When did the people in the Noah story (Genesis 6-9) finally realize that they were all going to drown? After the first 40 days of rain, “the waters swelled and increased greatly on the earth,” so that “all the high mountains” were covered.” The sweeping and devastating results: “And all flesh died that moved on the earth, birds, domestic animals, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all human beings” (7:21). Verse 23 adds: “Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark.”
“As it was in the days of Noah,” Jesus said, “so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man” (emphasis mine).
“They knew nothing?” Jesus’ commentary suggests that the people of Noah’s day waited too late to mend their ways. They still weren’t ready when the deluge “swept them away.”
We’re not ready either. Twenty-first century humanity is eating, drinking, marrying and unmarrying, driving, flying, breathing and buying while planet earth decomposes before our very eyes. Indeed, in the US of A, “environmental issues” remain debatable in some quarters (like Congress), with irreconcilable divisions over whether we humans are contributing to climate change and other ecological catastrophes. Some nation-states and their leaders even eschew responses that might at least delay the inevitable terrestrial implosion, further hastening the planet’s demise.
“The fate that befell Noah’s generation seems headed right at us. This time, however, there’s no ark.”
The fate that befell Noah’s generation seems headed right at us. This time, however, there’s no ark. It is a planetary crisis from which no one can escape.
Strange, isn’t it? In the Christian church, how many insist that humanity is persistently tainted by the original sin of our primordial parents, Adam and Eve, while essentially ignoring our collectively unoriginal sins that proliferate global creation chaos?
If my comments here seem unreservedly dire, well, they are, alarmedly reinforced by a new book written by my friend Roger Gottlieb, professor of philosophy at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Gottlieb, a widely recognized scholar and prophetic analyst of the global environment, has produced a sobering work entitled Morality and the Environmental Crisis, soon to be published by Cambridge University Press. I was privileged to read his haunting manuscript and recommend it without hesitation.
Gottlieb insists that an environmental apocalypse is not simply a danger that might occur in the future. It is upon us right now, a scientific reality with decidedly moral implications. His concern is to document the planet’s problems, while addressing “a general, widespread moral malaise that afflicts, in varying degrees, all of us – whether we realize it or not. It is the effect of the environmental crisis on our capacity to think and act morally: to trust in our own ability be good people.” He contends that as we confront environmental certainties, not only is “our personal morality . . . at stake,” but also “the ethical meaning of our society, our culture, our entire civilization.” Our sins against the earth may be collectively unoriginal, but they are no less devastating.
Gottlieb documents “typical environmental facts” compounding immediate ecological difficulties:
- For consecutive years, 1997-2017, warmer global temperatures were above average.
- Arctic temperatures (2016) were 30 degrees above normal.
- World Health Organization estimates that air pollution contributes to the death of 3-6 million people annually.
- Radical declines in insect populations, perhaps up to 75%, promise catastrophic impact on food and plant production.
- Some 40-50% of U.S. lakes and rivers “cannot support life.”
- Human actions now effect the most rapid and extensive “die off of species” in 70 million years, at a rate of roughly one every 11 minutes.
- Rainforests now release CO2 into, instead of removing from, the environment.
- Urban slums and poverty impact 700 million to 1 billion people, creating “an immediate and overwhelming level of human generated pollution” daily for 10-20% of humanity.
- Some estimates suggest that by 2050 there could be more plastic in the oceans than fish.
Gottlieb warns that “these facts and many more, signal a transformation of both the planet and our own bodies,” noting, “The world is neither stable nor safe. The trees and birds, the water and the fish, may be poisoned, or contain poisons.”
Morality and the Environmental Crisis is simply too well documented, too insightfully analyzed, and too ferociously realistic to ignore. The text’s implications are far too vast and complex to address in this brief essay. As he has done throughout our decades’ long friendship, Gottlieb’s has challenged me with his courage and insights. His latest work compels the following reflections.
“An environmental apocalypse is not simply a danger that might occur in the future. It is upon us right now.”
First, Gottlieb notes that these environmental realities represent “the first fully global political issue” confronting the planet. There’s no going back. Human beings are now forced to come to terms with life in a world where weather, food, water, pollution, air and land are tainted as never before. We’re at once vulnerable and responsible. He writes: “Through the most causal actions of our daily lives, actions so casual they are barely noticeable, we have written ourselves on the body of the planet; and, given the high level of toxic chemicals found in the typical bloodstream, on the inside of our bodies as well.”
Second, such creation chaos comes at a time when many social institutions related to education, government, communities and religion seem perennially weakened and unable to address the environmental situation adequately or appropriately. Indeed, Gottlieb suggests that the great world religions seem particularly limited in their ability to respond, noting: “The Judeo‑Christian tradition, closely associated with a European industrial civilization that brought the environmental crisis into the modern world, was typically concerned (at best) with the ‘wise use’ of the earth and its creatures, and not with any notion of their inherent value.”
Third, throughout the book, Gottlieb reminds us that this is the world we have, the world we have helped create, and we’d better learn how to deal with it. He warns against believing “that things will work out or that progress is inevitable.” Instead, he suggests “that it is possible to live in the present without certainty about the future: either about how awful it’s going to be or about how, somehow, we will learn to do better.” At this point, we must resist either too much hope or hopelessness. Rather, Gottlieb declares, “If we are certain about what is coming we need no longer be anxious.”
The KJV says that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” We’d better too – with or without an ark.
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