I very much enjoy listening to a BBC Radio 3 progamme called ‘Private Passions’ presented by the composer Michael Berkeley. It’s a sort of upmarket Desert Island Discs which you can find via the wonderful BBC Sounds App. A few weeks ago, it featured Patricia Wiltshire, who turned out to be a rather engaging forensic ecologist. I was struck by what she had to say about her beliefs, which were emphatically not religious.
“The only life after death is what you leave behind, which becomes incorporated into life. So you are decomposed, you break down into your constituent little bits. The energy all drains away because it dissipates. You can’t do much about that. But the bits of you that are left, and all the molecules that make up your body are dissipated and then they are recycled. So you will be recycled. So that’s the only life after death that I can imagine. I don’t have any spiritual feelings. (…) This is the natural cycle and of course there is only so much matter, so if it weren’t recycled we couldn’t have birth at all.”
It was the throwaway phrase ‘There’s only so much matter,’ which set me wondering, as it seemed to resonate with the words in ‘The Scripture of Great Wisdom’. The matter which makes up this planet must indeed be ‘Increasing not, decreasing not’. And all things (being pure or empty) ‘are neither born nor do they wholly die.’
And so we talk of finite resources; we say that our planet is a ‘closed system.’. And, I wondered, with the ever increasing numbers of human beings (matter) does this inevitably mean fewer of other beings (also matter.) Thus as we watch animals, plants, birds, insects disappearing from the earth, is it because there isn’t enough matter left for them to be born and sustained? And as we convert resources into non-recyclable materials like plastics and burn fossil fuels and convert them into damaging gases, are we gradually and not so gradually reducing the amount of matter that can sustain life and putting it into forms which are effectively dead? Such that in the end there can be no birth?
Perhaps this is all obvious, but that little phrase somehow gave me a different sort of insight into what is happening. It didn’t really cheer me up.
One Reply to “Increasing not decreasing not?”
I have recently watched videos on YouTube exploring the fact that there will come a time for all of us when there will no longer be anyone alive who knew us. At that time, we will truly have died and gone. Personally, I find that comforting. I have no desire to be remembered or feted for what I have done in my life. I try to live in service to others and that may or may not be admired or approved of, but I do not want especially to be remembered for that. Does that sound nihilistic or strange? It may be that in part, my having no children contributes to that feeling. Or do I subconsciously feel that to want to be remembered would somehow go against the idea that I have no permanent essence? Are these the musings that come with getting older?
You wonder, Chris, whether with our planet being a closed system we are gradually moving towards a point when there can be no birth. That is a distinct possibility but if nothing is permanent then perhaps that is fine.
The length of time that the human race has been going is tiny against the backdrop of the age of the universe and perhaps in our present form we will not be around for long though we recoil at the thought that we are destroying ourselves and the planet. Of course, this wanton destruction is sad and I try to do what I can to prevent it. Yet even the stars which seem immensely long-lived die so would it not be the same for us? Given the vastness of the universe, beyond our ability to grasp, why should we see ourselves and this tiny planet as being of any particular importance? Certainly, I feel that we should do the best we can, while we are here, to preserve and protect what we have but we cannot make it eternal.
Reading what you wrote certainly caused me to think a lot and I thank you for that.