Pope Francis created considerable attention on climate issues with the release of his statement last fall Laudato Si, or “Praised Be.” In it he laments, “Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever.” Twenty years earlier Pope John Paul II laid out the basic theological basis for our concern for the earth, stating, “Respect for life and for the dignity of the human person extends also to the rest of creation”.
For us as Christians, as well as for most other faiths, such an ecology of creation is rooted in the creation story as an affirmation in the goodness of the earth as the work of God. Note that I intentionally stopped reading in that story half way through the sixth day, before it reaches its climax with the creation of human beings, male and female, in the image of God. I think too often we focus on that as being the only point of the story, and this morning as we reflect on the celebration of Earth Day I would like us to focus on the rest of God’s creation, especially that which we know here on earth.
John Paul II called on us to show the same respect for the earth as we show for human life. Now either we have ignored that call, or, or respect for human life is not better than our respect for creation. And sometimes I’m not sure which it is.
You’ve heard various statistics on the state of the environment, I’ll just cite a couple. In the course of my lifetime, we will go from 2 billion people to 10 billion people, assuming I live just another 25 years. Quite a phenomenal growth if you stop to think about that. Ironically, however, in terms of resource consumption and waste, the problem is not those large, vast, growing, developing countries, but rather the problem is here. Chicago, with a population of 3 million people, consumes more energy and produces more waste than the entire nation of Bangladesh, with a population of nearly 100 million.
When I was in school, I remember studying in the sixth grade that the oceans would be the future of food production for the world, that it was considered to be an unlimited resource, almost, in providing food to the world. Today, 70% of the fisheries of the oceans are considered to be in serious trouble. Of course when I was in school, nuclear energy was also considered to be safe, clean and would provide all of our energy needs. Hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Lastly, climate change is gradually increasing as biological diversity is rapidly declining. Both are well established facts within the scientific community even if not recognized by some politicians. The League of Women Voters has an excellent voters guide that simply gives statements provided by candidates on various questions. One of their questions to candidates for the U.S. Senate was, “What should congress do to deal with climate change?” It was rather shocking and disturbing to read one candidate’s response as, “Nothing.” He went out to assert that climate change is a “fraudulent invention” by left wing environmentalists and is nothing more than what common sense thinking people call “weather”.
I would humbly suggest that when one does not understand the difference between weather and climate, one should not be trusted to make laws about anything, let alone climate issues! Most interesting then that this “fraud” perpetuated by environmentalists has managed to dupe no less than 175 countries who on Friday, Earth Day, signed the Paris Agreement on climate change, praise be to our Creator and thanks to the hard work of thousands of scientists and diplomats. It was quite touching to see Secretary of State John Kerry sign the agreement holding his granddaughter.
One of those scientists duping us is Oregon’s own Dr. Jane Lubchenco, a marine ecologist at Oregon State, who has received numerous awards and served on various government commissions (state and federal). She spoke at City Club several years ago about ecosystems services. And I’m just curious, how many of you have ever heard that term, that concept, of an ecosystem service? That’s what I thought. I introduced it to you in a sermon ten years ago, not that anyone would remember! It is a great concept that hasn’t really caught on yet, although when you stop and think about it, it’s something that you’re probably very familiar with.
Think about the McKenzie watershed. What does that provide for us? Well, obviously our water. But it also provides other services — timber, fishing, recreation, or my favorite, downhill skiing. And the point that Dr. Lubchenco was making is that we often undervalue those services or we base our decisions just on one factor, typically the value of the timber, and the result can be catastrophic.
The example she gave was of mangroves. Mangroves are in tropical climates where rivers meet the ocean, typically very swampy areas with trees with these root systems. Very smelly, not pleasant places, lots of mosquitoes, just not good for human habitat. So they’ve been converted into shrimp farms, urban development of various kinds. The services mangroves provide are first of all sediment filtering — they catch the sediment that washes down from the rivers. And they filter pollution from the runoff. They provide hatcheries for all kinds of marine biology. One of the results of destroying the mangroves is that of coral reefs — sometimes a mile or more out into the ocean — have been destroyed because now the sediments and the pollutions are allowed to just continue on into the ocean.
But the surprising service of the mangroves was illustrated in the Christmas tsunami of 2004. Where the mangroves were intact, there was almost no devastation. Where the mangroves had been converted so serve civilization in various ways, the devastation was enormous because the mangroves serve as nature’s shock absorbers for storms and tsunamis. So that’s just one illustration of what happens when we don’t pay attention to such things.
Another more recent example is the impact of wolves on vegetation. Why would wolves have any impact on vegetation? Obviously I am a preacher who doesn’t know much about the diet of carnivores, right? Well studies of wolves in Yellowstone National Park have revealed not just how they are changing vegetation, but even rivers. Take a look at this brief documentary:
Is that cool or what? Now if we can just figure out a way to introduce wolves into presidential elections maybe we could achieve some needed balance there!
Think about the destruction of the environment in this way: Ecological devastation is simply the flip-side of social injustice. One is the systemic sin we commit against the poor and oppressed, the other is the systemic sin we commit against the earth. Both are equally contrary to the will of God.
The good news is that we do have an alternative. We can choose to live in harmony with the natural world just as we can choose to live in harmony with our neighbors.
A lot of attention has been given in recent years to the choices we make for the cars we drive. What would Jesus drive, right? Because petroleum is the single greatest contributor to the production of carbon dioxide, which in turn is the primary cause of climate change. Our choice of the vehicle we use is perhaps the single most important purchase we make in terms of energy consumption and pollution.
But there is another purchase that we make nearly every day, which has potentially even a greater impact than the cars we drive. Do you know what that is? Food. Poet, theologian, and author Wendell Berry said: “How we eat determines to a considerable extent how the world is used”. How we eat determines how the world is used.
A couple of facts to illustrate this. Today we produce enough grain to provide 3,500 calories for all 7 billion people on this planet every day. So why is it that anyone goes hungry? Because the majority of that grain goes not to feed people, but to feed cattle. It takes 7 pounds of grain, on average to produce 1 pound of beef. This makes beef the most inefficient form of protein that we consume. Thousands of acres of rain forests are lost every year to feed the North American addiction to hamburger. And consider this: the food on your table, if purchased from local supermarkets, travels on average nearly 2,000 miles to get to your table. Think of what that means in terms of fuel consumption and pollution.
Meanwhile, while we’re enjoying our fruits and vegetables from half way around the world, our local farmers are struggling to survive. And those who are paid to harvest their crops are among the lowest paid labor force in this country today. Family farms are literally being run out of existence by the market forces as a result of our buying habits. Most farmers depend on incomes from other jobs in order to survive.
Thus one of the best things we can do for our own health, the health of the local economy, the health of agriculture and the health of the environment is to buy local. A few restaurants are starting to catch on to this by featuring locally grown food on their menus. Looking for locally grown food in the grocery store, buying directly from local farms or the farmers market are things we can do to make a difference.
I began by citing Pope Francis and his encyclical. Let me end with it, not simply because of the profound challenge it sets forth, but also because of its theological rationale. In it the Pope states, “Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day.”
In that document the Pope recognizes that as we struggle with these issues, the challenge for Christians is directly related to our interpretation of scripture and our understanding of creation itself. The Pope asserts that we “must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.” Properly understood, he says, the creation story teaches us that “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself. According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations.” The result is a complete distortion of the meaning of dominion, justifying exploitation of the earth rather than require care for God’s creation.
For us then, the answer lies not just in what we do, but also what we believe and teach about God, creation and our role in it. Let us then affirm these fundamental truths as essential to our faith and the future of the world, that we are here to serve God and creation, not the other way around. That all life, including the life of the earth, is sacred and precious to God. And that care for the earth is not an option for us as Christians, it is central to our faith in the God who so loved the entire world, that God sent us Christ to teach us how to live in harmony with God, with our neighbor and with creation. May it be.