The Nobel Prize in physics this year was awarded for work that demonstrates the mysterious phenomenon of quantum entanglement by which two particles can be instantly connected even though separated by an enormous distance. Quantum physics has been a rich source of metaphors, such as “a quantum leap,” and quantum entanglement has been suggested as a metaphor for our long-distance relationships with our loved ones. Could it also represent our relationship with nature?
The impact of modern civilization on nature has been devastating – the climate crisis, declining animal populations leading to the sixth great extinction, deforestation. These are the result of Western culture’s separation of humans from nature. As humans are no longer considered to be part of nature, the Earth has become merely a resource to be conquered and exploited recklessly.
Of course, humans are not separate from nature, but are thoroughly entangled with it. In addition to their importance as food, we obviously rely on plants to provide the oxygen in the atmosphere and take up carbon dioxide by photosynthesis. We are now learning of the importance of microorganisms for digestion and that bees help produce our food by pollination. It is because we have ignored this deep entanglement that we are rushing towards what climate scientist Bill McGuire calls a “hothouse Earth,” and a perilous future.
Although we must learn to accept our entanglement with nature, we must also accept that there will always be a distance between humans and nature. Not a physical distance, but an “otherness” that evokes awe and wonder. In her recent book, Sacred Nature, Karen Armstrong points out that the Hebrew word we translate as “holy” literally means “otherness” or “apart.” We need to recognize the essential holiness of nature as an antidote to the mindset that simply sees it as a resource. She writes that in God’s reply to Job out of the whirlwind, “we see that nature has its own intrinsic value, power, integrity and beauty.” Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson in her book Ask the Beasts also emphasizes the otherness of nature: “The whirlwind’s vision of creation’s grandeur makes a religious point, namely that the human place in the scheme of things is not first of all one of supremacy. We are not the center of everything. It is not all about us.”
How can we be receptive to this sense of the holiness of nature which we have lost? Karen Armstrong recommends “quiet sitting” in some natural environment, noting “the common life that flows through all things, linking them together in a harmonious unity.” As a stargazer, I find a sense of awe in nature in contemplating the magnificence of the night sky on a clear night (without light pollution) or in the amazing images that are coming from the James Webb telescope.
Technology will not save us. Only by recognizing that nature is so much more than a resource and that humanity and nature are inseparable, like the quantum entangled particles, will we be able to build a civilization that can flourish on this planet.
NASA: James Webb telescope image of “The Pillars of Creation”