Reckoning Where We Are: Entangled
David R. Weiss – November 22, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #49 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
You can find good news on climate concerns. Our solar panels are having the sunniest day since being turned on. A recent breakthrough in solar technology has shown that sunshine can be harnessed with sufficient intensity to drive industrial processes like making steel, glass, or concrete. And Sweden, through a program based in one of its public research universities, has hired a Chief Storyteller to help craft a public engaging and inspiring narrative for their Viable Cities program.
These are all remarkable things in their own way. And good news feels good. But I fear we also need a much stronger medicine, because remarking on the technological breakthroughs in the construction of the Titanic or even commenting on the inspiring music being played by the ship’s ensemble won’t keep you from getting sunk by an iceberg. And Transition reminds us that even while bits of good news trickle out—and are worth noticing and celebrating—the larger picture is undeniably ominous.
While Transition is absolutely about shaping a positive vision for a sustainable future, that future is only positive, only sustainable, if it reckons honestly the gap between our present and that future. And overall the news is not kind to us on climate issues—or any other facet of forging a sustainable future on the finite planet we call home. (And that last phrase, while colloquial, also betrays the very disconnect that betrays us these days. It doesn’t do any good to “call” Earth home if we don’t really mean it, or act like it. And, bottom line, it isn’t ours to “call” at all. “Call” suggests choice, as though we picked Earth from a list of options. But there are no other planets available. Earth IS our home. And a large part of the gap between collapsing present and sustaining future lies in that faulty notion.)
The latest IPCC report highlights the size of that gap. These IPCC reports—because they represent the consensus of many studies and authors—inevitably present moderate assessments. And when moderate assessments sound alarming, it gets increasingly difficult to find a foothold for even cautious optimism. This last report, released in late September, looks at Earth’s oceans and ice regions as one key player in the climate crisis. It states soberly that if we do not hold temperature increase below 1.5 C, “the same oceans that nourished human evolution are poised to unleash misery on a global scale.” Remember, that’s the moderate angle.
And it echoes earlier IPCC reports in telling us that limiting temperature rise to 1.5 C rests on making “rapid, far-reaching, and unprecedented” changes in nearly every facet of our lives. This is now so close to a political impossibility as to practically make limiting the increase to 2.0 C our best hope right now. We’re likely to crest 1.5 C in the next 10-30 years and we may well be flirting disastrously with 2.0 C before this century ends. Which means we should brace ourselves for the report’s somber (again, “moderate”!) predictions. Sea level rise will rewrite coastlines and submerge coastal cities, displacing industry and some 280 million people—quadrupling our already record-high refugee count. Political borders will be battered by waves, both watery and human.
The biggest change we need to make is to reduce our use of fossil fuels as swiftly as possible. Honestly, we need to do it, not without disrupting our economy, but (ideally) without crashing it. Disruption is the price of survival. Unfortunately, we’re not willing to pay that price yet. A recent report by the UN Environment Programme analyzed the announced coal, oil, and gas production plans of the world’s countries over the next decade.  As of today we’re still planning—HOPING?!—to extract more than TWICE the amount of fossil fuels that would keep us at the safest 1.5 C increase and 50% more than would even keep us at 2 C—the point characterized by the IPCC report above as “unleashing misery on a global scale.” We are planning, by 2030, to have locked in global catastrophic consequences.
Considering only our own fates, this is sheer madness. Considering all whose lives and wellbeing is at stake today and in the future, this is sheer evil. It matters little that this path toward chosen collapse is built into our societal structures and beyond our personal reach. When it reaches our doorsteps, our families, our grandchildren, our claims to powerlessness will mean nothing and save no one. Either we find ways to become persons with the power to act—which is what Transition Towns are all about—or we become complicit in the choice to assault the planet.
Of course, we already are. We were born into patterns of consumption, habits of living, assumptions of comfort and convenience that were misshapen long before we realized it. Long before we became aware of the threat. Or the extent to which those patterns entangle us with others beyond our view.
The worst consequences of global heating will (already do) fall disproportionately on “the least of these”—those living in less industrialized countries who are least responsible for carbon emissions and least equipped to respond … those in whom Jesus says we encounter him today. And it’s much more than just climate consequences. The searing inequities of the globalized economy are fundamental to the misshapen patterns that define our lives. Some of this, which Transition clearly calls out, involves the way that high finance drives down wages and makes employment more precarious right here in our communities. But it’s equally true that the consumer culture, driven by industrialized capitalism, weds us ever more deeply to injustice against our more distant neighbors.
Is “neighbors” the right word for those we never really see? Yes—given their intimate connection to our lives. Two examples suffice, drawn from the past week’s news. A BBC report describes a pair of villages in Indonesia where villagers practice subsistence “farming”: by sorting through mixed plastics sent by Western countries to be recycled. Only the best plastic can be “harvested”; the rest is burned as fuel by local industry. So these “neighbors”—after all, it’s the plastic we recycle from our consumer choices that ends up in their village—deal with respiratory ailments from toxic fumes released by the burning plastic and eat chicken eggs with dioxin levels 70 times higher than considered safe.
Meanwhile, in Madagascar children as young four years old “work” long hours—day and night—in makeshift mines collecting shards of mica. Some of it winds up as the sparkle in the cosmetics on your face. Most finds it way to China and then to the U.S. in the hair dryers that style our hair or the audio speakers that play our music (though it also shows up in an array of products that populate our everyday lives—although they’d be unimaginable to the children crawling through the darkness).
We are entangled in a web of relationships, a system of structures that expects us to use oil like there’s no tomorrow. To use people like they’re not human. To use the planet as though it were not our (ONLY) home. Christians have language for this, though as I said last time, we’ll need to reclaim it from those who’ve cheapened it. We are entangled in sin. And next time I’ll turn to that.
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.
 www.cnn.com/2019/11/19/business/heliogen-solar-energy-bill-gates/index.html; to be sure, this breakthrough includes a measure of ambiguity. If it slows fossil fuel use without shifting the way we see ourselves on the planet, it will simply provide a “scorched-Earth” means to destroy the planet that doesn’t require oil.
 See www.nymag.com/intelligencer/2019/08/leaked-un-draft-warming-oceans-could-unleash-misery.html; IPCC is the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The full report is here: www.ipcc.ch/srocc/home.