“This is a fossil fuel war”

“No SWIFT. No gas. I gladly freeze for democracy.” (Protesters in Germany demonstrating against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.) Photo credit: Noah Eleazar, Unsplash.

On February 28th, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its sixth assessment. According to Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan, “This IPCC report marks a turning point in the fight against climate change. It forces us to reckon with a stark reality. The crisis is here, and it is all around us.” Four days earlier, Russian troops had invaded Ukraine, beginning a conflict killing thousands of soldiers and civilians, destroying Ukrainian cities and towns, and causimg millions to flee to neighboring countries. For those of us trying to maintain a focus on what we believe is the greatest challenge to human lives and the welfare of the planet, will this war have any impact on our efforts to combat the climate crisis?

The IPCC report led Svitlana Krakovska, Ukraine’s leading climate scientist, to see the connection between war and climate change.

I started to think about the parallels between climate change and this war and it’s clear that the roots of both these threats to humanity are found in fossil fuels. Burning oil, gas and coal is causing warming and impacts we need to adapt to. And Russia sells these resources and uses the money to buy weapons. Other countries are dependent upon these fossil fuels, they don’t make themselves free of them. This is a fossil fuel war. It’s clear we cannot continue to live this way, it will destroy our civilization. [1]

The West has imposed a high level of sanctions designed to disrupt Putin’s plans for a complete takeover of Ukraine. Europe and the US are using measures like freezing Russian oligarchs’ foreign bank accounts and cutting Russia off from SWIFT (“the global provider of secure financial messaging services”) to stop the war. There can be no doubt, however, that Putin is counting on Europe’s heavy dependence on Russia’s oil and natural gas to help keep paying for the war. On March 11th at a meeting of European leaders in France, Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin said “We are supporting and actually financing Russia’s war by purchasing oil, gas and other fossil fuels.” [2]

President Biden has proposed an increase in shipments of America’s gas and oil to Europe to help wean it off Russian fossil fuels. There are considerable logistical hurdles to overcome before that effort could hope to succeed (e.g., insufficient fossil fuel delivery infrastructure). For climate change activists Biden’s proposal, if enacted, would be a major setback in the effort to reduce global warming. According to Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency, “I’m very worried our climate goals may be another victim of Russia’s aggression.” [3]

Has this war, then, significantly lowered our chances to make real gains in decarbonizing our energy usage? Conservation International news writer Will McCarry asked conservation scientist Will Turner if, given the grimness of the assessment’s report, the situation has become hopeless. Turner responded “We must take the warnings in this new report just as seriously (as we have with previous IPCC reports). At this point, inaction due to uncertainty is scientifically unjustifiable, and inaction due to hopelessness is indefensible. We can still make a difference, but we must act now.” [4] And action against global warming can’t take a break because of the war. Biden shouldn’t be advocating for more oil to be pumped. To this point, Thomas Friedman writes 

Western nations fund NATO and aid Ukraine’s military with our tax dollars, and — since Russia’s energy exports finance 40 percent of its state budget — we fund Vladimir Putin’s army with our purchases of Russian oil and gas. . . . Our civilization simply cannot afford this anymore. Climate change has not taken a timeout for the war in Ukraine. [5]

Yes, there is no question that the victims of the war in Ukraine and the accompanying massive flow of refugees need our most compassionate response. But climate change is also a moral crisis [6] that continues to concern us deeply and requires an equally compassionate response. Both the war and global warming are and will continue destroying infrastructure needed for providing food, shelter, and public health care. But over time the destruction from climate change will be even greater than that resulting from this war. This is a critical moment for us to continue to do as much as we can for the well being of the Earth community. At the same time, an end to dependence on fossil fuels would mean an end to the power wielded by petro-dictators like Putin.


[1] Quoted in Oliver Milman, “‘This is a fossil fuel war’: Ukraine’s top climate scientist speaks out,” The Guardian, March 9, 2022, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/mar/09/ukraine-climate-scientist-russia-invasion-fossil-fuels.

[2] Euronews, March 14, 2022, https://www.euronews.com/2022/03/12/finnish-prime-minister-we-are-actually-financing-russia-s-war-by-purchasing-oil-and-gas.

[3] Quoted in: Somini Sengupta, New York Times: Climate Forward. Newsletter. March 25, 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/25/climate/the-problem-with-shipping-gas-to-europe.html

[4] Will McCarry, “Don’t panic: Reasons for hope despite a grim UN climate report,” Conservation News, September 30, 2021, https://www.conservation.org/blog/don’t-panic-reasons-for-hope-despite-a-grim-un-climate-report

[5] Thomas L. Friedman, “How to defeat Putin and save the Planet,” New York Times, March 30, 2022, Section A, Page 24, https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/29/opinion/how-to-defeat-putin-and-save-the-planet.html.

[6] On climate change as a moral crisis, see for example: “Morality of Climate Change,” AARCC Newsletter, https://www.arrcc.org.au/about-climate-change-morality.

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TEK

John Englart from Fawkner, Australia, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
(More information below.)

In 2015 at the conclusion of the UN Climate Change Conference (UNCCC) COP21, the 196 participating nations produced a treaty aimed at addressing climate change. Called the Paris Agreement, it was the first time a COP document stated that the world’s efforts to deal with the climate crisis needed to incorporate Indigenous ecological knowledge. To quote from the COP21 report: “Parties acknowledge that adaptation action should . . . be based on and guided by the best available science and, as appropriate, traditional knowledge, knowledge of Indigenous peoples and local knowledge systems . . . (Article 7.5).

After last year’s COP26 conference in Glasgow, an article published by the UNCCC reported that the effort initiated at COP21 to draw on Indigenous knowledge would continue. According to Rodion Sulyandziga (of the Udege people, from Krasnyyar, Primorski Kray, Russian Far East and a member of the UNCCC’s Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform Facilitative Working Group), “This is a strong achievement and historic progress under the UNCCC, to bring the Indigenous knowledge holders to the table to voice solutions and humanize the impacts of climate change.”

In 1988, the climatolgist James Hansen provided scientific evidence for global warming at a Congressional hearing that is now considered by many to be a historically significant moment in our awareness of the threats posed by climate change. Of course, as we know, political efforts around the globe to address the crisis have thus far fallen short of what actions are needed to avoid the worst effects of climate change. This despite the fact that the science behind climate change has been confirmed in numerous statements by scientific societies and governmental agencies. Indeed, over the past forty years scientists have increased their research efforts to understand the dynamics behind climate change and how to reverse its effects as much as possible. According to Scopus, a major citation database in the sciences, the number of 1988 publications tagged with “climate change” as a subject was 567. By 2021, it was 46,934 (as of January 21, 2022).

Though quite modest in number compared to the thousands of articles focusing on the more general topic of climate change, a similar increase occurred in the number of articles tagged with “traditional ecological knowledge.” Here is the US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) definition of this type of knowledge:

Traditional Ecological Knowledge, also called by other names including Indigenous Knowledge or Native Science, (hereafter, TEK) refers to the evolving knowledge acquired by Indigenous and local peoples over hundreds or thousands of years through direct contact with the environment. This knowledge is specific to a location and includes the relationships between plants, animals, natural phenomena, landscapes and timing of events that are used for lifeways, including but not limited to hunting, fishing, trapping, agriculture, and forestry. TEK is an accumulating body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (human and non-human) with one another and with the environment. It encompasses the world view of Indigenous people which includes ecology, spirituality, human and animal relationships, and more.

US Fish & Wildlife Service. “Traditional Ecological Knowledge for Application by
Service Scientists.” Accessed January 21, 2022. https://www.fws.gov/nativeamerican/pdf/tek-fact-sheet.pdf

In 1988, there were six publications tagged with “traditional ecological knowledge”; in 2021 there were 466 (as of January 21, 2022). Here is an example – a summary appearing the National Park Service’s website of a research article published last year:

This article begins with a presentation of new research which found that “Indigenous-created forest gardens of the Pacific Northwest support more pollinators, more seed-eating animals and more plant species than supposedly “natural” conifer forests surrounding them.” This counters the long-held belief of western scientists and land managers that ecological conservation requires the absence of people. The focal point of this new research is the analysis of forest gardens’ functional diversity, which captures an ecosystems ability to feed animals (among other measures). Compared to traditional measures of diversity, how many species are found in an ecosystem, functional diversity seems to be a better indictor of ecosystem health. This is demonstrated by the fact that these gardens have survived 150 years without maintenance. In addition to documenting these important findings, a goal of this paper, titled “Historical Indigenous Land Use Explains Plant Function Trait Diversity”, was to provide tribes with citable scientific literature that may be useful as they push for co-management and management agreements. The authors hope their research, by helping Indigenous communities use the land again, will bring the gardens back.

National Park Service. Traditional Ecological Knowledge. “TEK vs Western Science.” Accessed January 21, 2022. https://www.nps.gov/subjects/tek/tek-vs-western-science.htm

Another article, published this year, presents a case study where TEK is applied in a scientific project designed to combat the destructive effects of climate change.

Indigenous communities are often on the front-lines of climate change, and for tribes such as the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe (PACIT) that make their homes and livelihoods in the dynamic landscapes of Coastal Louisiana (USA), sea-level rise, subsidence, and land loss are very real reminders of why they must continue to hone their adaptive capacity that has evolved over many generations and continues to evolve as the pace of change quickens. PACIT members have an inherited wisdom about their surrounding environment and continue to build on that body of observational knowledge that is passed from generation to generation to sustain themselves in this dynamic landscape. This knowledge is woven through their culture and is sometimes referred to as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK). The PACIT and other Indigenous communities around the world are using creative strategies to adapt to the impacts of climate change that include partnering with researchers to combine their TEK with science in approaches to enhance strategies dealing with climate change impacts, mitigation, and adaptation. . . . Better inclusion of their knowledge into applied research is necessary to support these communities in their efforts to make sure their knowledge is recognized, understood, and valued in environmental management applications.

Bethel, M. B., D. H. Braud, T. Lambeth, D. S. Dardar, and P. Ferguson-Bohnee. “Mapping Risk Factors to Climate Change Impacts Using Traditional Ecological Knowledge to Support Adaptation Planning with a Native American Tribe in Louisiana.” Journal of Environmental Management 301, no. 1 (2022).

What is common to both research articles is the recognition that modern scientific efforts to mitigate the damage caused by global warming and climate change should seriously consider Indigenous people’s “inherited wisdom” as a resource. We are only beginning to explore how much we need to incorporate Indigenous wisdom or TEK into the way we live on this planet. It may be that we need it a great deal more than we realize today.


Photo: Marcha por el clima on 6 December in Madrid (during COP21). Organisers estimated 500,000 people attended the protest march. Greta Thunberg was there and read a short statement to the crowd at the end. A manifesto – The World Woke Up Facing A Climate Emergency – for climate justice and climate action was read to the crowd by various people from different organisations and constituencies. A concert then followed entertaining people into late into the night. The march was lead by Fridays for Future students, Chileans and Indigenous people.

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Winter Solstice 2021

Inside the Newgrange (County Meath, Ireland) tomb on Winter Solstice

Tomorrow, December 21, the shortest day of the year – the winter solstice, will be observed around the world in a variety of ways. Some examples are provided on this page. Clearly some human communities have been and are still so deeply moved by this phenomenon that they have come to mark it with ancient rituals predating modern religions. Remarkable architectural structures created by pre-Christian cultures draw visitors each year, most famously perhaps at Stonehenge but other sites as well like 5,200 year old Newgrange in Ireland (above photo). In past years, people who wished to witness the winter solstice phenomenon from within the Newgrange tomb would be selected by lottery. This year, because of COVID-19 restrictions, this site will stay closed but available for archeological research.

Indigenous peoples observe winter solstice as another way of maintaining their close connection to the rhythms of nature. In this, they have much to teach and guide us as in this page from the NDN Collective. (NDN, a shortening of Native Indian, is sometimes used by Native Americans in the United States to refer to themselves.) American Indian influence on Catholic missionaries can be seen in 18th and 19th century Spanish mission churches in California where sunlight blazes through the churches on winter solstice.

Winter solstice illumination of the main altar tabernacle of the Spanish Royal Presidio Chapel, Santa Barbara, California. The author first documented this solar illumination of the altar in 2004. Rubén G. Mendoza, CC BY-ND

Winter solstice provides the occasion for feasts and festivals like the Korean Dongji. In this winter soltice party (3 minute video) at the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability, the event seems like a blend of winter solstice and Christmas (e.e., students singing “Have yourself a merry little solstice), a convergence many believe to be the reason why Christmas is a late December celebration.

Why do many of us in the postmodern world maintain a fascination with sites like Stonehenge and Newgrange? Or enjoy participating in special events marking the Winter Soltice? For example, The Trustees, (an organization devoted to protecting historic and natural sites in Massachusetts), is offering several such events this year. (Note that several of those events have sold out.) I believe Thomas Berry provides a way of understanding the Winter Soltice’s deeper meaning:

With regard to time and seasons, rituals were established [by “earlier peoples” – Berry’s phrase] to create a consciousness of the moments of cosmological change: the dawn and dusk of the daily sequence of sunlight and darkness, the increase and decline in the phases of the moon , the winter solstice especially in the danger moment of the universe, the period of dark descent; then came the rise into a world of warmth and light and the blossoming of the plants and the birth moment throughout the mammailan world. These moments of change were the moments when the shining forth of the phenomenal world was most evident. Such moments were moments of grace, moments when the sacred world communicated itself with special clarity to the world of the human. [TB, 53]

So tomorrow celebrate this moment of grace. Light a candle or two, pour a drink of your choice, and wish a merry solstice to your dear ones and the rest of the earth community! (And try some of the suggestions offered by the NDN Collective.)

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COP26: Some Notes and a Prayer

 

On the eve of the 2019 Climate Action Summit in New York, churches called for immediate action to address the climate emergency. Photo: ACT/Joanna Patouris (permission requested)

On October 4th, a group of leading figures from a number of religious traditions sent an urgent message to world leaders who would be gathering for the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in Glasgow during October 31 – November 12, 2021. The Executive Summary of a Joint Appeal began with the following:

Today, after months of dialogue between faith leaders and scientists, we come together united to raise awareness of the unprecedented challenges that threaten our beautiful common home. Our faiths and spiritualities teach a duty to care for the human family and for the environment in which it lives. We are deeply interdependent with each other and with the natural world. We are not limitless masters of our planet and its resources. . . . We must address these challenges using the knowledge of science and the wisdom of religion. We must think long-term for the sake of the whole of humanity. Now is the time to take transformative action as a common response. [1]

Religious believers are joining others from around the world protesting expansion of fossil fuel industries and demanding commitments and actions from government and business leaders to limit fossil fuel emissions. Theologians and clergy have been writing, teaching, and preaching about the goodness of creation and our obligation to be responsible stewards of the natural world. For example, Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson CSJ wrote:

Since the reign of God is especially attentive to the needy and the outcast, Jesus showed a partisanship for suffering people that we can today interpret as extending to encompass the earth and its myriads of distressed species and ecosystems. His ministry reveals a wideness in God’s mercy that includes all creation. [See earlier blog post]

Perhaps the most widely read religious statement on the need for protecting the earth and its atmosphere from further degradation has been Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You). Subtitled On Care for Our Common Home, the title is taken from Saint Francis’s great hymn praising God for his creation, Canticle of the Sun. In the encyclical, the Pope exhorts his readers to follow the example of the Saint’s love for the created world: “I believe that Saint Francis is the example par excellence of care for the vulnerable and of an integral ecology lived out joyfully and authentically.” (Laudato Si’, Paragraph 10)

In recent decades, Christian communities have used liturgies and prayers to not only praise God for the wonders of nature but also lament human actions which have caused deep harm to the environment. Examples include this Prayer of Lament from the Anglican Communion Network and the Anglican Alliance, and the Missa Gaia often heard in churches on a Sunday in October in observance of the Feast of Saint Francis (the patron saint of ecology).

In 2015 international negotiations resulted in the Paris Climate Agreement, but the climate crisis has only deepend during the intervening years. Annual increases in the numbers of fires, floods, and hurricanes and the rising of sea levels have confirmed what the scientific community had been claiming for decades – that human activity was degrading the earth and its atmospheric envelope and setting off irreversible changes in the environment.  Many groups both secular and religious have engaged in climate strikes, vigils, and protests around the world. This is a time when many of us feel a need to pray with words of hope that we can change the way we live on our planet home. The following prayer is taken from a prayer booklet developed for children and young adults in New Zealand.

Walk Lightly

Each leaf, each petal,
each grain, each person,
sings your praises,
Creator God.
Each creature on the earth,
all the mountains and great seas show your glory,
Spirit of Love.

And yet the hand of greed has patented
and plundered your splendour,
has taken and not shared your gift,
has lived as owner of the earth, not guest.

And so the ice is cracked
the rivers dry,
the valleys flooded
and the snowcaps melt.

God our Father,
show us how to step gently,
how to live simply,
how to walk lightly
with respect and love
for all that you have made.

Amen.

Adapted from a prayer written by Linda Jones/CAFOD. [2]


[1] “World Religious Leaders and Scientists Make pre-COP26 Appeal: External Statement / 05 Oct, 2021,” United Nations Climate Change, accessed November 6, 2021, https://unfccc.int/news/world-religious-leaders-and-scientists-make-pre-cop26-appeal.

[2] “Climate Change Prayer Booklet,” Caritas Aotearoa New Zealand, accessed November 6, 2021, https://caritas.org.nz/system/files/Climate%20Change%20Prayer%20Booklet.pdf

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NaCl

Teilhard de Chardin once wrote, “Love is the most universal, the most tremendous and the most mysterious of the cosmic forces.”[1] In their book Teilhard de Chardin on Love: Evolving Human Relationships, Louis Savary and Patricia Berne note that “According to Teilhard, God has implanted a divine spark of love in everything created, down to every last subatomic particle and photon of light.” I wonder if Kate McGarrigle of the McGarrigle Sisters folk music singer-songwriter duo ever read anything by Teilhard. Maybe not, but whenever I hear her song NaCl, I smile and think of Teilhard.

Here are the lyrics:

NaCl

Just a little atom of chlorine
Valence minus one
Swimming through the sea, digging the scene
Just having fun
She’s not worried about the shape or size
Of her outside shell
It’s fun to ionize
Just a little atom of cl
With an unfilled shell

But somewhere in that sea lurks
Handsome sodium
With enough electrons on his outside shell
Plus that extra one
Somewhere in this deep blue sea
There’s a negative
For my extra energy yes
Somewhere in this foam
My positive will find a home

Then unsuspecting chlorine
Felt a magnetic pull
She looked down and her outside
Shell was full
Sodium cried “what a gas be my bride and
I’ll change your name from chlorine to chloride

“Now the sea evaporates to make the clouds
For the rain and snow
Leaving her chemical compounds in the absence
Of H2O
But the crystals that wash upon the shore
Are happy ones
So if you never thought before
Think of the love that you eat
When you salt your meat

Source: LyricFind


_______________________________________________________
[1] Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Human Energy, trans. J. M. Cohen (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: 1969), 32.

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“Why I Write about Birds”

In the opening chapter of Walden; or Life in the Woods, Henry David Thoreau wrote “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Too bleak a statement? Perhaps, but during the past few years many white people have been learning about the quiet (and increasingly not so quiet) desperation of people of color seeking relief from systemic racism in a country that isn’t paying enough serious attention to their suffering. Have Christian Cooper’s periodic birdwatching visits to Central Park helped him deal with any stress he may feel from being a Black man in America – before and (I hope) after the sad events of May 25, 2020? (See previous post.) Cooper lives not only with the frequent commonplace slights and behaviors aimed at Blacks but also with the steady stream of news about police violence against African Americans, an inner burden that he portrays in story form in the newly published “It’s a Bird” (more information). I would hazard a guess that his walks in the Ramble are a much needed refreshment of mind and body.

I don’t know if they ever met, but if they haven’t, I’m sure Cooper would find much to talk about with fellow Black birder J. Drew Lanham. Alumni Distinguished Professor of Wildlife Ecology at Clemson University, Lanham is a birder, naturalist, hunter-conservationist, and the author of The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature. As part of a speaker series offered by the Walden Woods Project, Mass Audubon, and several other organizations earlier this year, he gave a talk he titled “A Declaration of Natural Interdependence or Why I Write about Birds.”1 In his presentation, Lanham admitted that the time he spends observing birds is “a selfish act and a small personal space that I do not willingly share with other human beings.” But when focusing on birds, he can inhabit a stress-free environment: “I write about birds because birds will not profile or persecute or imprison me.”

But he realizes he can’t isolate himself from the “daily toxic stream of news that passes through my mental binocular view. I must write to the violence of my people being killed in the streets.” Instead of writing about the violence being inflicted upon the Black community, Lanham writes about birds and the threats they face from climate change. Indeed, he makes a direct connection between the seriousness of his purpose in writing about birds (his “ornitherapy”) and the harsh social realities facing African Americans today.

It is within this socio-politically fragmented and climate inflamed Anthropocene landscape over which we are all migrating. And so it can’t be ignored. To write about birds and not write about their struggles would be akin to writing about Black people as if enslavement and Jim Crow and police brutality and mass incarceration didn’t exist.

Being a birder and a writer about birds define the essence of who he is: “My Black life matters most to me and I won’t deny my own soul’s wellbeing to make birds small and just something to be seen without deeper connect and feeling.” He’s not interested in simply increasing his number of bird sightings, an activity which motivates many birders, but in taking the time to observe each bird and appreciate its remarkable physical features and behavior.

Lanham is concerned that the sheer number of critical issues demanding our response today prevent us from seeing how deeply related some of them, like climate change and racism, are.

So then, in the stream of so many causes that would seem disconnected from birds and disconcerting enough to cleave us from nature, I write about birds. I write about birds because I need to somehow discount the “dis.” Connection and concert are what I, what we, need most, especially now.

In his closing words, he said “I believe it is our mission to not just watch but . . .to move our action, as Thoreau did, beyond the watching, not just to revere the lives of the wild things but of our fellow human beings, and to see all of us as . . . sharing the same air, same water, same soil, same earth, and same fate . . .”

PS: Highly recommended: Lanham’s conversation with Krista Tippett on her On Being podcast.


1 The following summary of Lanham’s talk is based on my notes taken when viewing a recorded version of his presentation on Zoom. The recording was still available as of 7/31/2021.

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We Are All in This Together

The Ramble, Central Park, New York (Photo credit)

Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux as a “wild garden” within New York City’s Central Park, the Ramble has long been appreciated as a sanctuary offering a quiet respite from the big city since its opening in 1859. Beloved by people drawn to its winding paths, forested landscape, and lack of roads and bridle paths, the Ramble is exactly the kind of green space many of us need to refresh body, mind, and spirit. (I’ve written about the various salutary effects of nature walks in previous posts; see here and here.) Among the many visitors who enjoy a stroll through its 37 acres are birders who have spotted over 230 bird species there over the years, and dog owners who have enjoyed using the park as a wonderful area to explore with their pets, an activity fully approved by the Central Park Conservancy (but with certain restrictions). All of this suggests that because of the Ramble’s intended purpose as a forest refuge, you wouldn’t expect it to be a place of racial conflict. But it was.

On May 25th, Memorial Day 2020 (the same day George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis), Amy Cooper, a White woman walking her rescue cocker spaniel Henry, encountered Christian Cooper (no relation), a Black man engaged in birding, something he did often in this part of the park. Seeing that the dog was off leash, Mr. Cooper asked her to put him on leash, in other words to follow the rules. What followed has been widely reported in the media (CNN’s report here), and the video recording by Mr. Cooper of the exchange went viral. She immediately interpreted his request as a threat and called 911 for help, describing him as an African American three times.

Although no one was physically hurt, news of Amy Cooper’s reaction went viral as one more example of racism in this country. Ms. Cooper perceived Mr. Cooper as a potential mugger, not as a fellow visitor enjoying the Ramble’s peace and quiet, and certainly not as an expert of any sort who could be there to study some aspect of the Ramble’s wildlife. But Mr. Cooper, a one-time president of the Harvard Ornithological Club, and currently on the Board of Directors for NYC Audubon, was there on one of his frequent bird sighting walks.

During this time of racial turmoil, many Americans of European descent (myself included) have become more deeply aware of how racism or implicit bias affect their perception of Blacks. The unfortunate confrontation in the Ramble that day would not have happened if Amy had seen Christian not only as a Black man but as fellow human who loved nature and the restorative peace of the Ramble.

We have seen how commitment and persistence are necessary to deal with the climate crisis despite climate change denial. Similarly, commitment and persistence are essential for dismantling racism. We need to see all persons as members of a common humanity as urgently as we need to see all beings as members of the earth community. In both racism and climate change the root cause has been exploitation – exploitation of human beings as slaves and an underclass and exploitation of natural resources. I hope and pray that the memory of the terrible events of May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis and New York (just two of the myriad acts of racial violence in our recent and not so recent history) will keep stirring us to work on creating the “beloved community” envisioned by Martin Luther King, Jr. After all, we’re all in this together.

My photo.

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An Earth Day Litany

Today is a day for reflection and prayer – gratitude for the beauty of the earth, grief at all the species we have lost. This time of pandemic and climate crisis calls for a unified response from the many often antagonistic segments of humanity and offers an opportunity to see how much we are part of a single earth community. Toward that end, here is a slightly adapted version of the Chinook Blessing Litany:

We call upon the earth, our planet home, with its beautiful depths and soaring heights, its vitality and abundance of life, and together we ask that it

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the mountains, . . . the high green valleys and meadows filled with wild flowers, the snows that never melt, the summits of intense silence, and we ask that they

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the waters that rim the earth, horizon to horizon, that flow in our rivers and streams, that fall upon our gardens and fields and we ask that they

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the land which grows our food, the nurturing soil, the fertile fields, the abundant gardens and orchards, and we ask that they

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the forests, the great trees reaching strongly to the sky with the earth in their roots and the heavens in their branches, the fir and the pine and the cedar, and we ask them to

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon the creatures of the fields and forests and the seas, our brothers and sisters the wolves and deer, the eagle and dove, the great whales and dolphin, . . . and we ask them to

Teach us, and show us the Way.

We call upon all those who have lived on this earth, our ancestors and our friends, who dreamed the best for future generations, and upon whose lives our lives are built, and with thanksgiving, we call upon them to

Teach us, and show us the Way.

And lastly, we call upon all that we hold most sacred, the presence and power of the Great Spirit of love and truth which flows through all the Universe, to be with us to

Teach us, and show us the Way.

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A Great Pause

In a January 28th article in the New York Times, author and journalist David Quammen, whose 2012 book Spillover examined emerging diseases, wrote:

We are faced with two mortal challenges, in the short term and the long term. Short term: We must do everything we can, with intelligence, calm and a full commitment of resources, to contain and extinguish this nCoV-2019 [an earlier label for COVID-19] outbreak before it becomes, as it could, a devastating global pandemic. Long term: We must remember, when the dust settles, that nCoV-2019 was not a novel event or a misfortune that befell us. It was — it is — part of a pattern of choices that we humans are making.

Clearly the world did not do enough to contain the novel coronavirus and we are now in the very pandemic Quammen and others have been warning us about for years. Indeed, in 2005 scientists published a paper identifying bats in China’s Yunnan province as potential sources of dangerous viruses. The paper concluded with the following:

These findings on coronaviruses, together with data on henipaviruses (23–25, 28), suggest that genetic diversity exists among zoonotic viruses in bats, increasing the possibility of variants crossing the species barrier and causing outbreaks of disease in human populations. It is therefore essential that we enhance our knowledge and understanding of reservoir host distribution, animal-animal and human-animal interaction (particularly within the wet-market system), and the genetic diversity of bat-borne viruses to prevent future outbreaks.[1]

In his New York Times article, Quammen emphasizes the importance of listening to what the scientists are saying: “That the virus emerged from a nonhuman animal, probably a bat, and possibly after passing through another creature, may seem spooky, yet it is utterly unsurprising to scientists who study these things.” Indeed, a search using Google Scholar for the terms “Yunnan bats SARS” yields 408 articles published between 2005 and 2019. (SARS or Severe acute respiratory syndrome was an epidemic that had 8,009 cases and 774 fatalities during November 2002-July 2003. COVID-19, the disease, is caused by SARS coronavirus 2, a mutation of the 2002-2003 SARS virus.) For example, in an important 2017 paper researchers wrote:

As a whole, our findings from a 5-year longitudinal study conclusively demonstrate that all building blocks of the pandemic SARS CoV are present in bat SARSr-CoVs from a single location in Yunnan. . . . Thus, the risk of spillover into people and emergence of a disease similar to SARS is possible.[2]

That scientists have been warning the world about the growing reality of a serious epidemiological crisis sounds familiar to those of us who have been deeply concerned about climate change which has been studied and reported by scientists for decades. While we know that climate change has been caused by human activity, can the same be said of COVID-19? Quammen thinks so. In a podcast interview titled Shaking the Viral Tree, he explained:

My friend, Peter Daszak, who’s president of EcoHealth Alliance in New York, one of the important organizations working on this, he is a co-author on that paper in 2017. He may have gone to that cave, or some of his colleagues from the Wuhan Institute of Virology clearly went to that cave to research, to sample bats, to find out what was there.

Humanity, generally, is bound to be moving closer and closer to that cave. China’s population is not growing very quickly anymore but it’s huge and it’s consuming resources. Our population in the US is not growing quickly anymore but our consumption continues to grow. And the global population does continue to grow. So even a population of bats in a cave in Yunnan—it’s only a matter of time before we come knocking on their door, wanting what they have.

As the title of that podcast episode so aptly described it, our increasing numbers are “shaking the viral tree” and as a result toxic microbes like the SARS-COV-2 virus can metaphorically “fall down on us,” that is to say create the pandemic ravaging our world today. Our species is disrupting the balance we as a species maintained with our environment since the first appearance of humans on the planet. And as with climate change, this is happening despite the availability of scientific data confirming the destructive effects of our presence.

Although scientists and others raised red flags much earlier about damage being done to the environment, it could be argued that the world’s more widely accepted awareness of climate change began with the formation of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1989. Pandemics have been occurring for centuries (see one timeline of pandemics here), but there has never been a global effort to address a need for an international approach to prevent or mitigate future outbreaks of the sort infecting the world’s population today. Scientific meetings like the biennial International Conference on Infectious Disease Dynamics have occurred, but the scientific data discussed at these conferences have not led to intergovernmental agreements like the environmental accords of the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and the Paris Climate Agreement (2015).

Of course, these climate change accords are proving to be easily ignored, but we as a species must at least get our act together and do our best to avoid the worst of the possible scenarios. Scientific data must be taken seriously and realistic environmental and public health policies and legislation must be enacted. In order for this to happen, nothing less than a universal realization of humankind’s deep relationship with the earth and all its creatures needs to happen. However, our current governments, corporations, and the business and financial world in general have been unable to act as decisively as needed for restoring a balanced relationship between humankind and nature.

The pandemic has resulted in a dramatic halt to our normal human activities. The effect of this great pause can be seen in the decrease in pollution of the air surrounding our busiest regions and cities. Might this pause be an opportunity to reconsider our values and reenvision ourselves as members of an earth community? Visions of the way forth are available, for instance the Earth Charter of 2000:

We stand at a critical moment in Earth’s history, a time when humanity must choose its future. As the world becomes increasingly interdependent and fragile, the future at once holds great peril and great promise. To move forward we must recognize that in the midst of a magnificent diversity of cultures and life forms we are one human family and one Earth community with a common destiny. We must join together to bring forth a sustainable global society founded on respect for nature, universal human rights, economic justice, and a culture of peace. Towards this end, it is imperative that we, the peoples of Earth, declare our responsibility to one another, to the greater community of life, and to future generations.

Some are saying that the pandemic’s aftermath will indeed offer an opportunity to radically change many of our behaviors toward our environment. So writes Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian:

Ordinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe, an obscenity of inequality. It is too soon to know what will emerge from this emergency, but not too soon to start looking for chances to help decide it. It is, I believe, what many of us are preparing to do.

My hope and prayer: May we emerge from this terrible pandemic with a deeper consciousness of the interconnectedness of all life, and a universal commitment to preserve the beauty and vitality of of our dear planet earth.

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[1] Weng Dog Li, et al. “Bats Are Natural Reservoirs of SARS-Like Coronaviruses.” Science 310, (Oct. 28, 2005): 676-678.
[2] Ben Hu, et al. “Discovery of a rich gene pool of bat SARS-related coronaviruses provides new insights into the origin of SARS coronavirus.” PLoS Pathog 13, no. 11 (2017): e1006698. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1006698


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“You save animals and humans alike, O YHWH.” (Psalm 36:6)

Cross with animals and shrubs.
Handmade Christianity Wood Cross, ‘El Salvador Animals’, by Woodworkers of Jesus

People around the globe, both Christians and non-Christians, recognize the historical figure of Jesus Christ as the teacher, healer, and preacher whose actions and words led to the formation of a world religion. Centuries of reading and praying over scripture have informed Christians’ understanding of their faith in Christ as the Son of God, but cultural and intellectual expressions of that understanding have changed over time. See, for example, the excellent survey by Jaroslav Pelikan, Jesus Through the Centuries, which explores how that understanding as found in images of Jesus varied through a succession of historical periods.

Despite the tendency of many religious folk to regard their beliefs as eternal, unchanging truths, any history of Christian doctrine will show that there has never been a single unified theology but rather a variety of schools of thought often at odds with each other. For example, the basic question “why did God become a human being” has received various theological explanations. What did Christ’s life, death, and resurrection accomplish? In Creation and the Cross: The Mercy of God for a Planet in Peril, Elizabeth Johnson argues that historically the most influential explanation was articulated by Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109 CE). In Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became a Human), he argued that Christ died on a cross in order to reconcile God and sinful humanity. The breach between human and divine realms was so deep and profound that only Christ’s crucifixion could erase it. Here is Johnson’s take on how dominant Anselm’s view, sometimes called the satisfaction theory of atonement, has been:

I sometimes think that Anselm may well be the most successful theologian of all time, for what other theory has dominated theology, preaching, and liturgical practice for almost a thousand years? Joseph Ratzinger, a critic of this treatise, comments on its influence in words that are beyond dispute: it “put a decisive stamp on the second millennium of western Christendom, which takes it for granted that Christ had to die on the cross in order to make good the infinite offence that had been committed and in this way to restore the order that had been violated.” (CC, Introduction)

But Anselm’s focus on the need for reconciliation between humankind and God invites the kind of criticism summarized in a previous post. According to Lynn White, the human species should not consider itself as exceptional but part of “a democracy of all God’s creatures.” Does a focus on the human in the Christ story mean that God is unconcerned about the rest of his creatures? Au contraire, according to Johnson. All you need to do is to read scripture, this time with contemporary environmental concerns in mind, to see a more expansive view of God’s purpose in Christ. Johnson invites her readers to consider a scripture-based theological approach more appropriate for our times.

I invite you to explore an alternative to Anselm’s influential theology. Drawn from a wide range of biblical sources, this alternative envisions the living God actively accompanying the world in its evolutionary and historical breakthroughs, its human sinfulness, and its universal suffering and death, with overflowing mercy that endures forever. Such a theology of accompaniment is but one way to understand redemption that will support planetary solidarity and work for ecojustice. (CC, Introduction).

While it’s beyond the scope of this blog post to survey the many excellent points made in Creation and the Cross, perhaps a few excerpts can suggest its value for spiritual reflection in a time of climate change.

Among the prophets Second Isaiah makes the most extensive use of God as Creator; citing one or another verse from this poetic scroll would hardly do justice to its interweaving of YHWH’s creating and redeeming work. The key motive is identifying Israel’s Redeemer with “the Creator of the ends of the earth” (40:28) in the effort to encourage trust. The Holy One of Israel who is coming to free them is the very same God who created the heavens and the earth and all that dwells therein. (CC, 2.5)

The link forged between the creating and redeeming activities of God opens the door to bringing the natural world into the text in an organic way. It amazes me how many creatures are mentioned: the rising sun; all forms of water such as roaring waves, rivers, streams, and fresh springs; mountains and hills; deserts, rocks, and fertile earth; fish and all kinds of wild animals; jackals and ostriches; and a gorgeous array of trees; cedar, acacia, myrtle, and olive, plane, and pine together. All are party to the glad tidings of salvation. (CC, 2.5)

Jesus’ whole ministry was centered on the coming of the reign of God. Given that this God is the Creator who loves the whole world, this means nothing less than the flourishing of all creation. Since the reign of God is especially attentive to the needy and the outcast, Jesus showed a partisanship for suffering people that we can today interpret as extending to encompass the earth and its myriads of distressed species and ecosystems. His ministry reveals a wideness in God’s mercy that includes all creation. (CC, 3.4)

It is enormously helpful to see the way early Christians connected resurrection with creation. The logic of the connection allows this impossible hope to make more sense. Paul forges this link in a quick line: God “gives life to the dead and brings into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom 4:17). There it is. Just like that, you can see that if the living God can create the world to begin with, then God can create anew in death. (CC, 3.9)

In the tangle of our lives, graced fragments of personal, social, and ecological flourishing give foretastes of this blessed life, the fullness of which is still to come. The liturgy of the Easter Vigil employs a wealth of symbols to point to this joyful truth: new fire struck from darkness, the paschal candle lit, the flame spreading throughout the community, an exulting song, ringing bells, green branches and flowers, water of baptism, oil of confirming, bread and wine of Eucharist. God raised Jesus from the dead, and the gift to this one historical person gives assurance of what lies ahead for all creation. (CC, 3.11)

God covenants with all creatures of flesh, as we saw in the Noah story with its covenant sign of the rainbow. Made of flesh, animals are vulnerable to pain and death, in need of God’s redeeming care. One psalm makes this explicit in startling language: “You save humans and animals alike, O YHWH” (Ps 36:6) (CC, 6.5)

Given that one of the sources of inspiration for this blog has been Teilhard de Chardin’s thought, it’s interesting to note that he found little in the Jesus narratives of the New Testament that was relevant to his thought and therefore didn’t pursue the kind of scripture-based scholarship modeled by Johnson. In his words,

. . . the face of the historical Jesus, embroiled in all the historical improbabilities and moral inadequacies of the Gospel, becomes less clear and distinct for me. My basic disposition? What is past and dead no longer interests me. (Quoted in CM, 125)

But I think Johnson’s “theology of accompaniment” is in some ways close kin to Teilhard’s mystical vision of Christ deeply present within an evolving world. Moreover, I consider Creation and the Cross to be a contribution to the New Story project that Thomas Berry called for in his seminal essay cited in an earlier blog post. It can be seen as part of a worldwide endeavor by religious scholars mining their traditions with renewed energy to uncover spiritual resources for dealing with the environmental crises facing us all. See, for example, Overview of World Religions and Ecology by two former students of Berry’s, Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim of Yale University’s Forum on Religion and Ecology.

But scriptural scholarship and theology can only takes us so far. According to Johnson,

As with any theology, the path laid down here will prove its worth if the faith convictions it generate motivate individuals and communities to passionate, ethical, practical commitments to the natural world in tandem with all the earth’s poor and marginalized people. (CC, 6.7)

FYI: Elizabeth Johnson spoke on similar themes at Boston College earlier this year. A video recording of her talk is available.

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