Saturday, February 16, 2008

A Failure of Good Stewardship

When future generations look upon ours - if future generations there are - they will marvel at our stupidity. Not short-sighted zeal or misplaced optimism, but downright old-fashioned asinine stupidity.

For only in the past hundred or so years has mankind produced waste that could not be thrown out. [Away, yes. Into our own backyards, or into the backyards of others.] Only in the past few generations have we had, and used, the capability to leave an ecological footprint. And what a footprint we have left, one where time to clean up the mess is measured not in months or years, but in millenia and thousands of millenia.

Consider the following two examples:

1. Nuclear waste. We cannot clean this stuff up. Billed as a "clean" energy source, in that it does not use hydrocarbons like gas, coal or oil, nuclear power plants produce electricity and radioactive waste, waste that will remain radioactive, and dangerous, long after our grandchildren's grandchildren have grown old. And our best solution? Bury it in a mountain.

Completely aside from the dangers inherent in nuclear waste management, the fact is that this waste will persist for generations. Depleted uranium, one of the less radioactive byproducts, has a half-life of about 4.5 billion years. Cesium-137, one of the more radioactive byproducts, has a half-life of approximately 30 years. This sounds good, but it still takes 150 years to stabilize 97% of the stuff.

We have created a technological marvel, but have completely failed to create the technology to clean it up. And yet we use it regardless. This, by any definition, is stupidity.

2. Plastics. Long-term readers of this blog know already of my deep antipathy for plastic bags. And so I was quite pleased to read a recent article which called for an end to them. But the problem is not just bags. They are just the most obvious and most unsightly leaving of the plastic industry: bag-festooned trees are, as an urban phenomena, an unfortunate commonplace.

The problem is plastic in general. Again, we have created a technology without creating the means to clean up afterwards. The net result is a global experiment to see how nature copes with something it cannot biodegrade. Incidentally, it is this biodegradability that ensured the economic "success" of plastics, and their ubiquity in modern life - we wanted, and now rely on, something that will not rust, corrode, or rot. In short, we wanted something completely alien to nature.

And we got it. Here is what this alien monstrosity has brought us: the plastic ocean, a soup of ever-crumbling plastic floating in the heart of the Pacific, a soup twice the size of the continental U.S. The cleanup? As possible as sifting the Sahara.

For those interested in more information on the garbage patches where ocean once stood, there is a video you can watch, a blog from a research vessel currently exploring this plastic ocean that you can read, or you can check out Wikipedia.

The problem doesn't end with the near indestructibility of plastic. Unfortunately, our global experiment includes the use of toxins. Recently, bisphenol A and phthalates have both made the news as toxins that exist in our plastics and which are not bound by them [they leach out]. Other known toxins are DEHA and styrene.

I think of the snobbery of the historian or scientist looking at the Roman's use of lead in their water pipes (as an interesting side-note, "plumbing" comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum). Are we any better? Many modern homes use piping made from PVC, an incredibly persistent plastic that releases dioxin both during manufacture and incineration, a plastic that contains the aforementioned phthalates.

What can we do, if we desire to effect some change? As far as I can see it, we must follow the three R's, whether we are making a personal move away from plastics, or the government wakes to the fact that we are bankrupting our future for present convenience and makes the decision for us. And the three R's are:
Reduce - First and foremost, we must reduce our plastic consumption. We must make it clear to the corporations that if they package something in plastic, we will not buy it. We must opt for products made of wood, metal, glass, etc. Only in the arena of medicine do I see a legitimate need for plastic ... in all other parts of our lives, I see enormous potential for improvement.
Reuse - Where plastic exists already, let us reuse it so as to maximize its lifespan. Eventually, plastic grows brittle and breaks into smaller [non-biodegradable] pieces, but until that happens, let us keep what we have out of the landfills and away from our seas for as long as we humanly can.
Recycle - In creating recycling programs we have bred a feeling of smug complacency about our plastic consumption. The truth is that out of the seven main groups of plastics, generally only two are recycled. And their recycling is just another form of reuse - the plastic doesn't go away, it doesn't biodegrade. It is a sop to our collective conscience and little more. However, where we can, and until that day when we have eliminated this unnatural abomination from our diets, recycling is a good way to reuse certain of our plastics.
The Travesty of the Religious Right

Sadly, there is not much concern for our environment in most conservative Christian circles today. In a baffling move, social conservatives (traditional Christianity is, by definition, socially conservative) have allied themselves with big business, big pharma, big oil, and big agribusiness, not to mention the military-industrial complex. And so they have distanced themselves from the environment, from the need to protect this planet from the worst of man's ravages, for it is axiomatic that the "needs" of large corporations are inimical to the needs of nature.

Somehow, we have left it to the democrats, the liberals, and the otherwise loony left to take up the torch that is ours by right and by religion. How many times have we heard it said that man is a steward of God's Creation? (I have heard it used as a defense for doing what we like with it - which makes as much sense as justifying defecating in the front parlour of our neighbours' home because they asked us to house-sit for them.) This stewardship is ours as heirs of Adam, a sacred charge not to be lightly dismissed. And as recipients of the faith, of true doctrine given us by our forefathers, the Fathers and Apostles, we should be leading the charge, eager to baptize all Creation, eager to restore the Cosmos to the conditions of paradise.

It grieves me that the Church isn't illumining the way for the world ... that it must be the largely non-Christian left that shows us how to care for His Creation (as they show us how to care for the poor, etc.). This was our task, our duty.

I am minded of the Parable of the Good Samaritan. In a grim parallel, it wasn't the Pharisee or the scribe, keepers of the Law or of true doctrine, who rescued the injured man, but it was the Samaritan, the man whose religion was faulty, even heretical, who acted as a true servant of God.

Some may think that properly stewarding the environment is not the most important work asked us of our Lord. True, in comparison to saving a brother from the fires of hell, it doesn't seem terribly important. However, the truth is that most of us aren't busy saving our brothers from the fires of hell, so we really don't have a good excuse for our moral laziness and our callous disregard. Do I think that everyone should become an instant enviro-fanatic? I don't think it likely, even if I was arguing for it. A far more practical and beneficial thing would be if we opened our apathetic hearts to the need to do something, to heal our planet in even a small way. We need to be open to acting on behalf of God's Creation, and then perhaps we will see how.

- V.

5 comments:

les said...

There was a time when I would have vehemently argued with you on many points. Perhaps it is age and weariness and some hard doses of reality that have knocked some measure of wisdom into my head.

Personally, I think what blinds many of us, and I speak as one who has identified this in myself, is the personal drive for wealth that is taught in many areas of our society despite the counter efforts by socialists and socially oriented people, including seriously Christian people. A number of years ago I came face to face with this in myself and it has taken many years of gradual withdrawal and enlightenment to see the bigger picture. I remember being in a motivation session from leaders of a well-known multi-level marketing organization and they were trying, by using pictures and so forth, to cause us to desire expensive cars, boats, big houses, etc. I found it all left me cold. Years later I realize that none of it had intrinsic value without other people to enjoy it too.

The point of this ramble is to say that living does not require the excess. Living well is to be without want but not without those you love, and as many of them as possible.
It is in the excess that we have created the ecological mess we are in, not in the necessities of living. You are right. Christians should know this. Christ himself taught simplicity of living and giving away of our bounty and the Church has always taught this as well, not that there haven't been many churchmen and lay people over the centuries who have been motivated by greed.
I could become a card-carrying socialist tomorrow and/or support the greens were it not for some of the moral abominations they publicly support.

In some ways the idea of the "Christian Right" is a contradiction in terms. But I can see the mindset from which it comes. Just look at some of the late-night wealth gospel shows on TV. They are the crass end of a continuum across many Protestant denominations with wide and deep roots right back to the foundations of America. It was always about the money. That is how freedom was and is defined for most.
All of which is to say that it will take an economic calamity to save the environment and the cause and effect relationship is uncertain.

les said...

Comment update.

Apparently Pope Benedict XVI has been thinking along similar lines as you have.
You may have seen this story;

http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/story.html?id=f6b83fcc-d142-4c08-8645-a42701184539

Stephen said...

"Some may think that properly stewarding the environment is not the most important work asked us of our Lord. True, in comparison to saving a brother from the fires of hell, it doesn't seem terribly important. However, the truth is that most of us aren't busy saving our brothers from the fires of hell, so we really don't have a good excuse for our moral laziness and our callous disregard."

I wonder, though, what our priorities should be - do we steward our environment because we are not busy saving our brothers from the fires of hell? Do we choose second best?

I always think that Christian life is about priorities - stewardship is part of the Christian life; being used of God to save souls is part of the Christian life... I have 24 hours in a day and so much money in my bank account - how do I spend my resources? the answer is inevitably decided based on our priorities.

I recycle, but I definitely do not encourage my parishioners to 'adopt a road/highway' for the purposes of cleaning it up... and although our church has done this in the past I think it is a terrible waste of valuable time.

Hard decisions have to be made by all of us - stewardship is important but where does it fit in a list of priorities... I have to admit it is not very high on mine.

V & E said...

Les:

Thank you for your comments.

I still think that this is a matter of hearts and minds changing. I would expect that economic collapse would only create desperation, and desperation is a poor protector of God's Creation.

Thanks also for the link on Pope Benedict's new seven deadlies. I had seen articles like it, and it is good news. Christians should be leading the way.

Stephen:

I am going to have to rework my defense of Christian environmental action. It is a weak argument that says we should save the world because we aren't saving souls.

I think that I momentarily fell victim to the kind of black-and-white thinking that polarizes all action between two extremes: saving souls, and wasting time. In self-defense, I am not cradle Orthodox, but a convert who must combat the wrong thinking of my upbringing.

Orthodox do not see any polarity between living (and all the tasks and all the joys that entails) and saving souls - rather, we believe that the most effective "witness" is not words spoken but lives lived. St. Seraphim of Sarov famously said, "Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved."

With such an understanding of "witness" and salvation, there is plenty of room in our theology for adopting a highway or avoiding the use of plastics. There is no conflict between them.

Indeed, one could argue instead that caring for (stewarding properly) this world is both a measure of our peace with God's Creation and a clear sign to others that we take His Creation seriously and that we treat it with the respect and reverence due the work of His hands.

Protestants will concede that a hallmark of the Christian is that he is no longer at enmity with God, and no longer at enmity with his fellow man. But Adam's fall did not put him at enmity with God and man alone, but with all of Creation, which groans under the weight of our sins. Therefore Orthodox would add that the man who is being saved is also not at enmity with Creation, but healing it.

As for wasted time, I find the time-as-resource argument an unhelpful one. Clocks may tick off the seconds at a uniform pace, but for a child who is wholly in the moment five minutes in a car can be an eternity. Similarly, hours happily spent fly by.

The true measure of time is not quantitative, but qualitative. It is either wholly lived in the present, or frittered away in fretting about past or future. It is either lived with richness or merely inhabited.

More than this, in prayer and in the services of the Church we enter the Kingdom of God and His time, which is eternal. The clocks may tick seconds, but we are living eternity.

Time is what we make it and the measure of a life well-lived, not the means to measure a life.

- V.

Stephen said...

"rather, we believe that the most effective "witness" is not words spoken but lives lived. St. Seraphim of Sarov famously said, "Acquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved."

I wholeheartedly agree.

"As for wasted time, I find the time-as-resource argument an unhelpful one. Clocks may tick off the seconds at a uniform pace, but for a child who is wholly in the moment five minutes in a car can be an eternity. Similarly, hours happily spent fly by.

The true measure of time is not quantitative, but qualitative. It is either wholly lived in the present, or frittered away in fretting about past or future. It is either lived with richness or merely inhabited."

And yet you would agree that time wasted is not quality time - our time is precious in both senses: qualitative and quantitative - indeed, our lives are all about making priorities - that's what gives them quality and meaning... to fritter away time is a bad use of time whatever way you look time.

sorting out the priorities is the real issue - because acquiring that peaceful spirit and living at peace comes at a high price - decisions are made... for Seraphim it meant months and years alone in a cabin and sometimes all night outdoors...

So I suppose my dilemma is sorting out the priorities - I want the peaceful spirit that will transform the lives of thousands - how then should I spend my time is still a valid question.

and I'm not sure what I think when it comes to stewardship - I'm willing to take the time to recycle, but I'm not sure I would spend a Saturday afternoon picking garbage off a beach...

But being Christian requires balance - and I tend toward extremes...