“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live” (Deuteronomy 30:19, NIV).
In the book Morality and the Environmental Crisis, philosopher/ecologist Roger Gottlieb concludes his devastating documentation of present and future environmental chaos with a not-so-fictional-dialogue between “Adam and Grandpa” as they reflect on a broken world wrought by the elder and inherited by the younger. Their cross-generational, apocalyptic interchange chronicles ceaseless, catastrophic storms, septic air and water, unquenchable floods and ocean-induced loss of coastal cities.
Grandpa, representative of our “present evil age,” asks:
“Did we understand how easy we had it? How much we had? Couldn’t we have made do with a little less, just to protect Adam and all the others? Moot point now, too late. We wanted food without sweat, so we kept playing around with the genes and the earth and insects; and we wanted to make a lot of money off it so we gave the power to agribusiness. . . . And all of a sudden the global marketplace was a series of shuttered windows and locked gates protected by armed men. Every country got more and more afraid that what we had would spread to them.”
The conversation ends as Adam, perhaps the last of the race, recaps the world bequeathed to him:
“I guess this is just what it is. I’ll never understand what happened, what there used to be. Grandpa says all the broken trees used to be something called a forest, that in some places you could swim in the lakes, they weren’t all choked with green slime; that there were things called beaches where people went into the water, which wasn’t all filled with jellyfish and old plastic. All those things that used to be. Where did they go?”
I returned to Gottlieb’s remarkable, foreboding text after reading two editorials in the Nov. 10 edition of the New York Times. In “Wildfire Season in the Age of Trump,” Amy Wilentz writes:
“But weather events have definitely changed since I moved here [to California] in 2002. The droughts are longer and more severe, and when the rain does come, it falls for days in torrents that can and do cause fire-blighted topsoil to flood downhill in life-threatening mudslides, and then, as the seasons turn, come the fires again, blown by fierce and shifting winds.”
In “How Scientists Got It So Wrong,” Eugene Linden comments:
“For decades, most scientists saw climate change as a distant prospect. We all [now] know that thinking was wrong. . . .
“Had a scientist in the early 1990s suggested that within 25 years a single heat wave would measurably raise sea levels, at an estimated two one-hundredths of an inch, bake the Arctic and produce Sahara-like temperatures in Paris and Berlin, the prediction would have been dismissed as alarmist. But many worst-case scenarios from that time are now realities.”
“The rhetoric of ‘protecting the unborn’ is increasingly undermined by government denial of macroclimate collapse and regressive environmental inaction.”
Right now, in 2019, it almost seems that California, the country’s most populous state, is burning to the ground, along with the Amazon rain forests and the Australian “outback.” The icecaps are melting at a record pace, with micro-plastic particles slithering their way into our lungs, profuse in the very air we breathe.
In addition, the Trump administration recently announced that it is withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accords, agreements that were at least “one small step” for humankind. The government also plans to reduce regulations on heat-trapping methane gas, an action that even some of the big oil companies oppose.
Multiple studies now suggest that we have already attained climate realities from which there is little or no return. A September 2019 United Nations report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change asserts:
“Over the 21st century, the ocean is projected to transition to unprecedented conditions with increased temperatures (virtually certain), greater upper ocean stratification (very likely), further acidification (virtually certain), oxygen decline (medium confidence), and altered net primary production (low confidence). Marine heatwaves (very high confidence) and extreme El Niño and La Niña events (medium confidence) are projected to become more frequent.”
Concerning biodiversity, the Scientific American predicts climate change will shape “the fastest-growing . . . species loss by midcentury,” with some African animal varieties reduced 50 percent by century’s end, and the loss of 90 percent of Pacific coral reefs by 2050. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology recently reported on the “staggering” loss of North American bird populations “down by 2.9 billion breeding adults,” 1970-2019.
“Environmental-related repentance and restoration are essential. But we’d better hurry.”
This is the terrible ecological legacy we’ve willed the future. Roger Gottlieb’s fictionalized discourse between “Adam and Grandpa” is no fiction. We live in a country where the rhetoric of “protecting the unborn” is increasingly undermined by government denial of macroclimate collapse and regressive environmental inaction. Impending American generations – our children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, our earthly heirs – have every right to denounce us for our environmental failures, and with considerable justification. We are leaving those who come after us with a world of our own making, even as many among us continue to deny “human participation” in climate change. The broken world they will inherit is the world with which they will be forced to contend.
For people of faith, these global environmental onslaughts have spiritual implications, requiring us to revisit multiple biblical mandates, including Jeremiah’s hope for Judah’s restoration:
“And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.’ But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge” (Jeremiah 31:28-29, NRSV).
Jeremiah’s response to the Babylonian destruction of Judah in 586 BCE is offered to a people struggling with an environment reduced to rubble, with homes destroyed and food scarce. Jeremiah writes to the new generation, cautioning them not to blame the past for present sins. God would hold them accountable for their own sins, not those of their parents.
“Impending American generations have every right to denounce us for our environmental failures.”
Wise words for Judah, but we’re not there yet. Today, the “human error” that contributed significantly to our environmental debacle really does mean that the parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth will be set on edge for years to come, probably for generations.
Sorry, Jeremiah; we’ve found a way to make the destruction of one ancient nation a modern global reality. Children and adults yet unborn will receive the planet we’ve created. Environmental-related repentance and restoration are essential.
But we’d better hurry.