The Story of the Universe: We are Made of Star Stuff

IF YOU’RE LIKE ME, you’ve been hearing it for years but haven’t known what to do with it: the idea that we’re made of stardust—“star stuff,” as Carl Sagan described it.

There’s no doubting the truth of it, the fact that debris from exploding stars littered the earth with the ingredients that would combine and coalesce and conspire to create life. So what? Cool idea, not sure how it applies to anything, I’ve thought, my focus quickly jumping to pressing matters like work, bills, and last night’s pro basketball scores.

I am starting to realize the stardust thing is a pressing matter, probably the most pressing matter of all. It’s something to build our values and lives around. It’s what the world needs now.

What turned my head? Paying attention to people like Sam.

Sam King is an environmental educator, activist, speaker, and podcast host I’ve gotten to know in recent years. He has given up obvious and attractive career paths to live his life as though the stardust thing means everything, devoting his work to championing the new cosmology and its applications. He and others like him—Sam sees encouraging growth in their ranks—model a kind of life beyond traditional religion that finds meaning, inspiration, and an ethical foundation through deep engagement with the story of the universe and the life it spawned.

Sam has two official titles. He’s Director of Integral Ecology and Sustainability for the Marist Network of Schools, and Research Associate at the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, where he is also head of outreach for the Emmy Award-winning film Journey of the Universe. I asked Sam for the elevator-speech version of what he is doing with his professional roles and multiple degrees, including his Master of Art in Religion from Yale (my employer). Sam, 31, replied:

“I am teaching the story of the universe in an integral manner and working with young people to help them become hopeful agents in creating a regenerative human presence on our planet at a time of unprecedented crisis and opportunity. I’m interested in worldview transformation and in action that is borne out of what Thomas Berry called ecozoic consciousness. What are the implications for the way we teach, practice spirituality, and structure society?”

Excellent question. Observing and listening to a person like Sam starts to give you a sense of the answers. Among them:

We need to change education, which often shuttles students from “hyper-fragmented subject to hyper-fragmented subject,” as Sam describes it, without teaching how those subjects relate to one another and to the origins and predicaments of life on Earth, without imbuing science with the sense of wonder and excitement it deserves.

We need to change legal systems, which are predicated on the false idea that the rights of humans are the only rights that truly matter, that it’s somehow acceptable to destroy the more-than-human world.

We need to transform our relationship with the earth from exploitation to regeneration, giving back to it as much as—or more than—we take from it.

We need to create and enact rituals that can embed the origin story in our psyches. Sam, for instance, takes people on something called the “Cosmic Walk,” where participants travel along a 138-foot rope, each foot representing 100 million years, the 138 feet together representing the 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang.

“We need to transform our relationship with the earth from exploitation to regeneration, giving back to it as much as—or more than—we take from it.”

There is much, much more. What it comes down to is the leap from knowing to caring. Caring about the amazing-ness of the universe and the life it spawned. Caring enough to go from nodding at the reality of climate change to internalizing the chilling truth about what it threatens to do—what it‘s doing now—to life on earth. Caring enough to undertake the transformations needed to prevent the worst from happening and creating a future in which life can thrive.

Through books, podcasts, and conversations—an online course is next—I’ve been taking my humanism deeper into the story of the universe and finding it incredibly valuable. The story is more than fascinating and thrilling. It’s making me care. It’s making me value human and other forms of life more than I did before. It’s making me want to do more to protect the planetary home on which life depends.

What we value, of course, is what forms our values. I asked Sam King what values he derives from the story of the universe. “I am interested in the power of synergy,” he responded, “how we step into lifestyles that are mutually enhancing and inspire others to live more reciprocally with the earth process.” He cited pollinator gardens, food forests, and other forms of food-growing “in which humans can be partners in propagating native biodiversity.”

“I am interested in power with rather than power over,” he continued. “I value an ecocentric perspective, where the more-than-human world is granted a right to exist and flourish, where every being has a right to exist. We don’t have a right to destroy the more-than-human world. Even vegans must eat plants of course. But how do we sustain our lives in a way that can ensure the regeneration of ecosystems?”

When taken seriously, our values drive our behavior. The exact shape of that behavior will vary between those who embrace the story of the universe, but the impact goes a long way—from voting and activism to personal decisions about consumption, careers, diets, spiritual practices, where we reside, and myriad other things. The charge is to align ourselves with the ways of the universe and biological life on earth. Thomas Berry summed it up this way many years ago: “Basic values depend on conformity with the earth process. To harm the earth is to harm the human; to ruin the earth is destroy humankind.”

To the extent those actions and decisions make us better humanists and citizens—how could they not?—embracing the story of the universe is a good thing. But it has value beyond that. It can provide our culture something it urgently needs.

Humanity is at a painful point in history. We’re between paradigms, between stories. In the Western world, the old story is largely played out—the tale of the monotheistic god that elevated humans above all other forms of life and fostered an exploitive relationship with our planetary home. It was almost a century and a half ago that Nietzsche declared that god dead. It’s now that those chickens are coming home to roost. More and more people are eschewing traditional religion. Even many of the most fervent proclaimers of god belief frequently behave as though they don’t believe their deity is real.

The old paradigm is going out with a snarl, as evidenced by the hostile, violent, truth-denying politics associated with the segments of the population most invested in the old story. A sense of dislocation and pessimism pervades society. The culture has lost its bearings.

We need a new story. A story that answers the questions of our time, that makes sense of our existence, that provides context—provides psychological and emotional mooring—for this mysterious thing called life.

As David Christian writes in Origin Story: A Big History of Everything, “How did we get here? Our modern origin story can help us get our bearing by placing human history within the much larger story of planet earth and the universe.”

The view from the mountaintop, as Christian describes it, also helps us see a hugely significant shift underway now. A more secular world is setting in, alongside evolving forms of religion suited to the unique threats and challenges of the twenty-first century. The change bodes well for humanists and the kind of world we envision. But to fulfill its potential and exert a constructive potency, this evolution in human history needs a story. A story that can “sell” it, that can answer the kinds of big questions that have captivated human imaginations and animated conversations since the first campfires.

The new story has the answers. Its characters and plotlines aren’t deities or tales of the supernatural. Its source material is found in the natural world and our scientific understanding of it—what we can see with the naked eye as we marvel at the night sky or ocean, what we can see through ever more powerful telescopes and microscopes.

It’s a story they didn’t know in Nietzsche’s time. Thanks to science, we know it now. The Big Bang. The simple elements of an expanding young universe combining in increasingly interesting, complex ways, following decipherable laws of physics, forming stars, then planets, including earth, which in its own fascinating ways, with its just-right “Goldilocks” conditions and ingredients, birthed chemical interactions that created life in its mind-boggling complexity and grandeur.

“We were never promised any of it—this world of cottonwoods and clouds—when the Big Bang set the possible in motion,” Maria Popova writes. “And yet here we are, atoms with consciousness, each of us a living improbability forged of chaos and dead stars. Children of chance, we have made ourselves into what we are—creatures who can see a universe of beauty in the feather of a bird.”

We come from the universe. We are intrinsically part of the earth. That’s our origin story. Once we know it—know it in our bones—our only course of action is to strive like hell to be worthy of it.