To Fight Brush Fires or the Whole Enchilada

Should we fight against the brush fires or tackle the whole enchilada? I’ve often wondered about that. People find it easier to tackle the little pieces. I’ve heard that Napoleon, retreating in Russia, broke the retreat into a series of small objectives to keep up his men’s confidence. But then we know the man in charge had his eyes on the big picture – getting out of Russia before he lost his entire army.

There is no guy in charge of the whole world. Americans like to brag that we’re the greatest. And many of them think we can accomplish anything and, if we don’t, the president’s to blame. I don’t share that misconception. Even in the U.S. no one is really in charge. Politics, democracy, is about conflict and compromise. And no one is in charge.

So how do we deal with environmental problems before it’s too late? Let’s understand the scope of the problem. We’ve been talking a lot about fracking lately. But fracking is only a small piece of the puzzle. The more gas that is produced worldwide, the more will be burned, the more carbon contributed to global warming, even if burning gas is cleaner than oil. Either way, each fight over fracking here or there doesn’t get us close to dealing with the overall problem and it doesn’t look like anyone is going to deal effectively with global warming.

Global warming is pushing us back from the shores, inundating fertile land around the globe. And global warming is turning fertile lands into deserts and turning forests into tinder and ashes. Those three different effects of global warming all reduce photosynthesis. So what? Where do you think we get the oxygen we breathe? From photosynthesis. Because we need oxygen, therefore we need the trees and plants that produce it. Global warming is reducing them all.

Many of us make strong individual efforts at conservation. Conservation and efficiency work well if the number of people doesn’t change. But of course that isn’t close to true. The population of the world has well more than doubled in my lifetime, and is already a multiple of the level that scientists believe is sustainable. Malthus seems to have been wrong about the food supply. But the oxygen supply is not even a product – we don’t pay for the oxygen and no one supplies the oxygen we breathe. We get that oxygen only as a byproduct of natural processes. Population growth and global warming put pressure on the supply of oxygen. And the increase of population puts pressure on global warming.

Now there’s a really big job. All our humanitarian instincts are about helping people live, grow, and survive disease. But address population control and the religious push back is enormous.

So I put it to the people of faith in the audience, can religion simply ignore the threat of suffocation while we “go forth and propagate the earth.” Haven’t we already propagated the earth? Isn’t there ground to believe that the great religious leaders of all our faiths would want us to preserve the earth that gives us life, and protect the people on the earth from suffocation, to protect human beings, whom many of us think of as in the image of God, from extinction? Isn’t that a pro-life agenda we can all get behind. And can our religious institutions accomplish what our politicians can’t, in time to protect our own children and descendants?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 22, 2013.

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