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

What Kind of World
distributed 12/28/12 - ©2012

The turning of the year often prompts introspection. What did I do with my life in 2012? What do I want to do differently in 2013? When we take such reflection seriously, these can be deeply spiritual and ethical questions.

The ponderings around New Years are often personal, but this also can be a worthwhile time to think about parallel social and cultural questions. How are we doing as a community, as a nation, as a planet? What changes would we like to see, and how might those come about?

In my conversations with scores of church groups, this larger question often gets expressed in the form of "What sort of world do we want to leave to our children and grandchildren?" (I often turn the question around to "What sort of world do our children and grandchildren have a right to expect from us?" That shifts the focus from our charity to their rights.)

Still, "what sort of world" is so big and potentially so vague as to be meaningless. How can we get more specific, and maybe more visceral?

A means for doing that comes in the January, 2013 issue of Scientific American magazine. In a special feature, they have seven short articles that look at some potential expression of where science and technology will take us in 50, 100 or 150 years. (That timing echoes their monthly column highlighting stories from the long-running magazine at similar periods in the past.)

The seven different ideas about what the world could be like hit me hard. None of them made me comfortable. I did see two clear philosophical camps, though, two perspectives that represent sharp contrasts. (Unfortunately, the SciAm website only has shortened versions of 6 of the columns. This might be a good reason to make a trip to your local library!)

I invite and encourage you to give some serious thought to the magazine's question. What might our world be like in 2063, 2113 or 2163? I'll share some brief thoughts on what the articles outlined, but these certainly are not the only possible answers. Where do you think we're headed, is that "the right direction", and what can we do to change course?

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Four of the seven pieces were full-bore celebrations of technology and human inventiveness. These authors are convinced that we'll keep inventing our way into an ever-more marvelous future.

  1. In 50 years, says one, we can finally expect to see the long-promised flying cars: "we may well see ... the vision of an airplane in every driveway." It does strike me that with current shifts in urban design, we have less and less of those suburban houses with driveways -- but that's just one of the problems with this prediction.
  2. Another author looks at the medical world, and sees gene therapy transforming health care. She wrote, "With diseases stopped in their tracks, health care costs plunged as a longer-lived, physically fit population emerged." It isn't mentioned, but this innovation probably would continue to expand the human population and our consumption of resources.
  3. The section on computers tries to look 150 years into the future, and ends up admitting that "there is no way to know what the computer of the future will be like other than to wait 150 years and find out." The nine experts who were consulted, though, are all confident that computers will be pervasive, powerful, and possibly tied into our very biology.
  4. And the final of the four techie stories celebrates the movement of humans beyond Earth, to colonizing Mars and even reaching toward the stars.

I find it absolutely astounding that four of the seven articles make no mention of changes in energy supplies, or where we're going to find the juice to fly those car-planes, power the computers, or propel the spaceships. These four predictions make no mention of climate change. They share a worldview where humans are separate from the rest of creation, where we succeed by finding new ways to use resources and shape nature to our own ends. The presume essentially unlimited resources and infinite creativity to accomplish whatever we set out to do. Several of them are explicit, too, in looking to profit and market dynamics as the ultimate driver of what we would try to do.

This worldview is absolutely frightening to me, because it so closely reflects the cultural mindset that is disrupting and depleting our biosphere.

The other three articles are more diverse, but they do share some sense of our existence within the web of life -- not apart from it.

  1. Fifty years from now, says one, we will achieve global nuclear disarmament, but only because a "limited" nuclear war killed tens of millions immediately, and countless others through lingering effects. A nuclear winter caused widespread famine and starvation, and civilization came close to collapse. The ultimate horror of nuclear devastation prompts cooperation among world powers to remove the threat.
  2. The least remarkable prediction fills me with grief. In 100 years, we will have experienced "a tsunami of extinction." Multiple factors -- invasive species, habitat loss, diseases in wildlife, human disruptions to the nitrogen cycle, and climate change -- will lead not only to the loss of countless individual species, but to the loss of entire ecosystems. This column ends with a call for action: "All these actions require political will, a recognition that the planet should be managed as the biological and physical system that it is, and an awareness that the diversity of life -- of which we are a part -- is critical for the future of humanity."
  3. Finally, there's a complex article (the one that isn't on the website) exploring three scenarios for what might happen within a century when humans resort to "geoengineering" to reduce the accelerating damage from climate change. The authors suggest that such manipulation of the planet might lead to an increasing sense of human control, and a further disassociation from the natural world. Or the process might work, and allow the development of a "garden planet" at relatively low economic costs. Or such tinkering with nature could lead to an apocalyptic setting filled with conflict and environmental disruption.

The three articles that understand ecology, and that place humans within nature, fit more comfortably with my view of the world, but they offer little in the way of a hopeful vision. Among the possibilities developed in all seven of the articles, the only one that seems even moderately attractive for our children and grandchildren is the geoengineered garden planet. Even that does not strike me as the sort of world that future generations have a right to expect, because it is still depleted by extinction, and it still sees the world primarily in terms of human use.

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What sort of world do our children and grandchildren have a right to expect from us? That's a painful question to consider, because there may be no evident path that gets us to what they deserve.

The short articles in Scientific American give us one set of images to consider. For me, they provide a powerful gut reaction that our current way of life -- domineering, exploitative and self-centered -- is not an acceptable way forward. That means that we must work urgently and vigorously to change those deeply rooted beliefs and institutions. We must draw on all of our creativity and political will to turn our culture in new directions.

Churches will be important in that cause, not by inventing new technologies, but in clarifying our visions and values. Powerful emotional stories about who we are, and who we hope to be in relationship with Earth community will help turn us toward different ways of living. May our congregations and communities take a hard and honest look at where we might be headed, and help us ponder -- rationally, spiritually and emotionally -- how to achieve our deepest hopes and goals.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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