, and animals – no longer looking at them as resources?  What if it prevented some kinds of travel and recreational activities?

I don’t think I’d get much of an argument that it is in our self-interest as a species not to trash the planet and make it uninhabitable.   Unless you are a sociopath, you’d like to see the human species continue on our planet.  Most of us would prefer to leave the planet a little better than we found it.  Unfortunately, that isn’t what’s happening right now.

What’s missing for many of us to begin to make the changes required to reverse the degradation of our planet’s hospitality to biodiversity?   I think what is needed is a deepening of emotional sensitivity and empathy that will allow those feelings to move us to action.   What changed Paul Watson’s life?   A powerful feeling of inter-species communication and connection.

Is there some other way for us to also have that feeling of communication and connection without putting our lives at risk on the high seas?

Johanna Macy has an answer I suggest we consider.   She is a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. She is also a leading voice in movements for peace, justice, and a safe environment. Interweaving her scholarship and four decades of activism, she has created both a theoretical framework for personal and social change, and a powerful workshop methodology for its application.

In 1985, she was on a workshop tour in Australia teaching group practices to sustain social and environmental activists.   She led a workshop there with John Seed, founder of the Rainforest Information Center.  During a visit with him to one of the last vestiges of Australia’s primordial forests, they discovered a shared interest in deep ecology and the Buddhist core teaching on the interdependence of all life.   They both agreed it would be valuable to create a group experience to directly challenge the anthropocentrism of industrial society.

What they created was a ritual called the Council of All Beings.   The first introduction of the event happened at a camp north of Sydney, on huge flat rocks by a waterfall with about forty people taking part.  It began spreading soon afterwards around the globe.  Since we haven’t the time to do it this morning, I invite you to participate in this description of the Council through your imagination.

In preparation for the Council of All Beings ritual, participants allow themselves to be chosen by an animal, bird, fish, insect, plant, even a natural feature like a lake or a marsh, following their intuition rather than their experience or knowledge base.  Time is next taken to connect with the spirit of that being allowing the imagination to assist in the identification process, asking permission to represent that spirit in the council.  If time permits, masks can be made to assist in helping the participant embody that being’s spirit.

The circle for the Council is prepared to create a sense of sacred space.   The spirits of the beings who have chosen participants to speak for them are introduced and welcomed.

The council unfolds in three consecutive stages.  In the first stage, the spirits speak through the participants telling of the changes and hardships they are experiencing.  For example you might hear these voices:

"I'm tightly crowded in a dark place, far from grass and standing in my own feces. My calves are taken from me, and instead cold machines are clamped to my teats. I call and call for my young. Where did they go? What happened to them"
"As Lichen, I turn rock into soil. I worked as the glaciers retreated, as other life-forms came and went. I thought nothing could stop my work; but now I'm being poisoned by acid rain."

The second stage of the Council begins after most have spoken.   Now stepping aside from the persona of the spirit they have brought to the circle, humans, a few at a time, sit in the center and hear the testimony of the spirits speak to them directly.

"For millions of years we've raised our young, rich in our ways and wisdom. Now our days are numbered because of what you are doing. Be still for once, and listen to us."
"See my possum hand, humans? It resembles yours. From its print on the soft soil you can tell where I have passed. What mark on Earth will you leave behind you?"
"Humans! I am Mountain speaking. For millennia your ancestors venerated my holy places. Now you dig and gouge for the ore in my veins. Clearcutting my forests, you take away my capacity to hold water and release it slowly. See the silted rivers? See the floods? In destroying me, you will destroy yourselves."

Hearing the voices of those who cannot speak with words can be a powerful and moving experience.  The humans in the center are not permitted to speak or defend themselves, only listen and learn, “leaching away any sense of moral immunity.”

In the final stage of the Council, the non-human spirits offer gifts to the humans as they again move into the center one at a time.   It can be hard to take in these gifts while also acknowledging the ways we are harming them.

"I, Lichen, work slowly, very slowly. Time is my friend. This is what I give you, humans: patience and perseverance."
"I, Condor, give you my keen, far-seeing eye. Use that power to look ahead beyond your daily distractions, to heed what you see and plan."
"As Mountain, I offer you humans my solidity and deep peace. Come to me to rest, to dream. Without dreams you lose your vision and hope. Come, too, for my strength and steadfastness, whenever you need them."
"As Leaf, I would free you humans from your fear of death. My dropping, crumbling, molding allows fresh growth. If you were less afraid of death, you would be readier to live."

I find this a very attractive way to begin the process of deciding if we want to join the green sanctuary movement within Unitarian Universalism.   I’m planning to organize an intergenerational version of this Council I’ve described for FUUSA this spring.   If you are interested in helping in the planning process, please speak with me after the service.

We need to unite our heads and our hearts in this kind of process dedicated to preparing us to become better stewards of the earth.   Time is short.  The transition to greater ecological responsibility and a sustainable culture is well within the power of humanity.  What is missing now is our passion filled commitment to be a positive agent of this transition.  Let us find that commitment, together.


We live in a time of great transition for our species and our planet.
We are testing the limits of our Mother Earth and she is NOT pleased.
We don’t have any choice but to make this transition.
To refuse is to plan our children’s and grandchildren’s funerals.
The transition to ecological sustainability will be exceedingly difficult.
Seeing through dependence on materially based comfort and stimulation
To spiritually satisfying values based in
             loving, learning, growing, transforming and serving,
                         will make the transition easier and far more meaningful.

Which side do YOU want to be on?

Copyright © 2005 by Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore.  All rights reserved.