The Most Important Idea in the World – Sunday column, March 20, 2011
A lung, says David Suzuki, is a light, squishy organ, because it’s mostly air. In fact a human being is largely made up of air. With every breath we take, components of air are drawn in and released back into the atmosphere. They travel throughout our body, interacting with every cell. Air, Suzuki notes, “embraces us so intimately that it is hard to say where we leave off and air begins.”
“But if you are air and I am air, then I am you, and you are me,” says Suzuki in his magnificent legacy lecture, A Force of Nature, which showed on CBC a week ago. He described a thought experiment by the astronomer Harlow Shapley, who noted that air is 1% argon. Shapley calculated that a single breath contains a vast number of argon atoms — about 3.0 times 10 to the 19th power.That’s 30,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms.
Because argon is an inert gas, we breathe it in and out without absorbing it. When you exhale, those argon atoms re-enter the air of the room to be inhaled and exhaled by others. A year from now, those same atoms will have circulated around the entire planet, and fifteen of them will have made their way back to you to be breathed in again.
In The Sacred Balance, Suzuki quotes Shapley as saying that “Your next breath will contain more than 400,000 of the argon atoms that Ghandi breathed in his long life. Argon atoms are here from the conversations at the Last Supper, from the arguments of diplomats at Yalta, and from the recitations of the classic poets.” And from the exhalations of the dinosaurs, the whales and the sabre-toothed tigers.
Air, says Suzuki, is “a matrix that joins all life together,” past and future as well as present. We inhale our ancestors and exhale into the lungs of our children. Furthermore, by befouling the air – and the water, and the earth – we very literally befoul ourselves.
In Slow Death by Rubber Duck, Bruce Lourie and Rick Smith make precisely the same point. We think of pollution as “out there,” in the environment, separate from us. It is not. Every human body, Suzuki notes, now contains two or three pounds of plastic as well as innumerable chemicals and toxins. We are the environment. The environment is us.
This idea is woven deeply into human consciousness, from aboriginal spirituality to ancient European philosophy. In Scott Macmillan’s magnificent choral work, Celtic Mass for the Sea, librettist Jennyfer Brickenden quotes a nugget of ancient Gaelic wisdom: “He who tramples on the earth, tramples on himself.” We come from the earth and return to the earth. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
The idea that we exist separate from our surroundings is a trick of thought and language. It was exploded for me by the late, wonderful Alan Watts in The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. For Watts, our normal sensation of self as a separate being is a hoax, “hallucination which accords neither with Western science nor with the experimental philosophy-religions of the East.” In truth, what we see can only be known by its opposites. Language calls this a wave, and that a trough – but there is no wave without a trough. We cannot know darkness without knowing light. There is no up without a down, no death without life, no Self without an Other.
This is the great secret, says Watts, the secret of “who or what you really are behind the mask of your apparently separate, independent, and isolated ego.” And what you really are is the world. As Watts puts it, “we do not ‘come into’ this world. We come out of it, as leaves from a tree. Every individual is an expression of the whole realm of nature, a unique action of the total universe.”
Each breath, says Suzuki, speaking the precise scientific truth, “is a sacrament, an affirmation of our connection with all other living things, a renewal of our link with our ancestors and a contribution to generations yet to come.”
Like the air, this idea is everywhere. As it should be. It is the most important idea in the world.