The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries
On the Other Hand
Last week's Notes named the truth that humans are part of the creation, not outside it or above it. We are creatures, made of the same stuff as all other creature. We, too, are mortal and fragile, needing food and water and warmth, especially when the thin veneer of human control is stripped away.
That is true. But on the other hand, we must also name the remarkable capacity that humans have to shape the biosphere of which we are a part. To a degree that sets us apart from all other species on this planet, we are able -- and often quite willing -- to impact life on Earth in amazing ways.
The truth about God's creation must include humanity's unique power to shape the world.
Going back tens of thousands of years, our ancestors have exercised some of that influence, but our dramatic impacts on the planet have taken shape much more recently. Three broad examples document this human power and influence.
INVASIVE SPECIES: One of the earliest things that people did to change the world is move things around. By moving plants and animals outside of their established range, the ecological balance of entire regions is changed.
When people began to build boats, they carried things -- intentionally and unintentionally-- to places where large bodies of water had prevented natural spreading. Polynesians spread the Pacific rats across their far-flung islands. The arrival of pigs and goats in Hawaii destabilized the entire ecosystem. The introduction of rabbits to Australia is a classic example of an out-of-control invasive species.
Kudzu has taken over large areas of the southeastern US, and tamarisk crowds out other plants on river banks throughout the southwest. Zebra mussels, accidentally transported across the Atlantic in the bilge water of ships, are overwhelming rivers and lakes -- and even the state parks in Colorado are fighting to stop their spread.
Invasive species, mostly moved around by humans, are a major cause of the rapid extinction of species around the world. They crowd out and disrupt long-established populations. Whether intentionally or accidentally, our spread of species has an enormous impact on the world.
OCEAN FISHERIES: I remember well the hopeful promises of the 1960s and 70s that world hunger would be alleviated by tapping into the unlimited bounty of the oceans. But less than 50 years later, ocean fisheries are in severe crisis, depleted by over harvesting, the waste of by-catch, and destructive nets that destroy habitat.
In one or two generations, powerful technologies -- sonar, drift nets, long-lines fishing, giant trawlers and processing ships -- have profoundly changed ocean ecologies. The human diminishment of sea life is an all-too-clear example of humanity's ability to change and overwhelm natural systems.
CARBON DIOXIDE AND CLIMATE CHANGE: When I hear of people who deny that humans have an impact on the planet, it is usually in relation to the rapidly escalating crisis of climate change. "The Earth is so big," some say. "How can our small presence change it?"
But change it we have, through the incomprehensibly vast burning of fossil fuels. As I said a few weeks ago, I believe in physics and chemistry, and I know that burning those fuels releases carbon dioxide. The coal, oil and gas that fuel our global economy and make our lives so convenient contain carbon sequestered over hundreds of millions of years. Our use of those fuels is putting carbon back into the atmosphere at a rate thousands of times faster than it can be reabsorbed.
The levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have changed over the eons, ranging between 200 and 300 parts per million through the last 800,000 years. Through all of human history up to the 1800s, the atmosphere had about 275 ppm of CO2. Then the industrial revolution took hold, followed by the age of oil. By 1920, the global CO2 levels reached the long-term high of 300 ppm. In 1990, we'd climbed to 350 ppm, and the most current measurement is 391.76 ppm. That is an increase of 90 parts per million in 90 years to a level that is unprecedented in Earth's "recent" geological history -- and we're continuing to push the level up by 2 ppm per year.
Those high levels of carbon dioxide are caused by humans -- by the burning of fossil fuels, and by the destruction of carbon "sinks" in forests and soil that would absorb some of the CO2. Our power to change God's creation is evident in our impact on the global climate.
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We homo sapiens are a distinctive and powerful presence on this planet. We share characteristics such as self-awareness, language and tool-making with other creatures, but we have developed and used those abilities in remarkable ways.
A few thousand years ago, people had unique abilities to shape their environment. Agriculture, tools and increasing mobility created appreciable (but mostly local) impacts. Within the last few centuries, though, our impact has exploded.
Our numbers are skyrocketing. 200 years ago, there were less than 1 billion people on the planet. In 1950, there were 2.4 billion, and 5.5 billion in 1985. We're now at 6.9 billion. (That surging growth has come almost entirely through increased longevity from clean water, basic sanitation, better nutrition and the suppression of common diseases.) Greater numbers combine with expanding technology to amplify our ability to shape, distort, and devastate the planet.
We humans are creatures, and part of the creation. But, on the other hand, we are exceptionally powerful. The power that we hold must be taken into account as we seek to live ethically and sustainably on this planet.
"For the first time, our power to destroy outstrips the earth's power to restore." -- Daniel Maguire
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