Tuesday, May 27, 2008

 

IS SCIENCE THE PROPHETIC VOICE OF OUR TIME?

A colleague posed this query a few weeks ago. It accompanied James Hansen’s letter to Jim Rogers, Duke Power CEO, passionately trying to dissuade him from building a huge new coal-fired plant at Cliffside, south of Charlotte, NC. Hansen is one of the worlds’ foremost climate scientists, working tirelessly to inform politicians and corporate leaders of the disastrous consequences of business as usual.

Climate change is the key moral issue of our time and the greatest challenge our species has ever faced. Chief among the Pandora’s box of ecological crises unleashed by the global corporate industrial complex, it is worthy of enlisting prophetic voices. But because it is sworn to value neutrality, science itself is not prophetic. Peer review attempts to assure allegiance to the scientific method, but in the public statements which the IPCC releases periodically, it is the politics of careful consensus that determines the averaged truth we hear.

What makes the reports of bodies like the IPCC prophetic is that they deliver with considerable authority a truthful view of the world, one which our shackles of habit and comfort resist. Cal DeWitt, legendary environmental science professor, pointed out recently that the job of the scientist, as well as the ordinary citizen, is simply to describe what he sees when he honestly looks at the world we live in. Thus the scientist and the honest citizen play the role of the little boy who pointed out to a kingdom of sycophants that the emperor wore no clothes.

Science is descriptive. By its ability to measure concentrations of atmospheric gases, and compare them to other climatic eras, the IPCC is able to make a comprehensive case for the earth’s condition. By taking on the role as arbiter of truthful evidence in the post-Enlightenment world, science plays less the role of prophet than priest. In the case of climate change, it provides an enormous counterweight to industry and the politicians who do its bidding. But in other cases, like the pharmaceutical industry, it is thoroughly complicit in the corporate goal of fleecing the consumer by controlling the means of relief from the mortal reality framing our lives.

In the case of the IPCC reports, the sense that science is prophetic comes from its ability to predict future climates based on more and more precise modeling of those from the past and present. Since its models are so powerful, we experience the dawning future like a fearsome wave asymptotic to the present reality; the future is collapsing upon our poorly-defended present. For those with eyes open it feels like prophecy unfolding.

Science is also normative, and those norms not only dictate the practice of science, they enshrine it as the technological fix. Running out of food? No problem, we’ll synthesize it in the lab. Too much CO2? Let’s pump it into the ground, perhaps piping it under the ocean. The latter dream reminds me of Goethe’s Faust and his vast scheme for water projects spanning the northern hemisphere. Ignoring Faustus’ fate in the Medieval morality play and in Marlowe’s drama, we honor him as Goethe’s romantic hero, the superscientist who holds the keys to the kingdom of sustainability.

Individual scientists take what their science has given them to speak in moral terms. In his letter to Jim Rogers, Hansen speaks of both the tragedy and the dangers to humankind presented by desperate climate refugees. He speaks of the moral imperative to preserve a habitable world for our children and grandchildren. But in the same letter, knowing he’s addressing a businessman, he dwells longest on the liability of building coal-fired plants in a business climate overshadowed by global warming.

Hansen acknowledges greed by pointing out the similarity in the disinformation campaign on climate change to the tobacco industry’s use of the same strategy, enabling it to amass huge profits while it diverted society from incontrovertible evidence that smoking caused cancer. But a true prophet would address our common greed, a whole society that has turned away from God’s charge to be stewards of the Garden. We like to blame the politicians and corporate overlords, but we are the ones who elect the politicians and buy the array of plastic from China, demanding food, oil, and electric power anytime from anywhere, at a huge cost to the earth.

The prophetic response to climate change emerges not from science but from allegiance to a power deeper than humanity. In the case of the Judeo-Christian tradition, that power resides in the Old Testament land ethic and in Jesus’s social gospel. The prophet would point out the special risk to the poor from climate disruption. To the prophetic ear, the message of the climate scientist leads to an examination of structural sin, a political liberalism that discounts the good of the whole, confident that individual liberty will liberate us all, including the least of these, into the horn of plenty. The mechanism for this is the Market, today’s Mammon enshrined by left and right alike, an economic structure that continues to enrich a minority while the poor remain mired in poverty. A rising tide raises all boats say the other modernist priests, neoliberal economists. Tell this to islanders and coastal dwellers already washed by that tide.

“See how Christ's blood streams from the firmament!” says Marlowe’s Faustus, his heart locked against repentance. In the next scene, the demons pull him bodily into hell. In contrast to the cool view of science, the universe is shot through with the divine, and has a moral structure. Faustus looks up and beholds the river of the suffering divine as it enters into relation with the world. Creation may not have taken place by means of the haunting poetry of Genesis, but scripture points out that ours is world structured by the divine, not chance. The Genesis Garden is laid out in quarters by the two rivers flowing through it. Prophecy is rooted in the recognition of this moral structure, and today it proclaims how our ecological sin has damaged it hugely.

Fundamentalists are retrograde to deny the atmospheric facts, but they are faithful in their witness to the divine foundation of prophetic speech and action. We need science’s help in getting the facts of Creation right, but all people of faith need to reach for the requisite motivation to preserve this old earth in the face of another great wave of extinction. We must re-affirm our deepest love and stewardship, for this time around, we are the Flood, and must learn again to be Noahs, undoing what our engine of progress has wrought.

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EO Wilson, Hotspots, and Global Warming

Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa, NC pioneers educating for environmentalist careers and building a sustainable college community. When Nobel laureate E.O. Wilson, who created the new sub-field of sociobiology, spoke at the college a few years ago, he highlighted the challenge and adventure of a naturalist’s career, showing scientists in cloud forest canopy walkways such as those we experienced in Monteverde. At the end of his talk, a suitably awed student asked, “And who will carry on this work when you are gone?”, Wilson immediately answered with a smile, scanning the thronged chapel, “Why you will, of course.”

Preserving hotspots, and training those who will safeguard them, is a splendid idea, and organizations like Conservation International are making great strides in doing just that (though preserving the human cultures who live alongside these rich genetic troves has proved a challenge. But during the question period, I raised the issue of the impact of climate change upon these preserves, forcing their inhabitants to shift to more suitable climates, and thus frequently facing the daunting prospect of traversing adjacent areas heavily populated by human beings. Wilson was perturbed. “One problem at a time,” he begged.

Up to the late twentieth century, science advanced through just this approach. But I’m sorry Professor Wilson, we can’t pick and choose our problems; they are all happening at once. During the last half century, the field of ecology has matured, and has necessarily introduced the study of the systemic complexity characterized by many mutually-affecting variables. Wilson was unhappy with the question because he was at Warren Wilson to recruit naturalists. But the question still stands, and we face the awesome task of addressing the whole host of variables in the earth-system unleashed by global warming. We are the Flood, and we need to collectively remember how to be Noahs, not just by preserving ecologically sensitive hotspots, but by fundamentally changing the way we live.

My last post chronicled a happy sojourn in Costa Rica and its hotspots, preserved by an enlightened government and citizenry. The discerning reader might ask, “But what about the ecological cost of ecotourism?” Among the perplexing tasks of sorting variables is weighing the relative carbon costs of flying in ecotourists to the cutting of trees and putting in cattle in unsuitable terrain, as the Quaker “pioneers” did at Monteverde. Raising cattle is perhaps the single most destructive thing that we do. Ecotourism seems to be a progressive move, but just how much do the consumers, the eco-tourists, do to help the equation?

No matter what our efforts to set aside habitat for future genetic diversity, the larger issue always remains the human context for these areas. Excepting the most basic elements of life - the bacteria, algae, fungi, and insects - we have become the dominant life-form, and all other species live within our context - the honeybees surviving in urban and suburban areas while dying in the countryside - or they are in preserves, effectively, zoos.

But there are moments when the primordial still rears up and swallows us, natives who were thrown out of the Garden, now casually and mindlessly raising colonialists of the natural order, addicted to our industrial ways and imagined separation from our ground in Gaia. When Geeta and I arrived at our lodge adjacent to the Corcovado rainforest preserve in the Osa Peninsula, the sound of the cicadas was so deafening I couldn’t hear myself think. I was worried, fearful that I would be trapped for a week amidst this deafening chant, unable to thread my identity along the string of my occasionally brilliant reflections. Mercifully, at nightfall, the chorus abruptly ceased, and I relaxed. But during our stay at this glorious place, each day inevitably produced a time when the chorus rose up to swallow me again, reminding me that in the big scheme of things, I and my thoughts were perhaps not so important after all.

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