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Pandemics Remind Us Biology Can Upend Our Lives
FOR CHRISTIANS, AND really for all humans, the particular horror of the coronavirus is that the best way to help is to separate from others. Unlike almost every other natural disaster, where our species’ instinct and our theological directive is to love our neighbors, our job in the pandemic is to separate ourselves. Don’t lay on hands: wash them. Don’t give a lingering, loving hug: stand at least six feet away making awkward gestures. The college where I work quickly sent its students home, so there’s not even the satisfaction of seeing them: Instead, we’re now engaged in something called “remote learning.”
If there is a grace here amid the very real suffering, it’s that we’re also being asked to go a little quiet—to reduce our busyness, to sequester ourselves in our homes. And for a society that’s been lately marked by an almost obsessive over-achievement, a society whose wealthiest members boast not of their leisure but of their workaholism, that’s full of interesting possibilities. Here are some of the things I’ve been reflecting on.
One, the physical world is very real. We spend our days staring into screens, so it’s easy to forget that we live on a planet where biology—in the form of a tiny microbe—can upend every facet of life. I know this to be true because I spend my life working on climate change, the much larger crisis that grips our planet. But day to day even I tend to forget just how real physics and chemistry—the driving forces of global warming—really are. In a created world, physical reality is the bottom line. It can’t be spun—in fact, the absurd efforts of President Trump to do just that seem finally to have revealed his imperial lack of clothing to many more Americans.
Maybe Hell on Earth Looks Like the Australian Wildfires
LET'S TALK ABOUT HELL. In David Bentley Hart’s remarkably important book That All Shall Be Saved, he outlines the reasons that we should not fear an afterlife of unending torment in a Dantesque lake of flame. “It makes no more sense, then, to say that God allows creatures to damn themselves out of his love for them or out of his respect for their freedom than to say a father might reasonably allow his deranged child to thrust her face into a fire out of a tender regard for her moral autonomy.” Read the book—really, read it. It will inoculate you against some of the ideas about God that can’t help but edge their way into your psyche.
But then let’s talk about the other kind of hell, the one we make for ourselves. And here I’m going to skip the usual discussions about the various “hells” we might build by our greed, our narcissism, our selfishness—the hells of addiction, loneliness. They’re very real, very sad, and very overwhelming, as are the Hades of poverty and of racial oppression.
For now, though, I want to talk about the hell that looks like hell. In Australia, in the first days of the new year, bushfires were creating walls of flame 100 feet high or more. The greatest heat wave in Australian history meant that the average high temperature for the whole continent one day topped 105 degrees Fahrenheit. In the suburbs of Sydney, one of the world’s richest cities, the temperature topped 120 degrees, and the lovely capital of Canberra had the dirtiest air on earth as wildfire smoke turned the midday black (and the night red).
The Most Dangerous Building in Town Is Your Bank
WHAT'S THE MOST generic, uninteresting building in your town? Probably the new bank branch, all brown brick with sterile “landscaping” in the parking lot.
And what’s the most dangerous building in your town? Probably the new bank branch, with its drive-through window and its smiling teller and its pens on chains.
Dangerous because if it’s connected to one of the big national banks—Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, Bank of America—that branch is deeply enmeshed in the destruction of God’s creation that climate change represents. It’s taking your money and turning it into carbon.
Those four banks—the same ones that helped nearly bring down the world economy in 2008—are the main lenders to the fossil fuel industry. If you want to build a new gas pipeline, if you wish to frack a well, if you hope for a shiny new LNG port, all you have to do is apply and chances are you’ll get your cash. Consider Chase, which lends more than any bank on Earth to the fossil fuel industry. In the last three years it handed the industry $196 billion. For ultra-deep-sea drilling, for Arctic exploration—you name it. It’s single biggest energy client? TC Energy, which is still trying to punch the Keystone XL pipeline across the continent. Its lending has gone up—way, way up—since the Paris climate accords. If Exxon is a carbon giant, so is Chase.
There’s No Plan for Refreezing the Arctic
SINCE MOST OF AMERICA seems to wake up most days looking for something to be outraged by, I try to keep my indignation in check. Still, the news that members of North America’s Hymn Society had chosen “Holy, Holy, Holy!” as the greatest hymn of all time—beating “Amazing Grace” in an early round by a 70-30 margin—struck me as an affront to all that is good and, well, holy. Sure, who doesn’t like singing a resonant Anglican ode to the tenets of trinitarian theology? But up against “Amazing Grace”? C’mon, now.
I’m actually a little used to this kind of hymnal-based resentment, because some years ago denominations began actually removing one of my great favorites, “Once to Every Man and Nation.” As the head of the Episcopalian hymnal committee put it, James Russell Lowell’s great poem, written at the height of the crisis over slavery, was unorthodox because “its basic premise denies the fact that God repeatedly forgives his people and gives them more than one opportunity to amend their lives.”
Six Reasons to Join the Largest Climate Strike in History
SINCE LAST SEPTEMBER, when Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg began her one-woman campaign, school strikes have happened around the planet. At their height in the spring, 1.4 million kids left class for a day, demanding that our leaders actually lead on the greatest crisis the planet has ever faced. In May, the students asked adults to join them, and so on Sept. 20 the first all-ages climate strike will take place across the planet.
Here’s why you should join in making it the largest day of climate protest in human history:
1) Because the climate crisis just keeps deepening.
When I wrote the first book about all this, 30 years ago this fall, scientists were issuing warnings about what would happen if we didn’t act.
God Flooded Noah’s World, and We’re Flooding Ours
AS I WRITE THIS, I’m looking at images from the disastrous floods in the Midwest and in Mozambique. One is in the heartland of the planet’s richest country and the other on the edge of the poorest continent, but from the air they look a lot alike: waters spread across farmland and cityscape, humans huddled in shelters. They look, actually, “biblical,” to use the word that is sometimes employed to describe devastation on an immense scale.
Flood, of course, was God’s weapon of choice early on, when, pissed off at the general humanness of humans, he vowed to cleanse the earth. But he made an exception for the faithful Noah, and perhaps more important he made an exception for everything else on earth: In this early-on iteration of the Endangered Species Act, he made sure that a breeding pair of everything got on board the ark. And then, once the waters receded, he made the covenant with the surviving humans that guaranteed he would never flood the planet again.
‘Your Young Will See Visions...’
FOR A SOCIETY already divided along race, class, and gender lines, the emerging divisions between young and old may become another crucial fracture—one that could sap our ability to make change. Or, if we understood it just a little differently, that fracture could heal in a way that strengthened our society.
You can see this division on many fronts. As the enormous and lucky Boomer generation has moved through our society, it has done a good deal of grabbing: Grabbing of money, as Boomers who grew up in an era of rising wages and cheap houses consolidated a relatively strong financial position. (You may not feel rich, but if you’re secure that looks awfully nice to Millennials struggling with college debt and living four to a sublet.) Grabbing of attention: For decades every company catered to the buying power of the generation, and even now its politicians are reluctant to surrender the stage.
It would be one thing if we Boomers had used the strong economic decades of our early lives to help make society stronger and more resilient. There’s much to be proud of: the civil rights and women’s movements, for instance. But on the whole, we’ll be the first generation to leave the world a worse place than we found it. Climate change, of course, is the perfect example: We’ve literally filled the atmosphere with so much carbon that we’re changing the operation of the planet. California has turned from golden idyll into smoke-choked danger zone; we’ve raised the oceans and melted the glaciers.
Battling the Straw Men
THERE ARE SEVERAL good and interesting arguments to be had about climate change: Should we tax carbon? How much? Concentrate on electric cars or on public transit? How best to reduce the factory farming that creates so many emissions? Dealing with this crisis will involve the biggest and most rapid transition in economic history, so it would be strange if there weren’t debates about how to proceed.
But one debate not to have is: Is global warming real? By now it’s entirely obvious that the scientists are basically right—that’s why there’s half as much ice in the Arctic as when they started warning us, and half as many coral reefs. Donald Trump aside (there’s a nice thought), this one is so clear even the oil companies don’t dispute it, though of course they try to delay and minimize the need for real change.
Deprived of that point of contention, those who want to disrupt the push for climate action fall back on two particularly dumb straw-man arguments, which are worth engaging just long enough to dispose of.
One is that climate activists want to “turn off fossil fuels tomorrow.” You hear this from oil companies, but you also hear it from liberal politicians who don’t want to take strong action against oil companies. When local environmental justice groups, for instance, asked then-California Gov. Jerry Brown to stop permitting new oil wells next to their schools and homes, he responded with roughly the sensitivity and candor of Oklahoma’s climate-denying Sen. Jim Inhofe. Environmentalists, he said, wanted him to “snap my fingers and eliminate all gasoline in all California gasoline stations.” And if he did that, he said, “What would happen? Revolution? Killings? Shootings?”
A Protest Against Extinction
LEADERSHIP COMES from unlikely places—Christians know that better, perhaps, than anyone else. So as we face the savage crisis of climate change, a crisis made far worse by our inaction, it is very good news that a 15-year-old autistic Swedish girl has shown the rest of us new directions in this battle.
When school began in the fall, Greta Thunberg decided not to go. Inspired in part by the Parkland students and their school walkouts over gun violence, she sat down on the steps of the Swedish parliament in Stockholm every morning and stayed there the entire school day. Every day. Her argument, at its core, was that if the country’s politicians couldn’t be bothered to fix climate change, there was no real reason for her to be studying, since the world she would inherit would be so fatally compromised.
Her protest drew widespread attention in Sweden, in part because her father is a well-known actor and her mother a famous opera singer (albeit one who has given up her international performing career, persuaded by her daughter that flying to concerts was a waste of carbon). Others noticed too. She came to Finland this fall to address the largest climate rally in Helsinki history, and then to London for the launch of a civil disobedience movement called Extinction Rebellion.
Only Art Can Measure the Cost of Climate Change
EVERY POLITICAL LEADER on the planet should be stuck aboard a jet and taken north to see the Greenland ice sheet—it would be well worth the carbon emissions to show them just how fast climate change is now happening.
Case in point: I was aboard a boat en route to the Qaterlait glacier in August when I looked up at the GPS unit above the captain’s head. It showed an icon of the boat, steaming rapidly across ... solid land. That’s because when the chart was drawn a decade ago, the bay we were crossing didn’t exist: It was still solid ice.
I had the great fortune of journeying to the ice sheet with two young poets—a Greenlander named Aka Niviâna and a native of the Marshall Islands, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner. These two remarkable women were at opposite ends of the same story—as the ice melted, the traditional life of Greenlanders was beginning to disappear. And the water that poured into the oceans is now drowning low-lying islands such as the Marshalls.
Native Activists Show the Way
SOMETIMES TRAVEL exposes you to new things, and sometimes it reminds you how much is the same the world over.
I’ve just returned from a long organizing expedition from one end of the Pacific to the other: Japan, Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, the San Francisco Bay. Many of the issues were the same, of course: plans for new coal mines and oil pipelines.
But what really struck me was that almost everywhere I went, Indigenous people are driving the fight. Whether it is battling new coal mines in Australia, protecting the Great Australian Bight from offshore drilling, stopping fracking in New Zealand, battling the Kinder Morgan pipeline headed for Vancouver, or standing up to California Gov. Jerry Brown over the Golden State’s endless oil drilling, native activists are leading the way.
This should come as no surprise. Groups such as Tom Goldtooth’s Indigenous Environmental Network have been at the forefront for decades; younger leaders such as Clayton Thomas-Müller and Melina Laboucan-Massimo have long been raising the alarm about Canada’s tar sands; and in the low-lying islands of the Pacific, great organizers are fighting against rapid climate change in every forum they can find. Winona LaDuke, Pennie Opal Plant, Rueben George—it’s an endless list. But perhaps Standing Rock—the great battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline—helped everyone see the depth and breadth of this leadership. New leaders appeared, and new groups, and arguments that had been too little heard got a much broader airing.
Leave it to Beavers
IN THE REMARKABLE speech that God delivers beginning in Job 38—God’s longest soliloquy in the Bible, Old Testament or New—we hear of the mountain goat, the raven, the lioness, even the wonderfully silly ostrich, redeemed by her wild speed. But nothing of the beaver! Doubtless this is because Job, confined to the old world, had not come across Castor canadensis, and so God did not want to confuse him (Job was freaked out enough already). But if God had been aiming at a North American audience, there is no doubt the beaver would have starred in the account, because there may be no finer creature under heaven.
What Would Sitting Bull Do?
AS SUMMER drew to a close, one of the great dramas in the planet’s ongoing environmental uprising erupted in a remote place, the Standing Rock Sioux reservation that straddles the border of North and South Dakota. The Army Corps of Engineers had approved plans for “fast-tracking” the Dakota Access pipeline, which would carry crude from the Bakken shale of North Dakota west to Illinois and then south to Gulf refineries. The pipeline was mostly on private land, and the company had gotten most of the necessary approvals from pliant state officials—but it had to cross the Missouri River somewhere.
The original plans had called for that crossing to happen just above Bismarck, a mostly white North Dakota city. But there had been concern about what would happen to the town’s water supply in the event of a leak, so the map had been redrawn, to take the pipe across the river just above the Sioux reservation. And the Army Corps had signed off on the plan—even though three other federal agencies, including the EPA, had raised serious objections. Just another day in the ongoing saga of environmental injustice that haunts this nation.
Except that this time something unexpected happened. The local Sioux said no: They erected an encampment blocking access to the construction work. And their message spread: White environmentalists joined them, as well as a crew from Black Lives Matter, but mostly other native Americans poured in, from all across the West—representatives of as many as 200 different tribal nations, according to reports. Chief Harry Goodwolf Kindness of the American Indian Movement commented that it has been well over a century since people from so many tribes had engaged in such joint action. “First time since the Battle of Greasy Grass,” he said, “so it’s been a long time.”
There Are None So Blind...
WE ARE TOLD, in the classic story of Oedipus, about the king who managed to bring devastation to his city and family, a king who, when he finally learned the truth of his crimes, blinded himself.
I thought of that epic tragedy when I read of one decision by our current ruler, one event amid all the dozens of others. And this one was less immediately tragic—it didn’t involve pulling an immigrant with a brain tumor out of a hospital for deportation, nor forcing transgender Americans to produce a birth certificate before they pee. No, this tragedy will play out over a longer time.
In early March (and, of course, late on a Friday afternoon), his new team at the Commerce Department announced that they intended to cut the climate satellite program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration by 22 percent. They proposed a lot of other terrible cuts the same day: virtually zeroing out the environmental justice programs at EPA and cutting the environmental education budget by 94 percent. But the one that future historians will, I think, obsess over is the satellites.
Consider: In the last few months, we’ve learned that 2016 set the all-time record for the hottest recorded year on planet earth. We’ve seen, over the last few years, the highest wind speeds ever recorded in one ocean basin after another, as record-hot water produces amped-up hurricanes. An iceberg a quarter the size of Wales (not a whale—Wales) is about to break off from the Larsen Ice Shelf in the Antarctic. And we’re going to blind ourselves? We’re going to start paying less attention?
How Sweet the City Can Be
I HAD A REAL New York City sojourn on a recent weekend, one that reminded this longtime country dweller how sweet the city can be.
It began on Friday night at the IFC Center downtown, watching a premiere screening of the pilot of the new HBO series The Deuce, which is set on 42nd Street in 1971. Though I didn’t get to New York until the early ’80s, the street scenes in the show were familiar—the grit and violence and general decay lingered at least through the crack years of the mid-1980s; when I left New York, 42nd Street remained a canyon of porn theaters and massage parlors. (The Deuce, by the way, is brilliant—Maggie Gyllenhaal is unforgettable as the complicated lead.)
Keystone: The Fight Continues
OF ALL THE unlikely battles still to be raging, the fight over the Keystone XL pipeline has to be about the unlikeliest.
It was a long shot in the summer of 2011, when the national fight really began. Though a hardy corps of ranchers in Nebraska were already battling, and though Indigenous activists in Canada had been spreading the word about its source in the tar sands, it was all but unknown on a national basis.
The Politics of the Post-Millennial Generation
IF YOU'RE LOOKING for the climate movement this year, you’ll find it at city councils arguing for 100 percent renewable energy, at pension boards demanding fossil fuel divestment, and in farm fields trying to block pipelines. But you’ll also need to track down a few ramshackle houses in swing states across the country.
Those houses will hold hundreds of young people—at least it will hold them late at night, once they’re done with the long work of knocking on doors, handing out voter guides, and going to rallies. These “movement houses” are the most visible face of the Sunrise Movement, one of those reminders that even the poisonous politics of our moment holds real possibilities.
The young people who founded Sunrise weren’t actually anticipating a Trump victory. “We had had a plan to focus on building popular support for climate change, anticipating that a Democratic president would be pushed to take action on climate if a majority of Americans wanted it and made enough noise,” Varshini Prakash, the group’s engaging spokeswoman who cut her teeth as a highly successful divestment activist at UMass Amherst, said in an interview last summer. But then came that fateful November day, and “our world turned upside-down.” Now it wasn’t about pushing Clinton harder—it was about pushing back against the desperate threat that Trump represented: to the Constitution, to vulnerable people, and to the climate, which can’t wait a decade or two for sanity to return to our national life. “When the dust settled we came to an important realization: We have to figure out how to win elections.”
Like a Good Neighbor
A SPORTING GOODS store in a nearby town announced last week that it was closing, after many years of operation. Here’s why I think that matters, even amid all the rest.
Yes, we are living through a terrible moment in American (and planetary) history. Almost every day features two things: More cruel tweeting from the president, and more unsettling data from the real world. It is a bizarre and disheartening mix: record meanness and crudity, record windspeeds and temperatures.
We must resist, of course, and we are: The ongoing mobilization of people of good conscience is the one sweet thing about these past months. We look toward, among other things, the midterm elections as a moment when we might start to pull out of the nosedive. But resistance will not, even at its most successful, entirely erase our problems anytime soon. Long before Trump we were facing impossible inequality and impossible ice-melt. Along with resistance, we need ... neighbors.
Neighbors were optional for much of the last 50 years. We became hyper-individualists—surveys show that three-quarters of Americans have no relationship with their next-door neighbors, which is a novel situation for humans. But in the next 50 years, we’re going to need our neighbors again. The fat years are past and the lean years are upon us—even as we try to rebuild our planet against the predations of the rich and powerful, we’re going to require stronger communities for sheer survival. Ask the people trying to recover from Hurricane Harvey, from Maria, from the firestorm that raked California.
Earth's New Vulnerabilities
ONE OF THE conceits of modern life is that it’s always going to work out, always going to be okay. Indeed, it’s going to be better than it ever was. But the world is testing that idea.
When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico—its buzz-saw eye ripping from one end of the island to the other—it changed almost everything in the course of a few hours. Gone were airports and roads. Eighty percent of the island’s crops were destroyed—think of that. Almost all the cell towers: There were profound images of groups of people standing in fields where the few remaining transponders would catch a signal, desperately trying to phone friends and family. Electricity was suddenly a thing of the past, and in places likely to stay that way for six months or a year. And when you lose electricity—well, there goes AC, not to mention ice. The concept of cold disappears for a while. Modernity retreats.
Envisioning a 50-Year Future
WE LURCH FROM ecological crisis to crisis, all of them real: So far this year we’ve seen the sickening collapse of much of the Pacific’s coral in a 10-month blitz of hot ocean water; we’ve watched a city of 90,000 evacuated ahead of a forest fire so big it was creating its own weather; and we’ve witnessed the earliest onset of widespread Arctic melting ever recorded. And so on.
All of these need urgent responses—the fire company has to report for duty. So it’s been sweet to see activists doing civil disobedience on an unprecedented scale around the world and increasingly putting the fossil fuel industry on the defensive. We’ve got to turn the tide soon.
But “soon” and “urgent” and “emergency” are words that can blind us as well—keep us from seeing the deep roots of problems and solutions. So it is a very good thing that we have some folks who don’t scare easily. I’m thinking in particular of Wes Jackson and Wendell Berry, who keep patiently pushing the most deeply (and literally) rooted piece of legislation I know of, the 50-year Farm Bill.
The Kansas geneticist and farmer, and the Kentucky writer and farmer, begin with the premise that roots are important. Our industrial agriculture has plowed up the perennial crops that once covered the continent (and the planet) and replaced them with high-yielding annuals. All that wheat and corn feed us cheaply—and lead to dead, eroding soils that, among other things, can’t soak up much in the way of carbon. So Jackson, at his Land Institute, has spent the last decades crossing annual and perennial crops. The goal is nothing less than grains you don’t need to replant every year—grains that will grow deep, tangled roots into the prairie soil, feeding us and restoring a desperately needed balance.