EarthBeat Weekly: Experiencing Advent where wildlife runs free

In the Galápagos, reflecting on Laudato Si' and anthropocentrism

A giant tortoise on Santa Cruz Island in The Galápagos (NCR photo/Bill Mitchell)

A giant tortoise on Santa Cruz Island in The Galápagos (NCR photo/Bill Mitchell)

by Bill Mitchell

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EarthBeat Weekly

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Dec. 20, 2019

Last week I stepped into a world that felt upside down -- and not just because I spent most of the time below the equator.
In the Galápagos, the other-wordly collection of  islands 600 miles west of Ecuador, wildlife runs free. It's the humans who are constrained and regulated for a change. 
My wife, Carol, and I were among about 90 passengers on a ship staffed by naturalists who guided our visits to the islands via inflatable Zodiac boats. As we moved around in groups of 15 or so, the naturalists introduced us to whiskered sea lions, blue-footed boobies, flightless cormorants, marine iguanas, giant tortoises and kaledioscopic fish that seemed remarkably unruffled by -- even disinterested in -- our arrival.
That's because there's so little history of human predation in the Galápagos that the animals have no reason to regard their human visitors as anything more than curious representatives of a species that shows up in their midst from time to time.
The experience got me thinking about the way Arthur Jones frames our relationship with the animal world in the Advent meditations he's been publishing this month on EarthBeat, all of them pegged to Pope Francis’ encyclical "Laudato Si', on Care for Our Common Home."
Discussing "the crisis and effects of modern anthropocentrism… when humanity treats itself as the pre-eminent element in creation," Jones quotes Francis
Once the human being declares independence from reality and behaves with absolute dominion, the very foundations of our life begin to crumble… This situation has led to a constant schizophrenia, wherein a technocracy which sees no intrinsic value in lesser beings coexists with the other extreme, which sees no special value in human beings… A misguided anthropocentrism leads to a misguided lifestyle…  [And] the rise of relativism that sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one's own immediate interests.
Anthropocentrism is so ingrained in our culture -- and so much at the heart of the climate crisis -- that spending a week immersed in its absence was both jolting and awe-inspiring. Perhaps only in the Galápagos might I have had the accidental experience of nearly stepping on a sleeping sea lion. Or barely avoiding the spray of salt that the marine iguanas snort from their nostrils after a dinner dive for algae. And I can tell you that finding yourself face to face with a 100-year-old tortoise weighing in at, say, 450 pounds can make for one quite humbling encounter. 
Our week in the islands included no overtly religious dimension. 
These are the islands where Charles Darwin rooted his theories of evolution, a perspective on where we come from regarded by some as an affront to belief in divine creation. On the contrary, I found the experience of hiking his footsteps to be an affirmation of the sort of "circle of life" described so eloquently by theologian Elizabeth Johnson
The silence and the waiting that characterized much of our interaction with the animals reminded me at times of the eight-day Ignatian retreats I’ve made at Eastern Point Retreat House. There's nothing quite like absorbing the world around you, quietly, to gain some perspective on our responsibility to protect as much of it as possible. 
All in all, not a bad way to spend the second week of Advent. 

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