Clothesline in Winter

Clothesline in Winter

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Hope of the Earth

Last week, the two men vying to become our president for the next four years held their last debate. In the final moments, they summed up their appeal like this.

  • Obama: “I will fight for your families and I will work every single day to make sure that America continues to be the greatest nation on earth.”
  • Romney:  “I'd like to be the next president of the United States to support and help this great nation and to make sure that we all together remain America as the hope of the earth.”

Of all the things you remember from that debate, I bet you missed these. You’ve heard them so often that you’re mostly inoculated – the constant drumbeat that America is the greatest nation that’s ever existed, the light of the world, a city on a hill, the hope of the earth.

Maybe it takes a fresh set of eyes to see through these declarations and call them what they really are.


That’s the assessment of Heidi Lutjens, a friend of mine fresh off the plane from South Sudan and Uganda, where she has served some of the poorest people on earth for five years as a Christian medical missionary. 

“What arrogance!” said Heidi. “We as Americans often feel as if the world revolves around us, as if everyone on earth should look to us for the answers.  As if the world would be a better place if only everyone would be more like us.”

I think my friend has it just about right. American voters demand from their leaders “constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary,” as Scott Shane wrote in the New York Times last week. The last time one of them told us the truth (remember President Carter’s “Malaise Speech?”) we turned him out on his ear.

Do we want leaders, or cheerleaders?
And so they tell us that we’re unique, superior to all other countries – deserving of the best living standards on earth, the lowest taxes, and most imposing military.  Yes, even that we’re the light of the world and the hope of the earth – biblical titles usually reserved for Christ and the kingdom of God.

Setting aside the theological delicacies, these assertions persist despite some inconvenient facts:

What would ever make us think that people all over the world are longing for the privilege of being just like us? Of course, Shane points out that we are indeed Number One in a number of notable categories. Here are a few:

  • In obesity, we’re way ahead of #2 Mexico.
  • We’re tops at locking our people up, with incarceration rates far ahead of Russia, Cuba, Iran and China.
  • Our world-leading energy use per person is more than double that of the German industrial juggernaut.
  • All by ourselves, the U.S. accounts for 41% of all military spending on earth, far ahead of the 8% spent by China, and 4% by Russia. In fact, we spend $2,141 on the military for each of our citizens; the Chinese spend $74. Imagine it! Every year, we saddle every single American with an extra $2,000 burden to feed our war machine, as compared with the Chinese.

Do we really think all these people are longing to be just like us? Let’s not talk hogwash.

“I love the USA,” writes my friend Heidi. “But I am so thankful that God made our world diverse, that we have a worldwide community to share with and, more importantly, to learn from.”

And what does she think we might learn from them, you wonder? It happens that she’s come back home to deal with a personal emergency.  When they learned of it, every single person in her Sudanese church came to reassure her personally: “Rabona fi” (the Lord is here); "Rabona kabir" (the Lord is great); “Anina bi seli” (we will pray). The women selling produce in the market, young men of the village – all have come together to remind her of the hope they share in God.

And where does this wellspring of hope come from? Her answer: “Unimaginable pain and suffering in and around their own lives.  These brothers and sisters know sickness and death like no one else I've ever met.  They hate it, they grieve, they wail, they're amazingly empathetic, but they're not surprised by it.

“And, I would argue that our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world are greater and more hopeful in the ways they face the realities of a fallen world and take their longings for something different to the feet of their Lord.”

I’m so glad for the fresh vision that my friend brings back from East Africa to the political discussion back home. We do indeed think that we’re special and deserving. But we’re not the first at this. John the Baptist told it straight to the Pharisees, who had made the same mistake: “And do not think you can say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father.' I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.”

The prophet John wouldn’t have many followers in today's America, would he? But may God give us the grace to see that we’re part of a global community, a rich and inter-dependent tapestry that God is weaving from cultures in every corner of the earth.

Whatever you may hear from the candidates, we’re not the hope of the earth. That name belongs to its Creator and Redeemer.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Are We In the Sixth Mass Extinction?

A few months ago, we read about the passing of Lonesome George. No one knew for sure, but he was thought to be around 100 years old. This much is certain: There will never be another one like him.

That’s because Lonesome George was the last of his species, the Pinta giant tortoise. They are now extinct, gone forever. Tens of thousands of George’s forbears used to roam on tiny Pinta Island in the Galapagos chain. But generations of sailors and hunters decimated them for meat on sea voyages, and ship-borne goats ravaged their feeding grounds. In the end, there was only Lonesome George, tended by researchers who clung to the hope that he would mate with females from other giant tortoise species. 

No such luck. George is gone, and with him, his race. We can cross off another of God’s species from the list.

Lonesome George: The last of his kind
A pity, no doubt. But this can’t be that big a deal, right? After all, can you even name more than a few species to have died off in the modern era? The dodo, a flightless bird eaten by hungry sailors on Mauritius.  And the once-ubiquitous passenger pigeon, consumed in mass quantities by Americans in the 19th century. Any others? Wasn’t there an obscure golden toad a few years ago?

If you’re like me, you’ve had a hard time ginning up much concern, given the minimal exposure we’ve had to extinction. So this will probably come as a shock to you, as it did to me: Many highly-respected scientific associations tell us that we are now in the midst of a global mass extinction, like the one that ended the reign of the dinosaurs. 

Scientists tell us that there have been five mass extinction events in earth’s history. The first occurred more than 400 million years ago, and brought to an end the Ordivician Period, with its ten-foot-long predatory mollusks, ancestors to today’s nautilus. We’re told that sixty percent of all species worldwide were exterminated.  And the most recent extinction brought down the curtain on the Cretaceous Period – dooming the dinosaurs and virtually all large land animals – some 65 million years ago.  In between, the earth lost 80-95% of all marine creatures at the end of the Permian Period, a time so lethal to living creatures that it’s called “the Great Dying.”

The first thing that comes to mind in such times is the death of land creatures, but the effect on marine life was catastrophic in each instance. Oceans warmed or cooled, sea levels rose or fell, CO2 concentrations increased in the atmosphere, and ocean acidity rose to levels beyond the tolerance of marine life. And always, coral reefs died en masse, and did not recover for millions of years. 

But with such events coming along only every fifty million years or so, what’s the worry? Getting struck by lightning is no fun either, but given the odds, we don’t fret too much. In this instance, that would be a mistake. The next Great Dying has already begun, and human fingerprints are all over it. 

It’s a shame that so few have paid attention, but researchers are following the Great Dying as it unfolds. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) publishes an extinction score card called the “Red List” every four years.  The Red List (or Red List of Threatened Species) analyzes the status of 44,838 animal and plant species worldwide. The statistics are alarming. Actual extinctions to date are – perhaps – not so bad: 869 species are known to have vanished in our era. But there are another 16,928 species that are threatened with extinction, and another 3,796 species on the bubble. Together, they comprise more than 46 percent of all plant and animal species assessed by the IUCN, and they outnumber by far the species that the IUCN deems to be healthy, or “least concern.”

IUCN 2008 Red List
More ominously, the Red List has only scratched the surface of the earth’s living species. For every one of the species evaluated in the Red List, there are another 44 known species waiting to be assessed. And the approximately two million known species on earth are widely thought to be outnumbered around 4-to-1 by species yet to be discovered and described. Bottom line? For each Red List assessed species, there are likely another 150 species whose threat status is known today to no one.

The Red List trends give us an idea of where we’re headed, if humans don’t act decisively, and soon. In the most recent report, the threat status of 187 species of mammals had deteriorated from four years earlier; only 37 saw improvements. For birds, 30 species were more threatened than before; only two improved. For amphibians, the ratio was 7-to-1.

With almost half of all assessed living species threatened with extinction, how could things possibly get worse? Well, it turns out that things could get a lot worse – and they are. That’s because we’re adding climate change and its “evil twin” – ocean acidification – into the mix.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concludes that approximately 20-30% of plant and animal species will be at high risk of extinction as global mean temperatures exceed warming of 2-3oC above preindustrial levels.  Another synthesis study predicts 15-37% “commitment to extinction” (passing the point of no return) by 2050. And if we fail to act on climate change during the next fifty years, then as many as 70% of living species could well vanish.

It’s important to note that the projected climate contribution to extinction is, in many cases, above and beyond the ongoing pace of dying identified by the Red List.

There is, of course, a term for all this: Mass Extinction Event.

Against this backdrop, two biblical narratives stand out which may direct God’s people. First, in Genesis 2, we read that God placed the man he had created in his perfect garden “to work it and take care of it.” From the beginning of the Bible, man’s purpose was to care for all the things God had made.  And over time, as the earth filled with violence and corruption, we read in Genesis 6 that God instructed another man to build an ark to protect the lives of “every kind of bird, every kind of animal and every kind of creature that moves along the ground,” in the face of looming catastrophe. Christians can hardly take the Bible seriously – however we interpret these texts – without also seeing our God-given responsibility for all creatures, and his care for each of them.

And for those of other faiths, or none at all, it is worthwhile noting something else. In each of the prior five mass extinction events, vast numbers of species of plants and animals perished. But in each case, the dominant species at the top of the food chain was not spared either. They perished along with the smallest things. In our day, that would be you and I, or our children and grandchildren.

In the coming posts, we will be taking a closer look at extinction threats and conservation efforts, including the following:

  • Detailed stories from the Red List: Who’s most at risk, and why? How threatened are they?
  • How does climate change contribute to the risk that species will vanish forever?
  • A close-up look at climate-driven species decline on a tiny island off the coast of Washington.
  • Dying reefs: Why corals died then; why now; and why it matters.
  • How much longer for the Great Barrier Reef? And what happened to the Caribbean?
  • How bad is ocean acidification? What does it harm? What can we do to stop it?
  • What caused prior mass extinctions? Any parallels for us?
  • Species conservation: How can you and I “take care of the garden?”

I hope you benefit from these coming posts. It’s taken most of my life for me to hear the call to seriously care for God’s other creatures. Maybe this exercise will help motivate us to take seriously this most basic element of our created purpose as humans.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Climate Crisis: It's Beyond Debate

You’d think that our problems were really pretty minor.

Watching the debate last night, you got an earful about who would have done a better job handling the Benghazi Consulate attack. You heard who would support more student loans, and who would be tougher on China.

But you didn’t hear a word from either candidate about what is arguably the greatest peril that humanity has ever faced.  And that’s despite the presence at the debate of a strong contingent of young evangelical Christians led by activist Ben Lowe, who were there to “bear witness to the lack of climate science” in the debate and the campaign.

"One of my biggest disappointments of the election so far is that neither candidate has shown the leadership that we're hoping for on the climate crisis," Lowe said. "For us, it's not just an energy issue, it's not an economic issue; it's a moral issue and it's a spiritual issue. And honestly, it's a pro-life issue."

Spirited exchange, but silence on climate
Sure, you did hear an exchange or two about energy, with the President attacking Romney for his opposition to clean energy and efficiency, and the Governor going after Obama as an insincere supporter of oil, gas and coal. But the climate crisis? Not a word.

Here’s a sampling of climate-change matters deemed too insignificant for our presidential contenders to debate openly:

  • The worst U.S. drought in 56 years, resulting in the smallest corn crop in nine years – and the third consecutive annual decline in production, costing Americans tens of billions of dollars.
  • A persistent global farm drought also gripping the major grain-producing giants of Russia and Kazakhstan, with wheat production falling for the second consecutive year – and world output falling 5% from last year.
  • Drought-related food price increases equaling a “$30 billion tax on U.S. consumers,” according to the Morningstar rating agency.
  • Projections by hunger advocacy agency Oxfam of a sharp increase in global hunger in 2013 due to the current drought – causing unspeakable suffering and potentially triggering food riots like those in 2009, which destabilized many countries and undermined global peace and prosperity.
  • A wildfire season that burned more than 8.8 million acres in the U.S. – an area the size of New Jersey and Delaware combined.
  • A record ice-melt season for the Arctic, with 98% of Greenland losing ice this summer and sea-ice cover at its lowest level on record – an outcome far worse than the “worst-case scenario” of the UN’s climate science panel.
  • New warnings from the world’s leading marine biology association that ocean reefs – the nurseries of our oceans – are facing catastrophic decline, largely due to ocean acidification from high levels of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere.
  • Warnings from the UN that between one-fifth and 70% of all living species on earth will now become extinct because of human-caused climate change.
  • Rising sea levels projected by the Organization for Economic Development  & Cooperation to wreak $7.2 TRILLION in losses in only four U.S. cities – an amount equal to half the U.S. national debt, on only a tiny fraction of the U.S. coastline.
Withered corn in Indiana

Surely, you’d think, we could squeeze in maybe one question – between the de-funding of Big Bird and restrictions on assault weapons – on whether we will leave our children a world which could sustain our race and God’s millions of other species?

When I reached young evangelical leader Ben Lowe by phone today, he admitted to disappointment with the debate.  “Neither candidate has broken silence on the climate crisis,” he said.

But his disappointment was offset by the passion and commitment of young Christians who traveled to the debate from schools across the country. “God has given us so much hope and vision for his creation. We’re excited to see how he’ll lead us next.”

So are we, young man. God give us the grace to be there standing with you.

Thanks for reading, and may God bless you.

J. Elwood