Saturday, April 24, 2010

Two Days After...

An Earth Day Addendum

This evening as we prepare for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the John 5:1-9 Gospel lesson that is an option for us in two weeks comes to mind. When Jesus notices the man lying by the pool of Beth-zatha, Jesus asks him “Do you want to be made well?”  Two days after Earth Day, after a week in which many people have expressed the desire for a cleaner, more sustainable environment, I’m wondering what we really want. Do we want to be made well?  (See the January 24 post about this passage.) 

The Coast Guard discovered today that, contrary to earlier reports, the well that fed the oil rig that exploded and burned last week, collapsing into the Gulf of Mexico on Earth Day, is leaking oil. This evening’s story from the AP about the situation reports that the oil slick has grown to a twenty by twenty mile square. 

This evening we have also learned that the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman climate bill that was supposed to be unveiled on Monday is now on hold. While many environmentalists considered the bill’s reported goals for carbon dioxide emissions to be too low to be very effective, the bill was a step in the right direction, and evidently the most robust bill that could be thought to have a chance to get passed in today’s partisan political climate. According to Matthew Daly’s article in the Huffington Post, Senator Kerry is talking about this as a short delay. However, the work on immigration reform will not be easy, and the political timing may mean that any climate bill has little chance of getting through the Senate.

Where do we put our trust? The man at the pool was empowered when he trusted Jesus and got up and walked. Trusting in Christ, we may be empowered to get up and galvanize the many grassroots efforts to change our own habits and to advocate for a sustainable environment. We would expect industry and political institutions to solve this problem, but God sometimes does the unexpected and surprises us with the people and circumstances God uses to do God’s work.

Industry and government could -- and probably should -- be leading the way in addressing climate change in a significant way that does justice to the almost incomprehensible importance of the issue. However, industry looks first at profit, and many holding political office today seem to look first at gaining and holding onto power. People of faith, following the Great Commandment of Jesus, have a primary allegiance to God and to loving our neighbors. We are in a position to put the integrity of God’s creation and the needs of our neighbors near and far ahead of profit and power; the voices consistently calling us to the work that needs to be done on behalf of the generations of humankind that follow us may need to come primarily from the church.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The Day After

The 40th Earth Day is now over, though events centered around it continue. Here in Nebraska, an event called Earth Day Omaha  was held last Saturday, while Earth Day Lincoln  is scheduled for tomorrow at Antelope Park. In between, there have been events large and small around the state, along with lots of television specials, news stories, and commercial events aimed at the day. At its best, Earth Day reminds us to care for our environment and to think about stewardship; at its worst, Earth Day allows us to put a band-aid on environmental problems, encouraging us to continue in our collective denial of the actual state of our environment.

An oil spill off of the coast of Santa Barbara in 1969 is said to have inspired Sen. Gaylord Nelson to propose the first observance of Earth Day.  Forty years later, one of yesterday’s headlines was about an oil rig that had been burning sinking into the Gulf of Mexico. Today we have been learning about the size and nature of the resulting oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico and what effects it may have on living things in the Gulf and along the coast.  The good news the day after Earth Day is that there doesn’t seem to be a major oil spill, though there is an oil slick that at the last report I heard measured ten miles by ten miles.

The lack of progress in some areas can be discouraging. However, an article by Seth Borenstein for the Associated Press that was carried in several newspapers on Earth Day noted areas of progress as well. Entitled Earth Day: No more burning rivers, but new threats, the article begins with the good news that the Cuyahoga River no longer is flammable and smog levels are down significantly in several cities.  

The question now is whether we can continue to make progress and make it rapidly enough to limit the effects of climate change and pollution to levels that prevent significant loss of individual human lives and whole species of plants and animals. Any resolve any of us felt on Earth Day to be better stewards and do more to improve the environment needs to be put into action. If progress is not being made quickly enough, then we will have to act with even more energy to make up what we can for the time that has been lost.

Earth Day is not part of our liturgical calendar; we in the church are still in Easter. The Sixth Sunday of Easter is Rogation Sunday, another good time to think about our stewardship of the Earth’s resources and to pray for God’s blessings on our efforts to use them well. Throughout the Easter season, though, we might contemplate the miracle of the resurrection and God’s assurance that out of death can come abundant life. The day after Earth Day may be clouded by discouraging circumstances, but we are people who always live in hope. Seeing for one day yesterday that many people were willing to participate in some sort of Earth Day activity or discover some small changes they might make that will make a big difference in the long run indicates that people do care about the environment; the work to be done is to increase the level of that care and public understanding about the work ahead of us.

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.