Monday, February 28, 2011

Ecological responsibility and Christian discipleship I: Human planet

This will be the first in three posts giving a slightly modified version of a sermon I delivered a few weeks ago based on Genesis 1. The three posts are as follows:
I. Human planet: Welcome to the Anthropocene.
II. The Community of Creation: Genesis 1.
III. Recycle or repent? Our response.

Human Planet: Welcome to the Anthropocene
We no longer live on the same planet on which we were born. I’m not just talking about the internet and globalisation, or trends in fashion and music. The chemistry of the oceans and atmosphere, the stability of the climate, the diversity and health of ecosystems are all very different to what they were. Human activity over the last handful of decades has altered the face of the globe in ways so profound that it will be visible in the geological record millions of years into the future. The Geological Society of London, which is the UK national society for geoscience and the oldest geological society in the world, is currently considering a serious proposal to declare that we have now left the Holocene and entered into a new geological epoch, called the Anthropocene, named after anthropos, which is Greek for human, because we humans are having such a extreme effect on all the ecosystems and even geology of the planet. I hardly need to tell you that most of it isn't a positive effect.

Think of the most remote places on the planet, places so wild and desolate that none live there. No matter where you picture, human fingerprints are all over the landscape.

You are probably aware that Arctic summer sea ice is in terminal decline and many of us in this room are likely to live to see a largely ice-free Arctic in summers to come. This winter, while we shivered through a December that was 5ºC below average, parts of the Canadian Arctic averaged 21ºC above their long term mean. Permafrost is no longer looking so permanent and some now call it "tempfrost". As it melts, not only are roads and buildings sinking and breaking, but it is releasing more and more of the methane and carbon dioxide that have been locked away for millennia and which will, of course, only make the melting worse.

If the Arctic isn't pristine, then perhaps the mountains, the high Andes and towering Himalayas? Well, again, you're probably aware of the accelerating glacier melt occurring on 95% of all glaciers, including the most remote. And in many places the melt is accelerated when soot particles land from cooking fires and factories land on the ice, darkening the surface and absorbing more solar energy. Indeed, thanks to Julian Assange, we know that the US State Department was told by the Dalai Lama that addressing climate change is a higher priority for Tibet than independence from China.

What about the deep Amazonian rainforest where there are still to this day dozens of uncontacted tribes? Yet first contact for these indigenous groups is most likely to be with loggers. Although deforestation rates have declined from a decade ago, tropical rainforests continue to be bulldozed at a rate of a football field every few seconds. Eighty percent of the world's ancient forests have been destroyed or degraded, half of that has been in the last 30 years.

What about bottom of the ocean? Even there the human fingerprints are everywhere. Deep sea trawling by commercial fishing fleets drags heavy metal beams over the sea floor, crushing and scattering slow-growing deep corals and other creatures and kicking up plumes of underwater dust that can be seen by satellites. And each year, an area twice the size of the continental United States is bottom trawled, scooping up more fish than the ocean can replenish. Four-fifths of commercial fish species are considered by marine biologists to be fully-exploited, over-exploited or have collapsed. On our current trajectory, no commercially-viable fish stocks will be left by the time my daughter turns 40.

Feeling stressed? Breathe in – breathe out – breathe in – breathe out. Every second breath comes from phytoplankton, microscopic plant-like organisms in the oceans that are the basis of the marine food chain and which are the source of over half the planet's oxygen. And yet, there is evidence that the number of phytoplankton has declined by 40% since 1950. I've already alluded to climate change, but did you know that all the excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is also changing the chemistry of the oceans? The planet's oceans are on average 30% more acidic than pre-industrial times, more acidic than they have been for millions of years and changing faster than any known previous shift. And they are getting warmer too. Climate change is first and foremost oceanic change, since oceans absorb more than 93% of the extra energy trapped by our greenhouse gas pollution. Oceanic currents are shifting. Sea levels are rising. The climate is warming: 2010 was the equal warmest year at the end of the warmest decade, which followed the previous warmest decade, which followed the previous warmest decade on record. The last 311 consecutive months have all been warmer than the 20thC average.

Seasons are changing. Plants flowering earlier in Spring, migrations and hibernations patterns are shifting. Our actions are shifting rainfall patterns: stronger droughts, more intense rain and snow.

Human actions are responsible for the extinction of about a thousand recorded species. They are just the ones we're aware of. Our best estimates of how many we've actually bumped off falls between twenty thousand and two million. And this is rising rapidly, causing most biologists to judge that we are currently causing the start of the sixth great extinction event in earth's four and a half billion year history.

Since 1970 we have reduced animal populations by 30%, the area of mangroves and sea grasses by 20%, the coverage of living corals by 40% and large African mammals by more than 60%.

Over 60% of major rivers in the world are dammed or diverted. There is five times as much water stored in dams and reservoirs as all the world's rivers put together. We have directly modified three quarters of the ice-free land surface of the planet and currently move more soil each year than the natural cycles of wind and water.

And I haven’t mentioned heavy metal toxins, soil degradation, aquifer depletion, ocean eutrophification, introduced species, desertification, or the trillions of floating plastic particles found in all the world's oceans.

We no longer live on the same planet on which we were born.

And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and 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."
- Genesis 1.28 (NRSV).
Our passage this morning has been used to justify the patterns of exploitation and acquisition that in our lifetimes have reached such an extent as to have permanently altered the face of the planet. Can we read it again with fresh eyes and see whether it might have good news for us today?
I haven't had time to include links for all these claims, though it's worth noting that they were not first published by Greenpeace or WWF; they are not the scare stories of eco-extremists out to rob you of your fun or set up a world government. These claims appear in highly respected scientific journals – Nature, Science, Proceedings of the Royal Society and so on. Some are still quite fresh and subject to ongoing debate. Most are widely agreed as our best knowledge of our present situation. If there are particular ones you are interested in, I can try to provide relevant citations.


byron smith said...

The sermon originally had the snappier title "Discipleship in the Anthropocene".

Mike W said...

Thanks Byron. I'd like to steal parts of this for a sermon 'How to follow Jesus when the world falls apart'.

byron smith said...

Sounds like a very interesting sermon. What's your take?

I'm happy for this piece to be reused for non-commercial purposes. I'd prefer to be able to add all the references, but that would take some time that I don't currently have. Hopefully, I'll get to it.

Mike W said...

Luke 21.
So I have to deal with the temple being destroyed, but want to encourage people that Christian faith has survived the 'world' falling apart before. Follow Jesus' words, be alert instead of numbed by pleasures, pray instead of losing yourself in anxiety.
At least thats what I'm thinking at the moment

byron smith said...

Ah, so "Michael" is actually Mike Wells? You have two profiles?

Anyway, sounds like a good sermon. Steal away, Mike. You don't need permission to rip any of my stuff. Mi casa and all that.

Mike W said...

Err, switching over emails and calenders is doing funny things to my google accounts.
Still trying to figure out the sermon

Unknown said...

Good article. It really drives homes how we have changed the earth. But it was a bit like getting to a 'to be concluded' at the end of a television series where you're waiting to see what happens next. I look forward to part 2.

byron smith said...

Liz - The links to parts 2 and 3 are in the post. You can also find them here and here.

byron smith said...

National Geographic: Enter the Anthropocene.

byron smith said...

From the article:

"Humans have also transformed the world through farming; something like 38 percent of the planet's ice-free land is now devoted to agriculture. Here again, some of the effects that seem most significant today will leave behind only subtle traces at best.

"Fertilizer factories, for example, now fix more nitrogen from the air, converting it to a biologically usable form, than all the plants and microbes on land; the runoff from fertilized fields is triggering life-throttling blooms of algae at river mouths all over the world. But this global perturbation of the nitrogen cycle will be hard to detect, because synthesized nitrogen is just like its natural equivalent. Future geologists are more likely to grasp the scale of 21st-century industrial agriculture from the pollen record—from the monochrome stretches of corn, wheat, and soy pollen that will have replaced the varied record left behind by rain forests or prairies."

byron smith said...

Spiegel: A senior geologist discusses the Anthropocene. (H/T Mick Pope)

byron smith said...

Nature: The phytoplankton decline is disputed.

byron smith said...

Grist: Welcome to the Anthropocene, including a short video introducing the idea.

byron smith said...

MWH: Jeremy reflects on the term Anthropocene and why it makes him uncomfortable.

byron smith said...

DD: Mercury and other toxins in the Arctic.

byron smith said...

DD: Rising dams - Number of free-flowing rivers.

byron smith said...

Dave Roberts: Getting used to being in charge of the planet.