The Insects are Coming!


Maize weevil, U.S. Department of Agriculture, [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

The other day, we had a delivery scheduled at our home. A young man was directing the driver as he backed into our driveway when suddenly he yelled, “Stop!” He pointed up, and low and behold, there was a nest of bald-faced hornets hanging from a branch in the maple tree by our drive, about twelve feet from the ground. Concealed partially by leaves, we had not noticed it. I’m glad this young man did, because bald-faced hornets are nasty insects when aroused. They can sting repeatedly and respond in large numbers when their nest is endangered. Not something any of us wanted to deal with.

Because of the location, near a sidewalk where many people, including school children walk, we had no safe alternative but to call a pest control company to remove it. If the nest had been on a part of our property remote from house or walks we could have safely left it a few more weeks because the first frosts would have taken care of it. The young man who came out, wearing protective gear, quickly took care of it. We were chatting about the warmer temperatures and changes in growing seasons and then he made an interesting comment. He said, “I don’t know about this climate change stuff, but it sure has been good for our business.” He deals with things like termites and ant infestations as well.

Much of the focus in discussions of climate changes have focused on rising sea levels, melting glaciers, warmer temperatures, drier or wetter conditions, more severe weather events and so forth. Another consequence however is greater problems with insect pests that eat crops, that carry disease, and invade our homes. My pest control man is already seeing the difference in his bottom line. I guess climate change isn’t bad for everyone!

It is bad news for the world’s food supply. Insects are ectotherms, which means that their metabolisms speed up as it gets hotter. They eat more and reproduce more quickly. Some projections suggest up to a 46 percent increase in wheat yield losses, 31 percent for corn, and 19 percent for rice. This compounds potential losses from weather events, drought, and other climate-related problems.

Two other factors also stand out. One is that insect ranges are changing. As once-temperate zones get warmer, tropical and subtropical insects are able to move into these zones. Also, in northern areas, like the one I live in, many insects don’t survive stretches of sub-freezing temperatures. Some always do, but more will with milder winters.

While the most critical impact could be on crop yields, we can’t ignore the increased prevalence of insect-borne diseases and the need to deal with more insect pests invading our homes.

It is possible that various pest management approaches and insect-resistant plants can offset some of these impacts. But it also means we should be prepared to spend more addressing the problems these pests cause. It might be extra cost for increasingly scarce food or even food shortages. Or it might simply be extra production cost. Wearing insect repellents may become necessary whenever we go out. Pest inspection and control measures may become a cost we factor into home maintenance.

A saying I remember from the first Earth Days in the 1970’s was “there is no such thing as a free lunch.” We may have fueled our high energy economy relatively cheaply with fossil fuels, only to find we have merely deferred the cost of our actions, perhaps long enough that our children will be the ones to pay them. If nothing else, it appears they may face a buggier future. I doubt they will thank us for it.

Review: Losing Earth

Losing Earth.jpg

Losing Earth: A Recent HistoryNathaniel Rich. MCD/Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019.

Summary: An account of the lost opportunity of the 1980’s to address climate change and the birth of the polarized dialogue that exists to this day.

Did you know that much of the scientific understanding of the greenhouse effect and global warming traces back to the nineteenth century? That in the 1950’s and throughout the Sixties and Seventies, scientists were already warning of global warming and contending that warming connected with higher carbon dioxide levels was already evident? Did you know there was a time when climate change and the science behind it was not a political issue and that political leaders in both parties, and many others in most the the countries of the world, substantially agreed that this was a looming problem that needed to be addressed? That world leaders came very close to an agreement to limit and reduce carbon dioxide emissions in 1989? That was thirty years ago. In 1990 human beings emitted more than 20 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Instead of cutting that amount, by 2018, the amount was projected at 37.1 billion metric tons and growing.

Nathaniel Rich narrates the story of a lost moment through two figures: Rafe Pomerance, an environmental lobbyist and Gordon MacDonald, a climate scientist. A third figure who plays a prominent role is James Hansen, a NASA climate scientist who compiled massive amounts of data, and gave compelling testimony wherever called upon. Pomerance, came across this finding in a government study on the continued use of fossil fuels: “continued use of fossil fuels might, within two or three decades, bring about ‘significant and damaging’ changes to the global atmosphere.” That was in the Spring of 1979 and changed the course of his life. It led to his interview with Gordon MacDonald, a geophysicist, who was glad that someone beside him finally noticed.

Rich’s book traces their efforts to mobilize awareness and action, culminating in the formation of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and a climate summit in the Netherlands in 1989. Initially, action on climate change was widely supported, at least in public statements. Meanwhile, a transformation began to take place in the fossil fuel industry from studying the issue themselves and reckoning on the consequences of continued fuel use, to a movement of resistance and a challenge to the science, and exercise of increasing leverage. In the climate talks, the resistance of one US figure led to a meaningless agreement to which the US never subscribed, and an increasingly politicized discourse around climate issues. Perhaps the most stunning revelation of this book was that it was not always so.

Rich’s afterword is both hopeful and sobering. He both notes the technological advances that might be turned to action limiting global temperature rises to somewhere between 1.5 and 2 degrees Celsius. Yet he also wrestles with the propensity of human beings to not act to address possible dangers down the road and instead prefer their present comfort. He not only condemns in the strongest terms those who twist and deny what they know. He challenges all of us:

We do not like to think about loss, or death; Americans in particular, do not like to think about death. No matter how obsessively one follows the politics of climate change, it is difficult to contemplate soberly an existential threat to the species. Our queasiness even infects the language we use to describe it: the banalities of “global warming” and “climate change” perform the linguistic equivalent of rolling on sanitary gloves to palpate a hemorrhaging wound.

To see how close the world came to a climate agreement on carbon emissions in the 1980’s, to learn of a time when this was not a political football, suggests that it may be possible in the future. To avert the worst possibilities, it is imperative. One concludes Rich’s book wondering, will we seize or miss the opportunity that we have?


Planetary Denial


Our only home. Image credit: NASA

I’ve lived long enough to walk with friends facing terminal illnesses. One of the most character defining things is how one faces one’s death. One of the most relationship-defining moments is how the friends of the dying walk with their friends in those moments. One thing we do know is that denial never helps. Sometimes, denying a life-threatening illness averts treatment that can save life. Denying that one is dying prevents one from concluding one’s life well. Pretending a dying friend will get better prevents the conversations that allow people to say what is needed to finish well together.

I’m convinced that the planetary systems that sustain life on our planet are in a serious crisis. If you are not convinced of that, I really have no argument for you. Chances are, you’ve heard them all and don’t credit them.

I do. The rapid planet-wide rise of temperatures that corresponds to the rapidly increasing levels of carbon dioxide we have poured into our atmosphere already is having consequences. The death of coral reefs. An arctic free of ice. Coastal cities and inhabited islands that will be submerged. Droughts. Catastrophic fire seasons. Melting glaciers. Melting permafrost adding even more greenhouse gases, accelerating the process.

I’ve lived one place for thirty years. I garden. I’ve seen our growing season extend two to three weeks in that short period. We have more insects. Rains and storms are more intense. Winters are milder. Thirty years is a short time to see some of these changes on a year in, year out basis.

What I read, what I learn from politically impartial scientists who are friends, what I see around me, even what I feel, tells me I am not living in the world of my youth just fifty to sixty years ago. If there is anything to what I read, these changes are only going to intensify in the years ahead. We have yet to see all the effects of the carbon dioxide we’ve already emitted, let alone what we will emit in the years ahead.

In my childhood, we learned to live under the cloud of a nuclear holocaust. The apocalyptic consequences of a nuclear war, at least so far, have stayed the hands of those who could unleash one. In one way, instant incineration, or a quick, if painful death from radiation sickness may be easier than what we could be facing.

The scenario before us seems to be one of survival of the fittest and devil take the hindmost. Drought and famine will likely increase taking many by starvation, or others in wars for food and water. The migrations we have seen in recent years will likely increase, and the confrontations at borders become more violent. We will be in an increasingly unstable world, and even within national borders, tensions will increase. Living near the relatively abundant water supply of the Great Lakes, I wonder what tensions we will face even from other parts of our own country stressed for water. Meanwhile, food pressures or environmental degradation will mean rapid species die offs of other creatures. Imagine a dawn without bird song but simply the intensifying of unremitting heat. As oceans rise, the question occurs to me of where will all the people in our coastal cities live and work?

It won’t all happen at once, which gives us the illusion that somehow we will escape the apocalypse. No doubt, this is what assures the powerful that they can get by. And maybe they will. Those in power today will likely die a natural death, as probably will I. But if the predictions hold, every year will get a little worse. Within a generation, we will know we are in an unremitting global crisis that will take generations or millennia to reverse. In two generations, many places on our planet will be hellish, and it seems credible to me that our social order will not sustain the brutal struggle for survival that will ensue.

I think we all hope for an amazing techno-fix. This seems like our hopes for miracle cures, or even miracle diet plans! Given the complex systems, and planetary scale, and how far down the road we are, I think the best we may do is prepare for the future, and do what we can not to make it worse. From what I can see, we’re not even doing that, and we crucify anyone who seriously talks about the drastic steps needed just to keep planetary temperatures from rising “only” 3 degrees Celsius.

As a Christian, my belief that Jesus is Lord of all challenges me to bring all my thoughts about this under his Lordship. I’m wrestling with what this means when I’m pretty convinced we face an existential crisis as a species we’ve not faced. For starters, I think this means continuing to live by faith. It means that I bring this crisis, and how I live to Him. If I believe all things were created through and sustained by Christ, that means that I do not stop looking to him when things appear dire. It may be that our hope is only in the “new heavens and new earth” of which scripture speaks. That’s not up to me. What is up to me is to continue to live as a responsible steward and caretaker of God’s world. I am increasingly aware that I, and all of us will answer for how we cared for the world, for the species, and fellow human beings who died because we did not care for it well. It challenges me to do all I can and to cherish and preserve the beauty of the earth while we can.

My faith teaches me that love of God and neighbor are intricately intertwined. As Christian communities, I think we will need to wrestle more deeply with how we will care for neighbors who experience loss and need. Will we adopt a “lifeboat ethic” or a “lay-down-our lives” ethic?

It seems to me that Christian communities need to begin talking about these things. These are end of planetary life conversations, and as desperately important as any other end-of-life conversation. It may be an easy escape to hope for the return of Christ to deliver us from all these things. But Jesus says we cannot know the day or hour of this, and we cannot count on this coming before things get bad. What we can count on is that there will be a reckoning for how we lived in these bad times.

There are some who will think all this is extreme. I so hope you are right. I would love to be proved wrong. But all that I know, see, even feel in my bones tells me we face something as serious as humanity has ever faced. The planet will survive. Whether we do is another question. It may depend on whether we face the hard truths before us, and on how we live whatever life is given us.

“America is Addicted to Wars of Distraction”

Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, by David Shankbone [CC BY-SA 2.5] via Wikipedia

Barbara Ehrenreich, a writer who has described herself as “a myth buster by trade,” made this observation in the Times of London on April 22, 1991. I don’t know the context of the quote, although this comes toward the end of the first Gulf War. Whether Ehrenreich (of whom I’ve not always been a fan) is referring to America’s actual wars or some of the metaphorical wars of political discourse, I wonder if she has a point.

I wonder if so many of the conflicts on our political landscape, whether intentional or not, are distractions from larger issues, ones that, if true, are really uncomfortable to face. Perhaps the biggest of these is the future of life on the only place we really have to live. It seems to me that it would be like arguing about the size of the iceberg if you are a passenger on the sinking Titanic.

Every year seems to be the record hottest for the planet. Cities like New York, Washington, DC, Miami and our naval base at Norfolk could be the new Venices. Summer temperatures in some parts of the world inhabited by millions are reaching levels that pose significant dangers to human life. Often, the populations most affected by the changes that have already happened or that will happen are the least equipped to handle them. There have already been massive species die-offs. Are we being presumptuous to think we are exempt? It may be more comforting to us to keep fighting about all this, calling each other tree huggers and climate deniers.

I could go on. I cannot help notice that there are deep flaws in a society where life expectancies are declining, where deaths from suicide are on the rise, where we have more than one “mass shooting” incident a day, where large swaths of our population are wrestling with substance addictions. Are we concerned with the disparities of health outcomes that depend on zipcodes, and that life and death (or bankruptcy) often depends on the health coverage one has, something that could change with a merger or a layoff.

It’s not that people aren’t talking about these things. They are. They tend to be fighting about them. It seems to me that often fighting is like turning up the car radio when the car starts making unusual noises we haven’t heard before. All our political arguments seem like distractions that mask or divert our attention from the ominous noises our society, and our planet are making.

I disagree with Ehrenreich in one important regard. Creating “wars of distraction” is a human rather than American thing. We all do it to avoid facing unpleasant things. The problem is that distractions can kill if they are ignored long enough. On the other hand, silencing the distractions and paying attention to the big scary thing that seems insurmountable is actually empowering. Getting to the hospital at the first sign of a heart attack can save one’s life, and subsequent lifestyle changes may extend it.

Instead of the arguments that distract us from big hairy problems in our world, perhaps it is time to stop arguing. We may not know what to do (or we may have some notions). What if we shut up long enough to really pay attention to why our life expectancy in the US has been going down. What if we paid attention to gun violence long enough to wonder why so many mostly young men in good health are choosing to end their own as well as a number of other lives, which is often the way these things conclude.

If you notice, I’ve said nothing about political party proposals or government solutions. Right now everyone is talking past each other, mostly distracted from the realities they are arguing about. What if we started paying attention to what is happening in the world instead of fighting about it? What if we started taking personal steps on the basis of what we see? I suspect we all might notice things that have been hidden in the arguments of others. We might conclude that things are urgent enough to start listening to each other and stop fighting. I just hope it is soon enough.

If you are tempted to argue about climate change, or gun violence, or other realities I mention in this post, you’ve not understood the point of the post, which is that our arguments often distract from the things we are arguing about. I will take down argumentative comments in the interest of promoting paying attention to the things we have been arguing about and considering what personal action we might take.

Review: The Uninhabitable Earth

the uninhabitable earth

The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After WarmingDavid Wallace-Wells. New York: Tim Duggan Books, 2019.

Summary: An exploration of our near future if projected increases in global temperatures occur and the multiple impacts of these increases.

This is a sobering book. It opens with the evidence that four of the last five episodes of planetary extinctions were related to climate warming. The premise of the title and this book is that there will be major repercussions if even the projected two degree Celsius increase in global temperatures occurs. If those temperatures increase by four or five degrees or more, the changes could be exponentially greater, affecting not merely the quality but the possibility of life for many of the planet’s inhabitants.

The first part of Wallace-Wells book discusses “elements of chaos.” There is heat, and the summer temperatures in tropical parts of the world, that will render them uninhabitable. Rates of death from heat will climb dramatically (remember the Chicago heat wave of 1995?). Rising temperatures will reduce crop yields in many food-producing parts of the world. Coastal cities throughout the world will be inundated due to sea level rise due to melting ice in Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets. Drought in many areas may lead to year round fire seasons over increasing areas, as has been the case in California and other parts of the western US. Terms like “500 hundred year” storms will become meaningless when they occur at five year intervals, and rebuilding in frequently hit areas will become increasingly costly and unlikely. Diseases once considered “tropical” will spread to more temperate regions: malaria, yellow fever, dengue will join the spread of diseases like East Nile Virus, Zika, and Lyme disease.

Economic projections suggest the possibility that each degree of global temperature rise may cut the GDP by 10 percent, or higher percentages as temperature levels continue to increase. Economic pressures and displaced populations will increase the level of conflicts, both civil wars within countries and international conflicts.

One of the sobering aspects of this book is that these changes are already upon us. Just in the last two years 50 percent of the Great Barrier Reef has died from warming ocean temperatures killing off the organism the coral depend upon for sustenance. Increasingly intense storms, greater flooding, more powerful hurricanes, year-long fire seasons are already part of life. Day time temperatures over 120 degrees Fahrenheit and night time temperatures that never drop below 100 degrees are already common place. Glaciers around the world are melting, jeopardizing water sources for many communities.

The second part of the book explores some of the non-scientific aspects of projected climate change, from economic systems no longer based on growth, a planet covered with carbon recapture facilities, what life might be like for those who survive when progress is no longer a part of life. He closes with a section on the anthropic principle and the discussion of why we haven’t found life on other planets. He speculates that this might be because the trajectory of civilizations is to burn themselves out and self-destruct as we appear to be doing.

Many will object to the speculative character of parts of this book. In part, much of the discussion is not, but is based on well-established scientific findings, and current manifestations that fulfill prior predictions. It is true that we are notoriously bad at predicting the future. What I might suggest is that while things might be better, they could also be worse, perhaps in ways yet unforeseen. Yet this isn’t a work of despair. Wallace-Wells observes that the reality that rising global temperatures have been caused by human causes (from rapidly burning carbon sequestered underground for years) to our taste for meat that multiplies methane-producing animals is good news. It means that humans can take measures to reduce and offset carbon dioxide emissions.

At the same time, the window for action is increasingly short, and in some cases, action will consist of adjusting to the “new normal” and preventing further degradation of the planet’s climate. It is striking to me that many of our younger politicians and other youth are advocating climate action. While some of us may not see the world Wallace-Wells is describing beyond the present day harbingers, our youngest generations and their children will. If Wallace-Wells is right, the opportunity to avoid being cursed as the generation that made Earth increasingly uninhabitable may rapidly be coming to an end. His book asks me, and others of my generation whether that is the legacy we want to leave our children.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this an advanced review e-galley of this book from the publisher via Netgalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own

Review: Chesapeake Requiem

chesapeake requiem

Chesapeake RequiemEarl Swift. New York: Del Rey Books, 2018.

Summary: A journalist’s account of nearly two years on Tangier island, the tight knit community organized around watermen harvesting blue crabs, and the likelihood that it may disappear within the next century.

I first learned about Tangier Island nearly twenty years ago when I heard one of the people mentioned in this book, Susan Drake Emmerich, speak about the Watermen’s Covenant she helped facilitate, rooted in the strong Bible-based beliefs of the island’s watermen, that helped ease tensions over state and federal laws and fostered care for the island environment as well as the crabs and the Chesapeake Bay that provided their livelihood.

Earl Swift chronicles a different threat to the very existence of the island. Throughout the Chesapeake, there are shoals that were once inhabited islands. Over the last two centuries, Tangier Island has lost two-thirds of its land. The northern part of the island, called Uppards, once was inhabited. Now its graves are washing into the sea and most of it is a patchwork of marsh and open water. The west end of the island’s shipping channel has widened to over 75 feet. A seawall protects the landing strip on the south end of the island. Residents are hoping for a jetty off of the shipping channel, and a sea wall around the island. The cost is over $30 million, and most consider that it would be cheaper to relocate this community of under 500 to the mainland. The most obvious cause is coastal erosion, evident after every major storm when more coast is lost and parts of the island are inundated. However, geologically, Tangier is slowly sinking, and the Chesapeake is slowly rising. It’s possible that all or most of it could be submerged within 50 years.

Swift, who first visited a much bigger island in 2000, returned in 2015 and spent the best part of two years researching his account of the island. It is not only an account of what is happening to the island, but an account of the community that traces its origins back to 1608 when John Smith mapped it and the Revolutionary War, when it was settled. Many of the current residents trace their lineage back to these early settlers and most are related.

Swift joins in every part of the island’s life from sessions of the island’s elders at “The Situation Room” to attending both of the island’s churches. He eats at the restaurants, endures the insects, and attends the funerals. He describes town services from the sewage plant to the local grocery, the school, and the visitor center (a place representing a painful memory). Most of all, he spends time with the watermen on their boats, especially James “Ooker” Eskridge, mayor of Tangier and the town’s spokesperson when the media come calling. Up before dawn, we get a sense of how hard the work of crabbing is, and how precarious this existence always has been, even before declining catches.

Perhaps the most riveting part of the account is that of Ed “Eddie Jacks” Charnock and his son Jason, who are stranded on a sinking boat during a blinding, gale force storm on the bay, and the urgent rescue efforts mounted by the other islanders who hear the one distress message they were able to send out. It is a story that represents the tightly knit character of this community as well as the deep biblical faith that undergirds their life.

Perhaps the most striking thing about Swift is his ability to portray the islanders on their own terms. There is no deprecation of their religious faith or their avid support of President Trump and denial of climate change (islanders attribute all the loss of land to erosion and dismiss evidence of island subsidence and water level rise.) He even affirms that Ooker Eskridge bests Al Gore in a discussion with his straightforward assertions that he has seen no water level changes at his crab shack.

At the same time, he describes an island that is slowly dying, no matter what the islanders believe. Youth are moving to the mainland, and the elders are dying and the population continues to decline. Properties are abandoned, and despite the religious rectitude, there is evidence of drug use among a portion of the population. There are tipping points approaching for sustaining everything from the local school to the grocery.

Swift calls his book a requiem. While Tangier has not yet died and its residents have not given up, the book helps us to appreciate on a small scale what it would mean to this beautiful place and its tight knit, beautiful, and productive community, to be lost. He helps us care for these people and their place.

I find myself also thinking that this might be the first of many requiems, or perhaps a more hopeful image is that Tangier is the canary in the coal mine, a warning of how much more we might lose if we fail to act. The factors that endanger Tangier are the same ones that put our naval station at Norfolk at risk, and even our nation’s capitol, as well as the coastal cities of the world. Perhaps the irony that the islanders themselves dismiss climate change and its effects is also salutary. It is one thing to have to relocate under 500 climate refugees. Potentially this could be multiplied by millions in the years ahead. Will we close our ears to this requiem until catastrophe is upon us, or take prudent steps now? If the trends at Tangier are any indication, we may know the answer within a generation.

[PBS News Hour profiled Tangier including interviews with Ooker Eskridge and Earl Swift.]

Review: Thank You For Being Late

Thank you for being late

Thank You For Being LateThomas L. Friedman. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2016.

Summary: Discusses three “accelerations (computer-related technology, globalization, and climate change), how these might re-shape our world for ill or good, and the case for pausing, reflecting, and creating communities of trust working for the common good.

Whether you agree with him or not, an interview with Tom Friedman is always a fascinating conversation, at least for some of us. It was on Charlie Rose, my wife was watching while I had dropped off to sleep, and the next day, she told me, “we have to get Thank You For Being Late.” It didn’t stop there. After my wife started reading this, she said, “you have to read this and write one of your reviews on it.” So dear, I have, and I am, and let’s see what you think.

Friedman starts by explaining his title, which is his response to those who are late for meetings with him. In our accelerating world, time to pause, to reflect on our moment in history, and our lives, is an increasingly precious opportunity. Put away the smartphone and just be. Then, in the remainder of the chapter he recounts his encounter with an Ethiopian parking attendant who asks Friedman’s help with his blog. It turns out that he hosts a site devoted to a pro-democracy take on the politics and economics of his home country. Friedman contends that his columns mix his own values, priorities and aspirations, his analysis of the big forces, “the Machine” that are shaping events, and the impacts on peoples and cultures. And as he does this with Bojia, his new Ethiopian friend, he begins to reflect on these.

Part two of this book is concerned with three big forces he believes are impacting people and cultures. He looks at 2007 as a critical year–the debut of the first iPhone, the launch of the Android, Qualcomm’s 3G technology enabling book downloads on Kindles, IBM’s Watson, non-silicon based processors, the beginning of an accelerating curve of solar power usage. He sees this as an inflection point where technological innovation exceeds human adaptability, requiring new ways of learning and governing. This opens a several-chapter discussion of the first key force, technology, whose acceleration is reflected in Moore’s law on the doubling of processor speeds every 18-24 months, at decreasing costs, that has made for a tremendous explosions because of software, networking, the convergence of smartphones and computers, and what Friedman calls the “supernova” of “flow” that makes possible massive amounts of storage in “the cloud”, all kinds of ways to utilize that data (including nefarious, as the Equifax hack, and others underscore), with incredible implications for commerce globally.

This leads to his discussion of the second force, the global market, where being in “the flow” makes unprecedented collaboration and crowd-sourced innovation possible, but also increasingly automated financial flows that under some circumstances might lead to drastic computer-initiated market swings. At the same time, this can lead to incredible knowledge flows, such as MOOCs, making courses on nearly every subject available to anyone in the world with an internet connection, and also the export of the propaganda of terror, linking isolated individuals in developed countries with terror cells.

The third force is climate change and species loss, environmental changes that are sweeping the globe. He notes a series of boundaries we are breaching or in danger of breaching–climate change, biodiversity, deforestation, bio-geochemical flows, ocean acidification, freshwater use, atmospheric aerosols, and introduction of novel entities from chemicals we’ve invented to nuclear waste.

Friedman is ever the optimist and the third part of this book explores both technological and political innovations on the global scale that channel these forces for good, and in the chapter on “Control vs. Kaos” for ill. He has a chapter on “Mother Nature as Political Mentor” where he has Mother Nature making a laundry list of policy recommendations to delight the heart of anyone on the center-left of American politics, and will be dismissed by the right.

What was most fascinating for me amid this ramble through technology, globalization, and climate science, ground Friedman has traveled in other books is where he ends up in his last chapters. He essentially commends whatever our religion’s version is of Sunday school to teach us the Golden Rule and its application in life, and a return to “politics as local” revisiting his childhood days in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, and the continuing heritage of a politics beyond partisanship that forges relationships of trust with business and civic leaders, and presses into seeking the common good of a community.

When Friedman finishes, you feel he has touched everything including the kitchen sink. All of it is quite fascinating, and yet hard to hold together. Perhaps that is his point. Technology, globalization, changes in the environment are all accelerating–change is happening fast. We can run frantically to keep up. Or perhaps we would do better to pause. It is particularly intriguing that his most profound recommendations do not have to do with big government, even more technology or sweeping global environmental agreements, as much as I think he would be in sympathy with all of these. It is that we need to change in our own behavior, and in our habits of community. We need to return to real communities rather than virtual echo chambers and move from national posturing to local governing.

What begins as a survey of science, business, and technology ends in a kind of quest for God and a well-ordered society. An exploration of the accelerating future ends in a reflective search for spiritual and community roots. It feels to me that Friedman is searching for God knows what, and I find my self thinking, “indeed, God knows, but will we listen?”


Review: Let Creation Rejoice

Let Creation RejoiceLet Creation Rejoice: Biblical Hope and Ecological Crisis by Jonathan A. Moo and Robert S. White. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: A scientist and a theologian get together to assess both environmental trends and biblical teaching and contend that there are reasons for serious concern, concerted action, and because of the gospel, for hope.

I have an interesting collection of Facebook friends. On any given day, I can find posts predicting apocalyptic consequences for every living thing on earth because of our pollution of earth, water, and air, and equally ardent posts decrying all of this as “bunk”. Sadly, the discourse that seems to be occurring in the halls of government doesn’t seem much different.

What I find rarely taking place are thoughtful conversations between scientists and people of faith considering what we may learn of these things and our call from God from listening both to the book of scripture and the book of creation. This book is a wonderful step in that direction as a scientist and theologian have collaborated to give us an account that is at once challenging, and yet filled with hope, that both considers the data of researchers and the data of scripture.

Following an introductory chapter that decries both the apocalyptics and the deniers, the next two chapters summarize the “state of affairs” in our world today, considering human population growth, the decrease of biodiversity, the growing water crisis, concerns about nitrogen buildups due to artificial fertilizers, our food supply, and finally in a chapter to itself, the growing consensus among serious scientists of unprecedented CO2 buildup in the atmosphere, current warming trends, and, what seemed to me, fairly measured discussion of what might happen in the future.

The next five chapters consider relevant scriptures, both outlining why the creation is not rejoicing, and how it may, and ultimately will. Chapter 4 centers on Jesus’ proclamation of “jubilee” in Luke 4:15-16. Chapter 5 focuses around Romans 8:18-25 and the groaning creation longing for release, that will come along with the redemption of God’s people. Chapter 6 explores 2 Peter 3:10-13 and the common contention of “why care if it is all going to burn.”  The authors argue that the burning is one of removing the “veil” of heaven as well as purifying the earth, not consuming it all. It is meant as a warning of judgment that calls Peter’s readers to present faithfulness in all things, including stewardship of the creation.

Chapter 7 considers the coming of Christ as a thief in the night and the call to be responsible stewards ready to give an answer for our stewardship of the creation. Chapter 8, on the book of Revelation, has particularly trenchant remarks about “Babylon” whose wealth is built on the commodification of humans and at the expense of their lives, a warning to any great power that accrues the wealth of the world to itself at the expense of the labor and lives of others. The book closes with exhortation, challenge and hope. We are to live as those “not of this world”, “to always pray and never give up”, to not take refuge in excuses or rationalizations, and to live in love, joy and hope, realizing we can both anticipate the new creation to come in our acts of faithfulness, and yet that it will come as a gift of God and not a human accomplishment.

I was sobered as I considered that when I knowingly consume the earth’s resources in a way that subjugates others and contribute to conditions that lead to the death of others, I am complicit in slavery and death. Reading of God’s concern for his creatures in Genesis 9, I’m struck by how much we have to answer for concerning the extinction of so many creatures God has made. I can rationalize and deny in all sorts of ways. It seems like the only real course is to repent and lament and cast myself on the mercies of God and do what is set before me.

That’s where the hope comes in. God knows that our own feeble efforts to clean up our messes only lead to more mess, and that, while we can begin in a way that anticipates his new creation, our hope is that he will return to finish that work of renewal.

This book moves beyond the polemics to sober appraisal and a call to biblically rooted Christian faithfulness. Ultimately, its appeal is rooted not in the data of science but in the authority of the Bible. At one point one of the authors observes that a climate skeptic he talked to actually lived a humbler, more earth-friendly life stewarding God’s creation than he. It may just be that convincing Christians to live out their call as stewards of creation may be far more effective than arguments pro and con about climate science. This book is a good place to begin

Author Interview: Ben Lowe

Ben LoweBen Lowe is the author of the newly published Doing Good without Giving Upreviewed on this blog earlier this month. He is on staff with the Evangelical Environmental Network and serves as national spokesperson for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action. He is also the author of Green RevolutionHe spoke last month for the ministry with which I work, and recently connected with me over Skype for an interview concerning his new book.

Bob on Books: Tell me how you came to write Doing Good without Giving Up?

In my work within the creation care community I was traveling to lots of Christian college campuses and speaking before audiences about why we should care for God’s creation and as the years went by I found that more and more people were affirming this message and less and less people were questioning it. The questions I was getting more and more had to do with “we believe we should care for the world and we believe we should stand for justice but do we really have to engage in advocacy and activism? Why can’t we make changes in our own lifestyles? Why do we have to work together on a broader scale? It is so messy and so hard. We rarely see any progress there.” So that’s why I decided to write Doing Good without Giving Up. In many ways it was a follow-up to Green Revolution but also addresses many different questions and challenges that are facing us today.

Bob on Books: You think personal simplicity and faithfulness are not enough in addressing pressing social issues, that social action and advocacy are also important. Say more about that.

I think personal faithfulness and simplicity are very important but they are not enough. That’s because we are called to be the body of Christ. We are called to community. We are called to live in faithfulness at every level of life which includes in our own lifestyles and in our families but also how we live together with the time God has given us on the world he has placed us on. And when it comes to some of the great challenges we are facing today, whether it is climate change, on which I work a lot,  or human trafficking or the immigration crisis; these are problems that we cannot fix if we are just focused on making changes in our own lives. These are problems that were caused by us together in our society and in communities working together. They are problems that will only be solved when we come together.

Bob on Books: You write in the book about moving beyond the dichotomy between evangelism and social concern and polarities of the culture wars. How do you think it is possible to do this?

I think our motivation is very important in engaging in evangelism and in social action and justice. They are the same. That is, we are motivated by love. If we truly love God and truly love our neighbor we will want to share the good news of Jesus Christ with them. He has transformed my life and saved me from things and delivered me from the brokenness I knew I was powerless to overcome on my own. In the same way he empowers us and calls us to join him in changing the world, and so I believe that to follow Jesus and to love each other means to engage in evangelism and social justice. Our motivation is important in helping us to be on the right path towards integrating these two.

And then when it comes to the culture wars, I think that a lot of our motivation there was fear. The most commonly repeated commandment in the scriptures was “have no fear” or “do not fear” yet that’s often our first posture when we engage with people in the broader society outside of the church. So what would it look like to not be so afraid but to be willing to vulnerably love our neighbors even when our neighbors are very different from us and when we don’t always agree with them?

Bob on Books: What have you learned about not giving up, about sustaining yourself as you’re engaged in social action?

These are all lessons I’m learning. Every day I find new reasons to give up and yet more reasons to keep going. And so in the book I talk about our motivation being love and the importance of prophecy and remembering Sabbath and contemplation and there are a number of different disciplines and practices that I share that have been meaningful in my life. But I think there is a scripture passage that I have written in the front of my notebook that I carry around everywhere that helps to keep me on track in life. It is 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 and it’s a passage that has become more and more meaningful over the years and it’s “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run but only one gets the prize. Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore, I do not run like someone running aimlessly. I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I’ve preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

Bob on Books: What new projects or goals are you looking forward to in 2015?

That’s a great and somewhat tricky question. I’m looking down the “to do” list and wondering how is this all going to get done this year? On a personal level, I’m in the ordination process with the Christian and Missionary Alliance church. This has been a life-giving and faith deepening process and l look forward to continuing that and, hopefully, completing that by the end of this year. I’m also finishing up the last chapter in a book that Ron Sider and I are writing together, which will be an intergenerational dialogue about some of the key issues facing American Christianity moving forward. I’m excited about that!

In my work we have a number of projects going but one of them in particular that we started in 2014 is a Climate Leadership Fellows Program which has a vision of training up new leaders in the climate movement, new faithful leaders, and empowering them to go out and engage their communities and train up new leaders on their own. We’re looking at this as a new discipleship model and are excited to pull together the next cohort of leaders for the coming year.

Bob on Books: I’ll look forward to the next book when it comes out. Ron Sider has been a hero and I’ve appreciated your writing. I’ve appreciated your time today as well as your recent visit to our campus. Let us know when you are back in town!

Ben Lowe may be contacted via his website:

The World We Are Leaving To Our Children

Any of you who have received an email from me might have noticed the Dietrich Bonhoeffer quote in my signature line: “The ultimate test of a moral society is the kind of world that it leaves to its children.” I was reminded of this quote when I was up late last night talking with some colleagues after viewing clips from a film, Chasing IceThe film is both a beautiful portrayal of glacial ice around the world as well as a sobering reminder of what we are losing. Time lapse photographs of one Alaska glacier, for example showed it receding 2.5 miles in less than four years. Another set of images showed a portion of an ice shelf ‘calving’, that is falling into the sea, that was the size of Manhatten Island. 

I see changes in the climate in my own back yard. I garden. In recent years I’ve noticed that we can plant 10 to 15 days sooner and first frosts typically come 10 or so days later. We talked to our local nursery folks and they told us that the growth and hardiness zones have changed, which is reflected in their growing and purchasing of plants. In 1990, it turns out, we were in growth zone 5, now we are in 6. It appears the zones have generally shifted at least 150 miles north.

What these changes tell me, whether it is in the rapid recession of glaciers around the world, or in the longer growing season and hotter summers in my back yard is that something has changed in our climate. This week, our government released a National Climate Assessment that outlines the changes that are occurring by regions across the US. The Midwest just has to put up with greater temperature extremes, more rain and flooding, more severe storms, and shallower Great Lakes. The Southwest is facing long term drought. The Southeast and Northeast face sea level rise, more severe and frequent hurricanes.

Of course we are simply talking about the US here. Many of the world’s great cities, including large cities in the developing world are coastal cities that face flooding from sea water rise. Many are concerned about the global instabilities that will result from the displacement of people from these cities while others are fleeing drought-stricken areas.

Some try to explain away these changes but what is the more controversial issue is the implication that human beings are responsible for much of this change. What is most troubling to me is that many of my fellow believers are among the most resistant when it would seem to me that we should be among the first to care for the creation, given that we are so into the idea of creation! Even if we are not sure that all the predictions are accurate, the changes that have already occurred and the dictates of prudent wisdom suggest that we should act. What troubles me is that most of us are not listening to scientists, including those like Katherine Hayhoe, an evangelical climate scientist and wife of an evangelical pastor. We are getting our views from secular conservative sources. The scientists who are Christians that I know who are studying this are not political people–they have become advocates because of the data, and because of their love of the world God made, not because they are anti-business or part of some big liberal/communist conspiracy.

During this conversation last night one of my colleagues spoke of a friend who said she couldn’t embrace this concern because of concern for the number of abortions taking place. I’ll be candid–I’m also pro-life, but for me, being pro-life involves being deeply concerned not only about saving the lives of the unborn, but also caring about what kind of world they are born into. Similarly, if we are concerned about the poor, we should care deeply about climate change, because the poor, who probably have contributed least to the problem, will suffer the most from the results, especially the children born in poverty.

This is what troubles me most. God-willing, I hope to be a grand-parent someday. It troubles me that how I’ve lived may make the lives of children and grand-children around the world much harder. In moral societies, parents sacrifice for the sake of their children. I am coming to see that it will indeed take great sacrifice on my part and billions of others in the more prosperous parts of the world, if we are to leave a livable world to my children and grand-children. The great temptation is to think, “we won’t see the worst of it in our lives, so why bother?” Somehow, I just can’t see myself saying this to my son, or to the young children in my church. But what will be the message of my life?