Dean Lloyd: “To Save this Fragile Earth”
I didn’t think spring was ever going to come. I mean it. Never. Maybe it was the temperature on Easter Day, which as someone pointed out was 5 degrees colder than it had been on Christmas Day. Or maybe it has been these past weeks of April when a grey chill, wind, and rain greeted us anytime we ventured outdoors.
But it’s here. Daffodils have yielded to tulips. Leaves have returned to the trees’ skeletons. The grass is green again, and the blossoms and flowers are everywhere. I remember when I lived in Boston a friend saying that in New England spring comes in like a Yankee lady— reserved, proper, slow to reveal her charms. But in the South, spring comes in like a hussy—brash, flashy, showing off. I’m glad to say that Washington has all the signs of a Southern spring!
To see the earth come alive around here is to be dazzled. It must be what the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins felt a century ago when he gazed around at spring bursting out and wrote, “What is all this juice and joy?” And the words of another Hopkins poem leap to mind on a day like this:
The world is charg’d with the grandeur of God
It will flame out like shining from shook foil.
The rebirth of spring has for centuries been associated in the Northern Hemisphere with Easter. Even the word “Easter” seems to come from the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess of spring. Christians have seen in the return of life to nature an image of God’s triumph over everything that dies. In the flowering of dogwood and rhododendron we can see pointers to the power that moves through all creation bringing life out of death.
The earth comes alive, and that is itself a sort of miracle. But today as we gather here on this Earth Day we have to face the fact that that miracle is terrifyingly fragile, and that “this fragile earth, our island home,” as our Prayer Book calls it, is in deep trouble.
Scientists have suspected for more than twenty years that our planet is warming as a result of carbon dioxide being released into the atmosphere from burning coal, gas, and oil. And a decade ago scientific experts were already saying that global warming is the largest challenge civilization faces, but at the time the evidence was still fragmentary, and they also thought the warming would happen gradually. But two things have happened in the last few years. One is that the evidence has become overwhelming that warming is happening and that human beings are the cause, and the second is the conviction that the change is happening far faster than anyone had imagined.
Last week we read in the newspapers the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, bringing together the research of a thousand scientists from seventy-four countries. They declared that global warming is already affecting the Earth’s ecosystems, and that climate change could lead to widespread drought and to vast flooding of coastal cities driving hundreds of millions of people from their homes. It could lead to the extinction of as much as a third of the plant and animal species, to widespread malnutrition and disease. The years 2005 and 2006 were, they reported, the hottest in recorded history.
We’ve been seeing indications of global warming steadily in the news—the melting ice caps on mountains, the shrinking glaciers, the increasing incidence of coastline cities underwater. Just a few days ago the New York Times ran on its front page a picture of an Indonesian village now finding itself inundated as water levels rise. James Hansen, the country’s foremost climatologist who has for years as a NASA researcher run the most powerful computer model on the climate, has said that we have a decade to reverse the flow of carbon into the atmosphere or else we will live, and these are his words, on a “totally different planet.”
And then just two days ago a group of senior military generals warned that global warming poses a major security threat. It will bring chaos, civic strife, genocide, and the growth of terrorism in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. “We will pay for this one way or another,” General Anthony Zinni said—by reducing greenhouse gas emissions today or with military conflict and loss of human lives later.
In short, we are facing what is being called a “planetary emergency.”
‘So what?’ many might say. Things may get a little warmer here in the U.S., but chances are if we don’t live along the coastlines, we may not be hit too badly. But what kind of response is that? What we are learning is that our human choices, and mainly the choices of the most wealthy nations in the world, are endangering our fragile earth and the well-being of hundreds millions of people, and we, you and I, are part of the problem.
Every now and then I have the privilege of holding an infant, or having a wide-ranging conversation with a three year old. When I think of those youngsters I can’t help but wonder what are we doing to the world they will live in, and even more, to the kind of world their children will live in? We are squandering a sacred birthright that has been entrusted to us. We are participating in a massive time of decreation—tearing down mountains to produce coal, spewing poison into the atmosphere, leveling forests that are the purifying lungs our planet needs to breathe. And for what?
The United States, with 4% of the world’s population, is producing 25% of the greenhouse gases that are endangering our world. But we are so addicted to a standard of living and a way of life built on inexpensive oil and coal, which we don’t want to begin to imagine a way out.
Writer Bill McKibben puts the issue clearly: “If you care about social justice, this is the biggest battle we’ve ever faced.” Climate change may produce hundreds of millions of refugees. He describes wandering through the lowlands of Bangladesh, the home to 150 million and contemplating their entire homeland going under water—and these are a people who have done nothing to create the problem.
It’s enough to make us think again of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem where, after singing of God’s grandeur, he describes what we have done to this glorious earth:
All is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell.
We humans are on the verge of doing irreparable damage to the nest that bears all of our lives. I continue to be haunted by that 1969 photograph we all know of the earth when it was first viewed from outer space. There it was, a beautiful blue globe, with its swirls of white clouds, floating through the fathomless dark night of space. James Irwin, one of the astronauts who first saw that sight, said, “This beautiful, warm living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart. Seeing this has changed [us].” Only it hasn’t.
You will hear a great deal in the coming weeks and months about this crisis from Earth Day advocates, environmentalists, and, I hope, our political leaders. But today we are asking what that crisis means to us as Christians. We Christians believe that, as the Psalmist puts it, “The earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it.” Some have called this the Eleventh Commandment. The earth is God’s, not ours. We are called to be stewards of it, to care for it lovingly, and to hand it on no worse than we found it.
But of course Christians have too often been part of the problem. Beginning in the earliest centuries Christian faith started emphasizing an otherworldly salvation, and the whole point of faith was to deliver us from the world. In fact there was a study a few years ago that reported that the more religious people are the less they are inclined to care about the environment. Maybe the most famous example of that was former Secretary of the Interior in the 1980’s James Watt, a fundamentalist Christian who said that long range conservation of natural resources was unnecessary because Jesus would be coming soon to end everything, and so it wasn’t worth it.
But the deepest Christian instincts have been defined by Jesus, as in our gospel today when he points to the lilies of the field and the ravens in the air as models for simple trust in God. And in the parable we heard this morning Jesus pointed to the destructiveness of piling up more and more wealth so that we can “eat, drink, and be merry.”
And it was St. Francis who saw the creation as an array of blood relatives—brother sun, sister moon, brother wind, sister water, mother earth. “Be praised, my Lord God,” he said, “in and through your creation.” There is one life in all of God’s creatures.
The farmer, poet, novelist Wendell Berry says we all live within what he calls the “Great Economy,”—the economy of nature. And we must learn to fit harmoniously into this larger whole. Remember, he says, only nature knows how to make water, air, forests, and topsoil. And now we humans are destroying this “Great Economy,” tearing apart the harmony we were made for
Finding that life-giving balance calls for facing down our massive need to own bigger houses and drive ever bigger cars. It means rethinking our taste for strawberries flown in from California and apples from New Zealand. It means learning to shape lives less dependent on countless hours driving on highways. It means more energy-efficient homes and office buildings.
But unfortunately none of this is likely to make enough difference in the face of this planetary emergency. The answer will have to be public, political, governmental. We Christians need to be prepared to advocate, to educate and advocate to protect this fragile earth.
That will call for a massive shift in national priorities, with leadership as strong as that which led us through the Second World War, that put a man on the moon, that conquered polio, and that established basic civil rights for everyone. It will take saying no to the powerful economic interests tied up in the way things currently are. It will cost us to do this work of reconciliation with our planet earth. Are we as a nation and a world capable of that? I don’t know, but I worry.
And what I do know is that I don’t want to have to explain to my grandchildren or to God how we sat by, too addicted to our American way of life, to change our economy and our way of living before disasters struck.
We are being called, in how we live, how we act, and how we vote, to protect this earth we have been given. It’s the eleventh commandment. “The Earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” The challenge we face is daunting. But the Easter promise is that God can bring life out of this threatening death. The God who raised Jesus from the dead can raise us from something less than life—our driven, wasteful lives—to life itself, a life that is simpler, more connected to the Great Economy of nature, more rooted in its place, and more committed to renewing and caring for this vulnerable nest, this fragile earth.
Even Gerard Manley Hopkins, who so mourned the desecration of the land in his time, held on to this Easter trust that God’s Spirit can kindle and renew us. His poem about God’s grandeur and what we have done to it ends this way:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last light off the black West went
Oh, morning at the brown brink eastward springs—
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods
With warm breast and with, Ah, bright wings.
That’s the promise. The Spirit is moving in our world now to renew the face of the earth. The question is, Will we join in?