From Above

You can see a lot from 35,000 feet.  Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky” comes back to me, although I’d never make so bold as to associate myself with Horus.  As I’m preparing for my return flight, I wonder what I might see.  Not much, I expect, since all the window seats were taken and I’ll be sitting in the middle section.  I like to see where I’m going.  On the way over, for example, about three hours into the flight, we were over the Grand Banks.  I’d just finished Brian Fagan’s Fishing, and the Grand Banks were on my mind.  The last land I saw was Cape Cod, although from the monitor I knew we’d passed near Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.   In other words, there was nothing but the north Atlantic beneath us.  We were hundreds of miles from land.  Then I saw it.

Was that an oil platform all the way out here?  I didn’t have enough time to wake my napping phone for a picture, but there was clearly a large platform and a nearby tanker.  Later I checked and, sure enough, Hibernia, the world’s largest oil platform is smack-dab in the middle of the Grand Banks.  A number of thoughts occurred.  We’d been flying for hours, and a platform this far out would make a great setting for a horror story.  (Okay, so my thoughts move in predictable directions sometimes.)  Another thought was this: why are we so dependent on petroleum that we’re all the way out here drilling for a polluting, non-renewable resource?  Is it not for profit margin alone?  This was an epiphany for me.

I still carry a little cautious hope around in a hidden pocket that there might be some places left for humanity to explore, but not exploit.  Fagan mentioned in his book that we’d trawled much of the ocean floor.  Although I admiring the engineering that could plant a platform in the stormy Atlantic, I still can’t help but feel a little bit let down that we’ve driven yet another stake into the unexplored world.  We really know so little about the oceans (apart from the fact that many creatures that live there can be eaten and otherwise exploited).  Our lack of scientific knowledge is addressed by great wells drilled down to draw out pollutants to grease the wheels of capitalism.  Yes, I was using fossil fuel in flying.  I’d be happy with solar-powered planes, if they existed (they’re above the clouds much of the time, so it would seem worth dreaming about).  In the meantime, however, the earth just keeps getting smaller and smaller.  Even from 35,000 feet.

Not for Men

Does anyone else think that feeding fishmeal to herbivores so that they, in turn can be eaten, is weird?  Brian Fagan in his Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization describes the long history of eating seafood.  In evolutionary terms it makes sense, but so does veganism.  One thing that becomes clear from this study, however, is that human civilization simply could not have developed the way that it did without fishing.  Food for those performing massive public works came from the abundance of the ocean.  Theology played its part too.  Roman Catholicism established a habit that still exists of eating fish on Friday.  In Catholic areas of this country Friday fish fries, and the occasional fish boil, are cultural icons.  As Fagan points out, part of the reasoning behind this was the belief that God gave humans fish to exploit.

We find, interestingly enough, that religious thinking often stands behind tragic results.  Although I’m a vegan, I find it distressing that the oceans—so vast in extent—have been depleted by human activity.  The main problem, which we’re slow to learn, is that technology has made fishing too efficient.  This isn’t some kid with a rod and reel on the bank of a muddy river, but rather the industrial-scale trawling that begins by locating fish schools with sonar.  Not only that, but the land habitat to which we bring the fish is also being depleted.  I’m probably not the only one who gets the feeling that Fagan’s writing about more than just fish.  Where there is abundance, we take it as an invitation to exploit.  Tech makes it so easy!

In the early history of humankind, seafood was a necessity.  As Fagan shows, it was sometimes reserved for hard times.  Now we feed fishmeal to domesticated animals not because it’s what they naturally eat, but because—you guessed it—it’s cheap.  I’m still not allowed to give blood because of the Mad Cow Disease scare that rocked Britain when I lived there.  In part it was caused by feeding herbivores feed that consisted of meal made from other herbivores.  I no longer eat fish.  With the world population what it is, and global warming stressing agriculture, it seems we need to be thinking about what’s for dinner.  Quite apart from the fact that fish are, despite proclamations of ecclesiastical bodies, animals just like any others, we’ve managed to scour the ocean so thoroughly that recovery may be impossible in some locations.  The reason often given is that God gave us the oceans to use.  And that kind of thinking always leads to disaster. 

Ice Father in Heaven

The Internet can be a window into the collective consciousness of a nation. In a world where even the Weather Channel invites comments on its forecast page, the outlook of many Americans is laid bare. This latest shot of winter weather on the northeastern quarter of the country is an excellent example. It is still March, the tempestuous month of the war god, so a little snow in the northern latitudes should come as no surprise. An unnamed dean at a state school here in New Jersey had just sent out an email blast the week before stating, with decanal authority, that there would be no more weather delays this year. Yesterday there was still snow on the ground after the storm. Frustrated citizens cursed – actually cursed – the winter on weather.com.

For years I have maintained that the weather is key to understanding the human perception of the divine. From ancient Sumer’s An and Enlil through classical Greece’s Uranus and Zeus, the gods unquestionably in charge are the sky gods. The guys who control the weather. In Israel Yahweh took that job description from a reluctant Hadad – aka Baal – and many people considered this a serious mistake. Don’t mess with the weather god! As the snow begins to melt once more, even those of us in the enlightened twenty-first century should be reminded that our sense of what the world should be is an illusion. Nature evolved our brains, and now our brains think they have the right to take over.

Once, back in Wisconsin, I stepped outside on a chilly June morning and saw flecks of snow in the air. It wasn’t “snowing” – it doesn’t snow in June – but there was definitely a frozen sort of precipitation hanging tentatively in the air. I was teaching at the most self-righteous of seminaries at the time, and it became clear to me, once again, that we are not in control. Among the scariest books I read in Wisconsin was Brian Fagan’s The Little Ice Age. I was at work on my book on weather language in the Psalms (still unpublished) and the unsettling truth drifted around me like this winter’s snows: if a new ice age settles in, there is nothing we can do to stop it. Geologists still can’t state what triggers these periodic events, or even what their timetable might be. If earth’s ice caps again begin to grow, however, I am certain that we will also see a dramatic increase in religiosity. For the gods, we all know deep down, are in the skies.