Eco-Justice Ministries  

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

Damaged, Depleted, Destabilized
distributed 4/15/11 - ©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.

Through this Lenten series of Notes, I have tried hard to be dull and non-controversial.

The aspects of truth about God's creation that I have highlighted are so evident and so factual that it should not be necessary to make a big deal out of them. But each of the points that I have named -- the unchanging physical and chemical laws of the universe, the way humans are part and parcel of the creation, even as we wield immense power and influence, the ecological/economic relationships that tie us all together, and the limits that constrain life on this planet -- are hotly disputed in some part of contemporary society.

I continue to be intentionally moderate this week in connecting those dots of truth. I will not use the excited rhetoric of advocacy or evangelism, and I'll shy away from vivid adjectives, because I want to make it very clear that this description of the state of Earth is not a partisan diatribe. It is the factual starting place which must inform and ground all of our discussions and reflections. This truth describes the reality to which we will then apply our often divergent values and beliefs.

Three drab words speak truth about the current and future state of God's creation: damaged, depleted, and destabilized. A few examples will illustrate each condition.

Humans have had direct and immediate impacts that cause harm and disruption to the planet and the interconnected web of life.

Toxic chemicals have been spread throughout ecosystems, and are found around the planet. Some of those chemicals have been designed and created by people with the intention of being poisonous -- pesticides (herbicides and insecticides) are spread on lawns and fields, and are then washed, blown and spread through food chains far beyond the point of application. Other compounds are known, but accidental, pollution -- mercury from power plants, medicines and hormones that pass through sewage systems

Habitats and ecosystems have been damaged and destroyed. A substantial percentage of tropical rainforests have been felled for lumber or converted to cropland. Mangrove swamps -- a coastal buffer zone and the breeding ground for many species -- have been replaced by beach-front housing and shrimp farms around the world. Wetlands and marshes have been drained to allow the expansion of fields and housing.

Fresh water -- in lakes and rivers, and in underground aquifers -- has been drawn down and diverted to an extent that life communities have been damaged. Dams that create reliable water supplies for people prevent the floods that renew riparian habitat.

Highways, mining operations and dams sever migratory routes that are essential for the survival of many wildlife populations. Light pollution disrupts bird migrations. Noise pollution damages the ability of whales to navigate and communicate.

The diversity and richness of Earth has been significantly depleted by human impacts through the last several centuries. Powerful and populous human civilizations have reduced both the quantity and quality of our planet's life and resources.

We are in the midst of a sudden (in geologic time) and widespread extinction of species. The current rate of extinction is roughly 1,000 times what has been normal for millions of years before us. The loss of biodiversity is occurring among all types of plants and animals.

There are far less fish in the world's oceans than there was even 50 years ago. Over-fishing and pollution have cut fish populations to a small fraction of historic levels. Populations of most songbirds also are greatly reduced.

Topsoil has been used up -- eroded and degraded -- at rates far exceeding the ability of natural processes to restore soil fertility. Deserts are expanding across areas that had been productive pasture or cropland.

Non-renewable resources such as copper have been mined and utilized to a level of scarcity. Those minerals still exist, but they are now scattered through dumps and the built environment.

The non-renewable fossil fuels which store ancient solar and biological energy are being consumed and destroyed. About half of the world's oil has been burned in the last 100 years. Natural gas and coal supplies are diminishing, even as the rate of extraction and use rapidly increases.

The damage to Earth has long-term consequences. If the causes of damage and depletion were to suddenly stop, the impacts would still ripple through natural systems far into the future. The stability and resilience of natural systems have been upset.

Because greenhouse gasses -- especially carbon dioxide -- are persistent in the atmosphere, human impacts on the global climate will continue for thousands of years.

The atmospheric carbon dioxide which is being absorbed into the world's oceans is making sea water more acidic, with especially dramatic effects on coral and shellfish. The balance of marine life will shift in ways that we cannot fully predict both in the short term and for millennia.

Feedback effects have set processes in motion that amplify humanity's climate disruptions. Thawing tundra releases quantities of methane that will significantly increase global warming. Melting sea ice and glaciers change the ratio of reflected/absorbed solar energy, adding to the warming of oceans and soil, which leads to even more rapid melting.

Genetically modified crops and animals -- which have been released into nature within the past two decades -- introduce new factors into evolutionary processes that can never be withdrawn. Plant varieties now exude insecticides, and modified salmon can now overwhelm both natural salmon stocks and the salmon habitat.

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Damaged, depleted and destabilized are descriptive terms, largely free of value judgments and moral perspectives. Those words express facts about the state of God's creation -- about its current condition and the changes that are occurring.

We can, and we will, bring moral and philosophical considerations to bear as we evaluate those facts and make decisions about how to act as part of the creation. There are disagreements about whether it is good, right and fit for humans to use pesticides, deplete resources, or alter climate. Those are hard and complex conversations.

Those moral and practical conversations, though, must all be grounded in the inescapable truth that Earth -- our home and part of God's creation -- is damaged, depleted and destabilized.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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