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    FAITH ... And God saw all that he had made ....

  • glacier

    SCIENCE ... and behold, it was very good.

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    JUSTICE ... As you did for the least of these brothers of mine...

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    ACTION ... you did it for me.

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    RESOURCES ... books, videos and online tools for earthkeepers

Keystone: Don’t Like This Senate? Buy Yourself a Better One

Two notable facts come into focus as the U.S. Senate today came within a whisker of forcing through the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline – linking the Alberta tar sands petro-moonscape with warm-water U.S. export terminals in Texas. First, the Koch Brothers are revealed to be the largest non-Canadian owner of tar sands mineral rights, holding acreage the size of the state of Delaware. Second, those same Koch Brothers are estimated to have spent roughly $300 million to influence U.S. Congressional elections this year.

That’s roughly $300 in political spending for every acre of tar sands oil they own.

When you think about it, that’s a pretty small investment for so much oil.

The Washington Post reports today: “You might expect the biggest foreign lease owner in Canada’s oil sands, or tar sands, to be one of the international oil giants, like Exxon Mobil or Royal Dutch Shell. But that isn’t the case. The biggest non-Canadian lease holder in the northern Alberta oil sands is a subsidiary of Koch Industries, the privately-owned cornerstone of the fortune of conservative Koch brothers Charles and David. The Koch Industries subsidiary holds leases on 1.1 million acres — an area nearly the size of Delaware — in the oil sands region of Alberta, Canada.”

And during the election season, The Huffington Post reported: “The billionaire Koch brothers and their political network are planning to spend almost $300 million during the 2014 election cycle, some of which will go toward a renewed effort to combat unprecedented carbon regulations unveiled by the Obama administration last month.” Of course, the exact amount can’t be known, because U.S. law permits the Kochs and others to keep most of their spending secret.

Tar sand petro-moonscape. Courtesy of Sierra Club Canada

Tar sand petro-moonscape. Courtesy of Sierra Club Canada

If your business plan called for the destruction of more than a million acres of boreal forests, digging out vast mountains of tar-soaked soil, wringing out a killing in oily bitumen, and leaving behind indigenous peoples  awash in enormous lakes of toxic sludge, wouldn’t $300 per acre seem like a small price to pay? Especially if the Congress you purchased was willing to force its farmers and ranchers to give you a pipeline right-of-way through the heart of its breadbasket?

We continue to pray for justice for the victims of tar sands oppression. Today, those prayers test our faith in new ways, as the rich and powerful flex their muscles in Congress. Lord, open our eyes to see the true Sovereign of this world, with eyes unclouded by the many pretenders who claim it as their own.

“Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations…. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.” (Isaiah 42:1, 4)

Why We Are Praying: NO KEYSTONE XL

The news today is grim.

We hear that Democrat Mary Landrieu, fighting for her political life in oil-dominated Louisiana, is joining with Senate Republicans in a bid to force the Obama Administration to approve the massive Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, linking Canada’s toxic petro-moonscape in Alberta to export refineries on the Gulf Coast. Harry Reid, the lame-duck Majority Leader, will do her the favor of letting the vote come to the floor. In the House, Speaker Boehner will easily roll over the opposition. Before you know it, legislation will almost certainly land on President Obama’s desk, demanding that he approve the pipeline now.

But for months now, a prayer-band of Christians has regularly raised its voice to God, begging Him to stop the powerful forces seeking to enrich the wealthy at the expense of His Creation, and especially the poor and vulnerable. Today, we recall the many who have prayed in the face of overwhelming power. We recall Judah’s King Jehoshaphat, who looked from Jerusalem’s walls at an overwhelming swarm of invaders, and prayed: “We are powerless against this great horde that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you…” (1 Chron. 20:12). We remember the apostles Peter and John, facing threats from the Sanhedrin that had just murdered the Son of Man: “Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness…” (Acts 4:29).

It has looked grim for God’s people many times before. But we continue to pray: Lord, stretch out your hand to protect the poor, the powerless, the Creation that you love, from the hand of the powerful, the greedy, and the willfully ignorant. God has not always answered the way we have hoped. But He always invites us – even more, He commands us – into His presence to pray.

But most Americans – many Christians included – seem not to understand why we’re on our knees. Isn’t this pipeline a major source of jobs? Isn’t this our ticket to “energy independence?” Shouldn’t we believe the hundreds of TV commercials we’ve seen promising huge economic benefits and a pristine environment – if only we’ll give the multinational oil companies an easy pathway through our agricultural heartland to the sea?

Well, in a word, No. And no. And no.

But we can do better than that. Hundreds of thousands of ordinary people have taken to the streets in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. And their reasons vary depending on their home community, their tribe, or their particular interests. But for brevity, let me pick four key reasons why we wish that all people of faith would join us in praying to stop the Keystone XL pipeline:

  • Tar sands expansion harms native Canadian nations, already being poisoned by tar sands mining.
  • Just when the world’s two largest carbon polluters have finally agreed to act on climate change, the Keystone XL will open the floodgates on some of the world’s most carbon-polluting oil.
  • Big-money oil exporters will profit, but ordinary people will suffer.
  • The world is desperate for climate leadership from America.

Tar sands mining harms Canadian native people: The First Nations, especially the Cree and Dene people, have lived sustainably in the Alberta tar sands region for thousands of years, long before Europeans arrived. They rely on the water, the fish, and the game to sustain their communities and their lives. But the tar sand mining of the last two decades has irreversibly polluted much of their land and water, spawning an epidemic of cancers, and other ills. Indigenous communities like Fort Chipewyan – so remote and pristine as to be accessible only over frozen rivers – are now reduced to buying bottled water and importing all their food. We now hear the disturbing word “genocide” in connection with some of these nations. And if we’re offended by the word, perhaps we should try to imagine the offense taken by its victims.

I spent a week among the tar sands nations earlier this year, and can attest that these concerns are not exaggerated. In fact, the cultural gentleness of these people tends, in my opinion, to mask the full extent of the harm that the carbon-industrial complex is wreaking on them and their children.

But you don’t have to make the long trip to Fort McMurray yourself. Just watch any of a number of easily accessible videos. It’s worth hearing from the principal doctor serving some of these cancer clusters. Here’s one that’s worth the three minutes of run time:

Keystone XL will open the floodgates on some of the world’s most carbon-polluting oil: It’s not for nothing that TransCanada, Exxon, Shell, Valero, Total and others are desperate to force Obama and Kerry to approve the pipeline. Alberta has unimaginable petroleum resources, and these giant companies have bet billions that they can get their hands on it and sell it on world markets.

The problem is, Alberta’s tar sands possess enough carbon to cook the planet several times over – almost certainly enough to drive a mass extinction to rival the end of the Cretaceous Period (goodbye, T-Rex!). The world’s climate science community has told us that we are on a strict global carbon budget now: a total of no more than one trillion tons of CO2 may be emitted into the atmosphere if we are to have a serious chance of keeping the world’s temperature increase below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit above historical averages.

The problem is, we’ve already burned more than half that amount, and on our current pace, we’ll cross the trillion-ton threshold by 2030. It’s important, therefore, as we transition from fossil fuels, not to double down on the most polluting ones. But tar sands are much more polluting than conventional oils. The extraction and refining of Alberta tar sands generates about three times more CO2 than conventional extraction.

And there’s so much of it in Alberta. If the living species that God has created are to survive in His world, then most of the tar sands simply must stay in the ground.Picture1

From a planetary perspective, the good news is that Alberta’s heavy crude is landlocked, far from refining and export infrastructure, and largely impeded by lands controlled by indigenous First Nations, many of which are hostile to polluting industries. Without the Keystone XL, the industry uses smaller pipelines, trucks and trains, all of which add to costs. In fact, most analysts agree that tar sands production is a money-loser at world prices below $75. Today, the world price is about $74.

So anything that we do to increase the flow and lower the cost of tar sands oil will inevitably add to the flood of carbon that is endangering the world and its many threatened species, including the billions of humans most vulnerable to flood, drought, sea level rise and ocean acidification, all linked to carbon pollution.

Ordinary people will suffer: To hear the oil company commercials – and their politicians – you’d think just the opposite. Mainly, they promise jobs. And sure enough, the State Department has concluded that constructing the pipeline will produce about 1,950 temporary jobs over two years. But the total of permanent jobs (excluding environmental clean-up jobs from pipeline leaks) is now estimated at a total of less than fifty. Actually, it’s only 35 operators and inspectors, to be precise. For perspective, the US economy generated 142,000 new jobs last month, or about 5,000 jobs per day.

So whatever numbers you buy into, can anyone imagine scores of Congressmen scrambling to push through a pipeline project as a jobs program, if it generates less than one day’s worth of job creation?

But if ordinary people won’t benefit, the flip side of this reality is much darker. We now know that climate change always harms the poor first. Environmental degradation of every sort has been shown in study after study to affect minority and low-income communities disproportionately. And what’s true for pollution of all sorts is especially acute for climate pollution, where all the most climate vulnerable countries are low emitters, and all the highest polluting countries are rich.

The world is desperate for climate leadership from America: Together with China, the US accounts for 40 percent of global carbon omissions. Worse, we are among the very worst offenders on a per capita basis, at more than 19 tons of CO2 per American each year, more than double the world average.

In the past, the US actively undermined international efforts to address catastrophic climate disruption. Our refusal to sign the Kyoto Protocol – alone among all the nations on earth – contributed significantly to the failure of that effort. On this site, we’ve quoted Rev. Peter Karanja, Kenya’s leading Protestant church leader, who begged us to send this message to our country:

“We are very concerned, especially about America. They are the most obstinate country when it comes to climate change. We don’t know where it comes from. Maybe it comes from industry money, or maybe people just don’t know about climate change. They are not willing to reduce anything, and they’re not at all willing to finance the cost of adaptation….  

“The message needs to get to the American people. You need to tell your leaders: ‘We are the ones who put you in office. You have a responsibility to reduce your greenhouse gases which are harming the rest of the world.’

“We have these international conferences on climate change. But at the end of the day, the U.S. always comes up with something to make them collapse. We come away with nothing, and no hope. Because Christians are one family, they must be the ones to pressure their governments to act responsibly.”

Well, as of yesterday, the US (and China) could hold their heads a bit higher, and ask other countries to join us in fighting climate change. The spillover effect on other countries is cited by virtually all observers as the most important effect of the Obama-Xi agreement on reducing carbon emissions. But in a single stroke, Congress could negate this advantage entirely, declaring loudly that whatever we may say, we have no intention of actually doing anything to relieve global suffering from climate disruption.

So there you have it. For me, those are the big reasons we’re asking God daily to stop this one pipeline project. And today, it looks like we’re pretty seriously outgunned. We have been from the outset, of course. But now, they seem to have the votes.

But Christians believe that the world is fundamentally broken, and that Christ’s plan is to fix “all things,” and to reconcile them to Himself. We’ve never believed that this requires a Senate majority, or a friendly President.

And so we pray, even today.

Climate Peril: Denmark Leads, the US Retreats

Two articles in today’s paper cast in sharp relief the major crisis facing God’s Creation today, as we struggle with the unfolding threat of global climate change. One tiny country – Denmark – has made so much progress in developing sustainable energy that they are facing complexities such as excessively cheap electricity. In the other, a newly-elected American congressional majority is swearing to kill the only significant national climate initiatives underway in the country.

Denmark emits 9.8 tons of CO2 per person every year. But the average American more than doubles that level, with a whopping 19.7 tons of CO2 emissions per year. The overall difference, however, is enormous: there are only 5.6 million Danes, compared to some 310 million Americans. Whatever leadership the Danes exhibit, it is overwhelmed by American negligence and gluttony.

Wind provides 28% of Denmark’s electricity (Danish Wind Industry Association)

So what’s going on in Denmark? Well, they have already achieved 40 percent renewable power on their electric grid, and plan to be at 50 percent in six years. More amazingly, they plan to use no fossil fuels whatsoever by 2050: none for the electric grid, none for transportation, none for heating and cooling. None.

And the US? Our wind, solar and geothermal power accounts for a modest 6 percent of our consumption (with another 7 percent coming from legacy hydroelectric dams). It seems that our policy is now driven by worries about the plight of the tiny handful of coal miners living in the state represented by the new Senate Majority Leader. Even if it kills the planet’s natural systems, those Kentuckian miners, and – much more importantly – their bosses and lobbyists, are not going to lose a single job. No mention of the fact that there are four times as many American solar, wind and geothermal workers today as there are coal miners.

In Denmark, they’re developing smart appliances that talk to the power grid and cut back when electricity is expensive, but run full blast when there is abundant wind or sunshine; and they’re adjusting electricity prices by the hour to provide incentives to consume power when sustainable sources are most available.

In the US, all the talk is about ramming through approval of the massive Keystone XL pipeline which will carry carbon–heavy Canadian tar sands oil to export refineries in Texas. Canadian oil companies will profit; unspeakably wealthy multinational oil exporters will profit; but American Midwesterners will watch nervously as nearly a million barrels of highly pressurized, corrosive tar sands oil course through their precious aquifers every day – all while the cynical claims of pipeline jobs are repeated by politicians, despite having been debunked repeatedly.

In Denmark, they have a Climate czar, who coordinates their response to the defining global crisis of our century. In the US, we have an Ebola czar, after one person died of the disease.

In Denmark, they worry about electricity becoming so cheap that gas-fired plants will go out of business, even if they might be needed for standby power on windless nights.

In the US, Congress is vowing to prevent the EPA from enforcing the Clean Air Act carbon standards on coal-fired power plants. If they prevail, then the American skies will continue to be used as an unlimited, free dumping ground for coal and gas soot and smog, as though the air belongs to the drillers and refiners, and not to every human and other creature on God’s earth.

Creation-care advocates in the Christian church surely wonder what judgment awaits these two countries, as global climate systems spiral out of control, as oceans become dangerously acidic, as growing seasons in poor countries suffer waves of drought and flooding, and as extinctions of threatened species run at thousands of times historical levels.

Two-thirds of Americans stayed home on Election Day last week. And perhaps many of those non-voters might have agreed that Denmark’s play-book looks smarter – and possibly more Christian – than ours. But that’s a largely academic question, now, isn’t it?

“O let the nations be glad and sing for joy: for you judge the peoples with equity, and govern the nations upon earth.” (Psalm 67:4)

Mountains of the Moon: The Melting Rwenzoris

In 1906, the Duke of Abruzzi – an Italian nobleman known for his expeditions to the world’s most forbidding destinations – trekked into the Mountains of the Moon, the glacier-bound peaks of Uganda’s Rwenzori range, whose snows feed the mighty Nile River.

Vittorio Sella's 1906 shot of Mt. Stanley

Vittorio Sella’s 1906 shot of Mt. Stanley

Abruzzi brought with him Vittorio Sella, a photographer whose prints unveiled one of the most other-worldly places on earth. Among them was this picture of Mt. Stanley, one of the highest peaks in Africa.

A century later, biologists Nate Dappen and Neil Losin have retraced Abruzzi’s steps, on a quest to replicate Sella’s picture of Mt. Stanley – from the exact same position under identical circumstances. In the process, they’ve produced “Snows of the Nile,” a breathtaking short video documentary of the Rwenzoris, with a run time of only 11 minutes. It’s beautiful, engaging, and worth every second.

And in the end – SPOILER ALERT! – they discover that they simply can’t take Sella’s picture today. That’s because in 1906, the Italian photographer had perched his camera on ice hundreds of feet higher in the air than the bare rock that remains today. The shots that they succeed in taking tell the story of virtually every glacier in the world: land ice is melting rapidly; 80% of the Rwenzori glacier mass is already gone; the residual ice won’t last another 20 years — with untold consequences for the Rwenzori ecosystem and the Nile basin.

[We have a personal connection to these beautiful mountains. Missionary doctors Scott and Jennifer Myhre have labored in their shadow for decades, with water engineers Michael and Karen Masso, and even our kids Nathan and Sarah Elwood, currently in medical residency state-side. The Rwenzoris pose a formidable obstacle for any visitors to their home in Bundibugyo, Uganda’s remotest district.]

Spend a few moments, and treat yourself to some amazing footage from a corner of the Creation you’ll almost certainly never see for yourself. And in the bargain, you can’t miss the changes being wrought in these mountains by decisions being made thousands of miles away, as industrial nations continue to use our shared atmosphere as a free and unlimited dumping ground for the soot and smog of the carbon-industrial complex.

Clean Wind Electricity for Your Home

It seems the landscape for national and global climate policy just changed pretty significantly this week, didn’t it? With the new Senate leadership, efforts to kill climate-friendly policies are already in gear. And “greatest-hoax” climate denier Sen. James Inhofe is set to take the reins of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

From one point of view, US environmental policies are now largely in the hands of the man who has written: “I stood alone in saying that anthropogenic catastrophic global warming is a hoax.” Not the National Academy of Sciences, or the EPA, or the American Geophysical Union, or the American Meteorological Society – but James Inhofe, who claims that the 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists have simply conspired to pull the wool over the eyes of mankind.

Now, maybe this makes us mad. Maybe we’re depressed. Maybe we’re ready to give up.

Switch your home electric from coal to clean wind!

Switch your home electric from coal to clean wind!

Well, if so, maybe it’s time for us to actually DO something about it. Here’s a suggestion: Let’s stop complaining about oil-funded politicians complicit in the abuse of God’s creation, and take action ourselves. And here’s one big – and easy – thing we can do: SWITCH FROM DIRTY COAL TO WIND ELECTRICITY FOR YOUR HOME RIGHT NOW.

I just did it, and it was simple. Some of you know that solar PV provides lots of our electricity here at Good Hand Farm. Eight years ago, we installed panels that basically run the farm, and that provide about half of our house needs. Earlier this year, we took advantage of an essentially free program to solarize two of our neighbors’ homes.

But the balance of our electric needs – not covered by our solar production – was still filthy. The power we had to buy from our New Jersey utility (JCP&L) comes from coal (43%) and gas (17%) – that’s 60% from fossil fuels. And most of the balance is nuclear.Picture1

So instead of just fuming about oil-funded politicians running congressional policy, I decided to do something. With a few clicks – and one phone call – I found a 100% wind-power producer that my utility accepts, and made the switch. There were a range of options and prices, but I like the choice I made. My previous dirty electricity cost me 9.63 cents per kWh. My new provider, Stream Energy, charges 9.98 cents, fixed for one year.  That might run me about $2.00 per month more than I was paying for coal. Nothing changes on my bill, and my electric utility continues to service everything just as before.

Except for one thing: We no longer use any fossil fuels and greenhouse gases to power our home and farm.

Want to give it a try? Details will vary depending on where you live, so go to this page to find out who covers your area. And if you want to try the choice I made, then just click here, and then choose the “Enroll-Now” option. (If enough of you go this route, I’ll start to get further savings on my bill, and then you can do the same thing with your friends.)

And in the bargain, maybe you can look in the mirror tomorrow, and stand a little taller. Maybe our politicians are bent on the unfettered abuse of our Father’s world, but you don’t have to follow them.

You are not powerless. It may feel that way sometimes, but you can affect what happens on God’s good earth. Take the step, and join me on the road to a cleaner, more sustainable world.

Mass Extinction: Brothers, What Shall We Do?

We looked for the Monarch butterflies nearly all summer – that beautiful lacework of orange and black wings punctuated by brilliant white spots. The flower gardens were full of inviting zinnia, Echinacea, bee balm and more. The wetland meadow offered abundant milkweeds and vital habitat. And many species accepted the invitation. Swallowtails, skippers, common blues and more. But where were the Monarchs?

One of two lonely Monarchs visiting us this summer

One of two lonely Monarchs visiting us this summer

Finally, in the fading days of summer, our vigil received its first reward. A single Monarch, followed by a second, rummaging through the zinnias. They remained for the better part of one week, before they left us on their journey to warmer climes. But during those few days, we gaped and pointed to our granddaughters: Look how beautiful! It’s a Monarch!

Our little girls are growing up with a new baseline reality: Monarch butterflies are rare and beautiful like diamonds. In a good year you just might get to see one or two.

So where did they all go? Well, they didn’t exactly go anywhere. They have died. By most accounts, more than 90 percent of the Monarch population has vanished in the last 20 years. In 2004, an estimated 550 million Monarchs completed the winter migration; by 2013, that number had fallen more than ten-fold, to only 33 million.  And as I read the data, the downward spiral is accelerating year by year.

The culprit? Well, mainly people like you and me, mowing down the life-giving milkweed that sustains the butterflies, and spraying them with herbicides. We find the milkweeds and other wild plants to be inconvenient in our yards and farm fields. The Monarchs die by the millions.

I miss the Monarchs. But it turns out that their decline is only one vivid snapshot of a mass genocide being carried out over the whole natural world. This year, the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) completed its Living Planet Report 2014, an exhaustive study of more than 10,000 populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish. Its findings were nothing short of shocking: Populations of vertebrate species on Earth have declined by 52 percent since 1970.

WWF finds 52% loss of wildlife populations in 40 years

WWF: 52% loss of global wildlife in 40 years

To be sure we’re clear on this, the number of all living vertebrates on Earth has declined by more than one-half over forty years. In the span of roughly one human generation, half the mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians – all gone. It’s as though Moses leads the children of Israel into Sinai; and by the time they cross the Jordan, half of all God’s creatures are dead.

Do you think this might be newsworthy? And beyond the news, do you think it has any special significance for followers of Jesus Christ?

I do. And here’s why. There is no lack of discussion in our day about the Creation account in the book of Genesis. But as we go back and forth on largely inconsequential matters of interpretation, we’re prone to miss some of the most important elements of Creation theology. Let me suggest three seldom-acknowledged nuggets:

  • God made mankind to be stewards in His place, exercising wise dominion on His behalf over His creatures as His beloved possessions;
  • God placed mankind in his Creation to serve it, as well as to be sustained by it; and
  • When all went awry, and God’s judgment fell upon mankind, God directed his chosen person to save not only himself, but also every single species He had created.

That awkward word: Dominion. In the first chapter of Genesis, we read that God gave to humanity “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” In our day, we hear the forces of environmental abuse appealing to this passage to support the ongoing exploitation of nature for human consumption.  But however we react to the word “dominion,” scripture doesn’t allow for this view. “The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it,” declares King David (Psalm 24:1). It’s the Lord’s, not ours. If we have been made rulers, then our dominion is to protect what belongs to God.

And in case we need further clarity about dominion, the Incarnate Word came among us to exercise His dominion over His world.  And what did that dominion look like? The apostle Mark records the words of Jesus: “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). When the true Ruler of Creation walked among us, he exercised his dominion in service, not exploitation.

We also were created to serve the Creation. In Genesis 2, we find that the Man is placed in the Garden for a specific purpose: to “tend and keep” it. It wasn’t written in English, of course, and translators have struggled over how best to render the Hebrew words: AVAD and SHAMAR. AVAD becomes “tend,” or “till,” or “cultivate.” But they are all disappointing. Consider Joshua’s farewell address to the children of Israel: “Choose this day whom you will AVAD…. But as for me and my house, we will AVAD the Lord.” I can assure you that Joshua had no plans to “cultivate” the Lord. And when added to SHAMAR, the Hebrew gives us the unmistakable sense of mankind created to SERVE and PROTECT the Creation.

Redemption is for all the creatures, not just the people. The account of Noah and the flood is recorded in Genesis 6, where God commands a man to build a boat for his family to be saved. But not just his family; “Of every living thing of all flesh, you shall bring two of every sort into the ark to keep them alive with you.” Indeed, when we retell the story, we almost tend to forget about the people, don’t we? “The animals went in two by two, the elephant and the kangaroo,” we tell our children in rhyme and song.

And in case you think that we’re missing the point, God himself includes the animals in the promise we mistakenly refer to as “God’s covenant with Noah.” Scripture tells us that He said: “I establish my covenant with you (Noah) and your offspring after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth” (Gen. 9:9-10).

If this is true, then how are we doing? Christians are usually quick to admit failure. “If we confess our sins,” we tell ourselves, “He is faithful and just to forgive us….” But at a time when we have been complicit in a culture of Creation-abuse never seen in human history, surely we cannot look for cheap grace by simply acknowledging our failings, and hoping to be forgiven. God has given us special responsibility, or dominion, for what he has made. Our mission is to serve and protect the Creation to which God has bound himself by covenant. And on our watch, half of it has turned up missing. The immediate future looks even more grim, with the pressures of habitat destruction, exploitation through hunting and fishing, and climate change.

On Pentecost, those listening to St. Peter’s first sermon were cut to the heart, and asked the apostles: “Brothers, what shall we do?” They could not undo the betrayal and crucifixion of the Son of Man. But now they needed to figure out where to go from here.

It’s not so different for us, is it? We’ve been caught red-handed – gluttonous consumers destroying the Creation which we have been entrusted as stewards. Now, half of it is gone in the span of our lifetime. We are digging & drilling, paving & spraying, burning & polluting – and now much of what remains is in dire peril.

Those Monarch butterflies are but brilliant signposts along our path of consumption and destruction. Brothers, what shall we do?

Climate Change: Looking Back at an Alarming Future

“The best qualification of a prophet is to have a good memory.”  George Savile, Marquis of Halifax

A slender volume arrived in the mail yesterday: Naomi Oreske’s fictional history of the late 21st Century, recounted in the words of a 24th Century Chinese historian. Just before midnight, I turned the last page.

You might remember Oreskes. She’s the Harvard geologist and science historian who first showed that almost all climatologists – 97 percent of them – agreed that the Earth is warming, due in large measure to human causes: the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. After suffering a withering backlash from industry-funded “think tanks,” she discovered that many of the leading “denial experts” were the same characters who were once on the payroll of the tobacco industry, lending a fig leaf of scientific cover to their arguments against the links between smoking and lung cancer. In the case of climate change denial, the strategy turns out to have been the same, and provided the title for Oreskes’ earlier book: Merchants of Doubt.

appOreskes’ new book is a bit less ambitious. Written with Cal Tech historian Erik Conway, it bears a dreary title: The Collapse of Western Civilization. And unlike most fictional dystopias, it is completely devoid of personal drama, thrilling action or heroes. It is simply written as history, recorded far off in the future. It chronicles the Penumbral Age, that dark time beginning in the late 20th Century when the looming shadow (or “penumbra”) of ignorance and denial spread over Western civilization, preventing it from acting on the discoveries of environmental science, and leading to the Great Collapse and Mass Migration of 2073-2093.

Like most science fiction, the value of “Collapse” is that it actually permits us to envision a better world, and identify those forces that might prevent it from happening. Sadly, in this case, almost all those forces in fact prevail, and the world of our grandchildren ends up looking dismal indeed.

How dismal? Well, here’s a short list. Before the end of the 21st Century:

  • Global temperatures rise almost 4oC by 2040, as catastrophic volumes of methane escape from the melting Arctic permafrost in a positive feedback loop long predicted by scientists;
  • Desperate geo-engineering solutions backfire, disrupting the monsoons vital to India’s survival, and the resulting cessation causes a sling-shot effect raising temperatures another 6oC;
  • 60 percent of all known species of animals and plants perish in a Sixth Great Extinction event;
  • The West Antarctic ice sheet disintegrates and melts, raising sea levels five meters, followed by the breakup of the Greenland ice sheet which adds another two meters.;
  • The Netherlands, Bangladesh and Florida slip almost entirely beneath the waves, as do coastal regions everywhere, driving the forced migration of 1.5 billion souls;
  • Only authoritarian governments survive in the face of pressures that demand rapid forced migration of millions of humans; and …
  • … one last thing: Humanity becomes entirely extinct on its two most vulnerable continents, Australia and Africa.

So! I’ve had my horror story a couple of days before Halloween, right? Thank God it’s only fiction! And anyway, who can actually look back on a future threatened by climate change?

Well, actually, in fact, we can. No, I’m not talking about computer models that look forward with increasing accuracy. We can look BACK at climate change. That’s because it has already happened in modern human history. The 17th Century coincided with the peak of the global event called The Little Ice Age. Brought on by a century-long hiatus in sunspot activity, coupled with a rash of mid-century volcanoes and a run of extremely weak El Niño events, the Little Ice Age ushered in more than a century of global cooling, with average surface temperatures falling about 1oC below historical averages.

And so a serious look at the 17th Century – with its one-degree cooling record – might just tell us something about what could be in store for the 21st Century, as we debate whether warming can be kept close to 2oC, or run to 4oC or even worse.

17th Century cold in contrast with today's runaway warming

17th Century cold in contrast with today’s runaway warming

A few months ago, we summarized the global chaos of the 17th Century, as set forth in Geoffrrey Parker’s magnum opus, Global Crisis. Droughts, floods and harvest failures set entire populations on the move in virtually every corner of civilization. Estimates at the time were that the human population fell by roughly one-third. Rebellions and civil wars ravaged Russia, France, England, Scotland, Ireland and Ukraine. Starving Ottomans strangled their Sultan. The English executed their king. The German states fell into the sectarian chaos of the Thirty Years’ War.

But the non-European world suffered at least as badly. So let’s take a quick look at the world’s largest empire, where the Ming dynasty ruled in China. For it’s there where we see how drought and famine drove starving Manchu clansmen from the north into a conquest that led to the suicide of the last Ming emperor, seven decades of warfare, and the death of an estimated 50% of the population. Here are a few notable events from that time:

  • Drought brought on by the weakest monsoons in 2,000 years destroyed Chinese agriculture in the 1620s, giving farmers no choice but to resort to mass banditry.
  • Heavy snowfall blanketed tropical Guangdong Province in the 1630s, further depressing crop yields.
  • Cannibalism ran rampant in the 1640s in numerous provinces, with China’s daughters at particular risk.
  • In 1642, a Ming official reported that “the human price of a peck of rice” – barely enough to feed one person for a week – “was two children.” He reported watching a woman eat her own child outside of the government office.
  • In Manchuria, 1643 brought on the coldest winter in a thousand years, forcing starving Manchus to mobilize a desperate effort to breach the Great Wall and conquer the warmer empire to the south.
  • Total cultivated land fell more than two-thirds by mid-century, and tax rolls declined by as much as 90 percent in some provinces.

In the end, stresses aggravated by climate change in the 17th Century cost about half of Chinese souls their lives, and as many as one in three humans on earth. It was a time we’d much rather not repeat.

And so, whatever we think about the progress we’ve made over the last four centuries – for better (global institutions and scientific advances), or worse (nuclear weapons and extreme environmental degradation) – Oreskes’ fictional “history” just might warrant our attention. We’re often called “alarmists” when we look seriously at the future of a world in which we have disregarded the laws woven by the Creator into his work. But to me, the ACTUAL history of climate change makes Oreskes’ fictional account look plausible, or perhaps worse.

Do you think that maybe it’s time to join the alarmists, and start talking about what we’re doing to our children’s world? It’s not really that far off.