Humanity in an alliance with nature

More than a few of you who read this, work in International Development. Poverty alleviation. The following words penned by American naturalist and farmer Henry Beston back in 1948 will not be a new idea to you:

“…man’s relation to Nature must never be anything else but an alliance.  ….When we begin to consider Nature as something to be robbed greedily like an unguarded treasure, or used as an enemy, we put ourselves, in thought, outside of Nature – of which we are inescapably a part. Be it storm and flood, hail and fire, or the yielding furrow and the fruitful plain, an alliance it is, and that alliance is a cornerstone of our true humanity.” (Northern Farm, Ballantine Books, pg. 29)

It goes without saying that humanity’s footprint on this planet was considerably smaller 400 years ago, when much of our current culture’s matrix was taking philosophical shape. So much smaller that most people did not think of Earth as a closed system. The resources of the planet seemed limitless (outside of concentrated population centers) and our ability to significantly harm our environment seemed miniscule in that vast land and seascape.

However, it turns out we’ve come to realize Earth is itself a closed system, as surely as the Apollo 13 moonshot. The same issues faced by Apollo -oxygen, CO2, and toxins – are precisely the issues we now realize our footprint is big enough to impact in dangerous ways.

One of the central, perennial conundrums for engineers who develop vehicles for space travel is the fact that a spaceship, (or space station, for that matter, even if it were the size of the Halo ring!), is a closed system – and how to keep humans alive in a closed system? A space capsule is utterly sealed: nothing gets in or out. So how do you not run out of enough good stuff (oxygen, water, food) and not build up far too much bad stuff (toxins like CO2 and human waste products)? The Apollo 13 crew nearly died because their CO2 scrubber broke.

Earth itself, we now see, is a spaceship, a closed system. We are absolutely capable of running out of resources. As I’ve observed before, you can monetize wood in your economy – but when there are no more cuttable forests, money is no longer exchangeable or translatable into wood. For us to continue to act as we did in the 1700s in regards to how we manage the planet, is insanity.

I was sitting some months ago at a wedding with a U.S. senator’s chief aide. We began to talk about this, and why environmental policy in Washington currently looks the way it does. I’ll tell that story next time.

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If Climate Change is Natural, Does that Change Anything?

It never ceases to amaze me that two radio entertainers have convinced a majority of Americans that Global Warming is a hoax, although it happens to be a hoax that nearly every government on planet Earth believes is true, and is working to address. The immense confidence my fellow citizens have in these two entertainers is astounding. For sure, they are talented.

However, there is now another tagline alongside the hoax argument, and that is that climate change is a purely natural phenomenon and so our use of fossil fuels (57% of the carbon dioxide released currently) shouldn’t matter. (What we do and don’t know about climate change is summarized pretty handily in this BBC article: http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-24021772 ).

So let’s consider the “it’s only natural” argument for a moment. First, certainly that is in part true. We know, from analyzing a variety of materials, that Earth’s climate has been both hotter and colder in the past. The polar caps on Mars were melting/shrinking/subliming the last few years, and of course my Chevy Silverado’s engine didn’t cause that.

However, it is also certain that we are releasing unprecedented amounts of CO2 in the last hundred years, and it’s a powerful greenhouse gas. No one wanting to be serious should argue that increased greenhouse gas doesn’t contribute to the rise in temperature.

But if the temperature is climbing anyway (increased sun output, etc), should we bother trimming back on our contribution? Let’s think about that.

When it gets colder outside, I put additional wood on the fire. I mulch the flower beds deeper, wear an additional layer, and maybe add a layer of insulation to the attic. When there’s a drought in the summer I don’t water the lawn, and pay extra attention to when I water the garden. When the average frost line dips south, farmers look to more cold-resistant strains of grain. (At the moment, world governments are looking at heat resistant strains, and planting further north). In short, we make adjustments to our life due to climate all the time. Even when the changes are natural.

So, if climate changes are largely natural, should we do anything with our lifestyles? Several questions arise for North Americans, even if you leave out moral questions about how our decisions affect Fiji, Indonesia and sub-Saharan Africa. First, do you like Florida? Because if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet goes off the landmass and into the water, Florida will no longer be above water. Goodbye. And one of our problems is that we simply don’t know when the tipping point in that slide is reached, so it’s hard to know if we are very close to danger in that area, or not. How about East Coast cities? Have you watched the news on this? The numbers of East Coast cities dealing with tidal flooding and writing up emergency plans for such is growing monthly. These are cities that never dealt with tidal floods in the past. Or consider the wheat belt in Kansas, et al. There is extreme concern of catastrophic crop failure due to a spike in temperatures. Your croissants are going to get very expensive. So expensive, that Bill Gates has already funded the 30 kilometer high balloon-lifted hose that would spray silicates into the high atmosphere to shield us from sunlight. It’s the most popular of the ‘geo-engineering’ projects being debated by world governments as we speak. Sound like science fiction? The money has already been spent. Governments have been discussing it in deadly earnest for some time now. Do you like coral reefs and seafood? Because industrial acidification is killing off the coral reefs, and we know this for a fact.

As a Christian who believes in the stewardship God placed us in over His world, I believe we should be a serious and thoughtful voice at the table these days as we try to figure out an appropriate response to climate change. My brother-in-law in Kentucky, a very wise follower of Jesus, said to me not long ago when I asked his opinion on all this, “I’ve always believed you should clean up any mess you’ve made, and avoid making a mess when you do something, if you don’t need to make one.” Good common sense.

So, in a word, here’s what I suggest is worth talking about: even if climate change is purely natural, it is very worth our time thinking together about how to adjust our contribution to it, because our contribution is exacerbating a situation that is already going to make life here more difficult. If I knew fire-danger was at an all-time high one summer, everything dry as a bone, and we had 25 mile an hour winds, I’m not going to burn a brush pile that day.

Tomorrow’s Ethical Issues

Some Christians today are still arguing if women can be in leadership. That seems laughable to me, though I realize that sounds uncharitable. More Christians today are arguing or struggling over the subject of same-sex marriage/attraction or whatever. When I think of some of the ethical questions that will face Christianity in the future, I wonder if some of our questions today will seem silly or small?

For instance, when it comes to joining crocodile DNA to human DNA so that our hemoglobin can go on less oxygen, so that we can walk around Mars with a less oxygenated atmosphere… yet those and other DNA changes start separating humanity into separate species who cannot interbreed… is that ok or not from the perspective of the Christian faith?

When we get the carbon nanofibers to the point we can build a space elevator (google it) and make the other planets more accessible because we don’t need to get out of Earth’s gravity well for takeoff, will it be ethical from the Christian faith’s viewpoint to spend the world’s wealth on an elevator when children across the Global South still don’t have clean water?

When trillions start getting dumped into terraforming Mars into a liveable planet like Earth (it’s about as close as it can get already), will we consider it ethical to do so when those same children in the South still don’t have clean water? What does the Second Coming look like from Mars? Will Christians argue that God made only Earth for humans?

Will creating meteor-buster missiles (to protect Earth from a mass extinction from a large hit) be considered by Christianity prudent, or lacking faith in God?

These are only up close, short term questions almost upon us. What about questions of dumping all your memories onto a computer chip and then reviving you in a cloned human’s brain? Is that people taking resurrection into their own hands?

What about taking a human brain and placing it in a mechanical body so that settlers don’t need life-support systems, and can settle on the moons of the outer planets like Uranus or Neptune? They will never be able to biologically reproduce, and their only flesh-and-blood part would be their brain — everything else prosthetic. Is that ok by Christian theology?

Point being, we have some wild and tricky questions coming. Sometimes today’s seem tame.

Urban gardens – A Kingdom issue

Instead of focusing a disproportionate amount (or all!) of our energy dickering over some of today’s  hot button  issues, such as the various ways of how to interpret Paul’s doctrine of justification, or who thinks what about hell, Christians should be focusing some serious energy on this. Poor people living in cities end up eating trash from gas station marts because there are no grocery chains around. This is not yuppie-hippie-foodie nonsense, this is an issue of how does God want people to live? In parts of New Orleans where my oldest son spent the summer in ministry, residents would need to take three consecutive busrides to secure groceries. Obviously they aren’t going to do that – how would you even get more than an armful home with you, not to mention keeping cold stuff cold? Christians, of all people, should be very concerned that people are stuck eating processed junk that lands you right into diabetes and anti-Shalom. This is a Kingdom issue, if you think the Kingdom is about more than escaping Earth before Armageddon. This is a matter of Christian conscience, and should be a part of the evangelical conscience. See this encouraging story about NYC. We need more of this:

http://projects.aljazeera.com/2014/food-justice/