Levellers

Faith & Social Justice: In the spirit of Richard Overton and the 17th C. Levellers

Pilgrim Pathways Begins

I am beginning Pilgrim Pathways by reviving the Levellers series on “Recovering Neglected Theologians.” I will re-post those entries and take submissions for guest posts on others. Send them to me via email mlw-w@insightbb.com .

To read my new blog, go here.

February 3, 2010 Posted by | blogs, Uncategorized | Comments Off

The End of Levellers

I will soon delete this blog. I am working to save the parts I like and transfer them to a new blog that will focus more exclusively on theological matters—with nothing on U.S. politics.  I have lost faith in the ability of the U.S. political system to be reformed and work for the common good. We are no longer a democratic republic (with all the fallen limitations of such, but with promise for accomplishing penultimate goods), but a plutocratic oligarchy wholly owned and operated by big business.  My new blog will delete any comment about the politics of the U.S.–I do not want to discuss this or anything related to it. If I can find a way to become a citizen of a real democracy, like Canada (though it will also be fallen and have sinful dimensions), I will take it.  My American dream has completely died.

When I have saved the parts of Levellers that I want to keep, the new blog (which will also be on WordPress) will be called “Pilgrim Pathways: Theological Notes for a Diaspora People.”  Since “justice,” “peace,” “oppression,” “exploitation,” “care or destruction of the earth,” etc. are all theological themes, I will discuss the intersection of faith and social justice–but will avoid electoral politics in the narrow sense.  My sanity demands it.

UPDATE:  I should be able to have the new blog up and running by the end of February.

January 27, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 37 Comments

New Year’s Resolution #1 Check and Answer Email

I promise that in 2010 I will work harder to check my email AT LEAST twice a week and to answer it regularly. This is hard for me. I liked email when I first got “online” in ’93, but I have come to resent it as an intrusion. But when I ignore it for weeks at a time, then I pay the price by needing to wade through it–and sometime missing important messages. (Of course, I also miss important messages because they get lost in the tons of junk email I get sent constantly. The internet and email were less crowded in ’93.) I miss real letters–which I also used to WRITE–and phone calls by people who aren’t trying to sell me something.

I am beginning to think that more scholarship was accomplished BEFORE the invention of the “information superhighway.”

January 3, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | 5 Comments

R. I. P. Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx, O.P.

The famous Dutch Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx (1914-2009) died Tues. 23 December 2009.  The U.S. Jesuit magazine, America, has an excellent obituary here.  I cannot say that Schillebeeck has been a major influence on me.  I struggled through his massive books, Jesus, and Christ and never finished his Church.  But it is clear to me that not just the  Catholic Church, but the entire Body of Christ is poorer today without the witness of Fr. Schillebeeckx, who had been an advisor to the Dutch bishops at Vatican II.

December 26, 2009 Posted by | Obituaries | 1 Comment

Lyrics “Cry of a Tiny Babe” by Bruce Cockburn

Mary grows a child without the help of a man
Joseph get upset because he don’t understand
Angel comes to Joseph in a powerful dream
Says “God did this and you’re part of the scheme!”
Joseph comes to Mary with his hat in his hand
Says “forgive me I thought you’d been with some other man”
She says “what if I had been – but I wasn’t anyway and guess what
I felt the baby kick today”

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

The child is born in the fullness of time
Three wise astrologers take note of the signs
Come to pay their respects to the fragile little king
Get pretty close to wrecking everything
‘Cause the governing body of the Holy Land
Is that of Herod, a paranoid man
Who when he hears there’s a baby born King of the Jews
Sends death squads to kill all male children under two
But that same bright angel warns the parents in a dream
And they head out for the border and get away clean

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

There are others who know about this miracle birth
The humblest of people catch a glimpse of their worth
For it isn’t to the palace that the Christ child comes
But to shepherds and street people, hookers and bums
And the message is clear if you’ve got [you have] ears to hear
That forgiveness is given for your guilt and your fear
It’s a Christmas gift [that] you don’t have to buy
There’s a future shining in a baby’s eyes

Like a stone on the surface of a still river
Driving the ripples on forever
Redemption rips through the surface of time
In the cry of a tiny babe

Merry Christmas, everyone.

December 25, 2009 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

A Brief History of the War Resisters’ League

In this series on the histories of peace movement organizations, we have been so far been examining those whose roots were in opposition to the First World War:  The Fellowship of Reconciliation (1914 in UK, 1915 in U.S., FOR International in 1917, French and German branches in 1919), The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (1915 U.S., 1917 International), The American Friends’ Service Committee (1917).  The War Resisters’ League, the oldest pacifist organization in the U.S. without a religious foundation, also grew out of the experience of World War I.  (I have phrased this very carefully.  It would be accurate to call the WRL a “secular” organization, but to many people this suggests a hostility to religion or religious persons that is not a part of the WRL. As we will see, the major founder of the WRL, Jesse Wallace Hughes, was a profoundly religious person and people of faith have always been involved and are still, including in the leadership.  But neither any particular religion, nor religious faith in general, is a predicate for membership.)

Jessie Wallace Hughan (1875-1955) was one of the founders of the U. S. chapter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1915, but, from the beginning, she thought the name of the groups was too wimpy, and, though a devout Unitarian, she chafed against the leadership of the F.O.R. by ministers who focused on forgiveness.  She wanted an organization that pushed forcefully for an end to war and militarism  and which boldly confronted the causes of war (which she saw rooted in the injustices of capitalism). Hughan was an American educator, a socialist activist, radical pacifist and a perpetual Socialist Party candidate for various public offices in New York city and state.  In 1915 she helped to found the Anti-Enlistment League to discourage enlistment in the armed services as part of efforts to keep the U.S. out of World War I.

Many U.S. pacifists were imprisoned for resistance to the war. After the U.S. entered WWI, the Bill of Rights was practically suspended. Any verbal or written opposition to the war was prosecuted as “subversion,” including of clergy who refused to promote the sale of war bonds to parishioners.  Members of the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Brethren, Quakers) were sometimes given better treatment, but other conscientious objectors, especially Jews, African-Americans, socialists (especially after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia), union leaders, and anarchists were given very harsh sentences and many were also treated harshly by other prisoners without intervention by authorities.

Out of these experiences, Hughan and others founded the War Resisters League in 1923 as a pacifist organization for those who, for one reason or another, did not feel at home in faith-based peace organizations such as the Fellowship of  Reconciliation (although the F.O.R. supported the formation of the WRL  and many were members of both organizations–which traded leaders, too).   At that time, the F.O.R. was an ecumenical Christian organization, not interfaith, and the Jewish Peace Fellowship did not exist until 1941.  The U.S. was not so pluralistic religiously in those days that any felt the need for such later organizations as the Muslim Peace Fellowship (Ansar as-Salaam), or the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, but the WRL was a haven for secular and non-Christian pacifists, along with those who felt that the Christian peace groups of the day were not radical enough in their opposition to war.

The WRL’s basis for membership has remained the same since its founding in 1923, “The War Resisters’ League affirms that war is a crime against humanity. We, therefore, are determined not to support any kind of war, international or civil, and to strive nonviolently for the removal of all causes of war.”  When Gandhi began his “experiments in truth” in South Africa and India, the WRL was even faster than the F.O.R. to take notice.  Along with socialist economic philosophy, most members of the WRL strongly adhere to Gandhian nonviolence.  For some, the philosophy and tactics of Gandhian nonviolence form a de facto substitute for a religious faith.

The WRL has been deeply involved in most of the anti-war movements of the 20th and 21st C., but it has also been involved deeply in most of the nonviolent domestic struggles for justice, including the Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement, labor struggles, the environmental movement, and struggles for fair trade against globalized top-down free trade.  The WRL publishes a journal, WIN, an annual peace and justice calendar, and has become famous for its yearly tax pie charts that show the actual amount of the U.S. budget that goes to support past and present wars (the official budget hides part of the military budget under Veterans Affairs and Social Security) which is over50%.  The WRL pie chart has been used by numerous peace groups to promote war tax resistance and protests against the bloated nature of the U.S. military budget. (Even using the official figures, the U.S. spends more on its military than the next 25 nations COMBINED!) 

The WRL’s current projects include an anti-recruitment effort called Not Your Soldier (which I think is not as effective as the AFSC’s counter-recruitment efforts), and a major effort to target war-profiteers called the Bite the Bullet Network.  The latter targets the military industrial complex which Bob Dylan rightly called the “masters of war.”

The WRL is a major component organization of United for Peace with Justice, the umbrella peace organization working to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

The WRL is also a national chapter of the London-based War Resisters’ International which grew out of a Dutch organization in 1921.  In 1931, the WRI and its chapters adopted the broken rifle as its symbol. (This has major significance for me.  I have only ever held nominal membership in the WRL, unlike my greater involvement in the F.O.R., the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Witness for Peace, Every Church a Peace Church, and Pentecostals and Charismatics for Peace with Justice.  Mostly, I just subscribe to the WRL newsletter and buy the occasional calendar and T-shirt.  But because I became a pacifist as a military conscientious objector, the broken rifle has always been a deeply-loved peace symbol for me,–a modern equivalent to beating swords into plowshares and a symbol of my deliberate break with my military past.)

Famous members of the War Resisters League, other than Jessie Wallace Hughan, include Dave Dellinger (1915-2004), Ralph DiGia (1915-2008), Grace Paley (1922-2007), Igal Roodenko (1917-1991), Barbara Deming (1917-1984), A. J. Muste (1885-1967) (after Muste’s retirement as head of the Fellowship of Reconciliation), and the architect of the 1963 March on Washington, Bayard Rustin (1912-1987).  The WRL continues to be a major force for peace and justice.

Update:  Although I deeply appreciate the work of the WRL, I have not been involved with them except, as I said, on the edges.  The major reason for this is that I believe ultimately nonviolence depends on a spiritual commitment. As a Christian (i.e., one who believes Christianity is actually TRUE ), I think Christian faith provides the best spirituality for pacifism and nonviolence, but it is not the only one.  Most, if not all, major religions have a nonviolent strand and resources for equipping believers to respond to injustice, oppression, and violence with nonviolent direct action and peacemaking rather than with reactive violence.  Secular commitment to nonviolence must rely either on a strictly moral commitment without any spiritual underpinnings or a pragmatic belief that nonviolence usually ‘works.’  But it doesn’t always work  and such a pragmatic or rational view is not enough to keep one nonviolent in the face of oppressive violence: If you see your family murdered before your eyes, for instance, can a purely rational or secular commitment to nonviolence hold?

So, while I agree with the WRL that war is a crime against humanity and am grateful for their work, I distrust their lack of a spiritual foundation.  It is significant to me that the current leadership of the WRL includes Frida Berrigan, daughter of the radical Catholic pacifists Elizabeth McAlister and the late Philip Berrigan, and Fr. G. Siman Harak (a friend of mine), who is a Jesuit priest. 

Scott H. Bennett, Radical Pacifism:  The War Resisters League and Gandhian Nonviolence in America, 1915-1963 (Syracuse University Press, 2004).

December 18, 2009 Posted by | pacifism, peace | 5 Comments

Pascal’s Wager and the Global Warming Debate

Despite the overwhelming consensus of most climatologists around the world (including those at the United Nations, NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and even the Pentagon–which rates global warming a national securiy threat potentially greater than terrorist attacks!), there are many global warming deniers.  Some, like John McCain and Sarah Palin, once were on the record arguing for prompt action to stop global warming, so their change of mind seems to be purely political–their base will punish anyone who doesn’t deny its existence–or deny that humans are causing it by dumping tons of greenhouse gasses (CO2, CO1, methane, some others ) into the atmosphere mostly via the burning of fossil fuels.  The leaked emails of a few scientists who express doubt has fueled efforts of some like Sen. Inhofe (R-OK) to claim that global warming is a giant hoax–and climatologists and their political champtions like former VP Al Gore agree that the evidence isn’t 100%.  (Science seldom deals with 100% evidence on anything.) The problem is that by the time one has nearly 100% proof, it will be too late to stop the damage to the planet.  Yet the changes needed to stop global warming are expensive and potentially very disruptive of society, so many are reluctant to make them on what they see as a gamble.

So, to those who are either global warming skeptics or unsure, I suggest that Pascal’s Wager should help our society decide in a timely fashion.  Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was a Christian philosopher who agreed with skeptics that the evidence for the existence of God was not 100%. So, he argued that faith for or against God was like a gamble–but one in which the benefits of gambling on God and being wrong outweighed those of gambling against and being wrong.  I think this applies perfectly well to our necessary decisions about global warming–and I would love to see Pascal’s Wager used in debate on the floor of the U.S. Congress.

Consider:  If we gamble that the climatologists who warn of global warming and catastrophic climate change because of greenhouse gasses are right, what follows? Well, we have to spend much money and make major changes in our industrial processes and lifestyles that are potentially economically and socially disruptive. It will cost to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050, for example. And, if the warnings were overblown this would be a negative. But, even if fears of global warming are exaggerated (something I don’t believe–I think the evidence is overwhelming that, if anything, it’s happening faster and with more severity than we believed even a few years ago), the changes made to stop it will leave us with many benefits:  Cleaner air (because greenhouse gasses are also major air pollutants) with all the benefits that makes to health in society; energy independence since every society can switch to clean, renewable sources of energy (wind, solar, biofuels, geothermal, hydroelectric, perhaps others not yet discovered); greater national security and a more stable world (since the politics of oil will not intersect the volatile countries of the Middle East and central Asia); better public transportation (high speed trains, light rail, cleaner busses, etc.) which helps business and city planning; renewed manufacturing and ‘green collar’ jobs that cannot easily be outsourced; less destruction of the natural world in the frantic search for fossil fuels (the end of “mountaintop removal” and strip mining for coal which is destroying the Appalachian mountains in KY, VA, TN, WV, and NC at an alarming rate; no catastrophic oil spills killing sea life, etc.) ; cheap, clean sources of power which can lift much of the world out of poverty; healthier lifestyles (less consumption in the rich West, more walking and bicycling; eating local foods that don’t have to be transported thousands of miles, etc.); less habitat destruction of other species in the frantic search for oil and coal.

All of these things are good to have even if the threat of global warming proves to be overblown. 

But what if we gamble that global warming is not real (a hoax, mistaken, etc.) and are wrong?  Well, we don’t spend the money or make the social changes needed to fight global warming, so, in the short term, we have less economic and social disruption, lower energy costs and taxes, etc.  But we also become more dependent on fossile fuels, especially oil from politically unstable countries, thereby increasing threats to our national security and to world peace.  We continue to pollute the air with all the health problems that follow. Energy prices rise anyway as oil and coal become harder to find and more expensive to extract.  The destruction of habitat and natural beauty in the extraction of these fuels continues.  We do not renew our manufacturing base through green jobs since the economic incentives for renewable energy, electric cars, etc. is not there without the market signals of either green taxes or a “cap and trade” system on carbon dioxide are absent and thus the green alternatives are not economically viable in the near term. We miss out on potential scientific breakthroughs in the search for alternative fuels. We don’t invest in better public transportation or more energy efficient homes, businesses, etc.

And, since we gambled that global warming is false and lost, we get the massive climate catastrophes that come with global warming:  increased and stronger hurricanes, rising seas drowning several island nations and half of Bangladesh (with the resultant refugee problems and humanitarian and political crises), fish die offs due to rising sea temperatures, famines due to increased desertification in arid lands, etc.  And, the economic dislocation is greater than that which would have happened if we had decided to make the massive changes to prevent global warming.

So, it seems to me that the smart wager would be that global warming is real, really caused by greenhouse gasses, and can and should be prevented or minimized through massive efforts cut greenhouse gas emissions and develop green energy alternatives. The potential gains to be made even if this is wrong and the potential costs if it is right and we do nothing (or not enough) seem clear to me.

I am also puzzled as to why conservatives (self-declared) are so opposed to efforts to stop global warming. After all, to be conservative is, by definition, to be cautious. So, if something is potentially disastrous, but not all the evidence is in, the cautious, conservative thing to do is to stop the potentially bad behavior causing it while investigating further.  If I am speeding in a car toward what looks like  a cliff or wall, but could be only a mirage, the conservative  thing would be to slow down or stop while investigating further–not to step on the gas pedal in a potentially suicidal manner. But the latter is what so-called conservatives are doing regarding global warming.  It’s just not rational. It’s reckless–as conservatives always claim liberals to be.

December 12, 2009 Posted by | ecology | 13 Comments

BPFNA Statement Against the Escalation of Afghanistan War

The statement against the Afghanistan escalation by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America can be found here.   The statement has also been endorsed by my denomination, The Alliance of Baptists.  I hope other Baptist bodies (denominations, conventions, agencies, congregations, seminaries, etc.) will endorse this statement and spread it widely. I also hope that other Christian and other faith groups will also speak out against the escalation and for just peacemaking  transforming initiative for longterm peace.

December 11, 2009 Posted by | Afghanistan, Baptists, peacemaking | Comments Off

Ecological Virtues for Facing our Environmental Crisis

If the dimensions of the crisis are even close to what I outlined yesterday, what virtues need to be cultivaed to help us live faithfully and responsibly?  I suggest nine (9) virtues that are especially needful for an era in which humankind’s powers to destroy are great and God’s Creation is fragile and vulnerable to that power–virtues to allow us to live as caretakers of Creation instead of negligent destroyers.

  1. Humility.  This is a difficult virtue for Westerners who think of themselves as “worldbeaters.”  Yet this is the key to all.  In an ecological context, humility means not overestimating human importance in the natural order, nor overestimating our ability to control events and outcomes.  Humility will make us cautious about genetic engineering new species because of the ease of destroying an entire ecosystem.  Humility means that, while technology may provide some of the answers to global warming or ozone depletion, we resist seeking a “magic bullet” that solves everything withohut any changes in lifestyle (especially consumption) in the West.  Humility means that our wants and desires may sometimes have to give way to the survival and flourishing of others–including other species and their habitats.
  2. Sustainability.  This virtue means that we live and work in ways that do not rob future generations of the ability to flourish.  Sustainability is the virtue of keeping faith with future generations– raising crops and livestock in ways that do not harm the environment, rather than with poisonous pesticides or petroleum-based fertilizers.  Seeking sources of energy that are renewable and do not harm the environment–along with patterns of housing, transportation, and manufacturing that are not destructive, but viable over the long haul.
  3. Adaptability.  All lifeforms must adapt or go extinct, but humans have been able not just to adapt to our environment(s), but to adapt the environments to our needs.  This is not a bad thing in itself, but we need to recover the humility that leads us not to overreach in adapting the environment around us–lest we destroy it for future generations or other species.  We need to recover the ability to adapt to changing conditions ourselves.  We need to build flexibility into our societies so that we can respond to changing conditions wisely.
  4. Relationality.  Too often in the West, humans have thought of ourselves as completely separate from our environment, seeing it as only a stage for the drama of humanity’s fall and redemption.  We need to regain a sense of being part of the whole, of being connected to each other and to the other lifeforms with which we share the planet. 
  5. Frugality is a virtue that our grandparents knew well, but which has fallen out of fashion in a global economy organized by massive overconsumption and greed. In such a context, frugality is a subversive virtue, allowing us to “live lightly on the earth,” to “live simply that others may simply live.”  Frugality is consuming only our needs and not our most extravagant wants. Frugality includes comprehensive recycling, not just as individual families, but as companies, cities, countries.
  6. Equity or justice.  Here I define this virtue as simply dealing fairly with both other people and other species.  It resists the maldistribution of resources and patterns of production and consumption that sacrifice other habitats or other cultures in the name of corporate greed.
  7. SolidarityThis virtue realizes that “we’re all in this together,” that our lives and flourishing are intertwined with all humans and with all species.  Together with equity, solidarity rejects attitudes that ignore ecological threats to other nations or species with the belief that our species or nation or class will not be affected–that we can buy or bomb our way out.
  8. Biodiversity.  Throughout the history of our planet, biodiversity has simply been a fact:  life exists in myriad varieties. But in a time of massive species extinction (and the endangerment of the rest), biodiversity is an ecological virtue–valuing that diversity. It rejects turning forests into monocultural tree farms or breeding out the variants that lead a species to survive under less than optimal conditions.  Biodiversity is the opposite of the desire for “designer children” or designer species. This virtue values the riot of varieties that, in God’s grace, have evolved to populate this planet.
  9. Sufficiency.  The virtue of  “enough” is not only about consumption (reinforcing frugality), but about bringing about an adequate response to the ecological threats of our time.  Half-measures are not enough.

An adequate ecological ethic will involve more than the cultivation of the proper virtues. It will need proper principles, cost-benefit analyses, theological reflection (re-reading Scripture from an environmental viewpoint), and public policy proposals and advocacy.  But to live out such an ethic will require people of character, shaped with the proper virtues for facing the environmental crisis of our times.

December 11, 2009 Posted by | ecology | Comments Off

Dimensions of the Ecological Crisis

Today begins Day Three of the Copenhagen Conference which hopefully leads to binding global treaties that will fight climate change by drastically cutting the production of greenhouse gasses, especially carbon dioxide made by burning fossil fuels (oil and coal) and methane from cow-patties due to the mass production of beef in unsustainable ways.  As we hope that Copenhagen leads to an adequate response, I thought I’d outline the full dimensions of the ecological crisis we face as a planet.  Tomorrow, I will follow up by suggesting a list of nine (9) ecological virtues we should cultivate (in churches, synagogues, mosques, schools, businesses, etc.) in global society if we are to meet the crisis and care adequately for the Creation. (Today, the bad news. Tomorrow, part of the good news! :-) )

I. The Pollution ComplexPollution is the poisoning of the environment. In tiny amounts, pollution has been with us throughout the history of this planet, but nature is equipped to clean up after itself  to certain degrees.  But with the advent of Industrialism, Humankind began to pollute (usually as byproduct of manufacturing processes) to degrees beyond the ability of earth’s natural processes to clean up after us.  Pollution includes air pollution (including smog from heat inversions from ozone trapped too close to the ground), water pollution, solid waste disposal in land (including radioactive waste), and noise pollution from industrial life which can severely harm plant, animal, and human life (e.g., the sonar from submarines interferes with the natural sonar of dolphins and whales and can lead them to beach themselves or fail to reproduce, etc.).  When the environmental movement began in the late ’60s and early ’70s, most attention was paid to this first dimension. In the U.S. this led to the passage of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Real progress was made in cleaning up once-poisoned land, air and water; lakes once unsafe for swimming or eating of fish caught there became safe once more.  However, since the late ’90s, and especially in the first decade of the 21st C., many of these gains have been once more reversed and we are losing the fight against air and water pollution and landfills are overflowing.

II. Ozone Depletion:  One doesn’t want ozone too close to the ground.  It leads to heat inversions and in the lower atmosphere is a greenhouse gas that adds to global warming.  But in the upper atmosphere, ozone is very necessary. It forms a shield protecting our fragile ecosphere from the hard radiation of space.  Chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) from aerosols and refrigerants slowly make their way into the upper atmosphere and deplete the ozone.  It has led to two giant holes in the Ozone layer–one over each pole.  This has led to increases in skin cancers in humans and harm to animal and plant life.  Fortunately, we have made some progress over this since the ’90s when the world became extremely alarmed at the rapidly growing ozone holes.  Most of the industrial world banned CFCs, going without aerosol cans  and using alternate refrigerants.  This has led to faster healing of the ozone layer than originally expected–a source of hope.  Yet, in much of the global South, older air conditioners and refrigerators still use CFC refrigerants and, as these machines age, they leak into the atmosphere.  The shrinking of the Ozone Holes could end up being a pause before growth again, if we are not careful.

III.  Global Warming:  The Greenhouse Effect and Catastrophic Climate Change.

This is the major focus of the Copenhagen Conference as it was of the Kyoto Conference and Treaty.  The basic science is well understood:  certain gasses such as Carbon Dioxide (CO2), Carbon Monoxide (CO1), Methane, and (in the lower atmosphere) Ozone and some others trap heat in the planet, preventing it from radiating outward into space.  To a certain extent this is a good thing–it keeps our planet warm enough to support life.  However, massive amounts of greenhouse gasses as a result of the burning of fossil fuels (coal and oil) at huge rates, has increased the greenhouse effect to dangerous levels:  if not stopped, it will melt the polar ice caps and create dramatic shifts in climate that will do enormous damage throughout the earth–indeed, this is already happening.  Scientists debate the rate of climate change, but not that it is happening, nor is there much debate over the source in industrial processes–not among the majority of climatologists (unless they work for oil companies).  The cures are also clear: We have to shift from carbon-based fuels other sources of energy (wind, solar, biodiesel, ethanol, geothermal, etc.) .  We have to use far more public transportation, more energy efficient buildings, etc. so that we can stop global warming and limit the damage of climate change.

IV. Resource Depletion.  Human overconsumption in the rich, industrialized nations is causing resource depletion:  oil, water, scarce metals, are fast running out. We have probably already reached “peak oil” the point at which production matches demand. 

V. Population Explosion.  Humankind is reproducing at too great a rate–to the point where we will soon exceed the ability of the earth to support our species. The carrying capacity of the earth is estimated to be 10-12 billion people (though not easily)–and we are already more than 6 billion and multiplying rapidly.  We can regulate our own populations voluntarily (limiting our family sizes through family planning and artificial birth control) or Nature will use its own tools for population control and they are not pretty:  famine, pestilence, and war–especially wars over resources, including water.  Most of the world (including this writer) is critical of  China’s forced abortions and sterilizations as part of its “one child” policy–but if  EVERY government is to avoid such draconian measures, then we have to be voluntarily limiting family size, now.  (If you like large families, adopt. Thousands of children suffer in orphanages around the world because of lack of parents.)

VI. Maldistribution of Resources.  This is why ecological damage effects some more than others.  The rich nations create most of the pollution, but its price is most often paid by the world’s poor.  This is where economic injustice intersects environmental degradation leading to such phenomena as environmental racism and classism (poor and nonwhite peoples are more than twice as likely to live in polluted areas, have polluted water supplies, etc.).  It’s also why the poor are often led to participate in the degradation of their own environments–e.g., poor Appalachians are hurt the most by coal mining that uses “mountaintop removal” and “strip mining” methods–paying with polluted water, incredible erosion, loss of game for hunting, poisoned land that cannot support crops or livestock, etc. (not to mention seeing their homes turn from places of incredible natural beauty to deformed wastelands).  Yet, the coal companies are often the major or even only employers and so the poor Appalachians destroy their own land (the owners live far away) in order to feed their families.  Similar stories can be told in other cultures.

VII. Loss of Biodiversity: Massive Species’ Extinction and Endangerment.  We are witnessing species die at a rate not seen in billions of years.  Habitat destruction caused by human overpopulation is leading to the extinction of species not even catalogued.

VIII. Genetic engineering.  We are creating and even patenting new life forms.  Some see this as a potential for good–hoping to manufacture bacteria, for instance, that can eat oil spills, or hardier forms of crops and livestock.  But it also introduces species into the biosphere which have no natural enemies and which can easily upset ecosystems.

All these challenges are happening at once and playing into each other.  Our response must be adequate to the challenge.  It will involve much unlearning of old habits. The changes must be individual, family, and societal.  In Christianity, especially in Western Christianity, we have too often emphasized biblical verses which talk about “subduing the earth.”  During most of human history, when Nature was powerful and we humans were weak, those verses were heard as a glad promise from God.  But since the industrial revolution, when humans are powerful and nature weak, these verses in isolation can be quite dangerous.  It can make us think that no part of creation has any value except if it benefits humans.  We need greater humility and greater realization that God considers ALL of creation “good.” Humans are to be stewards and caretakers of earth as God’s garden, not masters of all we survey.  Caring for God’s creation and valuing ALL life on earth is essential for our own survival, as well as being faithful to the tasks of caring for creation that God has entrusted to our species.

Tomorrow: The virtues that might undergird a viable environmental ethics.

December 10, 2009 Posted by | ecology | 7 Comments

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