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

Lessons from Florence
distributed 9/14/18 - ©2018

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Robb Lapp of Arvada, Colorado. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

Hurricane Florence has made landfall, and the first round of impacts are being documented: driving wind (although less than first feared), epic storm surges, and drenching rain. In the days to come, there will be even more rain causing even more floods, with ongoing displacement and wide-spread power outages.

From the safety of my home in mile-high Denver, I am fascinated by hurricanes. There's the drama of watching such a monster weather system take shape. My interest levels build as the changing predictions raise and lower the threat levels along the storm track. I confess to a perverse interest in witnessing a disaster in the making.

More than anything, though, a storm like Florence is a much needed reality check for me. It is a humbling lesson about how our world really works.

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The spectacle of vast natural forces converging into a massive storm is, for me, an opportunity to grow into awe. Awe and wonder are appropriate in the presence of what is so much more than anything humans can create or control.

The natural world is always immense and powerful and complicated, but that becomes so much more evident as I watch a hurricane take shape. Across a period of days, I can begin to comprehend the enormous amounts of energy embodied in those swirling clouds. Dramatic photos from the space station reveal the astonishing orderliness of winds shaping a precise eye. I can only marvel at the way the low pressure of the atmosphere pulls in ocean water, creating a bulge hundreds of miles across.

And I find awe in the realization that the storm will go wherever the currents of air and water dictate. Hurricanes, and the climatic systems which shape them, are completely indifferent to us. There's no intention for good or ill, simply the laws of nature playing out.

There are theological and political doctrines which place humans as the center of everything. Those beliefs undergird our economic system, which claims the world's resources for our own use and profit. Some theologies accentuate the claim that we humans have dominion and control to shape the world, that we have the wisdom and the authority to control how the world will be used.

And then a storm bears down on a densely populated coastline, and all of those grandiose claims are put in perspective. The storm is not there for our benefit. And however we might appropriate the notion of dominion, the fact of the matter is that we can't do anything to control a hurricane.

In the course of our everyday lives, it is possible to get comfortable and complacent. It is possible to think that we're important and in control. It is possible to lose perspective on the scope and power of God's creation, and our appropriate place within it.

A hurricane meandering across the ocean, and plowing into the built-up shoreline gives us some perspective.

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A major hurricane also gives me fresh perspective on the absurdity of our society's economic measurements.

A storm like Florence causes billions of dollars in damage. And yet, according to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), a huge hurricane is good economic news in the longer term. All of those ruined homes and businesses have to be rebuilt, which means jobs and building supplies. Thousands of cars inundated by flooding or crushed by falling trees and debris will need to be replaced. Last year, after Harvey and Maria, auto replacement helped drive economic growth for the whole country.

The GDP simply measures the flow of goods and services. Ruined homes, washed out roads, miles of downed power lines -- the GDP sees all of those as positives. There's no economic reckoning of the wasted resources sent to dumps, or of the pollution from waters surging through industrial and agricultural areas. The dominant way that we measure the economy sees the years of rebuilding as a mark of a healthy and vital community.

Florence helps me remember that the simplistic economic tools which guide public discourse and national policies are deeply flawed. There are more responsible ways of measuring costs and benefits, such as the Genuine Progress Indicator. I am reminded by this storm that we won't have good policies until we make use of better measurements.

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As I watch the news, I am very aware that it is not accurate to say that climate change causes a storm like Florence. What we can say with some certainty is that Florence is more powerful and more damaging because of human impacts on the climate.

With years of accurate records and with sophisticated computer programs, scientists now can evaluate the effects of our warmer oceans, and the increased moisture carried by warmer air. They can see how human-caused heating of the planet is warping the air and water currents which empower storms. In comparison with the climate of 50 years ago, they now can give us a well-documented number to indicate how much more severe Florence was because of climate change.

That is the confessional flip side to my previous statement humans really don't have control over the world. We can't make a hurricane go away, but our diffuse impacts on the global climate do have the power to change the storms. We do have the power to cause damage and disruption. That kind of reckless climate impact, though, cannot be considered in the same category as dominion.

Watching Florence, and knowing that it is causing more damage because of humanity's emission of greenhouse gasses is a reminder to be confessional about my own participation in this disaster. It is a reminder to be persistent in working for climate justice.

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Watching Florence from my comfortable distance, I can fall into abstractions. I can ponder the awesome power of nature, and reflect on the adequacy of economic measurements, and consider permutations of climate science.

But I also remember that real people and real communities are being torn apart today. Lives are lost, homes are lost. The damage that goes uncounted by the GDP is profoundly real to the people of the Carolinas.

My faith insists that we are all part of one community. People -- and the rest of creation -- are in relationship, even across great distances. There is immense need in the wake of the hurricane, and as people of justice and compassion, we are motivated to contribute.

So donate to disaster relief. I know that faith-based agencies are among the most efficient in providing that relief, and many of those agencies have an astounding track record in staying around for the long haul. Your church or denomination is a great way to channel your donation, or pick another reputable charity. But do make a donation through an agency you trust.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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