Earth Day – April 22 — What would Empedocles say?

More importantly, all courses in general studies and courses in programs would do well to incorporate a concrete, practical learning plan on how to care for the environment by living in harmony with nature.

According to legend, anyone who would jump to his death into an active volcano has to be an interesting character. Apart from his dramatics and the legend that surrounds him, Empedocles believed that all of matter was comprised of four elements: air, earth, water, and fire. We are nature – we are air (we fill our bodies with it); we are earth (we will return to it); we are water (80% or more); and we are fire (energy driven). We are not distinct from nature, apart from it, or as much stewards of it, rather, we are one with nature. In addition, Empedocles believed that love connected and bonded these elements; and it was strife that separated them from one another. There is also a lesson to be learned about the power and presence of love. All of life is interconnected and interrelated by the force we call love. The poet, John Donne reminds us of the power and presence of love versus strife: “No man is an island, entire of itself, every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main …because I am involved in mankind and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.” I like to use poetry in class to make a point about the importance of an idea. It was Sigmund Freud who said, “Whenever I have had a great idea, a poet was there first.” Classes should be sprinkled with poetry to reinforce the depth, breadth, and the intimate connection with the essence of life. More importantly, all courses in general studies and courses in programs would do well to incorporate a concrete, practical learning plan on how to care for the environment by living in harmony with nature.

If Empedocles was alive today, would he be promoting the “Greening” phenomenon on our campuses, at all levels of our government, and in our business endeavors across the nation?   Why, I can even foresee the day when we may well be taxed or given a tax break for the size of our carbon footprint. Empedocles challenges us to answer the question, am I living in harmony with the natural environment?  Am I taking care of it?  Am I responsible for nature? Sun Bear of the Chippewa Tribe said, “I do not think that the measure of a civilization is how tall its buildings of concrete are, but rather how well its people have learned to relate to their environment and fellow man.” The native American Indians pre-date Empedocles by about 30,000 years and perhaps longer than that. The various Indian tribes believed it was their sacred duty and responsibility to care for the earth. Caring for the living earth was a natural extension of caring for oneself or one’s family or one’s community. We are nature and to be responsible for ourselves is to be responsible for the total ecological health and well-being of the planet.

Years ago, in the early 1970’s, I read a memorable and challenging book that was written by Charles A. Reich entitled The Greening of America. The author maintained that we have a mandate to establish sustainable practices across America with companies, businesses, governments, and schools such as society is packaging by the “greening” effect. He maintained that we can be a creative force in our own lives and thus give back to nature what nature has given us. If nature was to send us a yearly bill for all that she does for us, it would be around 30 trillion dollars! I also remember reading another inspirational book by Teilhard de Chardin entitled the Phenomenon of Man. Teilhard believed that all of matter has a consciousness – air, earth, water, and fire – the entire spectrum of matter on earth is a single, living entity endowed with faculties and powers far beyond its individual dimensions.

We can argue forever that global warming is not a fact but a fiction. Perhaps protecting something as pervasive as the planet is still an abstraction for many. There may come a day when many, as opposed to a few, will come to a greater consciousness and reverence for the natural systems of the planet, namely, the oceans, the rainforests, the soil, the grasslands, and all other living beings will be so strong that no narrow-mindedness or ideology based upon skepticism, politics, or economics will overcome it.  On any given day in my classes, I check the trash can that is filled with plastic bottles and cans that should have been discarded in the blue recycle bins in the hallways of school. Often, we are not conscious and aware of our oneness with nature. I then posted signs above the trash cans, and people still mindlessly threw the plastic bottles and cans into the trash. Yes, we will overcome some day!  The ecological crisis that threatens our planet derives from a dysfunctional notion of the self.  We have developed this individualist mentality, an encapsulated EGO (eased “green” out) by separating ourselves from the web of life having become mesmerized by the web of technology. Based on an essentially pathological sense of individualism, we have exploited nature, over consumed nonrenewable resources, and degraded the biosphere.  Fortunately, we are beginning to replace this dysfunctional identity with the ecological self, which is co-extensive with other beings and the life of our planet.  We have begun the “greening of the self” which serves for adequate and effective environmental action.  Even the Green Bay Packers (Super Bowl Champions, 2010) are gold and GREEN!

Hopefully, in a small way, this reflection on Empedocles has heightened your awareness, humbled your EGO, and motivated you to expand your planet survival kit. Each of us is being challenged to decide what steps we are willing to make, and then take them at our own pace. Without being overwhelmed by the magnitude of change required to live in an earth-wise fashion, we need to remind ourselves that each small step we take benefits not only ourselves, but the Earth. Let us conclude with the words of a nature poet: “The world is too much with us; late and soon; getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in nature that is ours. We have given our hearts away.” William Wordsworth

Roger J. Vanden Busch – social sciences

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