The Broken Heart of a Good Creation
And God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. Genesis 1:31
This past week saw several reports regarding the health of our planet and its occupants. The first, a report in Nature magazine, suggests that if the current rate of global warming continues, within 50 years one quarter of all extant land animals and plant life will be driven into extinction. One of the more agonizing aspects of the report was the prediction that many life forms will be unable to relocate and thus left to languish and ultimately die in habitats once hospitable but now deadly. It's a bit analogous to a human being imprisoned to ultimately starve to death or die for lack of water in a prison cell whose walls increasingly converge toward the center. Would we not call such inhumane if it involved human beings (presuming, of course, that they were not inhabitants of the "axis of evil" in which case inhumane treatment is not only acceptable, it's mandated by the bloodthirsty tribal god of George Bush)? How much less inhumane is this sentence for one-fourth of our biosphere?
A second report from Thomas Karl and Kevin Trenberth of the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, NC, details the source of the problem: "[T]here is no doubt," they say, "that the composition of the atmosphere is changing because of human activities, and today greenhouse gases are the largest human influence on global climate.'' They estimate that by the end of this century there is a 90 percent chance that the world's climate will heat up between 3.1 and 8.9 degrees Fahrenheit because of those human influences.
What continues to float to consciousness as I read these reports is the context of the Spielberg film Artificial Intelligence. Aside from the absolutely gut wrenching story line of the created little boy who wanted so badly to become human and to be loved (Spielberg is a real genius at touching the very core of the human heart), in the background of the film is the ever-present rising water levels of a world in which global warming has done its nasty deed. The polar caps are melting and it's only a matter of time until the planet is innundated. The drip, drip, dripping of the rain into puddles only accentuates the sadness of the film, a cosmic weeping. What I found myself feeling over and over as I watched the film was less the immediate heartbreak of the little boy seeking humanhood and a mother's love played so brilliantly in the film by Haley Joel Osment, but rather the profound sorrow for the loss of Mother Earth that served as the contextual setting for the storyline.
The other thing I felt as I watched the film was a white hot anger at either unconscious or conscienceless human beings who had done this to themselves and to all living beings of this good creation. And the absolute mystification over how they could be in such deep denial about this tragedy. As the human beings continued to seek ever greater consumer goods and services -perfumes that were now no longer being produced, parties to forget the impending disaster, more and more advanced technology to serve a human race which had become lazy and turned in on itself and the natural progression of our current obsession with stimulatimg passive entertainment which took the form of a neo-Roman coliseum complete with the slaughter of quasi-sentient beings - the world was dying around them. I see this denial in full bloom even now in our own time as the world is dying around us. Listen to the suzerain oil industry and their client state administrators in Washington as they reassure us about limitless petrochemical supplies to meet the demands of an addiction fed by our advertising industry. Listen as they question the findings of folks like Karl and Treberth, asserting that they have no solid "proof" that the environment is being wounded, perhaps irreparably. Listen carefully and you can hear the drip, drip dripping as our earth gurgles and sputters.
This week begins the season of Epiphany in the western liturgical traditions. The readings for Anglican lectionary cycle C have featured Isaiah with nations streaming to the light of the redeemed Israel, often cast in terms of mountaintops where the light can be seen. I contemplate those mountaintops as I read of the Bush administration's proposed revisions to environmental policies which would allow for "mountaintop mining." What such involves is essentially shearing off the tops of ridges to expose a coal seam. Dirt and rock are pushed into nearby stream beds, a practice known as valley fill. The Interior Department's proposal would eliminate an existing policy that says land within 100 feet of a stream cannot be disturbed by mining activity unless a company can prove that the work won't affect the stream's water quality and quantity. In the proposed rule, the department said that the standard is impossible to comply with and coal operators must instead prevent damage to streams "to the extent possible, using the best technology currently available."
"[T]o the extent possible?" Who are we kidding? These lies and half-truths dressed up to sound like actual considered policy would be laughable if their consequences were not so dire. Human beings always have choices about these matters. The question is whether we are willing to be honest about those choices and resposible for their consequences.
So, what if there were no mountaintops for the nations to stream to, only jagged scars of abandoned coal mines? Might the policies pursued by this very destructive regime be seen as magnets for darkness, not light? As the priest in the controversial but excellent film Priest said, when we destroy G-d's good creation, do we not spit in the very eye of G-d? As I stand on the shores of Lake Underhill each morning, saying my prayers, watching the mist rise from the lake shrouding the reflections of the cabbage palms in the lake's polluted waters, the birds singing G-d's praises as the soundtrack for the rising sun, I wonder to myself, how much longer will these birds have a home in this place? Where will the cabbage palms go if the water rises above their root systems? What will happen to the herons and cranes, the squirrels and mockingbirds, the gopher tortoises and prickly pear cacti, not to mention the little boys and girls who will play in these waters come summer? Where is the light? Where is the outcry from the nations?
This night my Franciscan heart aches for the Creation. It wonders if the image of G-d has not become obscured by the crudeness of greed and selfishness among we creatures who bear that image and hold the potential to grow ever more into the likeness of our maker, a potential neglected if not abandoned in our striving for more and more goods and ever more stimulating (and diverting) entertainment. And it wonders what it will take to cause us to awaken from this very dark dream.
The Kadampa Tradition (Vajrayana) Buddhists in San Jose, CA, taught me that the scope of compassion is not properly limited to simply human beings. They taught me that "all sentient beings" were deserving of compassion. And so I close with their Prayer for the Four Immeasurables, noting that "everyone" here means all living beings:
May everyone be happy.
May everyone be free from misery.
May no one ever be separated from their happiness.
May everyone have equanimity, free from hatred and attachment.
And from the Prayer for Generating Bodhichitta, "May I become a Buddha for the benefit of all." Or as the modern Franciscan prayer says it: "Lord, make us instruments of your peace."
The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.