Sunday, January 4, 2015

God of small things: Ocean Drifters doco on plankton

Psalm 104 declares that

25 Yonder is the sea, great and wide,
    creeping things innumerable are there,
    living things both small and great.
26 There go the ships,
    and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

Today, we understand more of the small, in the form of plankton - both plant (phytoplankton) and animal (zooplankton). They form the bottom of the ocean food chain, store carbon in sediments when they die and provide us with oxygen.

Yet they are threatened as oceans warm and become more acidic all due to CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels and making of cement (both from the long dead bodies of plankton) and land clearance.
We pursue this path at our own peril!

The following is a brilliant ~15 minute documentary on plankton by Dr Richard Kirby, narrated by none other than Sir David Attenborough, Enjoy!

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

I what therefore I am? Deep anthropology & incarnation

Have you ever wondered what it is that makes you human? Rene Descartes tried to rescue our humanity from a mechanical universe, where other animals were reduced to mere unfeeling automata. The phrase cogito ergo sum or I think therefore I am says that what makes us human is our rational capabilities. Yet we've seen that humans are not Vulcans, and that other creatures are not automata. We are different in degree and not in kind. A closer reading of Genesis 1 would remind us that there are creatures and creator; we don't sit in a third category from a material ontological sense but from a functional one.

But what interests me is not only that we can't isolate who we are just to our brains, but we need to include our surroundings. We carry more bacterial cells than our own and many of these are actually beneficial. And think of all the things we rely upon in our extended environment to produce food (nitrogen fixing bacteria for example), purify water (vegetated watersheds), pollinate our plants (bees), and produce our oxygen (photosynthetic algae). To be human requires a whole planet, to say nothing of other humans.

Two things follow from this deep anthropology. When it says in John 1 that the Word (logos) became flesh (sarx) it means Jesus didn't just become human but matter, human matter connected to other matter. The incarnation is deep because anthropology is deep (yes I'm aware sarx has a variety of uses, but here in John I think it works on both the level of creatures in general as well as human in particular). Secondly, when in Colossians 1 it says that Jesus reconciles all things, it really does mean all things (ta panta). Jesus becomes matter because matter matters - and humans are matter made conscious and told to rule wisely and care for matter.

I am because God, and the am that I am is connected to all that is. Hence I work to care for all that is that I can care for.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Shades of green - levels of ecological action

While the terminology turns some people off, ecological sensitivity (what I simply call common sense) is labeled green. But there are shades of green.

At one end, we have green wash. This is what big corporations sometimes engage in when they want to appear to be doing something. Adds like that of Chevron that talk about energy mixes, when it is usually just more fossil fuels.

At the other end, deep green ecology can be anything from primitivism - the abandonment of industrial society (shame that's how lifesaving antibiotics are made) and post-agriculture, to sheer anti-humanism. We do have much to repent of, but talk of a virus to reduce our numbers is at the extreme end.

In between is quite a bit of activity. Light green includes all of those small things that are worth doing, but in of themselves won't solve the worlds problems. Meat free Monday, using the car less, ethical shopping and so on are all useful things, and entry level activities.

The calendar Greener by the day gives you some simple ideas to focus on, and start thinking about the whole problem of climate change. Founder, Rhonda Kimberly did an intensive I was part of on climate change at Tabor College. I'm impressed with her enthusiasm in turning her concern into action. Buy one, in fact, buy several.

Of course, radical action is needed to avert the worst of the scenarios of climate change, dark green action of divestment of fossil fuels, a reshaping of the economy and so on. We need to make some individual changes as well as systemic ones. All good forests have various shades of green.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lonesome George and lamenting extinction


I've just started (well must be 2 weeks ago) reading Ask the Beasts by Elizabeth Johnson, where she looks theologically at evolution. There is an extended discussion about Darwin and The Origin of the Species. What caught my eye early on though was a quote from Aldo Leopold which says "For one species to mourn the loss of another is a new thing under the sun."

It is not as if animals do not mourn. I've seen our pet dog mourn the loss of my dad. Koko the gorilla, who was taught sign language, mourned over a lost pet kitten. Elephants famously touch the bones of dead relative. And yet it is humans, the agents of destruction, who can mourn the loss of other species.

Last Friday night, I attended an evening with David Attenborough, the man whose corpus of work inspired me into a life long passion for wildlife, and nearly into a career in biology. The evening celebrated his life's work, but in particular the use of 3D cameras. One of his subjects was Lonesome George, the last of his particular species of Galapagos tortoise. I admit that I shed a tear. And why not. This poor creature died along, admittedly well looked after by humans, the same species that had decimated his species by eating them.

Perusing a bookshop before the evening, I saw a copy of A Message from Martha, which looks at the fate of the last Passenger Pigeon. From covering the skies for days, the species ended its days with one lone female in a zoo.

Mourn we should, both these and others, and the possible avalanche of extinctions coming from climate change.

So recovering the idea of Lamentation or Jeremiad is important for the church, to mourn as we should. With apologies then

How lonely sits the Earth
That was full of creatures!
She has become like a widow
Who was once great among the planets!
She who was a princess among the provinces
Has become a forced laborer!
She weeps bitterly in the night
And her tears are on her cheeks;
She has none to comfort her
Among all her lovers.
All humanity has dealt treacherously with her;
They have become her enemies.

The groaning canary and the coalmine of doom: climate change, politics and Paul



Politics has not been kind to climate change science in either Australia (my home) or the US following the mid-term elections. In Australia, funding has been cut to climate change research, and the Climate Council has had to become crowd funded. A government business advisor is actively talking down the science, and a politician has publically called the integrity of Australia scientists into question.

In the US, a similar theme is playing out. Senator Mitch McConnell wants to reign in the EPA, while the infamous Senator Inhofe will likely become the chair of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee. That is a little like giving the fox the keys to the henhouse.

Which brings me to canaries. Up until the early 20th century, canaries were taken down into coal mines as early warning systems. When poisonous carbon monoxide fumes caused the canary distress or it died, the miners could seek safety. In our changing climate, mosquitoes are the canary in the coal mine. In Kenya, world expert on malaria Andrew Githeko has developed a model to show how malaria is spreading due to our warming planet. He grew up in the highlands on a coffee plantation, where it used to be too cold for malaria to spread. However, one day a relative form his home town rang to tell him that his niece had contracted malaria. Stories like this are common throughout highlands in Africa, New Guinea, and central and South America.

Elsewhere, sea level rise due to warming oceans means that Pacific islands are being eroded and inundated. On Han Island, part of the Carteret chain off Papua New Guinea, elder Nicholas Hakata laments that water left over from a king tide has become a breeding ground for malarial mosquitoes, affecting all of their children.

Mosquitoes have always been an indicator of environmental disturbance. A cemetery near Rome revealed 47 skeletons of children younger than three, many of whom were still born. All of them bore signs of malaria. In 452 AD, then Huns refused to enter Rome for fear of malaria. The cause of the malaria was the clearing of forests, which resulted in theformation of swampy ground where mosquitoes could breed. It also led to the silting up of the harbour, and regular widespread flooding.
Malaria literally means bad air, and hence the Romans did not understand the connection between poor land management and disease. They could, however, understand that using the Tiber as a latrine meant that they had to build aqueducts to get fresh water to drink. They could also understand how fires made for bad health. As philosopher and politician Seneca commented

“No sooner had I left behind the oppressive atmosphere of the city and the reek of smoking cookers, which pour out, along with clouds of ashes, all the poisonous fumes they’ve accumulated … I noticed the change in my condition at once.”

Elsewhere I’ve written briefly about Romans 8, but it is worth a closer look. When says that “the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now” (verse 22), he was making an environmental observation. You see it is not at all unchristian to be able to observe the negative impacts humans are having on the planet. Indeed, common grace – that it rains on the righteous and unrighteous – should tell us that we can and must listen to those who study our impacts on the planet, Christian or otherwise. Perhaps Catholic Australian Prime Ministry Tony Abbott or Presbyterian Senator James Inhofe should take note.

Paul was also making a theological statement that “the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope” (verse 20), because the Him is God. But the reason is laid out in Romans 1: idolatry leads to wrath, which is the giving over sins and their consequences. Conservative Christians are quick to accuse environmentalists of worshipping nature, while the church is all too often part of a Babylonian captivity, trying to worship Mammon or Mars – often brought together in resource wars. So climate change is a result of human idolatry and hubris, and God has given us and the rest of creation over to the consequences of this idolatry. This makes climate change a gospel issue because it stems from idolatry and sin, and the gospel calls all to repent and believe in the good news.

Thirdly, Paul is making a political comment. To declare Jesus as Lord back in chapter 1, in a letter written to Christians at the centre of empire could not be misunderstood. Caesar, and all who build empires, are not Lord. But more than this, for Paul to declare that the creation is groaning was to deny the claims of the poet Horace that “Your age, O Caesar, has restored plenteous crops to the fields”. When politicians proclaim that coal mines or oil wells will continue to bring us prosperity, it is the church’s role to show that the emperor has no clothes and creation still groans. 

Given that our hope is the redemption of our bodies (verse 23), and that the creation longs to share in our freedom (verse 21), it is our role to proclaim this gospel hope, speaking truth to the centre of empire, be that Australia, American or multinational. So long as creation groans, we must groan with it. More than this, since we have the first fruits of the new creation (verse 23), we care for this creation in transition as we look forward to its Exodus and ours, the future harvest.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The instability of limitless growth


Memes don't always say it all, but this one is quite succinct in that it captures something I've been thinking about for a while. In his book Everything must change, Brian McClaren identifies the societal machine (or economy) as sitting inside the ecosystem. The societal machine has a prosperity cog (wealth generation), an equity cog that redistributes wealth to various aspects of society such as education, health and those in need, and a security cog for police and armed forces.

At the centre of the machine is the central narrative. Presently that narrative appears to be one of growth for its own sake. This has expanded the societal machine to almost swamp the ecosystem, and is pushing planetary boundaries (atmosphere, ozone, biodiversity, nitrogen and phosphorous cycles, etc).

When the central narrative is one of endless growth, the prosperity cog enlarges, the equity cog shrinks (the top few own the most of the wealth) and the security cog also enlarges. I think the oil wars in the middle east are a sign of this. Note how issues of environment, justice and peace are all intertwined!

Such growth is cancerous, runaway growth for part of the system only. This is not otherwise seen in nature, where dynamic relationships mean there is a constant shift between new balance states, cycles of populations but an overall resilience.

Ched Myers wrote Sabbath Economics, which reminds us that the year of jubilee was an ecomic reset, so that wealth did not accumulate in one place. It was also an ecological reset in an age before chemical fertilisers. We need a new model, a model more like Sabbath Economics. This is not a Marxism where people do not earn according to their talents or significance of their roles - but what CEO really earns so much more than their employees?

While many would argue we should appeal to people's better natures, Christian doctrone should tell us that sometimes people need rules (sin after all), and that yes governments via taxes can actually achieve real good. I've heard often enough "why should I give my money ...." Well to start with, under God, there is only money we steward, not money that is ours.

So while our central narrative is fixated on growth, peace, justice and creation care will always be at odds with decisions made. The G20 may well demonstrate this.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Wilderness and the human spirit


I saw this meme recently on Twitter, and several throughts came to mind.

Firstly, living in the anthropocene, humanity has pushed several of the planetary boundaries, in particular the climate system. There is no where that has not been "rearranged by the hand of man." Secondly, there are many places where this has not been the case since ecosystems took their present or approximate shape. For example, if humans crossed into north America near the end of the last ice age, ecosystems were changing to the new conditions as they arrived. As another example, many places in central America show evidence of temples and cities under rainforest, demonstrating that these areas were at one time cleared for settlement and agriculture.

None of these should belittle the idea of wilderness as such, of wild places. They have great value in terms of ecosystem services. But what of their spiritual value?

Many wild places today are not really that wild. Perhaps there are dangers to do with terrain, starvation, dedyration, or getting lost, but people usually enter prepared. In many places though, large predators have been exterminated. Apart from the risk of snake bite say in Australia, staying away from the oceans (sharks) or tropical rivers (crocodiles) and there are fewwer dangers that in parts of north America or Africa.

Wilderness proper should be wild, not so much so we can experience a romantic connection with nature - though I think that is right and proper too. A sense of continuity with nature is important. In Christian theology this is a reminder that we are creatures along with all others, made by and sustained by a creator. The rich variety (currently under threat of mass extinction) and aesthetic value pervade our senses. It should also teach us that they have value in and of themselves, for themselves, and for God (Psalm 104). Wilderness is not just for us at all - for our spirits or material needs.

But the wildness of wilderness should teach us that we are small. A clear night sky should do that (Psalm 8). When popularisers of science like Brian Cox talk about humanity being (seemingly) insignificant, this is not a new thought. God's care for non-humans (Psalm 104), our inability to tame it (without destroying it, see the end of Job) or the vastness of the sky (Psam 8) not normally visible from urban areas should all act to humble us and challenge our hubris.

That said, I planted a banksia in my back yard, in my very disturbed area, to attract and feed New Holland Honeyeaters. Even here, in these margins, I can be reminded that I share the earth with other creatures, and need to make room for them.