review of “Ecology: A New Story” by Dr. Brian Swimme

this is based on a youtube video of swimme‘s lecture in seattle, august 2009. he’s a cosmologist. he’s funny. but when he first comes on there are audio problems which either go away or i get used to them. in case you missed something, here are some of the ideas and similar images, with hyperlinks to beyond (though some of the links might not take you where you expect). if you’re of a scientific or a philosophical or a theological bent you might want to read on; and if you’re not, do so anyway–builds character. (image by jl robertson, from wikipedia)

the ‘r’ word

a physicist, swimme co-wrote the universe story with historian /theologian thomas berry, whom he credits with recognizing a sacred dimension in ecology: ‘the reason this destruction is taking place all over the planet is we have forgotten the sacred dimension of nature.’ science sees ‘the universe as a machine and that the stuff of the universe is dead…. it’s easy to forget about the sacred dimension once you conclude that there is no sacred dimension to the universe…. this is not just tragic, but a disaster. if the universe is just stuff, then it’s there for us to manipulate as we wish. so we began to conceive of the universe as resources.’ swimme predicts that ‘resources’ will become known as the ‘r’ word. ‘to call a bunch of salmon roaring up the river ‘resources’, there’s something really strange about that. so we’re in a moment of the worst destruction on planet earth in 65 million years.’ that’s newsworthy, but you’re unlikely to hear about it.

news today, gone tomorrow

how much of the news you read today, swimme asks, will be around tomorrow? what did you watch on TV last year? who won the superbowl two years ago, he asked his jockish sons. who played? (handprints at el castillo by unknown)

a million years from now they’ll think of this time as the worst in 65 million years. because twenty thousand species go extinct every year, a thousand times the non-human-caused rate. why? ‘because we don’t know what we’re doing,’ swimme says. ‘because we think species are a resource, as opposed to a divine presence.’ our challenge then, he says, is two-fold:

  1. to awaken to the disaster: ecosystems are unravelling
  2. to find a way to directly experience the divine and change our minds

to put it another way, we know more and more data, but have less and less understanding. how can we understand more? ‘so there’s our challenge! ready? here we go! :)’


this image from the caves puts us in a lineage. two hundred thousand years ago, they weren’t fools. ‘these images are as deep as anything we’ve learned from the hubble telescope. as a matter of fact … this primal perspective [of indigenous cultures] is as fundamental as any of the scientific technologies.’ this image is not from the past, it’s almost contemporary, in a universe that is billions of years old. ‘try that on for size!’ says swimme. (oxen, etc, at lascaux by unknown)

‘they dragged these stones for days and days and days and they weigh, what, fifteen tons each.’ swimme wonders, ‘why were they doing this? for the same reason we are, because there’s a deep hunger within us to know how we fit in. how do we make sense of this amazing place we find ourselves in the midst? and above all, we have a hope that we can learn to live in a way that’s in alignment with the deep powers that envelop us.’ that’s our task: how can we learn to live in a way that’s in alignment with the universe? ‘they set up the stones there so that at solstice there is a feeling that the earth and the stones and sun are all turning together.’ (monoliths at stonehenge by unknown)


the sistine chapel is ‘a kind of a cave,’ swimme points out. he asks, ‘how do we interact with divine power? here, the divine power is imaged as a human…. but what about the divine power imaged as salmon, or rainfall, or soil?’ (art by michaelangelo; photo of the sistine chapel uncredited; photo of the creation of adam by jim zuckerman/corbis)

here’s an interaction with the divine. ‘this is the earliest image we have of the universe. it’s called the wilkinson map…. wait a minute. what’s on the other side? oh. certain questions are allowed. that one’s not allowed.’ but this image does need some interpretation. the light in this image is from 13.7 billion years ago, before stars and galaxies. all we have are ripples. but the ripples become … galaxies! if you go out tonight and hold up your hand at arm’s length–in any direction–‘behind your fingernail are a million galaxies. some people find this overwhelming. does anybody find this overwhelming?’ swimme has ‘a side-practice of psychotherapy, in case you get overwhelmed by the universe. i can give you my card later.’ according to swimme, there’s an aboriginal group in south america that says, ‘in order to become human you must dwell on the immensities of the universe. let’s look at the converse of that statement. if you don’t dwell on the immensities of the universe, you don’t become human. you become a really good corporate manager.’ every galaxy contains on average fifty billion stars. emmanuel koch said, ‘if the stars came out once a century, we’d stay up all night.’ (wmap from nasa; galaxies from caltech)

star light, star bright

a hundred years ago we argued whether there was just one galaxy or perhaps more. then edwin hubble came along in the 1920s, resolved smudges to a multitude of galaxies, and changed all that. however, says swimme, ‘there isn’t a single institution in industrial society that’s caught up with that yet.’ there are three kinds of galaxies in the universe. this naming reveals a lot about modern consciousness:

  1. the spiral galaxy
  2. the elliptical galaxy
  3. the irregular galaxy

swimme, a physicist, is flabbergasted: a hundred billion galaxies, but only three kinds, and the third kind is a vague ‘irregular’? ‘we need to evolve our minds to meet the universe, not fit the universe to meet our minds.’ a hundred billion galaxies divided by seven billion people is fifteen galaxies per person. that’s manageable. ‘how are your fifteen?’ swimme adds, ‘by the way, i get the whirlpool. this is mine.’ (image of the whirlpool galaxy by n scoville from nasa)

density waves and living cells

when astronomers first saw the spiral arms, they thought they had been formed by gravity, but now they think a density wave (proposed by lin and shu in 1964) travelled through the galaxy, igniting star birth. the spiral arms are doing something. ‘it’s not a static structure,’ swimme says. ‘it’s actually organizing itself. when the first astronomers first got this idea, one of them said, it’s almost like it’s a living cell’, not a machine.

creativity and miracles

here is the milky way galaxy as seen from earth. once upon a time we assumed that a star never changes. but we discovered that stars have a life cycle. ‘we know now that the explosion [of a star] is the way in which a star’s creativity [for example, the carbon, oxygen, and phosphorous found in your body but forged in the heart of a star] is dispersed.’ when swimme was younger, he thought, ‘you mean, i have to get a star blow up to get an atom of carbon in my body? i might have done it differently.’ but now he accepts that ‘this kind of creativity is strange and it is primordial. we have to find a way of fitting into it.’ (image of the milky way galaxy by judd patterson; image of supernova from

we have planets that emerge out of stars.’jupiter; chaotic; no structure at all. mars, close up of rocks; completely fixated, it never moves, totally rigid. (image of jupiter by voyager 1 from wikipedia; image of mars by t parker (jpl) et al., pathfinder, from nasa)

then we have another planet in between those two, that’s neither rigid nor chaotic.’ the phrase that thomas berry used was ‘balanced turbulence’. between rigidity and chaos is creativity. ‘do you want to live a creative life?’ asks swimme. ‘then be like planet earth.’  what makes for a creative place?

  • ‘have the gifts that bestowed upon us by stars that blow up’
  • ‘enter into the realm of balanced turbulence’

‘the ideal condition for the human is not exactly bovine placidity. it is rather the highest degree of tension that can be creatively borne,… to take on suffering, to take on stress, but in a creative way.’ (image, ‘earthrise’, of earth by apollo 8 from wikipedia)

the evolution of compassion

‘whoa!’ how did we get from there to here? lava becomes … a red monkey. lava. red monkey. ‘now i know it took four billion years. i know it was complicated.’ evolutionary biologists spend their entire lives working out the details. ‘but let’s not forget the big picture: lava becomes a red monkey. we don’t know how it happened.’ swimme challenges us to find a bigger miracle. it’s bigger than walking on water. bigger than feeding five thousand with a slice of wonder bread. ‘we’re living in a miracle,… the very nature, the immanent presence of the divine.’ swimme gives us a spiritual exercise: ‘reflect on lava until you can begin to feel the presence of those eyes in the red monkey.’ we may think we know what rocks are, but like ‘irregular’ galaxies, ‘we’re in the presence of divine creativity.’ (image of lava from; image of lemur from

the sun is a million times larger than earth. it gives of itself generously, converting its mass to light, using that famous formula of einstein’s, e=mc². ‘in other words, mass is a form of light…. every second, four million tons of the sun become light’–light it gives away and never will get back. another spiritual practice; reflect on this: ‘everything you’ve ever done in your entire life has been generated by the sun, has been solar energy. everything. every deep, poetic insight, every spiritual event or action has been a solar event…. it gives and gives and gives and then it explodes and it’s over.’ (image from wpclipart)

‘warning! if you go out into mainstream society and say we exist because of the sun, you’re going to get into arguments…. “you’re anthropomorphizing…. you’re projecting your values onto the sun.” here’s your response: it’s not a human form of generosity, it’s a solar form.’ a form of generosity going back to the beginning of time, and ‘pouring our energy into’ the next generation.

‘that’s a scary looking fish. when you look at this, you can believe that a lot of fish consume their offspring…..lizards. they move further in this whole question of generosity.’ they raise their young. ‘if they turn around and get distracted and turn back, they’ll eat the young…. three hundred million years later, we have the mammals.’ they can care for their offspring for their entire lifetime. they can be separated for years and fall in love all over again. the point is, we have the evolutionary potential to extend that compassion even further [though that’s hard, so hard, to believe in november 2012–remember the task, remember the big picture]. ‘the baboons, they’re not that concerned with the orcas in puget sound, … but we, because of the five hundred million years of evolution, can…. rather than being separate from the earth, we are an ongoing development of it. and our best qualities have been in formation for 13.7 billion years…. five hundred million years of an expanding heart.’ (image of fish by solvin zankl from, lizard by frank müller from wikipedia, baboons by anne engh from


barbara smuts, primatologist, lives with baboons. one day, she wakes up to find a juvenile baboon touching her hand, comparing her finger to his, and ‘she could see him making the connection of their similarity.’ evolutionarily, the ‘mind has been deepening as well.’ (image by laura dyer,

‘so, this human comes along, is even more fascinated with this hand,’ continues swimme, ‘is aware of itself, aware of becoming involved with the universe. so this leads then to a later primate, still fascinated, looking at the universe as a whole. this is an image of albert einstein, reflecting on the universe, when we first discovered that it’s expanding…. but another way to see this is, here is the universe is reflecting upon itself.’ (handprints at el castillo by unknown; einstein image from caltech archives)

goldilocks and alignment

this image is representative of the first image of the large-scale structure of the universe. hubble and einstein discovered that the universe is expanding. ‘when stephen hawking examined it, he found that it was exactly what it had to be in order for the universe to become this complex. if the expansion had been slower, the universe would have quickly become a black hole; if the expansion had been too fast at the beginning, the universe would have spread apart too quickly for galaxies to have formed.’ (image from

instead, things are just right. how much? according to hawking’s calculations, if the expansion of the universe had been off by a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a percent, we wouldn’t be here. ‘so, what does that mean? scientists and philosophers and theologians have been arguing about it since it was discovered. it turns out that the expansion is just sacred.’ swimme wonders, ‘from that perspective we can ask this question: how are we in alignment with the universe?’

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