Monday, October 5, 2009

St. Francis, St. Paul, and Walruses

October 4 is the Feast of St. Francis, a day when many parishes invite people to bring the animals with whom they share their lives for a blessing. It’s a good opportunity to think about our relationship with our fellow creatures, and to appreciate the gift of both the domesticated dogs, cats, hamsters, turtles, and other pets that we know as part of our households, and also the wild animals that we know in a different way.

Those wild animals are of course affected by air and water pollution, habitat destruction, and climate change. Observation of changes in population size or shifts in animal behavior such as changes in migration patterns can help us notice changes in the environment. Reflection about the effects of pollution and climate change on our fellow creatures, both human and nonhuman, is appropriate as we remember St. Francis and the animals.

Today’s Daily Office reading from I Corinthians (I Corinthians 10:14-11:1) provides a revealing lens through which to look at some of the environmental news from the past week. “Do not seek your own advantage, but that of the other,” writes St. Paul. The selfishness – the clamoring for our own advantage – that is assumed to be acceptable in the political arena does not meet Paul’s standards for Christian conduct! As Paul might say, the assumption of egoism is lawful – even expected – but not necessarily beneficial.

The United States has been slow to do anything significant about climate change. We know that global warming will be slowed and perhaps eventually stopped only if we make some noticeable changes in the way we live. However, there is fear of change, even if it is change for the better. Part of the fear for some people is that some sort of perceived advantage – a monetary advantage, a convenience, or simply the comfort of things staying the same – will be lost.

At first glance, it looks like Paul’s admonition to seek the advantage of the other instead of our own advantage applies in this situation. If we listened to Paul, we might set aside those advantages we see ourselves having in favor of supporting new technologies and new habits. But here’s the interesting part: those who feel they would be giving up an advantage, making a sacrifice, to give some sort of advantage to others – both other people and our nonhuman companions on this planet -- would really be creating a greater advantage for themselves as well. While climate change affects the poorest people in the world first and worst, it will affect all of us eventually.

The idea Paul was addressing of one person having some sort of an advantage at the expense of another is part of a moral and political paradigm that simply doesn’t fit the truly global issue of climate change. When one part of the globe constituted the world as most people knew it in their lifetimes, and especially when our concerns really were with a specific area of the world – our own city-state, our own country, continent, or hemisphere -- we with more power and wealth could overlook the disadvantages of others and push them to the edge of our circumscribed worlds, where they could be out of sight and out of mind. All of us and all of creation have always been interconnected, but it was easier to pretend that wasn't the case.

When the composition of the air we all breathe and its effects on the waters of the Earth are the issues at stake, however, such a paradigm doesn’t make sense. However, we still forget, deny, try to avoid the reality of our interconnectedness with everyone and everything else. Somehow we still don’t grasp the failure of the old self-centered paradigm (as old as original sin), and we still suppose that our relatively short-term, local concerns – having automobiles that run on relatively cheap gasoline, for example – constitute an advantage or a good for us, when in reality they are turning our planet into a place where we will not be able to continue living at all as we have over the past century.

This week the New York Times reported that Carol Browner, the top White House official for climate and energy, said that there is virtually no chance that Congress will pass a climate bill before the world climate conference planned for December in Copenhagen. Another article reported on the effects of receding Arctic sea ice on Pacific walruses. With open water in recent summers instead of ice, the walruses have become crowded along shorelines and many are being crushed to death. The juxtaposition of these two stories was striking. When will we really wake up to the reality of what we are doing to ourselves and to the other creatures God has entrusted to our care?

Andrew Revkin’s Dot Earth blog followed up on his New York Times story about the Pacific walruses. The post, “On Walruses and Warming”, included this video of a walrus stampede:

“Give us all a reverence for the earth as your own creation, that we may use its resources rightly in the service of others and to your honor and glory.” (Book of Common Prayer, Form IV Prayers of the People)

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