If the World Might End…

Of all my old friends who have remained among the American Republican faithful, because since the 1980s they have considered that to be “the Christian thing to do,” Vinnie is one of the ones I would credit with having the most intellectual integrity. He is no one’s intellectual overall, but he stops to think about things more than the average Republican, and in doing so he avoids towing the party line with reference to hate-mongering strategies that are so common in the US these days.

This might be because he actually has friends among the sort of people that Republicans are taught to distrust: poor people, darker-skinned city dwellers, gay people, even Muslims. Recognizing the human value in all these suspect sorts gives Vinnie a bit more of an open mind and a sense of harmony with the world than most others in the religious and political circles he still identifies with.

So on one level it wasn’t terribly surprising last week to see Vinnie taking the bold step for a Republican of admitting that human caused global warming is in fact a tragic reality of the world we live in. For most people in the world this is no longer a big deal, but for an American Republican affiliated with the “religious right” this is still an incredibly bold position to take. I mean for most Republicans, if they address the subject at all these days, it is in saying that it makes a lot less difference to them than stimulating the American economy.  The number of Republican climate change skeptics on congressional science commissions is frankly one of the biggest scandals in the history of government involvement in science since the imprisonment of Galileo. So to for someone associated with these circles, even at a very layman level, to actually come out and say that people are screwing up our planet in ways that will decrease the quality of life and even the chances of survival for most of its population within the next few generations is almost as bold as for a Saudi Muslim to sit around in a coffee shop and say, “you know, I think Muhammad probably just made up a lot of the stuff in the Qur’an.” But then again, Vinnie is the sort of guy who is prone to speaking his mind in ways that aren’t always acceptable to his political allies.

As much as I applaud Vinnie’s moral courage on this matter though, I still have somewhat against him on the implications he infers from it: he’s phrased his acceptance of this uncomfortable truth in ways that exclude the expectation –– or even the possibility really –– that he or anyone he knows will actually do anything about it.

It has to do with which people he is acknowledging are doing permanent damage to our global ecology. Vinnie’s new position is that the irresponsibly expanding industrial producers in developing  countries are to blame for the globe’s current and growing environmental crises, and no matter what Americans or westerners in general do, the boat we’re all on is inevitably going to sink.

Therefore, rather than trying to keep things afloat –– rather than adjusting our lifestyles to live in such a way that, were all others to do the same, it would enable 7 – 10 billion people to sustainably share the resources available to us on this planet –– Vinnie’s new perspective is that we need to either fight our way onto what few lifeboats there may be available, or we need to pray that Jesus comes back before things really get messy. This sort of wavering between defeatism, calloused self-interest and fantasy escapism seriously bothers me.

Having lived among Nordic Lutheran theologians for a good portion of my life now, one of the areas where I still have difficulty relating to them is in the area of eschatology: the theological study of what the end of the world is supposed to be like, and what sort of final contest between good and evil we should be gearing up for. The Nordic Lutheran approach to the matter, in a nutshell, is to distinguish between “future eschatology” and “present eschatology”; the former being a Hal Lindsey fantasy land not worth taking all that seriously, and the latter being an analysis of the ways in which “the Kingdom of God” is represented by the Church, perhaps including some consideration of how the Church should and can be better represent such a Kingdom through implementing wiser and more moral political strategies. Thus one of the key questions of systematic theology is functionally eliminated; to the extent that eschatology is talked about at all it tends to be subsumed into the category of ecclesiology: the study of the nature of the Church as such.

I say that to say this: the consideration of how life as we know it could come to an end, how we should relate to that possibility, what goals we should have beyond maintaining some part of the status quo of life as we know it (for no better reason than to keep what is familiar to us going) and what sort of ultimate hope we should be motivating ourselves with is too important an area of philosophical and theological consideration to just sideline it the way most Nordic Lutherans seem to have.  People like Vinnie need better answers to these questions than an escapist  self-deception of telling themselves, “Jesus is coming back soon, so in the big scheme of things it doesn’t matter if the world is going to hell,” and the alternatives need to include something more substantial than various churches’ organizational self-promotion strategies.

That being said, one of the wisest and most profound things ever said in the field of eschatology, in my humble opinion, came from Martin Luther himself. When asked what he would do today if he knew for certain that Jesus would be coming back tomorrow, Luther reportedly said, “I would plant a tree.” That is what I want to convince Vinnie, and all those who share his new found awareness of how screwed up our world is, to do with whatever time we have remaining: keep planting trees.

What do I mean by that?

Tree planting is an exercise of belief in the future, regardless of whether or not we personally stand to benefit from it. It is a matter of providing future generations with means of harvesting the sun’s energy, cleaner air to breathe, sometimes fruit to eat and at some point in the future wood for building, furniture-making or fuel.

One of the things Vinnie has acutely realized as part of his awareness of the damage mankind has done to the environment is how we have taken away too many of the trees that we need for survival –– crucially including, but not limited to, those in distant rain forests. Luther lived in a simpler time; in a world where there was not yet any shortage of trees. Yet he was aware of the uses he got out of trees that had grown before his time, and he saw the common sense in continuously replacing the resources he utilized so that there would be some for future generations. He considered this to be one of the most concrete forms of exercising responsibility for the future, and he pointed out that even if there were to be no future he would still want to act responsibly in this regard. He figured that if he were to stand before God before the week was out, having to give account for his life, he would want to say that he was grateful for the mercy he had received from God, and thereafter, as part of his expression of gratitude for this mercy, he had continued to pay it forward as a matter of principle. He would want to say to God that right to the end he had been “paying in” to the common good as his way of showing his appreciation for what he had received.

This stands in stark contrast to the behavior of many over the past couple of centuries who, believing that the end of the world was coming anyway, proceeded to treat their day to day responsibilities as irrelevant, only to find themselves destitute, humiliated and even suicidal at times when Jesus didn’t come to pull them out of the hole they dug themselves into. But even if Jesus would have come back as they expected, it seems rather unlikely that He would have afforded them much glory in gloating to their neighbors, “See, I told you so!” Their irresponsible actions would have been just as irresponsible even if they would have got away with them in the pragmatic materialist sense.

It’s sort of like drunk driving being just as immoral a thing to do whether or not you happen to kill anyone while doing so on any given occasion. Luther had the right idea on this one: in a genuinely apocalyptic situation the responsible, “Godly” thing to do is to behave as though you expect life to go on, whether it will or not. And part of what that means is to do what is right and responsible even if no one else does.

This is part of what is called a deontological approach to ethics. In simple terms, our actions should be based on what is right in principle. Deontological ethics is generally ready to postulate that there is someone/something “out there” that sets the standards that humans should follow –– right and wrong aren’t matters of random taste –– but at the same time we can’t use “special divine revelation” as the final deciding factor in defining our morality either.

The most obvious principle that transcends all religious borders, which needs to be part of anything which calls itself morality, is some variation of what Christians call “the Golden Rule” and what philosophers call “altruistic reciprocity”: You behave in the way you would ideally like others to behave, not because you expect that they will necessarily follow your example (though there is a good chance they will) but merely because it is just the right thing to do.

When it comes to human caused global climate change, the right thing to do is for each of us to work on reducing our “footprint” to sustainable levels where, if everyone else would do the same, we would not have to worry about having enough resources to feed, shelter and educate the rest of the world’s population, and to keep things going for generations to come. Even if other’s remain hell-bent on destroying our planet and we can’t effectively stop them, and even if Jesus is coming back and history is coming to an end in the coming few years, that doesn’t keep this application of the Golden Rule from being the right thing to do.

Now part of being ethical in this sort of way is to be aware of relevant problems, like climate change, and to recognize how, in practical terms, we can each personally do things to keep ourselves from making it considerably worse. Not wasting energy which comes from burning fossil fuels in particular might be a good common sense starting point. Not buying fundamentally needless crap to bolster our otherwise failing self-images and personal relationships is another fairly obvious step for all of us to take, even if that is far easier said than done in Western societies, especially at Christmas time. This kind of thought, I would argue, needs to be part of every Christian’s day-to-day moral contemplation (and obviously not only Christians, but I’m not going to explore why non-believers or believers in other traditions should follow deontological standards this time).

So what am I actually doing about this in practice? Besides living within my means as a part-time teacher, besides preparing to live without a car once the inspection expires on my old Peugeot next month, besides largely boycotting the sort of retail insanity that runs from Black Friday to Christmas Eve each year for mental health reasons, besides cutting back on red meat for cardio-vascular health reasons… I have to admit I’m actually not doing that much. I can’t really preach that everyone should follow my own example, because most of the concrete steps I’ve taken to reduce my environmental footprint have had other practical reasons besides saving the planet. I could say that there are others far worse than me, but that’s a lame excuse, I realize. Here too, to live up to my theoretical moral principles I need stronger self-discipline. My main point is that making more of an effort in this direction is relevant to any sincere attempt to live a Godly life these days.

But I’ll give an example of an initiative that I’d strongly support on a number of grounds: mandatory methane trapping using sealed manure composting tanks for all commercial meat and poultry production operations.  It works like this: unbeknownst to many people, the methane that comes from cows, pigs, sheep and chickens, and their excrement, actually do more harm to our environment than CO2 emissions. The release of this potential fuel source directly into the atmosphere is the essential reason why meat production is seven times less energy efficient than it would be for humans to eat directly the corn and grain that we feed to the animals that we in turn eat as meat: most of the energy that could come from this feed ends up being belched and farted up into the atmosphere as untapped flammable gas.  Now while we can’t feasibly and humanely capture all the methane that comes out of these animals’ mouths and rectums in gaseous form, we can do something about the gas coming off of their manure. We can require that all such commercial operations scoop or pump this manure into air-tight tanks from which all the methane that is a by-product of the composting process can be  simply piped off and filtered and used it a fuel for cooking heating or operating internal combustion motors rather than allowing it to escape to directly mess up the ozone layer.

pig-in-mudA side effect of such regulation would be that at least in the short-term it would make meat products more expensive to produce, driving up prices of foods that are in fact less environmentally sustainable and unhealthier in general: another win for both the environment and public health. The major minus of such a proposal: farm lobbies throughout the Western world would (excuse the analogy) scream like stuck pigs. Can our political processes ever become so functional as to prioritize the common good over the voice of powerful economic interests? That remains to be seen. It is so far unprecedented, but theoretically possible… if people start to take our environmental problems seriously enough.

There are plenty of other actions that can be taken within our local and national economies if we dare to defy the power of commercial interest groups. Some would require infrastructure investments in public utilities, requiring higher taxes and user fees for businesses that depend on the trash collection, sewer services, gas and water being piped in, and a reliable electrical grid. This has to be done in such a way that it increases local employment and so that the costs for these basic services are not passed on directly to those who are the most poor and economically vulnerable.  This, in turn, leads to a long policy debate unto itself, but if we are going to be responsible for the world we are leaving to future generations this is a debate we have to have.

Suffice to say, we can’t blame all of the problems on developments taking place in countries trying to catch up with the European and American standard of living, and we can’t keep letting business and industrial interests get away with irresponsible destructive behavior when we really know better. A start would be to live in such a way where if all 7 billion of the people on our planet were to feel entitled to the same sorts of things we consume on a day-to-day basis, things would still be OK. If we then learn to deal with our biological and industrial waste the way we’d expect them to, and then help them to do the same for the good of the generations to come, that would be a reasonable next step.

What I’m firmly opposed to is pretending that the same rules we lived by when there were 10 million people on the planet will be sufficient for managing a world population of 10 billion in peace and harmony with each other. We can’t assume that our scriptures give us all the rules we need, and that nothing which goes against a standard given in the Bible or the Qur’an can be a legitimate law. Situations have changed, and the standards we need to set for ourselves need to be adapted to this new reality if we are to survive. Call me a heretic if you must, but we need to move beyond moral and spiritual standards set for us over 1000 years ago. In this regard the traditional standard of not allowing any sexual activity that doesn’t potentially lead to procreation isn’t that relevant these days; living by the Golden Rule  –– by the standards we would hope and expect others to live by  –– is. That remains true regardless of how soon life as we know it may be coming to an end.

So what sort of eschatology would I hope for? In some ways I’m actually not so sure any more. I know that the New Testament apostles were never expecting human history to run nearly as long as it has already before coming to its climactic end. And in my own brief life I’ve already lived through too many predictions of the end of the world coming to take any of them seriously any more. That being said, I see things all around me getting much better and much worse at the same time, all the time. I believe we need to trust something beyond ourselves and our human genius and collective goodness to fix things: to relieve the needless and unspeakable suffering that so many are experiencing these days, and to save us from the risk of driving the human race to near extinction in a generation or two. I believe we need something transcendent to pin our hopes to. Even if I don’t expect to live to see the final climax of human history, even if my faith in the various variations of the Zoroastrian  end times narrative have weakened with time, I believe some vision for the future remains important; something that doesn’t depend on the absurdities of various factors beyond our influence, but which gives us a sense that giving our best remains a worthwhile venture.

There might be more to that than what Luther had to say, or there might not be. Something to ponder over the holidays.




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Filed under Ethics, Philosophy, Politics, Priorities, Religion

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