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


  1. Solid agreement on all counts except number V. Two quick points. Artificial birth control has always been a tool for economic explosion. Look at the world today. Those countries most concerned about controlling population are also the one’s consuming the most resources. The “backwards” countries in South America and Africa where population control is still something having to be taught by “responsible” western governments consume exponentially fewer resources.

    Consumption is the far more important factor. With reduced consumption, the world could support far, far more people than you are giving credit for: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/01/02/opinion/02diamond.html?scp=1&sq=Jared%20Diamond&st=cse.

    In other words, be fruitful and multiply; consume less.

    Also, was enjoying the conversation a few weeks back on marriage and the state and before being swamped by a funeral for a homeless man I worked with and massive care at the end of life issues with my in-laws. The basic answer to your question, Michael, concerning what you can do about it is to refuse to participate in state marriage and to encourage others to do the same (e.g. as part of the discussions toward my ordination I’ve made it clear that I will not sign a provincial marriage license here in Ontario – or anywhere – and that I would not want my name forwarded as someone who the state should recognize as legitimate to perform state marriages. Should I be asked to marry a couple, I’ll advise them of my views and what benefits they might lose out on as a result, agree to perform their marriage in a church, and advise them to find someone else if they desire a state marriage).

    Comment by Doug Johnson Hatlem | December 10, 2009

  2. OK, Doug, I can’t handle two conversations at once, so I’ll bypass the discussion on marriage for the nonce. Try me again.

    I agree that overconsumption by the rich makes population problems worse, but we have been fruitful and overmultiplied. This is not just a modern problem. Even in the ancient world, our overpopulation sometimes destroyed an ecology in a given area.–because while we can consume less more of us means a necessary destruction of natural habitat. A fundamentalist approach to the the command to be fruitful and multiply is not helpful–the verse continues “and REPLENISH the earth,” not “and overwhelm the earth.” And even as the industrial West is learning to consume less, the Global South is consuming more–bringing the population bomb back into play in big ways (although the massive die off from AIDS is delaying some of the full effects–as is migration patterns whereby many from the high population South are moving to Europe where the birth rate has in some places fallen even below maintenance).

    And the resource wars that are a traditional means of population control are happening first in the poor countries, Doug. For that matter, so are the plagues and famines that are Nature’s brutal ways of population control.

    After reading the NY Times article you gave at the link, I notice one other problem with your solution (which is also the official Catholic one) of refusing any voluntary birth control and simply consuming less–it doesn’t address the fact that we share this planet with other species. Yes, we might be able to increase the carrying capacity of the earth to, say, 35 or 40 billion (which we’d reach faster than we think if all voluntary birth control is abandoned)–but only at the cost of a massive loss of biodiversity as we destroyed the habitats of many of our fellow creatures in order to give ourselves room.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 10, 2009

  3. Thanks for the thorough response, Michael. You’ve overstated my position in saying that i’m for “refusing any voluntary birth control” (neither is that the Catholic position. I’m not even for refusing all artificial birth control. I’m just dead set against promoting such in developing countries. I can point you to article after article where the goal of such promotion is very much economic development. I.E. have less babies and you’ll be able to consume more of the planet’s resources.

    Comment by Doug Johnson Hatlem | December 11, 2009

  4. Well, you can. The problem is the belief that the world can handle every country having America’s level of consumption. It can’t–it can’t even handle ONE America in consumption level.

    But the view that one can cut back consumption enough to populate at will is deluded–and anthropocentric.

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 11, 2009

  5. It may be, and I’m open to certain discussions and forms of birth control, even artificial as I said. However, it is even more deluded to think that population control measures will help the environment. Population control has from the beginning been an overt tool for nationalistic economic growth. Promoting such in “developing countries” as a way to help them develop like the West AND care for the environment is foolhardy. It is precisely a move to try to raise everyone’s level of consumption, if not to an American level, then at least to European levels.

    Comment by Doug Johnson Hatlem | December 12, 2009

  6. It is true that the history of artificial birth control is mixed. Many women in the first wave of feminism (19th C.) promoted it for women’s health–since uncontrolled conception and birth led to very short lives for women for most of history. But it’s also true that to get men to allow their production, they used racist and imperialist arguments–as when Margaret Sanger urged that birth control methods be pushed in order to keep “inferior darker races” from overwhelming whites.

    And nationalist and consumption reasons were used, too. But that isn’t the whole story–it’s one sided propagandistic history. (Both liberals and conservatives are champions at this kind of thing.) The ecological concerns–and humanitarian ones–were there from the beginning, too. Because ecological activists knew that Western consumption levels were being promoted REGARDLESS and there was not enough to feed the poor with their large families.

    Some traditional societies that were ecological always controlled their birth rates so as “to live lightly on the land.”

    Comment by Michael Westmoreland-White | December 12, 2009

  7. Consumption is a function of income. The developed nations have greater gross income and thus greater gross consumption. Controlling the population of developing nations will not increase gross consumption without gross income gains.
    Having less children will only raise per capita income in developing countries and perhaps lead to conditions which might improve lives there such as better health conditions, education, greater workforce participation by women freed from childbirth. These conditions might lead to greater incomes(or GDP) under some circumstances. That increased income, should it come, would likely be accomplished by a compensating decrease in overall consumption by more developed nations. Especially if consumption is indeed resource constrained.
    If it is not however, greater incomes are better for all. We should never aspire for the consumption levels of the global poor. They are caught in a Malthusian trap where greater populations reduce per capita income leading to poorer lives, earlier deaths. The ensuing population reduction leads to wealthier lives and more children per woman and the cycle continues. Reducing fertility rates provides hope that the Malthusian cycle will be interrupted as it was in 19th century Europe when enormous innovation and income gains were seen and persist to this day.

    Comment by stan | December 14, 2009

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