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

Indian Ocean Insights
distributed 4/25/14 - ©2014

As of this morning, the website for NBC News has 521 stories about the search for Malaysia Airways flight MH370. That certainly does seem to qualify as "complete coverage" of the mysteriously missing plane.

No physical evidence of the jet has been found in almost 7 weeks of intensive searching. From this situation, though, I have found two insights that are important for understanding the world's eco-justice crisis. One is theological, the other ecological.

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A recent NBC story says, "The U.S. military has spent $11.4 million in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, according to officials at the Pentagon." While that is a lot of money, in terms of the Pentagon's annual budget, that sum is the proverbial "drop in a bucket."

But, still, I am astonished at vast resources that have been marshaled from many nations to scour the oceans for two months. Countless satellite images examined. Long flights to scan enormous areas of ocean. Ships crisscrossing the area looking for debris. Other ships towing microphones to pick up "pings" from black boxes. Now, high-tech submersible equipment doing intensive sonar scans of the ocean bottom.

To be blunt -- after 40 days and 40 nights, it is obvious that the plane crashed and there are no survivors. Is the enormous effort to locate the wreckage out of proportion? Is this really all about recovering the flight recorders to understand what went wrong, or is something else going on?

I have a hunch that a commercial jetliner disappearing is a painful shock to a society that identifies itself with technology and power. From the earliest days of this tragedy, there was a tone to the reports that suggested something horribly amiss when The People In Charge couldn't document every movement of every airplane on the planet. It is not just that flight data might -- and only might -- make future planes safer. There are governments and agencies that are embarrassed by weeks of unsuccessful searches.

This is a theological issue, because we are moving ever closer to thinking of ourselves as God. We're starting to believe that we can, and should, know everything. The theological term for complete knowledge is omniscience, and it is one of the classic attributes of God that have traditionally shown how God is completely beyond human capabilities.

The other two Godly attributes are omnipresence (being in all places) and omnipotent (all-powerful). In a time when we can instantly chat with people all around the world or see live webcam images of penguins in Antarctica, we do feel unconstrained by place. And our ability to devastate the entire planet, whether by nuclear weapons or climate chaos, shows astonishing power -- and limited wisdom. These enormous capabilities, which are new within the last 50 years or so, do show that we are living in "not ordinary times". We need to rethink our theology in light of humanity's God-like power.

It makes us nervous when government spy agencies track us too closely, and it is creepy when the ads popping up on our computer screens know what products we searched for a month ago, yet we've come to expect instant information about everything. (Note the somewhat facetious "Church of Google" website, with "Proof Google Is God.")

It is hard for us to imagine what has been normal for the rest of human history -- a sailing ship never arrives, a trader never comes home, and no one ever knows what happened. For tens of thousands of years, people somehow accepted that there are limits to what we can know and do. Today, the boundary between human and God, creature and creator, is getting fuzzier. Beyond the theological and spiritual dangers, such enormous information and power often lead us farther into attempts to control and manage the world.

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There's another startling discovery from the weeks of ocean searches. As Reslience.org put it, "Almost a month later, the most significant untold story of the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is that our oceans are full of trash!"

Many of us have known something about junk in the sea, most notably with the Texas-sized "gyre" that holds enormous quantities of garbage in the North Pacific. Other reports in the last year have described debris from the Japanese tsunami that is starting to turn up on the west coast of North America. But it has been startling to learn how much stuff is floating around in the supposed emptiness of the Southern Indian Ocean.

A decade ago, ocean trash expert Charles Moore wrote in Natural History Magazine, "Trash has always been tossed into the seas, but it has been broken down in a fairly short time into carbon dioxide and water by marine microorganisms. Now, however, in the quest for lightweight but durable means of storing goods, we have created a class of products -- plastics -- that defeat even the most creative and voracious bacteria."

Research scientist Denise Hardesty estimates there are between 5,000 and 7,000 small pieces of plastic per square kilometer in the waters around Australia. "It takes 400 or 500 years for lots of types of plastics to completely break down. It just goes into smaller and smaller bits. You even find plastics in plankton -- that's how small it gets."

Plastic in the ocean is unsightly, of course, and annoying to those who are looking for airplane wreckage. But the real danger is ecological. Stray fishing equipment -- nets, and hooks and lines -- entangle wildlife. And those smaller plastic bits are mistaken for food, gobbled down by hungry critters who then starve when their stomachs are clogged by the undigestible crud.

Photographer Chris Jordan is working on a documentary film, Midway, which "explores the interconnectedness of species, with the albatross on Midway as mirror of our humanity." The beautifully photographed film's trailer is heartbreaking, showing compelling images of bird remains packed with bottle caps, disposable lighters, and other familiar stuff.

The Malaysian airliner that we want to find is still missing, but we've been made newly-aware of the toxic trash that so many of us had imagined just "went away" when it left our sight. The intensive search has revealed to us, once again, that our fouling of ecosystems is global, pervasive, and damaging.

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On one hand, we take pride in our nearly God-like knowledge and power. On the other hand, human technologies are multiplying the ecological devastation we inflict on the planet.

Rather than trying to know it all and do it all, we -- both people and planet -- will be better off when humans recover a bit of humility, recognize our limits, and seek to live gently as part of God's creation.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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