Healing Our Planet Earth: Stewardship of the Earth

Healing Our Planet Earth: Stewardship of the Earth

HOPE Conference, Seattle, Washington
April 12, 2008

Why have we called on the various parts of creation around here to teach us and show us the way? God’s image is visible and detectible in all parts of creation; God is author of all. I was deeply struck by an image in that retelling of Genesis: “Gravity’s tentative fingers…” and later, “with time, gravity cast her net again, gathering dust into new star systems.”

Gravity is not a bad image for God’s lure, God’s eternal desire for relationship – whether in the weak force, or in the nuclear force, or the attractive chaos that brings human beings together in relationship. Gravity is actually a very good translation of the Hebrew word for God’s glory – kabod. It means heaviness, weightiness, something so substantial that you can’t help but notice. When we encounter the hand of God at work in the world about us, we are recognizing the glory of God. As the psalm we heard puts it, God “collects the waves of the ocean, and gathers up the depths of the sea.” We know God as the one who creates, we see the evidence of the divine working in everything we encounter, and we know God in that lure for relationship, that engagement, enticement, fascination with all that is – God’s tractor beam drawing us in.

The latter part of Psalm 104(24-31) is one of the best scriptural summaries I know of that lure:

O LORD, how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.
Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there,
living things both small and great.
There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.
These all look to you to give them their food in due season;
when you give to them, they gather it up;
when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.
When you hide your face, they are dismayed;
when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust.
When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.
May the glory of the LORD endure forever; may the LORD rejoice in his works.

I want to look at that home of Leviathan as an image for the whole creation, because it’s the creative womb from which life on this earth sprang. It’s still also the part of God’s creation that I know best. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, filled with living things small and great. And that sea over yonder is increasingly subject to rather unholy consequences of our mindless fiddling and frolicking.

When I was in grade school, I remember being told that the oceans were going to solve the world’s protein problem. In the same way that Norman Borlaug’s green revolution began to increase cereal crop output in the Americas, in Africa, and in Asia, the sea was going to be our salvation. Indeed the 15% of the world’s protein does come from the sea. Yet only 22% of the world’s fisheries are managed in a sustainable way. If current fishing trends continue, essentially all of the world’s fish stocks will collapse within 50 years. Since the beginning of commercial scale fishing, the numbers of large predatory fish have been reduced to 10% of their original levels. This part of the world knows something about that in the history of salmon fishing. Reports from a little more than 100 years ago speak of fish so densely packed in coastal streams that they formed a virtual bridge from bank to bank. Thirty years ago I saw a small stream like that on Kodiak Island. I very much doubt you can see it anywhere today. European immigrants in this part of the world harvested salmon with horse-drawn beach trawls – and very quickly nearly wiped them out in most river systems.

There are similar stories in many other parts of the world – the former cod fishery off the Grand Banks, the herring fishery in the North Sea, the anchovy fishery off Peru. More recently historically abundant fisheries off Africa and in the South Pacific have been decimated by commercial fishing methods. Bishop George Packard, who has responsibility for Micronesia, tells me of native Episcopalians in Micronesia who report that factory trawlers descend on their islands and virtually vacuum the seas. It’s no longer possible to make a living by subsistence fishing there.

The difficulty is not just near shore. Commercial trawling is moving down the continental slopes, into waters up to 1000 meters deep, with devastating results. Not only are the long-lived and slow-growing fish and invertebrates quickly disappearing, but the habitat destruction from those trawls means that recovery will be disrupted and unlikely even if fishing were to stop immediately.

Offshore fisheries are sweeping the seas clean, and a number of the fishery methods also denude the oceans of species that are not commercially targeted. Most Americans learned years ago about the problems of tuna seining that also caught spinner porpoises. Long line fisheries, that use miles-long fences of baited hooks, catch birds, sharks, marine mammals, and turtles, as well as fish both marketable and not. Indiscriminate use of those long lines is likely to lead to the extinction rather quickly of a number of species.

But human impacts on the oceanic creation are not limited to fisheries. The largest scale problem is anthropogenic climate change, and those effects are significant to the oceans. Worldwide, right now, we have a radiation imbalance of about 0.8W /m2. In other words, every square meter of the earth’s surface gets an annual input of heat energy, that exceeds the heat that’s reflected back into space by about 0.8 watt. That’s a very small light bulb over each square meter of surface, but there’s no other place for the heat to go. The ocean can absorb a certain amount of heat, and so can the land, and eventually it will balance out, but not until the average temperature over the whole planet has increased significantly.

Heat input in the oceans has a couple of immediate effects – especially on the intensity of storms, particularly hurricanes and typhoons. The number and intensity of hurricanes off the Gulf and Atlantic coasts of this country has risen by 75% since the 1970s. Katrina, Rita, and Wilma were the most recent examples. The first hurricane ever recorded in the South Atlantic occurred in 2004. 2005 had the most hurricanes ever recorded in the North Atlantic, as well as the most intense Atlantic storm (Wilma).

Another major impact of global climate change on the oceans has to do with ice – and it’s melting. The Arctic is warming much faster than most other parts of the world ocean, in a positive feedback loop. Ice reflects most radiation back into space, and therefore keeps the water underneath it cooler. As the ice melts, the water absorbs ever more radiation. That warming also has an impact on cloud cover, and that cloud cover has been significantly reduced in recent years, and leads to even higher thermal radiation input. The Northwest Passage – that mythical thing that sent so many Europeans this way -- is increasingly ice-free in summer; and is expected to be consistently available by about 2030 if not sooner. In August last summer it became fully navigable for the first time to ships without an icebreaker. Why is this important? In addition to contributing to increased rates of warming, it likely means the demise of polar bears, and seals, and other animals that depend on the ice, that will further change polar ecosystems, their species composition and interactions. One consequence is that reduced availability of traditional food sources for native peoples. Aside from the justice issue of eliminating those food sources, as those people migrate looking for sustenance and employment, they lose their cultures. Do you know what the rate of indigenous language loss is like on this earth? About 90% of the indigenous languages in North America are very likely to disappear. That is a loss of God’s creativity that is just as significant as the loss of endangered species.

There are other ice issues as well. The presence of significant amounts of ice on Greenland and Antarctica is the result of a shift in global climate patterns over geologic time. Under an ancient and a different climate regime, that ice was a liquid part of the ocean. As it melts, it will contribute to a rise in ocean level. If all the ice on Greenland were to melt, sea level would rise about 7 meters. That’s about twice as much as change in sea level as human beings have known in recorded history (in the last 7000 years or so), and more than enough to inundate a number of south Pacific nations, New Orleans, New York, Amsterdam, Tokyo, Venice, most of coastal Bangladesh, and a lot of other port cities. Fortunately, the Antarctic doesn’t seem to be melting quite as fast – yet – but melting of all the Antarctic ice sheets would raise sea level about 75 meters. That’s well over our heads right here. A sea level rise of only 10 meter would flood about 25% of the US population, primarily on the Gulf and East coasts. In the last 25 years, global sea levels have risen around 5 cm (about 2 inches) and 20 cm since 1900, along with about 1 degree C global temperature rise.

There are a number of peculiar and significant issues in the ocean related to rising CO2 levels, in addition to warming effects and a rise in sea level. The biggest one has to do with rising acidity as that CO2 dissolves, because some of it turns into carbonic acid. The oceans are presently absorbing about 2 Gton C per year [2 billion tons], a significant fraction of the annual emissions of 7 Gton C. But there is a limit to how much carbon the oceans can absorb. At some point the oceans are likely to become more stratified, limiting absorptive capacity, and eventually they will even begin to give off CO2 into the atmosphere as the oceans continue to warm. We’re already seeing a significant change in pH in the oceans, and beginning to see some impacts on marine organisms. As the pH decreases – as it becomes more acid -- it becomes metabolically more difficult to produce a calcareous skeleton. Some kinds of phytoplankton (plants in the ocean), shelled animals like snails and clams, and corals are going to disappear, some are beginning to disappear particularly in warmer waters. There are other animals who produce a different kind of carbonate skeleton, called aragonite, who are likely to be threatened even sooner – the most obvious are the pearls that are secreted by oysters and abalone are a good example.

The impacts on coral are multiple. Not only do rising sea temperatures lead to the local extinction of particular species, but they often cause “bleaching,” which is the death of commensal algae that live in a symbiotic relationship with the coral organism. Those algae contribute to the health of the coral, and the coral weaken where bleached. The change in ocean acidity makes it more difficult for the corals to build skeletons, and increased storm strength leads to greater damage to coral reefs. I hope you begin to see the interrelated effects of climate change, just on one part of this global ecosystem. The effects extend to human communities as well most immediately – the ones that depend on reefs for food, for coastal protection from storms, for tourism economies, and there are effects much farther distant as well.

As the oceans warm and their pH changes, the fauna and flora may become locally extinct, or they may move toward cooler waters (toward the poles or into greater depths). Warming oceans may become more vertically stable, which will reduce the amount of upwelling, which in good years brings nutrients to the surface and contributes to the usually massive productivity of coasts like this one. The shift in species composition, whether due to climatic displacement or overfishing, often leads to a reduction in diversity. One of the truisms of the study of all ecosystems, both oceanic or terrestrial, and I would assert humans, is that the more diverse they are, the healthier and more stable they are likely to be. Reducing the biological diversity usually reduces the system’s ability to adapt to change or unusual environmental pressure. Disruption often leads to the emergence of opportunistic species – like weeds in a plowed field. In overfished ecosystems, the slower growing fish are often replaced by faster growing species like jellyfish or squid, which often prevent the recovery of the fish stocks even when fishing pressure is reduced.

Disrupted ecosystems are also prone to boom and bust population cycles. Algal and phytoplankton blooms are examples, but other organisms also bloom – like those jellyfish that flourish when their fish predators are missing. That kind of excessive production can lead to rapid die-offs and oxygen exhaustion in the water as all that organic matter decays. When the low oxygen patch gets big, it’s called a dead zone – and there are growing patches like that around the world, particularly around the North Atlantic. Significant dead zones exist in the Gulf of Mexico, related to overproduction, to silting after big storms, and to excess nutrients in river runoff. There are others off the east coast, related to garbage and sewage dumping. Chesapeake Bay is increasingly prone to this as well, and it has had major impacts on the crab and oyster fisheries there.

The loss of genetic diversity in an ecosystem has consequences for other members of that system, as well as for species that may seem far removed. For one, human beings may lose access to unique characteristics of that ecosystem – drugs that may cure cancer, antitoxins, antibiotics, and things like that. Creation has its own intrinsic worth, often beyond our imagining, and when it’s gone, it’s gone forever. As ecosystems are disrupted, undoubted myriads of species will be destroyed, many of which have not yet even recognized, or described, or named.

There are less obvious and ancillary consequences to our burgeoning presence and impact on oceanic ecosystems. Ship traffic is increasing exponentially. If you look at a map of the annual commercial shipping, it soon looks much like a nighttime picture of the earth – the lights or ship tracks are concentrated in very narrow bands. Ship strikes on whales are contributing significantly to increased mortality among a number of species, including the critically endangered northern right whale, which was already decimated by whaling in the early 20th century.

That growing ship traffic also spreads invasive organisms around the world – things like zebra mussels, which contribute to marine fouling as they enter new environments. Shipping also spreads garbage, spills a variety of toxic fluids, and leaks pollutants like anti-fouling hull paint – all as a function of “normal” operations, not just because of oil spills, or container losses, or hull breakup, or ships sinking. Almost all commercial shipping today relies on fossil fuels for propulsion, which all add to the carbon emission load.

We haven’t even begun to explore the issues that arise from land-sea interactions, particularly as human beings alter near shore environments. Construction, runoff, sewage, the use of ocean water for cooling, desalination, dredging, estuarine impacts are just a few of the ways in which human activity affects near shore oceanic systems. Think for just a moment about the vast quantities of human produce that were washed back into the Gulf of Mexico after Katrina – houses, cars and boats, trees and land plants, garbage, bricks, television antennas, gasoline, livestock. In many parts of the Gulf Coast that outwash has effectively produced a toxic waste dump just offshore. We are beginning to recognize that the oceans are not the limitless receptacle or resource we long thought they were. The oceans, in fact, are beginning to groan.

If we can hear that grave lament, we may recover some ability to partner in renewing the playground of Leviathan. The hope we have in us contains the seeds of a renewed creation. The sea water that runs in our veins – and our tissues have virtually the same elemental composition as the oceans – that may remind us that we are created of the dust of the earth, dissolved in the moist breath of God. We are intimately connected to all parts of what Sallie McFague calls the body of God. Creation is groaning in travail. But it is not the travail of childbirth. It’s the groaning of mortal illness. We must hear that cry, and respond.

There is much we can do, in small and large ways. We can pay attention to what we eat. Learn what fisheries are sustainable and which are not, and change your buying habits appropriately. Eat lower on the food chain. Advocate for appropriate fisheries management systems , and adequate marine reserves, closed to all fishing, that can provide a sanctuary and help to repopulate overfished and damaged areas. Limit fishery methods; use permits, and licenses, and quotas to reduce the fishing pressure. Recover a sense that we are all responsible for the whole, and don’t let our neighbors devolve into the tragedy of the commons. When no one owns or acts as a steward of a resource, there is little economic incentive for anyone to act responsibly. People of faith have a moral incentive that grows out of our understanding that we are all part of one much greater whole.

We will also have to learn more environmentally responsible ways of growing fish and shellfish commercially. Salmon farms may produce cheap and relatively consistent supplies for a while, but in some parts of the world they are almost wholly unregulated. In Chile, for example, culture methods have led to recent outbreaks of parasites and microbial infections that are not only killing most of the farmed salmon, but threatening wild stocks and polluting the environment. The usual commercial response there has been to simply move to another location and start the cycle over again. I hope you hear echoes of logging in this part of the world. Learn where your seafood comes from, and demand a higher standard of environmentally accountable production. In the same way that shade-grown and fairly traded coffee has improved the lives of others, accountable aquaculture can change the lives of Chileños and many people in Asia.

The connections between economics and ecology are vast, and complex, and foundational to a society that’s built on justice. One not so small example points to the interconnections between Tijuana and San Diego. Those two border cities have equivalent populations, but the per capita municipal budget north of the border is 16 times higher. San Diego has state of the art sewage treatment, but south of the border it’s inadequate, and frequently overflow sewage pollutes the Tijuana River and the Pacific Ocean on the US side of the border. A wall is not going to solve that border crossing problem, either.

Indeed, water use and the availability of clean water is likely to be the most significant environmental and economic justice issue in the coming decades – in the forms of fresh water, of effluent, and the marine environment. The Colorado River is one example – so much of its flow is used on the US side of the border that the outflow into the Sea of Cortez often dries up – and the ecology of that long embayment is changing. Use of the Columbia River’s water is one that you know well here, with justice implications for the native peoples, fisheries, and farmers, as well as environmental implications for human beings who live all along its reaches and the marine species who live outside its mouth. Those interconnections, and the passion in this part of the world for working on them, are one of the reasons why the Episcopal Church intends to put a staff person here who will focus on environmental and economic justice.

I’ve pointed to a number of ways in which human activity is having negative impacts on the marine environment. Some of it is clearly the result of greed, and a fair bit of it is unintended or unrecognized consequence – the human desire for food, transport, and a clean place to live (in other words, send the garbage elsewhere, “not in my back yard”). Those consequences will continue, and their impact will increase, as long as we see the oceans as dumping grounds and places to be exploited. That’s not why God put us on this planet. The historic Western mis-interpretation of that directive in Genesis – be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth – along with the way some of the Protestant reformers claimed creation as their promised reserve, are responsible for a great deal of that exploitative behavior. People of faith, particularly we the heirs of those misinterpretations, have a critical responsibility to recover, or rediscover, the underlying Hebraic and tribal traditions that point to the value of community over independent and disconnected individuals. All of the Pauline language about the body of Christ applies equally to the body of God’s creation. We are all part of one larger body, none of us lives for ourselves alone, and indeed our very meaning is dependent on our relationships with God and each other. Our focus on Trinitarian theology says that social relationships, community relationships, are innate to God’s very identity.

That passage in Genesis about filling the earth and subduing it closes like this: “have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth” (Gen 1:28). Having dominion does mean to rule, but in the way that God rules, not the way of earthly rulers. Dominion is related to domus – it means a house, a temple, even the dome over the earth. We all live under that same dome, and caring for one’s fellow inhabitants is the sign of a wise and holy householder. That kind of steward operates out of compassion, lives beyond self, cares for the children to the seventh generation. That kind of ruler cares for the people of this generation and of the next, and does not ignore the pain and suffering of fellow creatures. We are a people of incarnation, and abundant life is meant for this world and this life – for all creation.

Why are we here? To give glory to God. How do we do that? By acknowledging the gravity of the current situation, and the pull of God’s gravity – back into right relationship.

What gets in the way? Fear, timidity, greed, selfishness, laziness and ignorance – mostly a lack of compassion for our fellow creatures. Or, in other words, by treating them in a way that ignores their gravity, their substantial and unique reflection of God’s own creative glory.

What next? In a few minutes you’re going to hear a very brief reading from Hildegard of Bingen, who talks about greenness. The word in this translation is verdancy. It’s often left in its original Latin form, viriditas. As she expands on that meaning, it is the explicit expression of God’s creative glory. Viriditas is the creative force in all that is, that which leads to resurrection, to new life born out of death, to the rising life of Jesus, to the ever-present Spirit urging us, luring us, drawing us into creative relationship with God and all God’s creation. You and I are meant to be partners in God’s glorious creative work. How are you going to be green, and heal this planet, and give glory to God?

Share This: