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Astronomers have started looking into deep space for planets that could conceive and sustain life as we know it. When they do so, they particularly look for two elements: air that can create an atmosphere to insulate and protect the planet and surface water that can serve as an incubator and sustainer of life.
What if, for millions of years, astronomers on other planets had been examining Earth? What would they have seen?
Originally, they might have disregarded the Earth as a volcanic, inhospitable mass. But as the Earth cooled, they would have paid closer attention, noting the formation of an atmospheric shield and the development of oceans.
They might then have observed over time the development of living cells in the ocean's volcanic vents, as well as the transformation of those cells into complex organisms, some of which emerged from the ocean onto the land masses.
At some point, those astronomers would have focused on the growth of a particular species. This species had little natural protection from the elements and, initially, lived only in the warmer zones. However, it learned to control fire and create tools, allowing it to inhabit most of the globe.
Over the last couple of centuries, they would have noted that this species had created more sophisticated devices, powered by fire. They also would have perceived that these new tools spewed emissions into the air and waters, compromising the integrity of these elements essential for life.
They would now be concerned that the species was perhaps a mutation, threatening the capacity of the planet to survive. The atmosphere had become dense, the surface of the globe warmer, and some of the oceans had developed dead spaces. Droughts and flooding had become more common.
As a species, mankind has not seen ourselves as these astronomers would - as a threat to the air and the water that sustain life. We have, rather, created a self-image of ourselves as the dominate species, using our intelligence to overcome nature. If we are to reverse the effects of global warming, we have to realize that we are not apart from nature; we are part of it and interact with it, both positively and negatively. Humans need to change the perception of their role on this planet if they are to survive and flourish.
I respectfully suggest that we, as a species, have two attributes distinct from other organisms that would allow us to do this: our intellectual and spiritual capacities.
We have already begun to use our intellect to create more environmentally-sensitive tools and devices that lessen negative impacts - for instance, hybrid automobiles and use of solar and wind power - but, largely, these innovations have had a marginal impact and we continue to rely on the same energy systems, modes of transportation, and living patterns that have characterized the post-industrial age.
Similarly, we have used our intellect to enact environmental laws that purport to clean the air and water and control our use and disposal of hazardous substances. However, the laws to protect the air and the water primarily regulate the development of new or modified sources of pollution and seldom require the elimination of known historical hazards - such as the coal-fired Midwest electric plants - and the laws to control the use and disposal of hazardous substances focus on keeping track of and properly disposing of these substances, not eliminating their use.
If mankind is to undertake the task of re-envisaging our energy production, transportation systems, and housing patterns - all inconvenient, uncomfortable, and expensive tasks - we need to begin to perceive the environmental movement as a spiritual imperative. Human beings have traditionally viewed the world as a magical and mysterious place - a miracle. We now need to access the type of spiritual resources that allowed Mahatma Gandhi to overcome colonialism with pacifism and Martin Luther King Jr. to challenge racism through nonviolence, and then use that spirit to develop the urgency and commitment to create a new vision of a sustainable society.
In the midst of the holy seasons for two of the world's great religions - Easter and Passover - we need to honor the creation that has been given to us and reconceive our role in the wonder of the universe. Otherwise, the astronomers from far-off planets may watch our lights dim and part of God's creation disappear from their sight.
Timothy D. Bates is a land use attorney at Robinson & Cole LLP and an adjunct professor of environmental law at Mitchell College, both of New London.