I remember a couple of years back seeing the trailer for Interstellar, an earth-exodus sci-fi thriller. The film starred Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and a host of other luminaries. But it was the 21st century setting of the film – a dying world facing the extinction of all plant life from an unnamed blight – that intrigued me most.
Like almost all people who take today’s environmental crisis seriously, the specter of ecosystem collapse – and even of existential threats to our own species – constantly haunts the shadowy margins of my consciousness. The spectral appeal of the film was strong, but still no match for the drone of daily routines that normally crowd out interesting films. Interstellar came and went, without me.
Well, I finally got around to seeing it a couple of nights ago. To break up day/night-long flight to Nepal – where I am currently attending a conference of South Asian Christian church leaders engaged in ecological ministry – I finally took the time. And sure enough, the movie’s story-line confronted me with an imponderable challenge: How could anyone manage life in a world with almost no plausible future beyond one’s own lifetime or maybe their children’s’?
Last night at the opening dinner of the Nepal conference, I was confronted with a dystopian nightmare eerily similar to Interstellar’s fictional crisis. And it wasn’t a movie. With my plate filled with rice, dahl and curry, I took a seat across from a Bangladeshi man named Manna (I’ll skip his full name for this post). Manna works with an international faith-based NGO in Southeast Asia.
Eventually, the conversation turned to Manna’s home in coastal Bangladesh. Yes, he confirmed, the sea levels are rising at an alarming pace. Farms in his home are becoming too salty to produce food. Fish farms are suffering mass die-offs as freshwater ponds turn to sea-water, until the monsoon flushes them fresh again. Groundwater tables are falling rapidly as communities drill for fresh, clean water. Coastal mangrove forests are succumbing to rapid climatic changes, leaving the low-lying Ganges River delta defenseless against storm surges from tropical cyclones.
“You cannot invest for the future under such conditions,” Manna told me. “Everyone knows what is coming.” But still, he told me, many people cannot afford to think even several years ahead.
Manna is not saying anything more than what countless scientific studies have already established: Bangladesh and its 160 million human souls are facing the irresistible advance of the sea over large expanses of their country. The culprit? Thermal ocean expansion and melting land ice in a world choking on the exhaust from the global industrial behemoth.
Scientists are still working on the expected pace of the rising seas, with new studies raising the prospect of rapid coastal inundation far more severe than previously thought. But Bangladesh illustrates the maddening complexity of the problem: Long before the dry land slips beneath the waves, freshwater sources are fouled; farmland is poisoned by salt; and capital investment moves to higher ground.
But there’s a personal word in what I hear from Manna: There is a clouded future for my hometown, my family, my people. You can’t plan for the long haul here. There is little to leave our children in this place. In effect, we have to find somewhere else to start over.
So, what stories do you tell yourself in Manna’s Bangladesh to hang onto hope? What do you say to the mother of a newborn child, nursing the hope of a new generation? What do you tell your young people about the value of industry and honest work? What do you tell investors looking to create value in their communities?
The movie, Interstellar, is just a story. For those of us who feel relatively secure in our brief time and place, it offers the thrill of an existential peril that we don’t actually have to face ourselves. It’s entertaining, in a way, isn’t it?
But what if that were the world we really lived in? What if there simply was no reliable future in our cities, counties and states? What if broad swaths of our entire country saw little option but eventual flight?
And to flee – where? In a world increasingly absorbed with fear and hatred of The Other, where could we hope to find welcome and shalom?
And since most of my readers are from North America, let me ask one more question: If we were Manna’s Bangladeshi countrymen, what would we want to say to people in the consumerist world of the West?
That’s what I’m here in Nepal to listen for. If I can, I will bring you their voices over the next couple of weeks. I hope you will find the time – and the human compassion – to hear their voices.