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Here’s the Deal

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We simply can’t go on producing and gobbling up land and resources and ruining the water and warming the atmosphere as if there were no consequences. We can be evicted for bad behavior. 

Today’s Texts: Excerpts from the Creation Story in Genesis 1 and excerpts from the Flood Story in Genesis 6 and 7.

By Marty Smith

climate-changeMy life-long fascination with the weather began on a warm, overcast afternoon in July 1950. We were in my grandmother’s kitchen in northwest Ohio when suddenly the wind picked up, and the door to the back porch blew open. My dad got up to close it, but could barely hold it against the force of the wind. Meanwhile my grandmother hurried upstairs to close windows; she got halfway up when she cried to my father, “Oh Jack, it’s a cyclone. There’s a tree flying through the air.” To which my dad famously replied, “Aw, Gladys, you’re crazy.”

She wasn’t, of course. We were in a tornado, fortunately one that touched down only briefly a couple of times. But a block away a house was completely demolished and an older woman was killed. I remember the house less than ten feet away from it still standing, stained with mud, curtains dangling out of the open or missing windows. My grandmother was lucky; she only lost a cherry tree.

Extreme weather events have always occurred, although current models indicate that with global warming they may occur with more frequency and intensity. Floods must have been particularly terrifying to ancient peoples because accounts of them appear in oral and written traditions from around the world. They are often attributed to the wrath of the gods. The story of Noah is simply Israel’s take on it. When you’re in the middle of it, it must seem like the end of the world.

NASA recently reported that the February 2016 average global temperature was over 1.2˚C above the 1951-1980 average. The comments of two climate scientists are telling. Jessica Blunden from NOAA: “The departures are what we would call astronomical. It’s on land. It’s in the oceans. It’s in the upper atmosphere. It’s in the lower atmosphere…Everything, everywhere is a record this month except Antarctica. It’s insane.”

Kim Cobb, from Georgia Tech said, “I feel like I’m looking at something out of a sci-fi movie. It’s like someone plucked a value off a graph from 2030 and stuck it on a graph of present temperatures. It’s a portent of things to come, and it’s sobering.”

From the National Snow and Ice Data Center came even more disturbing news. The extent of Arctic sea ice in February was at an all-time low, 440,000 square miles below the 1980-2010 average and 77,000 square miles below the previous record. Four hundred forty thousand square miles is an area larger than Texas and California combined. Seventy-seven thousand is the size of Nebraska. These are huge amounts.

Here’s the deal. Ice is the planet’s air conditioner because water has a high latent heat of fusion, which is the amount of energy it takes to melt a solid without raising its temperature. It also has a high specific heat (the energy necessary to raise its temperature). While it takes only a single calorie of energy to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water 1˚C (a little cube about half an inch on a side), it takes 80 calories to melt the same amount of ice. So ice can soak up a lot of heat without warming us up. In addition, ice and snow reflect and radiate sunlight and infrared radiation (heat) much better than darker surfaces like bare land. That’s why it gets so cold when there’s a deep snow cover. Once it’s liquid, water has to release that same amount of energy in order to cool and freeze again. Which is why lakes don’t freeze instantly when the air temperature gets below freezing. In other words, without the ice, we’re cooked.

Author Naomi Klein, in her book and video This Changes Everything, says the causes of global warming are not just greenhouse gases, or even our own greed. “The problem,” she says, “really is a story we’ve been telling ourselves.” The story is this: “Earth is not a Mother to be feared and revered. No, science [and technology] have granted [humans] godlike powers. The Earth is a machine, and we are its engineers, its masters. We can sculpt it like a country garden. We can extract from it whatever we want. [We can turn] the mother into the mother lode.”

For most of history we could do this. Compared to the needs of the population, land and resources were essentially infinite, and the lack of technology limited the damage we could do. Even during the 17th and 18th centuries, there were whole continents to explore and exploit. But then we learned “how to take fossil fuels from the Earth and burn them on an industrial scale [to run machinery],” and the population grew.

One look at the Alberta tar sands gives you a feeling for how far this idea has come. Square mile after square mile of what was once virgin taiga forest has been scraped away – overburden, it’s called. The waste pond itself from this operation covers over 90 square miles, an area roughly the size of the city of Madison, and it’s held in place by the world’s largest dam. The hope, after a decade or more, is to restore all of this land back to its “original state.”

Problem is, there were people already living here – the Beaver Creek Cree Nation – and, as spills occurred, animals disappeared, and the site ate up more and more land, they had to sue the Canadian government because they no longer had access to much of the land granted to them in an 1876 treaty (does this sound familiar?) and cannot now live their traditional life as promised. The suit was filed in 2009 and is yet to be settled. Meanwhile the mining company sees them as a nuisance and the mining continues unabated. They fight on.

Scientists believe that if the average global temperature rises by more than 2˚C over the 1850-1980 average, we’re in big trouble. This means that we must keep greenhouse emissions down and limit the amount of fossil fuel we burn. But here’s the deal – the known recoverable fossil fuel reserves are more than 5 times what we can safely burn. The American Petroleum Institute says the U.S. is now the world’s leading producer of oil and natural gas due to our focus on hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling. They expect production will increase by 3% this year and continue to grow through at least 2020. This says nothing about the rest of the world.

According to a new report from the U.S. Geological Survey, parts of the central and eastern U.S. can expect a 10-12% chance of damaging earthquakes during 2016 due to “human activities.” “Could it be,” says Naomi Klein, “that we’re not the masters after all, that we’re really just visitors, and that we could be evicted, for bad behavior?”

That other reading this morning, the one from the creation story about humans having dominion over the Earth and living things, has a couple of different interpretations. In one, we’re the boss and we have the right to do whatever we want to the Earth and its creatures for our own benefit. In the other, we are just visitors here and, as such, we need to be managers and stewards of the world and its resources, the way Native American peoples, and actually, according to the Public Religion Research Institute, most of the people in this country, think of it.

This latter view has been drowned out in recent years. A spokesman for the Heartland Institute, a conservative think tank, puts it this way: “You want more trees; use more lumber, because using more lumber sends a signal to the market that trees have value. If you want more elephants; market their ivory.” Wait! What?! A tree farm is not a virgin forest. An elephant farm is not a wild herd. Does nothing have any value except what we can sell it for? How many jobs it can create? How rich it can make us? Does nothing have value for just being what it is? Do the Earth and its inhabitants not matter?

He also calls global warming (his words) “scientific crap” and “a left-wing political agenda.” But here’s the deal. Again Naomi Klein: “In [our] story the economy is supposed to be a machine too…But this machine needs perpetual growth. If it slows down, you have to feed it more. You use everything and anything for fuel…Corporations have been [allowed] to scour the Earth for the cheapest labor and the most pollutable air. What the Heartlanders understand is that if you take climate change seriously, this changes everything” because it forces you to change the story.

Every day we are bombarded with advertisements to buy – cars, clothes, food, appliances, cell phones, you name it. But everything – everything – you buy has a story behind it, a story you may or may not be comfortable with. What are you really getting when you buy something?

A Reuters headline on Tuesday read “Oil hits 2016 high on hopes for an output freeze.” The price of oil is only partly due to the costs of exploration, production and transportation. A lot of it has to do with gambling, on guessing what the market’s going to do. How is this being stewards of the Earth?

I watched a documentary on PBS called The Truth about Meat, produced by Dr. Michael Mosley, a British investigative reporter on science. Here are some numbers:

  • We eat 65 billion animals per year, including over 300 million cattle.
  • The average American eats about ¾ pound of meat a day, nearly twice as much as any other country.
  • One-third of the usable land in the world is dedicated to raising animals or food to feed them. At the current growth rate this will double in the next 30 years.
  • 40% of the corn grown in the U.S. is for animal feed. Much of the rest is used as a feedstock for the food, ethanol, and other industries. Over 90% of it is genetically-modified and depends on petroleum for fertilizers and pesticides.
  • A grass-fed cow belches methane, produced by the microflora in its rumen. Methane is 25 times worse a greenhouse gas than CO2. One cow is like the average family car.
  • Concentrated animal feeding operations, known as CAFOs, actually produce fewer emissions per animal than do pastured animals because the cows are fed all that corn instead of grass.
  • Beef and lamb have about three times the carbon footprint of pork and chicken.

The story is not sustainable. We simply can’t go on producing and gobbling up land and resources and ruining the water and warming the atmosphere as if there were no consequences. We can be evicted for bad behavior. The government often seems deaf to pleas for help. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell last week sent a letter to governors asking them to oppose regulations that would restrict the expansion of coal-fired power plants. Ted Cruz talks about dismantling the EPA. Even President Obama touts all of the drilling and fracking he has authorized during his administration. They’re all there because we elected them.

A little progress has been made. The Paris accords were signed, although according to retiring U.S. chief negotiator Todd Stern, that was only the beginning. Carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S. and China have fallen by about 2% in the past few years due to replacement of coal-fired power plants by natural gas in the U.S. and by alternative energies in China. Wind energy now accounts for almost 5% of U.S. energy. Meat consumption in the U.S. has started to level off. Organic Valley, whose primary goal is to pay the farmer first and fairly, saw record sales last year.

And people have begun speaking out and drawing the line on progress at any cost. People in Greece and India have stood up to local and state officials to ward off gold mines and coal-fired power plants. In Germany people demonstrated demanding more alternative energy, and Germany now has a growing alternative energy industry.

The task seems overwhelming because, if we believe what recent numbers are trying to tell us, there may be not much time in which to get it done. This isn’t just about recycling or composting or compact fluorescents or even gas mileage or car emissions. It’s about changing the story. It’s about changing how we live, learning to make different choices, learning to be mindful of the true cost of everything we buy – not just what we pay, but the hidden costs, the effect on the environment and on all of the individuals who actually produce what we buy. This is really hard work and takes self-discipline and training – and time. I know. I’ve been trying to do it for over ten years, and I’m still not very good at it.

We might be tempted to ask God to help us find a solution. If we do that, God might well just laugh and say, “You folks already know the answer. You just need to find the guts to do it.” Maybe the real prayer we need is, “God give me the courage to start making the choices I know I need to make. Help me figure out what I need, not just what I want. Slow me down. Help me remember that ‘convenient’ isn’t everything. Be patient with me as I learn to be comfortable with being less comfortable. Give me the courage to stand up and speak out whenever the opportunity arises so that others can help too. Oh, and by the way, God, help me remember to eat less meat.”

‘Cuz here’s the deal. Do we really have a choice? If not us, who? If not now, when?