God, Coral Reefs, Intrinsic Value, and Planet Loyalty
School in great numbers at Rapture Reef, French Frigate Shoals, Papahānaumokuākea National Marine Monument (Image credit: James Watt)
Often, process theologians emphasize the intrinsic value of life on land, but they - we - forget the intrinsic value of life underwater, coral reefs for example. These underwater ecosystems are teeming with diverse and unique life forms: sea urchins, sea stars, sea cucumbers, mollusks, clownfish, damselfish, cuttlefish, gobies, and algae. These creatures, too, are subjects of their own lives, not just objects for others; they, too, have their unique forms of subjective experience, filled with wisdom of their own; they, too, live within the waters of divine Eros, where all life unfolds.
Just like the beings on land, our underwater neighbors are facing various environmental crises: coral destruction, for example, due to global climate change, acidification, overfishing, and coastal development. Bailey Thomasson, who dedicates her efforts to the Coral Restoration Foundation, remarked to the NY Times after a dive: "It just felt like, ‘Oh my God, we’re in the apocalypse.’ She pleads for collective action, stating, "It’s up to everyone else to demand climate action right now. Not in a year, not tomorrow, but right now. Actually yesterday."
How might open and relational or process theologians respond? Might we consider coral restoration a mode of process practice? And might we add that the world loyalty we so often espouse includes marine loyalty? Yes, might we say, loudly and clearly, that the Earth needs our protection and care, our willingness to say that we are not the center of things, that the image of God is found in corals, too, in ways that transcend our own capacities.
- Jay McDaniel
"Bailey Thomasson, who works for the Coral Restoration Foundation, after a dive Friday. 'It just felt like, ‘Oh my God, we’re in the apocalypse,’” she said. Ms. Thomasson is determined to keep working on coral restoration, but she needs an ocean hospitable to corals for them to return to. 'It’s up to everyone else to demand climate action right now,” Ms. Thomasson said. 'Not in a year, not tomorrow, but right now. Actually yesterday.'”
From NY Times Article, by Catrin Einhorn, July 21, 2023: A Desperate Push to Save Florida’s Coral: Get It Out of the Sea. Photograph by Jason Gulley.
Coral restoration consists of activities and practices aimed at helping damaged or degraded coral reefs recover and regain their health. Coral reefs are critical marine ecosystems that support an incredible diversity of marine life, and they are under threat due to factors such as climate change, pollution, overfishing, and coastal development. Coral restoration efforts focus on assisting coral reefs in their recovery and enhancing their resilience. Here are some of the common practices that constitute coral restoration:
Coral gardening: Coral gardening involves growing corals in nurseries before transplanting them onto degraded reefs. Fragments of healthy corals, known as coral fragments or "corals of opportunity," are collected from donor colonies or areas less impacted by stressors and attached to structures, such as metal frames or concrete blocks, to grow in controlled environments. Once the fragments have grown sufficiently, they are transplanted back onto degraded reef sites.
Direct coral transplantation: In this method, healthy coral colonies are relocated from areas with stable populations to degraded reef sites. The transplanted corals can help establish new growth in areas where natural recovery is slow or limited.
Larval propagation and settlement: Some projects focus on collecting coral larvae during mass spawning events and then allowing them to settle and grow on artificial substrates in controlled environments, such as underwater mesh structures. Once the larvae have matured into small coral polyps, they can be transplanted onto degraded reefs.
Artificial reef structures: Installing artificial structures, such as concrete reef balls or metal frames, can provide additional substrate for coral larvae to settle and grow. These artificial reefs serve as a base for new coral colonies to establish and eventually contribute to the restoration of the reef ecosystem.
Coral disease management: As coral diseases can be devastating to reef ecosystems, monitoring for coral diseases and implementing measures to prevent or mitigate their spread are essential components of coral restoration. This may involve removing infected corals or using treatments to control disease outbreaks.
Marine protected areas (MPAs): Establishing and effectively managing marine protected areas can help conserve and restore coral reefs. MPAs provide a safe haven for corals and marine life, allowing them to recover without further human disturbance.
Water quality management: Improving water quality by reducing pollution, sedimentation, and nutrient runoff can contribute to the overall health and resilience of coral reefs. This involves collaborative efforts with local communities and governments to implement sustainable land use practices and reduce human impact on marine environments.
Community engagement and education: Engaging local communities and stakeholders in coral restoration efforts is vital for long-term success. Educating the public about the importance of coral reefs and involving them in monitoring and conservation activities can create a sense of ownership and responsibility for the marine environment.
It is important to note that coral restoration efforts should be science-based and conducted with care to minimize potential negative impacts on the natural ecosystem. Additionally, coral restoration alone cannot solve all the challenges facing coral reefs; addressing larger issues like climate change and ocean acidification is crucial for the long-term survival of these valuable marine ecosystems.
Underwater Life: Coral Beauty
I do not know if religion in general, or process theology in particular, can help minimize apocalypse coral. But it does seem that, at the very least, we can recognize the many forms of life in coral reefs that have intrinsic value, that add to the ongoing life of God, and that matter to themselves. And it recommends practices such as those identified above, which from a process perspective, are ways of cooperating with the cosmic Life (God) in whom all corals, fish, mollusks, cephalopods, sea urchins, and algae swim. Life beneath the surface of the oceans, no less than life on land, is important to the deep Life, the creative One. Coral restoration begins with a sense of marvelous beauty: with awe in the presence of the deep.
Corals: Corals are the foundation of coral reefs. They are marine invertebrates that secrete calcium carbonate to build their hard skeletons. They live in colonies and provide a habitat for many other species.
Fish: Coral reefs are teeming with a vast array of fish species. These include small reef fish like clownfish, damselfish, and gobies, as well as larger predators such as groupers, barracudas, and sharks.
Invertebrates: A diverse range of invertebrates can be found on coral reefs. These include sea stars, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, crabs, shrimps, lobsters, and various types of worms.
Mollusks: Many mollusk species inhabit coral reefs, including various types of snails, clams, and octopuses.
Cephalopods: Coral reefs are home to cephalopods such as squids and cuttlefish, which are highly intelligent and fascinating creatures.
Echinoderms: Echinoderms, including sea stars, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers, are common inhabitants of coral reefs.
Sea Turtles: Several species of sea turtles use coral reefs for foraging and nesting sites.
Marine Mammals: Some marine mammals, like dolphins and certain species of whales, can be found in and around coral reef ecosystems.
Algae: Algae play a vital role in coral reef ecosystems, providing a food source for many organisms and helping to create the beautiful colors seen in coral reefs.
Sponges: Sponges come in various shapes, sizes, and colors and are important filter feeders on coral reefs.
Crustaceans: Crustaceans such as hermit crabs, decorator crabs, and mantis shrimps are commonly found on coral reefs.
Nudibranchs: These colorful and unique sea slugs are also present in coral reef environments
God, Coral Reefs, and Planet Loyalty
Coral reefs and the lives inhabiting them around the world are now threatened by global climate change, leading to widespread coral bleaching and degradation. This is just one of the many challenges that human beings, especially those of privilege and power, impose upon a "very good" creation loved by God.
A significant feature of process theology is its belief that God cares about and loves the entire creation, along with each living being within it. God is not a separate being; God is the Sacred Whole of the universe: the cosmic Life in whose experience the universe unfolds, not unlike the way in which an embryo unfolds inside a womb. We humans on planet earth are among the embryos, and all other creatures on our planet are as well. We live inside God's life, not outside it.
Given the likelihood that there are countless living beings on other planets and even on moons within our solar system, it is important to remember that the womb of the universe is vast, mysterious, and infinitely varied in its content, all of which, so process theologians propose, is embraced and included within the cosmic Life. We encounter the spirit of divine multiplicity on our planet when we encounter rainforests on land and rainforests in the oceans: the coral reefs.
How to live? First and foremost, we best live with humility, wonder, and respect for the value and beauty of other living beings on our planet: animals, plants, fungi, and microorganisms such as bacteria. We need not romanticize "the creation" and say that is an idyllic peaceable kingdom. It includes predator-prey relations at every level. Creatures eat other creatures. We ourselves eat other creatures and are eaten by them. We must protect ourselves. And our bodies are hosts to countless other creatures, living cells, and bacteria, for example. We creatures are inside one another even as we have our separate lives.
But amid this complexity, we can also sense that the living whole of our planet, just like the living whole of the universe, is not about us. It is about life itself, of which we are an instance. And so much of life is quite beautiful precisely in not being about us. It is other-beauty, unpossessed and unpossessable.
What is this other-beauty? Process theologians speak of it as the intrinsic value of other forms of life: the value that they have for themselves. Intrinsic value means that even small organisms like individual corals have inherent worth, and their secretion of calcium carbonate exoskeletons provides instrumental value by offering crucial habitats, food, shelter, and breeding grounds for countless marine species, all of which also possess intrinsic value.
Let coral reefs, then, provide an example of this other-beauty. The forms of life inhabiting reefs include corals, clownfish, damselfish, gobies, groupers, barracudas, sharks, squids, cuttlefish, crabs, worms, mollusks, cephalopods, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, sea turtles, algae, and so much more. Each and all have value for themselves, even as they also have instrumental value for others.
Both forms of value, intrinsic and instrumental, contribute to the beauty and enrichment of life on Earth and both enrich the vitality of the cosmic Life in whose experience the entire universe unfolds. A healthy spirituality starts with awakening to and respecting the value of these living beings and organisms. And it involves awakening to a value that transcends human projects, recognizing that the worth and beauty of all living beings extend beyond human endeavors or utilitarian purposes.
Embracing this broader perspective enables us to enjoy a deeper connection with the cosmic Life and the interconnectedness of all life on Earth. This deeper connection involves letting go, dropping away, of an ego-based approach to the world where everything refers back to us. We begin to realize that our own individual lives have their meaning in a larger ecological context and that our own individuality, our own intrinsic value, is deepened, not impoverished, by other-beauty. This understanding fosters a profound sense of reverence and responsibility for the well-being of the entire creation, enriching both human existence and the life of God. This respect and responsibility for the whole creation is what process theologians call world loyalty or, to say the same thing, planet loyalty. It involves and includes a sense of beauty and mystery: a recognition that other living beings have worlds and cultures of their own, which are beautiful in their own right.
Back, then, to what is happening to the coral reefs. They are endangered by climate change, ocean acidification, overfishing, coastal development, and many other ways. Yes, we impose challenges on the reefs. But an equally helpful word is the word "sin." The word literally means "missing the mark" of becoming who we are called to be by God, by the Sacred Whole. We are called to become children of the Whole, people of the breath, who take their place in the larger scheme of life as responsible citizens, as friends of the Earth and of life. The various religions of the world can and must grow into friends of the Earth, and indigenous traditions the world over can be our guides. They, more than the religions of the Axial age, found and find "spirituality" in responsible connections with other forms of life, visible and invisible. With respect to coral reefs, there is much to learn from oceanic and coastal indigenous traditions. They do not romanticize the reefs as if they could not be touched. They fish them and swim in them. They use them. But they also have a sense that other forms of oceanic life also have value in their own right: intrinsic value.
The future depends on human beings finding a way to balance these two kinds of value in our lives, as indigenous peoples have done for so long. Is it too late? For many creatures, it is. We humans have destroyed so much. But the only thing we can now do is to repent, to turn around, to try to live in a more holistic, life-sensitive way, for the sake of other creatures, for the sake of ourselves, and for the sake of God.
Corals are marine invertebrates that form diverse and vibrant coral reefs through the secretion of calcium carbonate exoskeletons. These reefs offer crucial habitats, food, shelter, and breeding grounds for countless marine species, functioning as natural barriers that protect coastlines from erosion and storms. Despite their significance, corals face serious threats like climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, and overfishing, leading to coral bleaching and reef degradation. Conservation efforts are urgently needed to safeguard these delicate and valuable ecosystems, often referred to as the "rainforests of the sea" for their exceptional biodiversity and vital contributions to both marine life and human communities, supporting industries such as tourism and fishing.
What are Scientists saying about Corals and Coral Reefs?
BBC's In Our Time
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the simple animals which informed Charles Darwin's first book, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, published in 1842. From corals, Darwin concluded that the Earth changed very slowly and was not fashioned by God. Now coral reefs, which some liken to undersea rainforests, are threatened by human activity, including fishing, pollution and climate change. With Steve Jones, Senior Research Fellow in Genetics at University College London: Nicola Foster, Lecturer in Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth and Gareth Williams, Associate Professor in Marine Biology at Bangor University School of Ocean Sciences. Producer Simon Tilllotson.
How Coral Reefs Spawn
Reading List and Related Links
offered by BBC's In Our Time
Jeremy B. C. Jackson, Karen E. Alexander and Enric Sala (eds.), Shifting Baselines: The Past and the Future of OceanFisheries (Springer, 2011)
Steve Jones, Coral: A Pessimist in Paradise (Abacus, 2008)
Callum Roberts, Reef Life: An Underwater Memoir (Profile Books, 2019)
Forest Rohwer with Merry Youle, Coral Reefs in the Microbial Seas (Plaid Press, 2010)
Peter Sale, Coral Reefs: Majestic Realms under the Sea (Yale University Press, 2021)
Charles Sheppard, Coral Reefs: A Natural History (Princeton University Press, 2021)
Mark Spalding, World Atlas of Coral Reefs (University of California Press, 2001)