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

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