Tag Archives: stewardship of creation

Heading Towards Haiti

HaitiThe view from the air as you fly into Port au Prince, Haiti, is starkly dramatic. If the skies are clear, you can catch a glimpse of the dramatic difference between the eastern half of the island — The Dominican Republic — and the western half of the island which comprises Haiti. While green to a degree, it’s a lighter color green than the dark, forested eastern half. Much of Haiti has been deforested.

As you descend into Port au Prince, you also notice the starkly different color of Port-au-Prince Bay.  While the water surrounding the island is a deep, beautiful, tropical blue, the water in the bay is brown, more like the Mississippi River than the Caribbean Sea.

In the aftermath of the European colonization of the Caribbean, Haiti became a French colony, heavily populated by slaves from Africa who worked the fields, especially sugar cane fields for the production rum. In the late 18th century, a slave rebellion kicked the French off the island, and the former slaves became the rulers. At the risk of a bit of oversimplification, the past 200 plus years of Haiti’s history has been the oppressed revolting oppressors who were formerly the oppressed.

The political history has been intertwined with an devastating environmental history.  From early on, charcoal has been the go-to fuel for cooking. Trees are necessary for the production of charcoal. Producing enough charcoal to keep up with the demand of an every growing population meant that over the years, more and more trees were necessary. Eventually, large swaths of the country were deforested, especially the hills and mountains directly east of Port au Prince. Haiti is a mountainous country; so, the disappearance of the trees stole the land of the anchor that held the topsoil in place, and eventually, the top soil eroded away. Hence, the brown color of Port-au-Prince Bay.

Haiti is one of the poorest countries in the world. Often left out of the explanation of such poverty is the historic destruction of the environment. In the 90s, when the church I was serving partnered with a school and orphanage in the rural area east of Port au Prince, we found villages of people trying to grow subsistence crops on land that had no topsoil and little nutrients for plants. One of our volunteers was a retired official from the US Soil Conservation Service and began a process of using compost and other organic matter to try to rebuild the soil. It was a process that at best would take years; and the villagers were not keen on changing the farming methods that they had been using for generations, even with the promise of more and better food. Haiti supports human life; but it’s not good life. It’s difficult life with dim prospects for much improvement.

Turns out Haiti isn’t the first place such disregard for the land itself has led to such devastating effect for the people who live there. In Earth-Honoring Faith, Larry Rasmussen tells the story of  how in 1942, Walter Lowdermilk wrote a report for the U.S. Soil Conservation Service documenting how the land of Lebanon, the Sinai Peninsula, Jordan, Syria, Cyprus, North Africa, and Greece had been seriously damaged leaving behind washed-off soils, silted canals, meager flora and fauna, and the ruins of dead cities.

The rapid degradation of the environment around the world — our gluttonous thirst for oil and dependence on internal combustion engines, our hunger for meat and vegetables produced by corporate agriculture, the mind-boggling consumption by consumers in first-world nations, and the list goes on and on — is repeating on a global scale the mistakes that were made in Haiti over a couple of hundred years, not to mentions mistakes that have been made in particular locations throughout history. We are unwittingly, and for short-term convenience wrecking the environment for the sake of the lifestyle we have become accustomed to. And we are unable or unwilling to recognize the cliff we are heading towards and do anything about it.

This week the Chicago Tribune ran a story about tiny Earlville, Illinois abut 70 miles southwest of Chicago in the midst of a controversy over whether to allow the construction of a transportation center for the trucking of mined sand for fracking.  Those in favor cite the jobs that will be created. They also look to the experience of a small Texas town that allowed the construction of such a transportation center; in exchange, the company built the town a football field. That sounds like a lousy trade-off. And the very definition of myopic vision about the precious planet we call home. 

For a person of faith, it’s a matter of wise stewardship of the planet we call home, of the faithful care of God’s good creation. For all of us, it’s an increasingly urgent matter of survival. Just look at Haiti.

Let’s Make Earth Day Matter

plant in the riverEvery year, I face this internal dissonance on Earth Day. I’m conflicted.

On the one hand, I care deeply about the earth and all that dwells therein, and am deeply concerned about the current crisis of environmental degradation.  So, any attention paid to the crisis is a plus.

On the other hand, I fear that this one big splash a year leads to a sense of complacency, even for those who care. It goes something like this:  I care about the earth. Today is Earth Day. I’ll do something today, (like post a picture on Facebook), to show that I’m green.

And then tomorrow, we all go on as usual.  It feels a little like the environmental version of those who go to church on Christmas and Easter. I love having them there. I wonder what we could do together if it was a consistent practice rather than a one-day-and-done kind of deal.

So, I’d like to make a suggestion. Take this Earth Day 2015 make the first stop on a year-long journey. Decide that you will do something — even if it’s only one thing — to become better steward of the earth. Commit yourself to the practice with a long view, until it becomes not only a habit, but the way you live.

I’m actually going to commit to two things, both of which I’ve experimented with off and on, but haven’t made the commitment to the longterm.

First, I’m going to commit to keeping the car in the garage at least one day a week. My own driving habits, unfortunately have reflected our culture’s love affair with the automobile. The way I use my car suggests that I value convenience more than the stewardship of the earth. I live only 2.5 miles from where I work, and I can easily walk or ride my bike. And even if I unexpectedly need the care during the day, it really doesn’t take that long to get home for the car.

Second, I’m going to commit to a decrease in our family’s reliance on animal protein. The amount of land and resources devoted to the production of animals for human consumption in the US is not sustainable. It takes 11 times more fossil fuel to produce a kcal of animal protein than a kcal of plant protein. Part of my new commitment will be to go meatless one day a week, but part of it also is simply to decrease the amount of meat I use when I do cook with meat.

Too often and too easily I worship the god of convenience. I care about the environment, but it takes effort to act. If observing something like Earth Day is really going to make a difference, it’s going to be in the action. I’m making my commitment. What will you do?

Why We Should All Care about the California Drought

california drought.jpgYesterday, an op-ed piece  was printed in the Chicago Tribune that has gotten under my skin. It was about the California drought; I think the author was intending a little humor. I didn’t think it was funny.  Humor at it’s best helps uncover the truth, and the author seemed to be pushing the truth that we can distance ourselves from the water crisis in California.

The gist of it was this: all winter long, Californians gloating over their pleasant, balmy, shirt-sleeves weather while we in the middle west are suffering in the deep freeze.  Now, the author suggested, we can turn the tables on those braggadocious left-coasters:  “So, how’s your lawn looking these days?” “Guess what I did this morning? I took a 30 minute shower.” (You can read the op-ed for yourself here: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/commentary/ct-spring-chicago-california-perspec-0407-20150406-story.html)

But I think this little yuck- yuck is insidious at it’s heart. It presumes that we can segregate and regionalize our crises. “What happens in California doesn’t matter to me; I have plenty of water.”  Pretty soon we’re extending the principle: “the mining of sand along the Mississippi River in Wisconsin doesn’t matter to me; I can’t see it from here” or “the oil spill in the (you name the river) doesn’t matter to me; I don’t live there.” As long as it’s not happening in my backyard, then I don’t need to be all that concerned about it.

There are a few practical reasons why the drought in California should matter to us in the middle west.

  • A disproportionate amount of fruits and vegetables come to our tables from California. A lot of what we eat and drink is at risk. If the drought persists, that supply will shrink and what is available will be much more expensive.
  • The water shortage is likely not going to go away, and neither are the almost 39 million people who live in the most populous state in the U.S. They will get water from somewhere, and as time goes on, it will come from further and further away.
  • Climate change scientists are suggesting that what’s now happening in California is merely the pre-cursor to something that will be happening on a much larger scale in other parts of the country, including the middle west. Gloating over the abundance of water may be short-lived.

But I think there’s something much more substantial at stake here. Something fundamental, spiritual, theological, if you will. We are all connected. We’re all in this together. The land that is California is the same as the land that is Illinois. It’s a single, unified creation. People identified as Californians are of the same human family as the people identified as Illinoisans. Whatever borders we create are artificial bureaucratic structures that create misleading divides among the family. When the middle west experiences abundant harvest, the plenty ripples far beyond the narrow Great Plains geography. And when creation is in travail in California or in The Philippines or at the Arctic Circle, then we all share that travail. Part of the stewardship of my life as a follower of Christ is the stewardship of creation, not just the little postage stamp that I live on, but all of it. The small things I do to conserve or waste inevitably have in impact on my brothers and sisters, not to mention the created order, around the world. We are all connected. Which means that my carelessness or wastefulness is stealing from the life of another.

I learned something of the stewardship of the land from the farm families I grew up around. A good farmer doesn’t just steward the land that he can see from his kitchen window. He takes care of the whole of his farm, all thousand acres. And in fact, he cares for his own land in a way that he doesn’t cause harm to his neighbor and his 500 acres. And both he and his neighbor take care of their land in a way that benefits his neighbor’s neighbor and her 2000 acres, because they all know that while fences and legal documents define boundaries between his farm and his neighbor’s farm, it’s all the same land. For everyone to be cared for, all of it has be be cared for well.

So, there’s no room to gloat over our abundance of water here in the backyard of Lake Michigan. Instead we ought to be caring for the abundance of that resource as if the California drought was ours. Because, after all, it is; we’re all connected.

The Wisdom of Restraint

I think I first read Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac when I was in high school. I took a science elective course in Ecology which turned out to be one of the best classes I’ve ever taken. Shamefully, I can’t remember the teacher’s name, but I’m wondering if he took a clue from Leopold in the way he conducted the class. Sure, we had to read a textbook and understand principles of ecology, but regularly he took us out in to the prairies, the forests, the marshes and bogs so we could experiences the ecosystems up close and personal. He was encyclopedic in his ability to identify the flora around us; he shared that knowledge with us and taught us, as well, the wisdom of being on a first-name basis with the plants and animals.

The first part of A Sand County Almanac is like that. Leopold was a forester, working in the early stages of his career for the U.S. Forest Service in the teens and twenties. He eventually went on to teach at the University of Wisconsin where the university established a chair in game management for him. While he was at Madison, he bought a farm and spent weekends and summers there. He chronicles the natural life of his farm, month by month, isolating, identifying and commenting on the birds or mammals or plants or trees, their behavior, their place in the ecosystem, and how it’s all interconnected.

I’ve found that familiarity with what’s around me in the natural world to be important to my own sense of connectedness with the natural world. It somehow seems to make a difference to be able to walk in the woods and recognize a Bloodroot or a May Apple. My sense of kinship with creation is enhanced when I can tell the difference between a hickory tree and a red oak. There is no joy like the joy of recognition.

Included in most editions of A Sand County Almanac is a collection of essays on a variety of topics related to the care of the natural world. As many times as I’ve read the the almanac, I don’t know that I’ve ever read the essays. I had no idea what I was missing. I found his words, written in the 1940’s for the most part, to be both wonderfully and troublingly prophetic. He foresaw both aspects and root causes of the crisis we now call climate change.

Among the many pertinent observations, one of them struck me as important for the contemporary crisis. He references a scene in the Greek tragedy, The Odyssey; Odysseus comes home and hangs on a single rope a dozen slave girls whom he suspected of misbehaving while he was gone. The Greeks had a highly developed moral code, but his action was still regarded as within the bounds of proper behavior because the servants were seen as property, chattel to be done away with or not depending on expediency.

He goes on to use this scene as an analogy for the relationship of human beings to the land. As long as we regard the earth and resources as property, we will continue to see our home as things to be used or not depending on what we need or want.

Our entitlement attitudes are so deeply entrenched; our environmentally abusive behaviors are so woven into the fabric of our lives. We continue to behave towards the land as if its a commodity, something solely for the sake of our own utilization. We’ve tended to view the use of resources purely in economic terms. What’s there is ours to use as long as its furthering the advance of human progress. Humankind is the one species that has the capability to radically alter the created world. Over the millennia, we have forged out a pretty life for ourselves, all things considered. But with all the advances we’ve made in technology, the one aspect of wisdom that we do not seem to have developed is restraint.

Barry Lopez eloquently comments on the same theme in his classic, Arctic Dreams:

Because mankind [sic] can circumvent evolutionary law, it is incumbent upon him. . .to develop another law to abide by if he wishes to survive, to not outstrip his food base. He must derive some other way of behaving toward the land. He must be more attentive to the biological imperatives of the system of sun-driven protoplasm upon which he, too, is still dependent. Not because he must, because he lacks inventiveness, but because herein is the accomplishment of the wisdom that he has aspired to. Having taken on his own destiny, he must now think with critical intelligence about where to defer.

I’m acutely interested in the environmental crisis from the standpoint of faith. Is it possible for the church to have a role in changing behavior? From a theoretical and theological standpoint, the answer ought to be “yes.” The earth and it’s resources is yet one more gift of a loving and gracious God, given or our use and enjoyment, but also given with the responsibility to care for it well.

In faith communities, we’re used to talking about restraint for the sake of our human neighbors. We give up some of our money, for instance, to care for the poor. This is an exercise of restraint. We don’t spend all we can so that we can share with others.

We’re not so used to talking about restraint when it comes to how we care for the earth. We do because we can. But it’s a value and a practice whose time has come, a way of living that we’ve got to embrace. We are all connected. We exist in a relationship with the world around us and it’s time to start seeing and talking about our place in relational terms. Indigenous peoples have known in and lived it for a long time. In the West, we have mostly lost that sense.

I really do think it’s possible for people and communities of faith to make a difference. After all, relationship is a the heart of who we are and who we live. If God is going to do something new with regard to caring for the earth, then we can start by behaving in a way toward that land that sees our place in relational terms.