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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

I Believe in Physics
distributed 3/11/11 - ©2011

Telling the Truth about God's Creation
An Eco-Justice Notes series for Lent, 2011

There are many forms and layers of truth that shape our decisions about how to live in relationship with God's creation. Those truths include scientific, theological, moral and psychological assertions which often hold conflicting beliefs or conclusions. To be honest and fruitful, though, any statement of truth must conform to basic facts about the world in which we live. This Lenten series will address several of those foundational truths which are apparent from an eco-justice perspective, but which are often denied by others.

A recent email from the Union of Concerned Scientists speaks of a "refreshing" radio interview where a politician said, “When people ask me if I believe in global warming, I say I believe in physics.”

God's creation -- on this planet Earth that is our home, and apparently though all of the universe -- is governed by inherent rules. The sciences that we know as physics and chemistry are comprehensive and reputable attempts to describe those rules. Our scientific insights grow and change, but the orderliness of the universe is a truth that must be acknowledged.

It is appropriate to join with that politician in the affirmation, "I believe in physics", as a foundational truth about how things work. And it is appropriate to challenge the legitimacy of any theology or philosophy that does not respect the basic orderliness of the universe. Any moral, religious, political or economic "truth" that does not conform to the most basic physical facts of the universe is delusional and will not serve us well.

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A few familiar examples show how the rules of physics and chemistry apply in all settings and all cases. Those same examples point to situations in which the reliable functioning of those rules have profound implications for how we live and act.

Gravity is a force that pervades everything, even though we can't explain how it works. The same tug between objects that causes an apple to fall from a tree also governs the orbit of planets in our solar system, and the complex swirl of stars in massive galaxies. Gravity is a non-controversial example of universal and constant physical laws.

Other forces that are constant and predictable shape the interaction of atoms as they form molecules and compounds. Those reliable forces are just as essential to the functioning of the universe as is gravity.

Hydrogen and oxygen combine easily to create water, and water is utterly predictable in the temperatures at which it boils, freezes and thaws. Water has distinctive properties in each of its states -- solid, liquid and gas. The crystal structure of frozen water (ice or snow) is highly reflective of the energy in transmitted by light, but liquid water readily absorbs that energy. Those of us who live in colder climates see that on a regular basis where a snowy sidewalk resists melting, but it thaws quickly once a wet area forms. Those same constant and predictable rules about "albedo" apply to the rate at which glaciers and polar ice caps expand or thaw.

Oxygen also reacts easily with many other elements beside hydrogen. With iron, we call that process "rust". When oxygen reacts with molecules that contain carbon we call it "burning", and the recombination of elements generally involves the formation of carbon dioxide. Some forms of carbon that burn are very familiar to us -- wood, coal, oil and gas -- and we depend on the energy that is released by their reliable oxidizing.

Carbon dioxide is also involved in many chemical reactions that follow predictable laws. In the process of photosynthesis, plants and sunlight convert water and CO2 into sugar and oxygen. The amount of carbon dioxide that is taken out of the atmosphere by plants is very predictable, and depends very directly on the volume of plants available.

Physics and chemistry describe other processes that shape the universe, and that we see shaping this planet. The orbit of Earth around the Sun, and the tilt of Earth on its axis define how much solar energy our planet receives. Long-term cycles in those orbits are related to parallel cycles of Earth's warming and cooling.

Physics and chemistry describe how the chemical composition of the atmosphere effects the amount of solar energy that is absorbed or radiated by a planet. The changing amounts of compounds like carbon dioxide, methane and water vapor in the atmosphere influence how much the sun warms Earth.

Our planet's rate of spin defines the way currents form in Earth's atmosphere and oceans, and those huge flows of air and water spread heat across the world. The interaction of heat and water in the atmosphere shapes patterns of climate and weather that reflect physical laws, not moral judgments. That why Jesus said that God makes the "sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45). Climate is a matter of physics, not divine whims or wishful thinking.

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I'm sure you see the point behind the examples that I've selected to illustrate the unbreakable, reliable and predictable laws of physics and chemistry. It is the reason why that politician said "I believe in physics" when asked about global warming.

In this orderly universe, where physics and chemistry describe unchanging rules and processes, global warming is the expected result of human impacts on the planet, especially the burning of vast quantities of fossil fuels. Those physical facts are a truth about God's creation that must be acknowledged.

There are many other truths that shape how we see that physical reality. Economics, theology, moral and philosophical perspectives might define whether we see human impacts on the working of those unchangeable physical laws as good or bad. There are many occasions for debate and argument about the value or virtue of what is happening to our planet.

But if we tell the truth about the universe, about God's creation, there is no room for debate about the basic physics. If we are to be sensible and responsible, we must all agree to the foundational truth about the processes and laws that shape the working of this planet and of the whole universe. Any other truth claim must respect those basic physical facts.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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