The Search for Meaning

Science, spirituality, and our desire for satisfaction

“Earth” Day Too Big? Try “Grain-of-Sand” Day

How we can keep the problems of the world from overwhelming us

I confess to feeling deeply ambivalent about Earth Day. On the one hand, having been born to a Mennonite family on a dairy farm in central Delaware, I love the earthiness of Earth Day: our seasonal focus on the layer of humus that coats much of our planet and the plants and animals that spring to life because of it. On the other hand, Earth Day was founded not because of what is right with the earth but what’s wrong with it. The annual commemoration of Earth Day began in the wake of a massive 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California.

Here’s my problem: the environmental issues confronting the planet—global warming, ocean acidification, deforestation, overuse of pesticides and herbicides, to name a few—are globe-sized problems. From the perspective of one individual, they seem far too vast even to understand, much less address. When we pause on Earth Day long enough to acknowledge the scale of these problems and how long it might take to address them, we can easily end up discouraged, if not depressed.

The poet William Blake suggested an antidote to this conundrum: don’t think big, think small. In Blake’s Auguries of Innocence, he wrote of the ability “To see the world in a grain of sand, And Heaven in a wild flower, Hold infinity in the palm of your hand, And eternity in an hour.”

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Start with the small stuff, Blake suggests: a simple grain of sand, or a single wild flower, or a solitary hour. If you really look at what’s in the palm of your hand, if you really pay attention to the parts of the world that are right in front of you, you’ll eventually see everything you need to see.

One of the small things we do each day—usually several times—is to eat. As it turns out, even though eating one meal may be a small deal, it has big consequences. So, what’s for dinner? The answer matters—not just to your stomach and the rest of your body, but eventually to the planet as well.

You may recall that Michael Pollan, in his book The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, analyzes (among other dining options) a fast-food meal. What’s on the plate (and in the wrapper and the cup), he finds, is mostly corn. Laboratory measurements of the fast-food meal consumed by Pollan’s family of four revealed that corn made up 100 percent of the soda, 65 percent of the salad dressing, 56 percent of the chicken nuggets, 52 percent of the cheeseburger, and 23 percent of the French fries. The cornification of our food system, as Pollan calls it, has degraded our physical health (too many calories, too much processed food, too little diversity) and damaged our environment (too much fertilizer, too many pesticides, too many antibiotics).

Here’s how small decisions have big consequences: the decision to eat a fast-food meal sends an instruction to corporate headquarters: keep making food this way, with all the corresponding destruction of the environment, degradation of animals, and damage to our bodies. The universe changes in response to whether we have a fast-food hamburger or a local chicken for dinner. It changes in response to whether our blueberries came from a local farm or from South America.

Because we need to eat, we owe the universe a debt of gratitude for our sustenance. But also because we need to eat, we’re responsible for the kind of universe that gets created in response to how we meet our need for sustenance. As Pollan says, “…however we choose to feed ourselves, we eat by the grace of nature, not industry, and what we’re eating is never anything more or less than the body of the world.

Here’s my bottom line on Earth Day: Because we personally take what we need from the world around us, we must take personally what the world around us needs to thrive. Do something small this Earth Day. Over time, it will have big consequences.

Galen Guengerich, Ph.D., is senior minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan and author of the book God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age.

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