I have a small scar on my hip, a little reminder: “You can’t toy with the ocean.” I was body surfing in Laguna Beach, riding the big waves in, using my chest as if a surfboard. I had a wonderful day. What fun! I wanted it to go on. The waves seemed to be changing, as if to say, “Go in,” but I was greedy for one more ride. I got that ride and then some. A huge wave sped me towards shore, but it dumped me down below the surface and then held me there, rolling on me in that one place for a long time. I held my breath, waiting to be released. When I finally came up and staggered out to the beach, blood ran down my leg from where the ocean had ground me into the rough bed. I had had my fun, but wanted too much. The ocean gave me my ride, but it let me know how fragile and dependent I am compared to it.
That’s what we all are: fragile and dependent. We think we can master the ocean, but in the end, it masters us. Once, long ago, we saw the ocean as infinite, limitless, beyond our knowing or going. Thinking flat (because it looks that way) some feared an edge. Now we know the ocean is big but not limitless. A single system of water hugs our globe, circulating currents that foster life and control our weather. The water that rises out of the sunny, equatorial seas floats into clouds and falls as rain and snow. All the fresh water in the world makes up only 3% of the water there is, and only 1% is the surface water we know as rivers and lakes (the other 2% is below the ground). The other 97% of earth’s water is salty, saline, just about as salty as our blood. We can’t drink that water, but we utterly rely on it in more ways than we tend to appreciate.
You know my favorite scripture passage is Genesis One, where Elohim God creates the natural world in a more-or-less evolutionary sequence. On the first “day” (what is a day when there is no earth to spin?) the earth is a “formless mass cloaked in darkness,” much like the cloud of debris left over from the former sun’s exploding into larger elements. On the second day the Gods separate the waters and on the third they gather into the ocean, leaving dry land. God calls these two realms “good.” By the fifth day the waters are swarming with “fish and other life” and the land with “birds of every kind.” God blesses all of them and calls them “good.” God (a process before, underneath, within, and beyond us) created them, called them good, and wants them to flourish, filling the ocean and sky. On the sixth day Elohim God creates humans, males and females, in a god-like image and tells them they have mastery (also called dominion or sovereignty) over the fish, birds, livestock, and other life forms. God tells them to “multiply and replenish” and not much else than that, other than a simple plant-based diet.
My point is not to impose a bible verse here, as if it, and therefore I, have authority. We know the passage only parallels the evolution of the cosmos and life as understood scientifically. But in that all three of the world’s great theistic religions do “believe in the Bible” I would call them to account to Genesis One.
Multiply? We’ve done that. Ten thousand years before Christ there were less than a million humans on earth. By the fourteenth century there were an estimated 370 million, less than a half billion. It took three hundred years to go from a half billion to a billion, then only 123 years to double that to two billion. It took only 47 years to double that two billion to four, and only 51 years to nearly double that again. Imagine that. Since the 1960’s we’ve doubled the world’s already crowded population. That’s a lot of mouths to feed and waste to process.
Replenish? We’ve only barely begun to honor that sensible cycle. Bucky Fuller once defined pollution as “wasted resources.” Too much, we waste resources rather than synergistically recycle them. Gone are the forests of Lebanon, England, and North America. Gone is much of the soil that took so many thousands of years to establish. We tend to see a lot of anything as limitless and then use it to death. Gone are the Carrier pigeons that once filled the entire sky. Gone are the lovely Carolina parakeets, shot for sport. Almost entirely gone are the vast forests that stretched across this continent. I’m from Michigan where they used to burn off the huge pines in order to clear land for farming and cattle. Even around here, where the forest is beginning to be protected, most of it in its grand form is gone.
Same with our waters. It took two to six million years to establish the Ogallala Aquifer running under our plains states. Initially tapped in 1911, it is now being drawn down about 6% every 25 years. The rivers that drain our rain back to the sea are like the venous system in our body, returning the supply from its smallest uses back to its main source. To see the Pacific from land, or better, from an airplane, is to realize how vast it is. It seems inexhaustible, but it isn’t. Oh, the water will be there all right, but not necessarily the life, not necessarily the phytoplankton that generates almost half the oxygen in our air. Neither the water nor the air is inexhaustible. We can’t pollute a closed system and not expect to have to live with the poison that leaves behind, some of it for tens of thousands of years. The oceans are not our cess-pool; the atmosphere is not empty of function. These are closed systems in which we must live.
God called both “good” and wanted them filled with fishes and birds, which S’he also called “good.” What sort of mastery does it take injure and exhaust both? Humanity acts like a spoiled, bratty adolescent, breaking things rather than making them. We pride ourselves on damming rivers only to discover we’ve kept the salmon from them. We haughtily pull mile-wide nets along the bottom of the ocean, clearcutting them as it were, scraping all life into waste in order to take a few more of the dwindling stocks of fish down there. We let our mercury and PCB’s and all manner of new, exotic poisons flow down to the ocean only to discover our children are born brain-deformed. We clog the air with so much carbon dioxide from our engines and furnaces we turn the sea acid, killing off the fragile coral reefs and threatening the very phytoplankton that gives us air. We fish some kinds of fish to extinction. Almost 90% of the world’s big fish, the sharks, tuna, and swordfish, are gone. Nets four to nine miles wide have made the blue fin tuna almost extinct. Pleasure cruise liners dump some 20 thousand pounds of untreated sewage and trash into the oceans every day. Just how does this honor the water, air, and life the Creator called “good?” Where is there any rational responsibility or ethical effort to “replenish” what God made good? For all the churches praising the Creator this morning, how many praise, protect, and promote Creation? How does it honor the Creator to exploit and exhaust Creation? Can you love the Creator and trash Creation?
Part of the problem is the alienation and exploitation we have towards nature based in part from an erroneous reading of the terms in Genesis One, “you shall have dominion.” I believe the intent of that passage is better worded by “sovereignty.” Dominion implies a king bossing slaves to meet his every shallow need. Sovereignty also implies a king, but it can also mean “self-ruled.” We are the sovereign citizens of a democracy, or should be. Influenced by a Manichean hatred of things fleshly and earthly, our religious tradition came to see earth and our bodies as lesser, expendable parts in a divine story. Tricked by the original and ongoing subtle deceivers, we divide what was made good into phony goods and evils. We cover our sex as if God had made something shameful. We sneak and hide and hoard and blame. We treat sensitive, sentient animals as if empty objects. We fear and resent the wild world and seek a controlled, orderly one. We think we can act as if nature doesn’t matter. We kill without feeling. We take without limit. We use as if worthless. We’re utterly lost in a callous emptiness that masks a dull alienation. We’re a long way from exercising the sovereignty we were built to exert.
To get back to the garden we have to pass through the cherubim angel wielding flaming swords turning in all directions. We have to question the so-called goods and evils that the church, the government, and the marketers would trick us with to reclaim the original goods we’re built of and are meant to serve. Is eating a tuna sandwich a good thing if it is part of an ongoing process that ends tuna? Is taking a cruise a good thing if it means paying the cruise line to throw its trash into the ocean? Is providing jobs to build the Keystone Pipeline a good thing if it results in even more global warming and acid oceans? The flaming sword might frighten us. Some might mock us for making them feel uncomfortable with their habits. We have to question our own habits as to whether they’re in tune with the original goods or caught up in the confused goods and evils of subtle deceivers. Do we serve Creation or ruination? Are we sovereigns or subjects? Are we masters savoring and saving Creation or slaves paid a pittance to exhaust it? Let the sword spin. The brave and the guileless will walk right through.
The aqualung wasn’t invented until the mid 20th century. We only recently have begun to know what’s under water and understand how it relates. We’re new to the world below the surface. Most of the life in the oceans hugs the shores and shallows. Less than 4% of the oceans go un-effected by humans. The U.N. estimates some 75% of our seafood is overexploited. Almost a third of our great fisheries have collapsed. Coral is made of animals, some older than our oldest redwood trees. 25% has already bleached out and died. The salmon farmers in Chile use 300 times more antibiotics than their counterparts in Norway use. Mercury accumulates upward in the food chain right back into us. One in ten women already has too much mercury for safe childbearing. Dead zones are growing. If we cared, what mechanisms could address this global danger?
However, humans are beginning to care. We’re beginning to exercise a new sort of sovereignty, using political, economic and social pressure to fix our bad habits. The organization Oceana (the top recipient of the Charity Navigator) has successfully persuaded Chile to reduce the overuse of antibiotics in their salmon bins. Marvelous photography gets us up close to the unfamiliar, exotic life forms we formerly feared. Sharks are not usually the vicious man-eaters depicted in scary movies. They swim with the divers, not after them. Deep sea subs find bizarre life forms in the depths. No sunlight reaches deep, but some worms live off the hot sulfur coming out of steam vents. Ugly creatures attract and mate, reminding us that beauty is relative. Huge whales, once killed for their oil and meat, are now studied for their intricate language and singing as well as their navigation skills. Little plankton, once utterly irrelevant to us, may be part of our very salvation as a species. Our caring can extend to these alien-seeming life forms; they are part of the family of life that we should protect and promote.
You can go beyond hearing this sermon to learn of the things you can do and not do to help. The Monterey Bay Aquarium publishes Seafood Watch, a handy pocket guide to which fish are sustainably managed and which are not. Also, Oceana, the Marine Stewardship Council and Eartheasy educate along similar lines. Earthjustice uses policy advice and litigation to promote general environmental protections. Less user-friendly but more government-connected are the sites of the National Resource Defense Council and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Beyond self-education and adjusting one’s own habits, voting with your dollars and staying up with the issues is a small but effective way to veer the commerce and laws regarding our oceans.
This sermon’s title, The Infinite Ocean, is a misnomer in one way and in another way, not. The ocean is large but not infinite. It can take only so much over fishing, over polluting, and over carbonizing before it dies out, a bit at first, but perhaps then suddenly and catastrophically. But the water in it, though limited, is infinite in renewing itself.
Water is constantly renewing itself. Scientists the world over are trying to find ways to economically split it into its hydrogen and oxygen in order to use these as fuel. Plants do this all the time via photosynthesis. The hydrogen atom migrates into a cellulous molecule. When we and other animals exhale it moves back out as part of the water molecule. Though scientists are unsure as to where and how water first came into being (in the supernova that spawned our earth and solar system, from icy comets entering our atmosphere) they know it as some 4.6 billion years old, constantly forming and reforming, flowing to the ocean, rising to the clouds, filtered through the soil and plants and animals. When it rises as evaporation off the ocean or off the lands it purifies. Evaporating and re-condensing water is a way to renew its purity. Rain and snow is relatively clean. (One great joy to me is eating crystal snow, flashing its crystal rainbows in the bright sunlight.) The water is further purified by plants. You can grow a melon in a dirty place and count on clean, pure water in it. Multiple natural processes keep cleaning our water for us. It is renewed endlessly. It renews us effortlessly.
But water is not always used fairly or wisely. Diverting, hoarding, waste, and privatization will lead to “draining” conflicts. The Anatolia dam in Turkey reduces Syrian water by 40% and Iraqi water by 90%. Israel preempts Palestinian use of water; 4,000 Israeli settlers use 75% of the water, leaving 1,000,000 Palestinians only 25% of it. The Gaza Strip groundwater falls 6 to 8 inches a year, resulting in saltwater intruding into former sweet water reserves. The oldest inhabited city in the world, Sana’a of Yemen, is pumping its scarce groundwater out four times faster than it is being refilled. Los Angeles, which had diverted the water crucial to Mono Lake, now must re-plan because of a 1983 ruling protecting natural water sources.
Great hope is placed in desalinating seawater. In the fourth century B.C. Aristotle noted seawater that evaporates contains no salt upon condensing again. There are over eleven thousand desalination plants in the world, mostly in the Middle East. Whether via evaporation, freezing, or reverse osmosis, fresh water can be obtained from salt water, but these take a lot of energy to run. Using active and passive solar techniques to power such systems offers real hope to a parched world. Also, grey water, gel and drip delivery systems can be used to grow crops far more efficiently than heretofore. As with energy, it isn’t a shortage of water that besets us as much as a shortage of ethics and ingenuity.
Absent innovative technologies and fair sharing systems, scarce water supply could result in entrenched hostilities and eventual wars. Practical, ethical reverence, or at least respect, towards our common system of water is needed. Regional and international cooperation and ingenuity is needed. Our shared Garden can flourish if we tend it wisely.
Locally, we’re blessed with ample rainfall from off the Pacific. Our streams, reservoirs, and ground wells stay up except in draught years. This water drains out of our area into the Rogue River, which carries it down to the ocean. But the ocean is merely the low place of a much larger system of water. Water also makes up much of our bodies, as it does for all life forms, from plants to us. Water floats above us in clouds and is dispersed in the air. We live in a single system of water above, within, and below us. We are of an ancient ocean, ever new.
We are not above or beyond the wonders that have given us birth and that sustain us. The scar on my hip is a little thing. Our vulnerability to the health of the ocean below and the air above is a big thing. The water in your blood, cells, and bladder is an ancient good, a blessing that lets you (and all life) be. Drink it in with welcome. Let it out with gratitude. Treat it with respect. If you’re like me, you even love it. I say to the glass of water as I drink it, “Go tell all your cousins how much I love you.” It’s been in the sky. It’s been underground. It’s been in countless plants and animals. It keeps returning to the ocean, the infinite ocean, not endless in size, but endless in process. The infinite ocean is like an infinite God, essential to life, ever new, ready to serve, malleable to the need. Let the fish and the birds return! We are masters on the side of Creation, and we remember what is really good.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the Unitarian Universalists of Grants Pass
Grants Pass, Oregon, © January 15, 2012
(During this sermon, right after saying to a glass of water I had in the pulpit, “Go tell all your cousins how much I love you,” and taking a sip, the first drops of rain in an unusually dry first half of winter fell on our roof – big, fat, happy drops that seemed to be returning the compliment.)