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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Spaceship Earth
distributed 4/8/11 - ©2011

Telling the Truth about God's Creation
An Eco-Justice Notes series for Lent, 2011

There are many forms and layers of truth that shape our decisions about how to live in relationship with God's creation. Those truths include scientific, theological, moral and psychological assertions which often hold conflicting beliefs or conclusions. To be honest and fruitful, though, any statement of truth must conform to basic facts about the world in which we live. This Lenten series will address several of those foundational truths which are apparent from an eco-justice perspective, but which are often denied by others.

It has often been said that one powerful photograph helped trigger the modern environmental movement. The picture -- which is known as "Earthrise" -- was taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts on Christmas Eve, 1968. It shows the little blue and white marble of Earth floating in the vast darkness of empty space above the dead and desolate surface of the moon.

That image evoked a deep emotional response for countless people around the globe, and it brought many of those people into a dramatically altered consciousness about our planet. "Spaceship Earth" was finally seen as a closed system, a tiny, precious and fragile home for all life in our known universe.

Among the basic truths about God's creation named in this Lenten series, we must acknowledge that Earth is finite, contained and limited. We can no longer pretend that this planet is so vast and fecund that it can meet our every need, or absorb all of our waste.

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The reality of a finite world should be evident to any attentive modern observer. But strangely, powerful blocks of modern philosophy have claimed an opposing, delusional perspective. In A Steady State Economy, economist Herman Daly contrasts these two positions:

the classical view is that man is a creature who must ultimately adapt to the limits (finitude, entropy, ecological interdependence) of the Creation of which he is a part. The neoclassical view is that man, the creator, will surpass all limits and remake Creation to suit his subjective individualistic preferences, which are considered the root of all value. In the end economics is religion.

This debate is not a matter of abstract philosophy. Within the last century, the number and power of humans have changed the global equation, and we are up against -- or have already passed -- the limits of the world.

In From Empty-World Economics to Full-World Economics, Daly wrote that "the human economy has passed from an era in which manmade capital was the limiting factor in economic development to an era in which remaining natural capital has become the limiting factor." In this world that is full of human impacts, we do experience Creation's limits.

As an example of the change in limiting factors, consider ocean fisheries. Until very recently, sending out more boats, and deploying more nets and fishing lines was a fairly sure way to increase the catch of fish. But in recent years, the growing size of fishing fleets -- equipped with all sorts of powerful new technologies -- has not added to the size of the catch. There are only so many fish in the sea, and those stocks of fish have been so depleted that extraordinary efforts to catch more damage the ability of the wild animals to reproduce sustainably. In a "full world", trying to net and hook more fish just makes the problem worse.

So, too, there is only so much fresh water on the planet. It is found in lakes and rivers, snowfields and glaciers, and in underground aquifers. Human intervention can do some things to control the availability of that water -- dams and reservoirs can hold water across changing seasons, and through years of drought -- but water supplies are limited. Around the world, pumping of deep aquifers is drawing down water tables much faster than natural processes can recharge them, and that is causing critical water shortages in such disparate places as suburban Denver and rural India. The Colorado River flowing through the western United States is over-allocated -- there is not enough water in the river or its huge reservoirs to meet the legal claims that are on record. The seven states that are part of the Colorado River Compact are engaged in ongoing negotiations and legal disputes about who gets access to the limited water supplies, even as the demand for that scarce water continues to increase.

Today's newspaper reports that oil is selling for $110 a barrel -- in part because of the political and military turmoil in oil-producing regions -- but primarily because the demand for oil is greater than the supply. The US hit peak oil production in 1970, and now the world is at the point where global oil production has hit a plateau, and will soon begin to decline. There are finite supplies of oil, natural gas and coal, and of minerals like copper and the lithium used in high-yield batteries. That is a fact about God's creation.

Limits show up on the other side of the global ledger sheet, too. It is not only about shortages of fish and water, topsoil and forests, copper and oil. There are also limits to how much of humanity's ever-expanding impact the planet can absorb.

When people are few and far between, sewage dumped into a river is not a big problem. The aquatic ecology will process those wastes as part of the natural flow of nutrients. But when large cities pour out vast quantities of human and industrial waste, or when industrial agriculture produces huge loads of fertilizers and livestock sewage, the system is overwhelmed. Without extensive treatment facilities, rivers and lakes are damaged, and huge dead zones form in the oceans, including in the Gulf of Mexico.

Many of us are acutely aware of Earth's limits in processing and absorbing the carbon dioxide that modern society produces by burning fossil fuels. Oceans that absorb CO2 are becoming dangerously acidic. Rapidly rising levels of atmospheric CO2 are causing the escalating crisis of global climate disruption.

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Canadian biologist Farley Mowat has written a meticulously researched historical volume, Sea of Slaughter. The book documents the astonishing numbers and variety of wildlife on North America's east coast in the early days of European contact, and the tragic devastation and slaughter that ensued. In the last few pages of the book, he wrote:

When our forebears commenced their exploitation of this continent they believed the animate resources of the New World were infinite and inexhaustible. The vulnerability of that living fabric -- the intricacy and fragility of its all-too-finite parts -- was beyond their comprehension. ... We who are alive today can claim no such exculpation for our biocidal actions and their dire consequences.

Through centuries of experience and through scientific research, we should all know that Spaceship Earth is not infinite and inexhaustible. There are limits to what this small and fragile planet can sustainably produce, and there are limits to what it can absorb.

Any economic system, any political ideology, or any religious doctrine which does not acknowledge the truth that planet Earth is finite and limited is unrealistic and guaranteed to be destructive.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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