From the Atlantic Ocean has recently come the devastating power of hurricane Dorian as well as the quiet voyage, by solar sailboat, of 16-year old Greta Thunberg from England to New York. Dorian destroyed huge swaths of the Bahamas and brought extensive damage once again to our east coast. We still don’t know how many people lost their lives and loved ones. The roar of the storm and the quiet voice of this Swedish girl carry the same message. The global climate change predicted for decades by scientists is now upon us. We can no longer afford, if we ever could, the lies or silence of leaders in government, business, or cultural institutions. Even if we wake up now, we are walking into a radically altered world in the near future.
This awareness comes with personal demands. How and how much should we travel? Travel and transportation account for about 14% of current greenhouse emissions. Air travel has doubled since 2003, yet airplanes remain dependent on fossil fuel combustion as far into the future as we can see. In a single trip across the Atlantic I create emissions equal to an entire year of driving. Yet we and our friends travel constantly by air and auto, extolling the benefits of international tourism. We depend at every moment on goods brought to us over many miles by ship, plane, and truck. We continue to eat meats and dairy products from animals generating enormous amounts of methane. Those and other agricultural processes contribute another 14% to current emissions. We turn to the internet for incorporeal contact with the wider world, only to generate in turn enormous amounts of emissions for electrical production to drive and cool the internet. We respond by traveling, often by air, to yet more conferences on climate change or to visit places that may disappear before our children die.
All of which is to say that we are caught like fish in the whale. We are part of a system of earthly destruction. As with the venerable words of confession, “there is no health in us.” It is here that we enter into a fresh appreciation of what theologians might call “original sin,” but not what you might have learned at church. In western Christianity this notion, born out of St. Augustine’s life and thought in the fourth century, located some original aberration in our history in the sexual act. Though with little or no Scriptural basis, it became the main lens through which western Christian understood the story of creation. I cannot rehearse here the spiritual dead end into which this preoccupation led us.
But “original sin” can also find other meanings as we think about what has gone fundamentally wrong in our world. The ecological crisis that is upon us awakens other interpretations. From this vantage point, we might say that somewhere, back in the beginnings of the industrial revolution, something happened that drove us into this ecological dead-end. Certainly, one part of it was seizing the knowledge of how nature works. This is, in a sense, the “wisdom” of the tree that stood in Eden’s garden. Yet this knowledge became the basis for exploiting the earth for our own narrow purposes. The knowledge itself, then, was not evil. It was used to dominate the natural world rather than find how to live within it. The evil lay within the fearful anxiety in which we try to avoid our earthly finitude by grabbing more and more from the life around us. We clutch, we consume inordinately, we covet, steal, and murder in order to be secure and survive. And, as in the Garden story in Genesis, when we come to the contradiction between the wisdom of the tree and our own fear, we hide and lie. Hiding and lying invade our public and private life. making it even more difficult to confront the truth of our situation.
Now we can no longer hide and lie. The little child has ripped off our pretentious façade. This little whisper of history drives me back to a constant theme in Jesus’s preaching, first in his attack on hypocrisy, lying, and self-deception; second, in his invocation of God’s constant care for the birds and flowers of the field. He attacked fear and lying with the courage of one who lives beyond the curtain of death and with the quiet peace of recognizing his origin in the God of Life. I still haven’t fully absorbed what this means, but I am, perhaps, crawling the way there.
I’m thinking more about how much I will travel and how. How much I will rely on purchased goods from afar. How much I will string out my life on the digital highway. It’s personal. It’s political. It’s economic. It’s religious. It’s upon us. I’m feeling these questions acutely; how much more are my grandchildren, who will be living in it. And I’m thinking about Greta, the little child who is striking out to lead us.