Wednesday, April 21, 2010

New Reading for Earth Day

Just in time for Earth Day (April 22), Newsweek has published a special issue called 100 Places to Remember before They Disappear.   It’s a beautiful magazine of places to remember from around the world that are in danger of disappearing because of global warming. Some of them, such as the Maldives or the Franz Josef Glacier on New Zealand’s South Island are expected to literally disappear; others will disappear in the same sense that we might say “My old neighborhood is gone”, meaning that there is still something there, but it has changed drastically. These are places like Olympia, Greece, where increasingly warm and dry summers have led to an increase in wildfires, threatening archeological treasures, or the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Coast Rica, where rising temperatures could upset the ecological balance that now supports many rare plant and animal species.

The photos and their descriptions are available on the Newsweek website as well as in the print edition. This is based on a book by the same name , published originally in Denmark.

With Earth Day approaching and publishers using this date to launch new publications about the environment, I decided to pick out for this blog post a couple of the many things I’ve been reading about the Earth that are especially relevant to people in the church. The 100 Places to Remember special edition isn’t written from the point of view of religious environmentalism, but I think it speaks to people of faith.

One reason it may resonate with people of faith is the beauty of the photographs. It shows the goodness of creation, and the wonder of some of the most beautiful places on our planet.  After an initial read-through to see which one hundred places had been chosen for this project and what sorts of environmental stresses are threatening them, I’ve gone back several times to browse and look at the pictures again. It’s meditative to look at the beauty of the photos, but it’s also prayerful on a deeper level to see this beauty while contemplating the very real possibility of losing so much of it.

In the beginning of the print edition, Fareed Zakaria of Newsweek writes: “This book isn’t about atmospheric chemistry or carbon emissions; it’s about people, the places they inhabit and the places they have made, and a heart-tugging evocation of what we may lose if global warming proceeds apace.” This is the other reason this book may be important to Christians. It’s a look at places where our brothers and sisters live, and it’s a glimpse of the hardships many people will face. As glaciers disappear, the primary water sources for many people will be gone. Others face flooding, and some face the disappearance of their homes on islands or coastlands. Increased heat and drought bring threats of wildfires in some places and famine in others. Changes in ecological systems on land and in the seas would make it more difficult to find food in many parts of the world.

A new book that can take us deeper into contemplation about the changes to our planet and their implications is Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.    The author of Eaarth (which is, by the way, not a typo, but a deliberate new spelling to emphasize the idea that this is not the same planet on which we middle-aged folks were born) is Bill McKibben,  the founder of  and author of several books about the environment. McKibben is an active Methodist layperson; while this is not an ostensibly religious or spiritual book, some of McKibben’s religious ethos shines through. 

Eaarth has been compelling reading for me. In recent months, I’ve come to realize that while it’s imperative to continue working to do all we can to reduce the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere in hopes of slowing and perhaps even reversing global warming, it’s also time to realize that no matter how successful our efforts, some changes have already begun that are irreversible. There is a new piece of work for people of faith who are aware of what is happening to our planet; it’s time to start figuring out how we respond to the spiritual crisis that awaits us when people begin to realize what sort of damage has already been done to the Earth. And if we don’t succeed in turning things around quickly and actually reach the point of no return on climate change, what sort of spiritual response shall we have to that? McKibben isn’t writing about a spiritual crisis per se, but he is laying out the facts as we know them about the changes that have already occurred, and looking at what we do now. It’s the sort of realistic assessment we need to have before us as we consider how we can promote healing for our planet and for our souls, and something to bring to prayer long after this year's Earth Day celebrations have ended.

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