Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Consider the lilies

One of my favorite sayings of Jesus, many of which were later condensed into a single Sermon on the Mount, is to “Consider the lilies of the field.” It is Biblical passages such as this that are a much more fruitful source of dialogue between science and religion, rather than haggling uselessly about whether the Earth is only a few thousand years old.

The lilies to which Jesus referred were the wildflowers that blanketed the Galilean hillsides briefly in the early spring, before withering away in the summer—just as they still do in the Middle East and other similar climates such as that of California. As a botanist, I really like this passage. Many of these spring wildflowers are, in fact, lilies.

Jesus did not say to glance at the lilies and then forget about them, or to walk past them while you are looking at a scroll or a cell phone. You have to stop and look carefully at them. They are so small that you will probably have to get down on your knees to do it. You will have to pull one of them apart to see the full glory of their structure hidden inside. When you do so, you will find Jesus’ promise fulfilled: “Even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed as one of these.” That is, the most amazing creations of humankind cannot compare with even one of thousands of short-lived flowers.

Jesus did not say to glance at the lilies and then believe whatever your preacher says they should look like, but to consider what they actually look like. But there are millions of fundamentalists (not quite all of them in Oklahoma where I live) who will believe whatever their preachers say, even regarding things they could easily go and look at for themselves. These deluded followers will not even bother to read the Bible, about which they actually know very little, for themselves, but just believe what the preachers tell them it says.

Jesus did not say to ignore the lilies of the field while driving your tractor or four-wheeler over them, or while pouring chemicals on them, or while paving them over or peeing on them.

I recommend that you actually get down on your knees to look at the flower, rather than picking it and holding it in your fingers. By picking it you have already vanquished it and made it into a thing, an expendable resource, rather than a living being with which you share the world. Pick it only if you are dissecting it for closer study.

I like to believe that if people who consider themselves Christians will actually get down on the ground and look at a wildflower, this will begin a cascade of consequences that will make them start thinking for themselves rather than just believing their preachers. This is important since some preachers, most famously Pat Robertson, tell them that God wants them to believe everything that Donald Trump says. How can you worship Donald Trump once you have looked closely at the intricacy of a flower?

In case you missed my video on this topic, see it here.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Is There Any Hope for the Climate Future?

As I have previously written (see the Real Ecology Manifesto at this permalink), I believe that there is no hope for the world to avoid climate catastrophe, from which the human species will survive, but human societies will not; and from which the Earth, even though minus many of its species, will recover. Nevertheless, I also believe that we need to live in such a way that, as individuals, we do the best work we can at avoiding this catastrophe. That is, even if there is no hope, we can feel that we have lived in the right way (and we can stand before God, if there is one, in the knowledge that we have done the best we could).

We cannot do this if we know our actions to be utterly futile. But what if I am wrong, and there is hope? Or, what if the good things we do will reduce the intensity of the inevitable catastrophe? What we need is some good news, even if the news is not good enough for us to be fully optimistic. But this news has to be factual, not just a fleeting hope.

The Citizens’ Climate Lobby (which consists of citizens who want to effect federal-level policies that will reduce the risk of climate catastrophe, and who know that the apostrophe belongs at the end of the word citizens’) had an online national meeting today, in which Drew Jones, the co-founder of Climate Interactive, gave us some reasons to be optimistic. I happen to believe these reasons are not good enough, but they are verifiably true. I hope that I am wrong in my cynicism, and if I am, these will be the reasons. Here are some of them.

  • While Trump has pulled America out of the international climate accords, many cities and states have declared their intention to follow the Paris guidelines. More than half of Americans live in cities or states (or both) that have declared their willingness to cooperate with the rest of the people in the world by reducing carbon emissions.
  • World carbon emissions have actually stabilized in the last three years, after decades of not only increasing but accelerating. In 2013, global carbon emissions increased by 2.0 percent over 2012; by 1.1 percent in 2014 over 2013; and actually decreased by 0.1 percent in 2015, compared to 2014, in a report prepared by the Netherlands for the European Union. It is not enough to just stop increasing our carbon emissions, but this leveling-off of carbon emissions has happened seldom since records have been kept. Meanwhile, global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels (not the same thing as carbon emissions) continue to increase, from 405 ppm in 2015, to 409 ppm in 2016, to 413 ppm in April of this year.
  • As of today, the Climate Solutions caucus in the U. S. Congress, in which members of both parties agree to do something to reduce carbon emissions, has 24 Democratic and 24 Republican members. (Anyone who joins needs to partner with a member of the other party.) Of course, these few Republicans are easily ignored by the leadership of their party. (John Huntsman said “Call me crazy, but I believe what the scientists say about evolution and global warming.” Guess what. His party called him crazy!) But at least a few responsible Republicans exist!
  • China’s use of coal has declined slightly.
  • The Paris Agreement still has 194 signatories even after the United States has pulled out.
  • Perhaps the most important point is that long-term social change looks impossible until it happens. For example, state bans on interracial marriage seemed like they would never be lifted until the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, in which the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision that interracial marriage must be permitted. If you were a black person in South Africa in 1985, it might have seemed that apartheid would never end, but within a decade it ended. A social consensus that we must do something about global climate change is building, and could quickly become the norm. As Gandhi said, “First they will laugh at you then they will ignore you then they will fight you then you will win.”

I must point out, though, that social change doesn’t always work. As explained by Peter Watson in The Great Divide, a quixotic attempt to summarize all of world prehistory and history, human sacrifice used to be the norm in all known prehistoric societies. In the Old World, in separate locations, human sacrifice was replaced by animal sacrifice and finally by the elimination of physical sacrifice, as religious awareness grew. In the New World, however, human sacrifice grew at a dizzying pace, so that the Aztecs carried out entire wars just to get sacrificial victims; they captured tens of thousands of victims each year, cut their hearts out, threw the hearts in a bowl, tumbled the bodies down the pyramid steps, and made stew out of the bodies. There was a brief attempt by one Mayan leader, Topiltzin Quetzalcoatl, starting about 968 CE, to bring the vicious cycle of human sacrifice to an end. But he failed. Human sacrifice ended only with the conquest of the Aztecs by the equally brutal Spaniards—brutal, but at least they didn’t carry out human sacrifice.

I will add one of my own to Drew’s list. The other major economies of the world recognize that Trump’s refusal to cooperate on climate issues makes America an outsider. Some of the G20 nations now refer to the group as the G19 + 1. It is possible that international pressure will make enough people rethink their position and at least cooperate with the rest of the leading nations of the world. This is extremely unlikely; I think America will cooperate with the rest of the world only if forced to do so. But, again, I hope I am wrong.

What will NOT happen is that Christian Americans will suddenly feel the Spirit of God calling them to show love to their fellow humans and to God’s Creation by preventing climate catastrophe. Some Christian Americans feel this way; most do not, and are in fact furious at their fellow Christians who do. To wait for this to happen would be like waiting for a decomposing bone to turn back into a cow.

Join with me in trying to make the world a better place for everyone, even if this effort fails, and just in case it succeeds!

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

A Patriotic Message

At least, as close as I ever come to one anymore.

It is difficult to be patriotic anymore. The word “patriot” is loaded to mean conservative; to mean Republican; to mean “follower of Trump.” Even though I was born an American, and my Native American roots go back ten thousand years, I do not feel as though I am a real American, because I do not sing “Praise the Lord!” after every Trump tweet.

I consider the American flag, the one that we are supposed to wave and fly today, to be an embarrassment to the world. It used to be something positive, back in the days when Barack Obama got the Nobel Peace Prize. But today the American flag merely proclaims Trump’s ego to the entire world. Trump proclaims “America First” to the world. Not too surprising; all countries put themselves first. But what Trump means is “America Only,” that is, America will make all of its decisions as if no other countries exist except to be our markets, our sources of raw materials and cheap labor (so long as they don’t come here). He pulled us out of the Paris Accords and implies that NATO consists mostly of freeloaders. He is insulting everyone he can think of and seems to think that, if it were America vs. the rest of the world in a conflict, we would win.

Not everything is bad in America. So far, we still have laws that restrain even The Donald from grabbing absolute power. And, to me, the principal cause for faith is that many, perhaps not most, Americans remain good people. This includes the younger generation. When I think of my daughter and son-in-law, both of them powerful forces of good that make the world better for everyone around them, and their friends, who are also good people, and of my better students, or my fellow scientists, I feel good about the future. The feeling doesn’t last very long, however, since such people are not abundant. But since the future will not be improved by my worrying about it, I prefer to focus my attention on the good people whom I know.