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Rape of the Planet

The missing link in the global warming debate is not a lack of scientific knowledge, it's a deficit of soul.

Not long ago, when President Bush announced a decision to curb new efforts to control carbon dioxide emissions, he warned that it was wrong to act hastily because "the science is uncertain" about a cause and effect relationship between increased burning of fossil fuels and global warming. To be sure the body of scientific evidence making such a connection is incomplete, but that is not actually the problem. There is overwhelming evidence of massive damage being done to the health of this planet by the relentless advance of human civilization.

Global warming is only one small piece of a far larger puzzle and a far greater problem: the very health and vitality of our planet. 

The real problem is not a lack of scientific evidence of environmental degradation; the problem is that that people do not seem to feel a particular need to protect and defend the planet, but rather seem to believe that the earth is an inexhaustible resource that humans should be free to use and even abuse if such use has an immediate economic payoff. Hence, increasing the "energy supply" and promoting "economic growth" take precedence over other considerations.

Jesus once told a parable that speaks to this situation.

It is one of the most familiar narratives in the entire Bible. In it, a man, traveling along a lonely road somewhere in the wilderness is attacked by a band of thieves. They rob him, strip him, beat him and leave him lying by the side of the road, half dead. In the now familiar sequence, a series of travelers come passing by, but they appear not to notice or care about the victim lying there dying at the side of the road, and so they callously pass by, hurrying along their way. Finally, a Samaritan, a foreigner, a person much despised by the sorts of people that would have been in Christ's audience that day, comes passing by. Sure enough, this stranger has compassion for the wounded man. This foreigner stoops down to bind up the robbery victim's wounds, puts him upon his own donkey, and brings him to the safety of an inn somewhere along that road. He then gives the inn keeper instructions to keep him there until the man is fully recovered. He will cover the cost. Jesus uses this story when asked to illustrate what neighborly love is all about. 

This parable is a good starting point for any discussion about what neighborly love requires with respect to the environment. Altering the story somewhat will serve to bring its relevance home.  Suppose, that instead of discovering the robbery victim at some time after the crime was committed, that the Samaritan comes along in time to catch the robbers in the act. And suppose this is not just an ordinary robbery, but also a rape. All the more powerful reason for the Samaritan to take action -- intervene to drive away the rapist before real harm is done. 

This, I submit, is exactly our own situation with respect to the plight of our planet. Today the earth is being plundered and raped! And none of us can consider ourselves strangers or foreigners who have only a passing interest in the assault underway. After all, this is our "mother earth" being attacked. Enlightened self-interest alone should compel action.  Bring a degree of compassion into the situation, and there is an overwhelming motivation to become proactively involved in protecting the one who nourishes our very lives.

Who would not take action to defend one's own mother, if her life were threatened. But she is. And most of us do not act. Why?

The problem is that we do not seem to see the crime that is going on before our very eyes. We drive by in our SUVs, ride along in our subways, or fly high above the surface of the earth in our aircraft with only a dim awareness of what is happening all around us.  We see the earth as something we have a right to drill and devour to our heart's content, as though it were an expendable commodity. Stripping the mountainsides, polluting the seas, filling the air with noxious fumes to keep us warmer in the winter or cooler in summer seems to be an unquestioned privilege. 

At the heart of the debate over the environment is the sorry reality that we do not feel connected to the world around us. It is a mere thing, a dull, material object, rather than something we relate to with neighborly love or even enlightened self interest. 

Theologian and ecologist Thomas Berry has spent a lifetime trying to awaken our sense of kinship with the planet.  He writes:

As humans we are born of the Earth, nourished by the Earth, healed by the Earth. The natural world tells us: I will feed you, I will clothe you, I will shelter you, I will heal you. Only do not so devour me or use me that you destroy my capacity to mediate the divine and the human. For I offer you a communion with the divine. I offer you gifts that you can exchange with each other. I offer you flowers whereby you may express your reverence for the divine and your love for each other. In the vastness of the sea, in the snow-covered mountains, in the rivers flowing through the valleys, in the serenity of the landscape and in the foreboding of the great storms that sweep over the land, in all these experiences I offer you inspiration.

It is clear what the earth offers us.  But what do we offer the earth in return? 

Seeing it suffer, we callously pass by in our SUVs, with tinted glass windows rolled shut, with soothing stereophonic sound sating our sensitivities to what is actually happening along the roads, rivers, and seacoasts that we pass by so quickly. The air conditioners and filtering systems are running full tilt, and we do not even hear the cries, let alone feel the pain of the planet and its thousands of species struggling for survival. To be sure, more scientific knowledge is desperately needed about the actual effects of things like the burning of fossil fuel. But as we gather more data, what is most urgently needed is an improved relationship with the world around us. 

Our religions have an important role to play in all of this.  As Thomas Berry pointed out in a presentation he gave recently to a group I belong to here in New York City, there are three sorts of relationships that matter most: first, our relationship with God; second, our relationship with each other; third, our relationship with the world and indeed the cosmos in which we live. In ancient times, our religions have focused attention upon the divine human relationship. And this is important.  In more recent times, our religions have focused upon human relationships, and this too, is important. But in the future, increasing attention must be given to our relationship to the world around us, for this is the one that we have neglected. And it, too, is crucial, not only to our survival, but perhaps even to our salvation.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.