Science, Religion, and Ghosts

August starts to suggest autumn.  Even with record-breaking heat, the quality of the air definitely suggests fall is on its way.  Ghosts are on our mind.  So a recent story on Religion Dispatches explores how ghost hunting is tied to enchantment.  In “What a Spooky Summer Trend Says about Enchantment in the Late Modern U.S.” Daniel Wise considers how, unlike predictions made to the contrary, science and rational thinking haven’t eradicated spiritual outlooks.  Church numbers are down, yes, but belief remains alive and well.  I have to wonder if the reason science and religion don’t get along is that specialists in the one really don’t know as much about the other as they should.  That, and once someone moves from private to public intellectual they think they have the authority to speak on that which they haven’t studied.

My role as experiencer, on the religion side of the artificial science-religion divide, is one of often being told why my field of study isn’t rational.  Those on the religion side sometimes lash out and retort that science is also based on belief.  What it really comes down to, as recent elections have shown, is how many people you can convince you’re right.  With the evidence of climate change all around us, many of us in the middle wonder how deniers can still exist.  They often take their information from somewhere else.  Many literalists groups, and other religious specialists as well, teach that this world isn’t the final reality.  There’s more going on than meets the eye.  As Wise points out, many find their own evidence of this in ghosts.  Most scientists simply dismiss the possibility without really looking into it.

Religion tends to be more experiential.  Those who practice it know it’s real because they feel it.  And they can be rational about it.  No doubt scientists feel similarly about the material world and their discoveries about it.  A funny thing happens, though, when you reduce it to only the physical.  Religion and science should have nothing to fight about, and they might well not if each side weren’t to make absolute claims to the exclusive truth.  Ghosts are a good middle ground.  Why can’t we admit that we just don’t know?  It’s no sign of weakness to be honest about such things.  Ghosts have been seen and reported for all of human history.  If they’re spiritual they can’t be measured yet, not in any real way.  As autumn creeps in, perhaps we should ponder such things.

Henry Justice Ford, via Wikimedia Commons

Weather rules

One of the observations that prompted me to write Weathering the Psalms concerned the disruptive nature of storms.  Power outages was pretty common in that part of southeast Wisconsin where we were living at the time.  Downed trees could block rural access—more limited than the alternate routes of cities—for hours.  There was clearly a sense of being at the mercy of nature and it was disruptive to the human schedules and lives we’ve constructed.  The tornado warning we had a couple of days ago reminded me of that aspect.  While radar saves lives by giving advanced warning, it also makes it difficult to concentrate on work when you’re told to take shelter.  As far as I’m aware HR doesn’t have a tornado policy.

Having lived in the Midwest for a decade and a half, I came to be aware of the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.  While my phone was showing a watch, another family member’s was showing a warning.  My evening plans were replaced by standing at the window looking west.  The worst of the storm passed us but as long as the weather was threatening there was little else we could do.  Eventually all devices agreed that this was a warning and we should take shelter.  The storm eventually passed, leaving my tightly packed plans for the day in tatters, even though our actual house was fine.  That’s the nature of the weather that makes it so interesting.  As much as we like to think we’re on top of it, we’re really all potential victims.

Weather is more powerful than humans.  We have to change our plans according to its whims.  And climate change is making it more extreme.  Even with the evidence all around us deniers still try to block legislation that takes steps to preserving our planet.  Those who wish to destroy it for theological reasons don’t stop to think that doing so is about as selfish as you can get—something that the Bible really doesn’t promote at all.  One thing about the weather: although it is very different from place to place, we’re all in it together.  It can be very disruptive, yes.  It reminds us that we and our human plans are temporary.  When we’ve managed to do ourselves in, or have abandoned this planet to find a more hospitable one we can ruin, the weather will remain.  Majestic storms will come and go, whether or not there’s anyone here to see and appreciate them.


Weathering the Sleep

Weather still has a tremendous, if incremental, effect on life.  Patterns where a repeating weather cycle seems stuck in place are a good example.  While not exactly uncommon in summer around here, thunderstorms develop during the hot and humid days.  Our current pattern is that thunderstorms arrive in the middle of the night.  For days in a row.  We had a few days in our current series.  Some of us can’t sleep through thunderstorms, not least because we have to get up and close the windows, pulling fans out, so that the water doesn’t invade.  This means several nights of interrupted sleep and rather unforgiving work schedules the next day.  Companies don’t often take this fact of the weather into consideration.  I’m not the only one yawning all day.

Of course, other things interrupt sleep as well.  Any parent of a newborn has those perpetually baggy eyes that we’ve come to associate with trying to get an infant to sleep through the night.  Work doesn’t smile on that kindly either.  Both of these (and many others) are very real human concerns regarding slumber.  HR, on the other hand, looks at the clock with a frown.  This sort of work ethic is particularly bad in America where work is a kind of sacred obligation (unless you’re a minor, rich, or retired).  You owe that time, no matter how sleepy you are or sloppily you may work because of it.  In my case it’s the weather that’s been causing my drowsy days.  I guess I shouldn’t have given up caffeine a few years back.

Weather, although it’s treated as a “neutral” subject, affects everything.  There are deniers, but climate change is real.  It’s measured across centuries and millennia, however, and our point of view spans only the few decades of our own lifetimes.  We come again and again to the myth that this planet was created for us rather than the more factual realization that we grew organically out of it.  Our civilization is complex and grows more so all the time, requiring less and less time in nature.  Nature isn’t predisposed to be nice to us, or to any species.  It’s a matter of balance.  So it is with the weather.  This massive atmosphere above us seeks to balance itself out but we’re making it hotter than it should be.  Many suppose that God will sort it all out, if, indeed, forcing a crisis won’t compel divine intervention.  I just hope the “man upstairs” has been getting enough sleep.


The Future of Consciousness

Consciousness is unexplained.  We’re born and we become aware.  Raised by parents or guardians, we learn where we belong.  The decisions of one generation affect the futures of the next, often without conscious consideration.  I’ve been thinking about how, with our limited resources, we’ve pressed on, reproducing beyond what our environment can sustain and each of us is born conscious.  Some of us—many, in fact—in difficult circumstances.  Instead of working together to figure this out, we keep on, not quite sure of what we’re doing or where we’re going.  Heath Ledger’s Joker may’ve been speaking for all of humanity when he asked, “Do I look like a guy with a plan?”  Do any of us?

During a discussion the other day the topic of the severe western drought came up.  There have been general drought conditions in the western half of the country (the northwestern coast has been spared) for well over half-a-century.  I wonder why the cities in such regions continue to expand and then I realize that each generation is a kind of reboot.  We tend to think we belong where we’re born.  My thoughts turn toward the ancestors of the first nations and how they knew that moving was necessary for life.  When the ice sheets start descending you really don’t have many options.  Perhaps our sense of place is an evolved trait, brought on by the changed circumstances of invaders’ senses of ownership.  Capitalism certainly doesn’t help.  Those born in drought-ravaged areas soon come to think of it as normal.  We can adjust to just about anything.

Settled existence is necessary for a life that defines meaning by ownership.  For me, I have a difficult time imagining my life without my books.  What we read tends to define us.  What would I do if the ice sheets began descending again?  Such change takes time, of course, but our complex society doesn’t seem to be very good at advanced planning.  My consciousness tells me where I belong geographically, psychologically, and even religiously.  I was taught such things as a child and even if I unlearn lessons that were wrong, I will always still feel that they were right.  If I flee the coming ice sheet I simply have to accept that my reality has changed.  Until that ice sheet’s at my back door, however, I can continue to deny it’s a problem.  Consciousness is a funny thing.


Future Warming

It’s a good thing global warming is a myth, but somebody forgot to tell the hyacinths and lilies in my backyard.  February in Pennsylvania is not when you expect to see spring flowers.  Now I’m fully aware that unseasonal warm snaps and cold spells aren’t an indication of the global climate; they’re far too localized.  One thing I’ve learned in my several decades of life is that heat takes time to transfer.  If you’ve ever had to wait for a pan of water to boil when you’re hungry, you know that to be true.  On cold morning’s my coffee’s ice coffee before I finish the mug, but it does take time for that transition to happen as the cup empties.  With something so inconceivably large as the atmosphere, it takes time.  As our hemispheres take turns pointing at the sun and warming up, the air tries to reach equilibrium and so the weather goes.

Scientists are now talking about, once we get the deniers out of the White House, what long-term remediation plans we have to make.  We’ve already set in motion extreme weather events.  We’ve had decades of warning, but those who control the money just can’t bear to let any of it go.  It’s a safer bet to wreck the planet.  You can just cash in your insurance money and buy a new one.  That’s the way it works, isn’t it?  So I’m standing outside in my shirtsleeves in February staring at April flowers who think winter’s over already.  I don’t know what to say to them.

You can’t drive a car without a license, nor can you practice law or medicine.  To be a world leader you don’t even have to be literate.  I often imagine what the future survivors will say.  They’ll likely be there, since people have a way of getting by.  They may wonder if we knew this was coming.  Of course, the internet won’t be up and running then, and who knows what’ll happen to electronic information when there’s no power left to keep the servers going.  In any case, my perhaps futile answer to their imagined question is yes.  We did see this coming.  Some of tried every legitimate tool in the box called “democracy” (you’ll need a dictionary for that one) to introduce sanity into the discussion, but bluster wins over hard thinking every time.  I cup my hands around the tender, if resilient leaves.  They’re only doing as nature directs.  If only our species could pay such attention to what the planet is saying.


Different Kind of Salvation

It’s encouraging and disheartening all at the same time.  And seldom has the evil of money been so obvious.  Last night I attended an environmental panel discussion at a local church.  It was encouraging to see so many people out on a rainy, chilly night in Bethlehem, a city famous for its might steel mill.  Everyone there knew the problem and agreed that something had to be done.  As the speakers gave their presentations it became clear just how corrupt politicians are.  Corruption is bipartisan, of course.  In the name of “economic growth” we allow the fracking rape of our state despite the known and proven environmental hazards.  Despite the fact that Pennsylvania has a green amendment in its state constitution.  Money, as Cyndi reminds us, changes everything.

Shortly after even Mitch McConnell admitted climate change is real, at the state level climate deniers are running things.  It brought to mind the frightening and omnipresent teachings of my Fundamentalist youth: the sooner we can destroy this planet the sooner we’ll make Jesus come again.  Convinced of the absolute certainty of that second coming, there is almost a mandate to ruin, pillage, and plunder natural resources because the Good Book ensures us that, upon a white horse the savior will come in the nick of time.  Politicians, elected officials believe this.  They also believe in mammon.  If you’re gonna go down, you might as well do it in style.  Like John Jacob Astor on the Titanic.  It’s the way of the aristocrat.  Rising seas drown rich and poor alike.

It was a miserable night to be out.  The weather has been freakishly off for some time now, and all the science—real science, that is—predicts it’s only going to get worse.  How the government became the enemy of the planet that gave it birth would be a fascinating story if only it were fiction.  The truth is we’ve elected people that can be bought.  And bought easily.  Laws are passed that violate the constitution of this commonwealth and meetings are held behind closed doors.  Local activists are very active while most of us struggle to keep ourselves employed, heads, as it were, above water.  We need to pause now and again to consider what a wonder this planet is.  We must learn that the only power money has is that which we freely give it.  Rain was pouring down.  Brontide was actual thunder as the state legislature drew up chairs for the last supper.


Sustain Chapel

It seems that holidays come thick and fast in the spring, especially when Earth Day follows directly on the heels of Easter.  Given the hard time mother earth has been having with too many Republicans waging war on her, it’s worth taking a few minutes to consider finity.  Our planet is not infinite.  The resources with which it came loaded out of the showroom are all of limited supply.  Somehow we’ve managed to convince ourselves, at least in this hemisphere, that there’s always more where that came from.  Unless, of course, you’re referring to the degrees that contribute to global warming.  Of those, the GOP narrative goes, there really aren’t any.  No credible scientist doubts climate change, although those who are already old and who are benefitting from it will claim otherwise.  Any story depends, of course, on the teller.

Over the holiday weekend I was out of town.  Driving home a few hours I was distraught at just how much litter lines our otherwise scenic highway system.  Stuff falls off of trucks and, despite advertising against it, out of car windows.  The few trash bags piled for pickup by the earth-conscious can’t keep up with the cast-offs of a throwaway culture.  We desperately need to take the narrative back from those with the loudest, and most incoherent mouths.  We all rely on this same planet and the power we cede to the wealthy is due to our complicity in their claims of ownership.  They’ve proven themselves, should I dare to be biblical, unfaithful stewards.

The earth, it is true, is a place of immense beauty.   It’s not aesthetics alone, however, that motivate us.  We simply cannot survive without this biosphere in which animals, plants, microorganisms, and minerals coexist.  We evolved in it.  The mythical narrative of special creation unwittingly played into the hands of those who will claim it all for themselves if the rest of us don’t deny that they had indeed “earned” the right to be considered the most prestigious.  Our societal sin of rewarding bad behavior has led us to this crisis.   We pollute far beyond our needs.  We “speculate,” hoping that “development” will lead to “growth.”  The wealthiest build rockets to escape our planet, but there’s nowhere to go.  Might it not be better to invest in this gift that we already have?  To learn the lessons of nature?  To become students in the classroom of Mrs. Earth?  There have been many holidays lately, but this may indeed may be the most important of them all.


Flight Home

Although I was not looking forward to the long, late flight home scheduled for tonight, I can’t help but think there was something almost prophetic in the weather that prevented my trip.  I awoke in Newark only to confirm with many other stranded passengers that this was not a lot of snow.  I’ve had to commute into New York when much higher amounts were in the forecast.  Many of us, meteorologists included, were asking why this storm was so devastating to travel.  Part of the answer comes down to belief.  Nobody believed we could have this kind of nor’easter in November.  Even now nobody seems to want to discuss the elephant in the igloo.  Global warming, we’ve known for decades, will make erratic weather patterns.  We need to think about weather differently than we have before.

One of the motivations behind writing Weathering the Psalms was that for all of our technology, we still don’t understand, or appreciate, the weather.  Driven by dollars in great collectives, businesses are reluctant to allow employees a “day off,” even when many of them have work laptops at home.  We believe in money, supposing the weather to be only a minor nuisance.  Having bought a house, though, has revealed something to me.  Home and hearth are all about staying safe from the weather.  (Well, and in keeping out wild animals too, but we’ll just drive them extinct.)  A house is a place to keep the water and wind out.  We want to keep dry and to prevent the wind from chasing away our body heat.  Homes are our places to keep the weather outside because we instinctively fear it.  Reverence it.  Weather may well be the origins of at least some religious thought.

Ancient peoples and modern religious fundamentalists believe(d) in gods literally in the sky.  They looked up when wanting to understand matters beyond their control.  Yes, predators attacked, but you could fight back.  Against the sky there’s no recourse.   Weather can kill, and can do so in many ways.  Building shelter helps, but we’ve all seen enough hurricane footage to know that even our structures are subject to the wind.  Computer models were suggesting that this storm might have been pulling back for a real roundhouse punch but our conservative views on the weather (such things don’t happen in November, right, Edmund Fitzgerald?) prevail.  The official stance of our current government is this is all a myth anyway.  It’s only when myths interfere with money that we start to pay attention.


A Parable

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there was a holiday known as Earth Day. Now, Earth Day was a poor holiday. She didn’t prostitute herself to commercialism, she wasn’t attached to any religion, and people didn’t even get the day off work. Still, she was an optimistic holiday. One of her prophets was a woman named Rachel Carson. A science writer who could see that our rampant greed and fatal shortsightedness were leading to environmental catastrophe, Carson wrote books of warning. People began to take heed. An ecology movement was born. New concepts like “sustainability” and “stewardship” and “moderation” became part of national consciousness. Other nations joined in. Earth Day was born. She was a happy child.

But there were demons in this land. Huddled in filthy holes in the ground, these demons cared only for owning as much of the earth as they could. They wanted to heat the planet so much that Earth Day couldn’t survive. They would drown her in the waters of her melted ice caps—her very tears. These demons couldn’t do it alone. They lived in the dark and since they cared for no one else, they had to find a Devil among them. A Devil who could quote Scripture. Such a Devil, they reasoned, would make the followers of the dead God join them. The followers of the dead God were like sheep without a shepherd. And the demons had all the money in the world. So they decided to kill Earth Day. Nobody would stop them.

With Earth Day gone, the weather went wild. Winds constantly blew. Hurricanes of new and intense savagery emerged year after year. The demons laughed, for when the people’s things were destroyed they would have to buy replacements. The demons would become even richer. The followers of the dead God clapped their hands in glee. But the demons and their Devil didn’t know that Earth Day couldn’t die. They did as they pleased, taking what they wanted from the what they supposed was her corpse. Then the weather, Earth Day’s dearest friend, began to do what it would in its rage. The demons awaited summer when they might feel hot again, but summer only comes after Earth Day. Oblivious, they lived their lives of plunder and greed until the followers of the dead God were all gone and they had no one left from whom to steal. Rejoicing in their acquisition of all the earth, they failed to notice the storm. Earth Day was returning and all their wealth could not save them.


Eating Earth

Some things are hidden in plain sight. That doesn’t make them any the less insidious. One such hidden truth is that the earth is of a finite size. Another is that, consequently, its resources are limited. Our species is easily led, as are most herd animals. Standing out can be embarrassing. Painful even. This is the recipe, along with a generous dash of greed, that has put us on the brink of worldwide catastrophe. We live in an unsustainable system, and some of the largest culprits are our appetites. As a fan of horror movies, I can honestly say Cowspiracy is the scariest movie I’ve seen in a long time. It’s a documentary, not genre fiction. Scientists had generally already thrown up their hands because we’ve passed the tipping point for global warming, and then we elected ourselves the stunning leadership of Donald Trump.

No one can predict exactly what form the collapse will take, but we’ve set the key factors in place. We’ve been warned for years. Cowspiracy demonstrates something we don’t want to admit—the agricultural lobby is extremely powerful and the least sustainable aspect of life on this planet is animal husbandry. In early civilization, where technology did not exist to support large-scale farming, meat was not a staple of the human diet. Families that could afford animals gained more value from their beasts alive than on the plate. And they had only a few. As mechanization increased in the last century, we made livestock valuable commodities. When I was a kid word on the street was you were even poorer than we were if you couldn’t eat meat every day. Humans were the absolute, if blind, masters of their own domain. Now agriculture is the single largest force of degradation of the environment on the planet. And nobody wants to listen.

Cowspiracy is not an easy movie to watch, even for a vegetarian of many years’ standing. So why watch it? Because our reliance on animal-based food is destroying our planet. Not slowly either. If this is true, why haven’t we heard of it? Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn spend an hour-and-a-half exploring that in this important film. While it can’t be fully summarized here, in a word it can be said: money. There’s huge money to be made in a business rightly called animal husbandry. Wedded to profits at the expense of the very soil that gives us life, we eat our way to the grave. And we do it even when technology has already offered viable alternatives. They are also hidden in plain sight.


Hurricane Warming

Image credit: NOAA, public domain via Wikimedia Commons

My heart goes out to those suffering from Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana. Natural disasters like this are often tied to the “wrath of God” model, and outdated though it is, it still captures how it feels. The sheer amount of rain dumped by this one storm is literally inconceivable. Trillions of gallons. Coupled with a completely ineffectual president, the disaster is even greater. Like many others, I’ve been watching since the weekend as the numbers and statistics of woe rise. Lives lost. Property washed away. Once more it reminds us just how small we are in the face of the weather. Some of this same awe was in my mind as I wrote Weathering the Psalms. Ancient Israel did not experience hurricanes—the bodies of water nearby aren’t large enough to generate them. A single thunderstorm, however, is enough to put the fear of God into a person. In ancient times, with an under-developed meteorology, all of this was the provenance of providence. How else could you begin to explain such tragedy?

One of the books that got me started on my meteorotheological quest was Erik Larson’s Isaac’s Storm, about the Galveston hurricane of 1900. Thousands died in that storm, and it remains the most deadly natural disaster in US history. Although Hurricane Harvey developed quickly, there was warning. The death toll is remarkably small (at least at the moment) compared to the fury of the storm. The natural tendency of human psychology is to look to supernatural explanations for such devastation. What have I done to deserve this? How could God do this? Are we being punished? Questions such as these come to mind, although we know that hurricanes are entirely normal features of this planet. Somewhere in the back of our minds, though, we probably are aware that global warming causes more radical weather.

Even as Trump continues to surround himself with climate change deniers, we see what global warming looks like. The weather is an intricate mechanism. Small things effect it. Large-scale changes throw it into chaos. Those who see climate change as a pain in the pocketbook will do anything they can to deny its reality. More powerful than a freight train or battleship, the weather can’t slam on the brakes and suddenly resume a more milder form. No, we’ve already started the process, no matter how many billionaires disagree. My heart goes out to those who continue to suffer from the hurricane. We need strong leadership and clear thinking at such times as this. We will need more of that in years to come. But we must also keep in mind this isn’t the anger of God. Unfortunately the wrath of human greed can be just as devastating as the wrath of the Almighty.


Noah’s Parable

I write a lot about Noah. For those who didn’t know me before this blog, I was once invited to write a book on Noah for a series ironically published by Oxford University Press. I had been researching Noah for years, and I intended to write the book. Then, as the kids are saying these days, life happened. My interest in Noah has never waned, however. And part of the reason is that it is perhaps the most influential story in the entire Bible. I realize I’ll need to explain that, but stop and think about it—Evangelicals seldom talk about Jesus any more. Their concerns are with unborn babies, people making babies outside wedlock, and destroying our environment in the name of capitalism. It is the last of these that brings us back to Noah.

A friend recently sent me a story on Splinter by Brendan O’Connor titled “How Fossil Fuel Money Made Climate Change Denial the Word of God.” O’Connor is looking at the history of how a pro-environmentalism-inclined evangelical movement decided to shift its base to align with climate-change deniers. Behind the scenes are fundamentalist clergy. Oh, we like to laugh at them and their ways, but they are the power behind the throne and we should really not let them out of our sight. You see, as O’Connor points out, they believe that the God of Noah can protect the world from the worst that we can throw at it. It’s perfectly okay to try to destroy the planet because the magic man upstairs can fix everything right back up if he needs to before sending his son back to town on the final business meeting. Laugh if you will. These people are dead serious and many who hold power in Washington believe every lie they utter.

As a nation—perhaps as an entire western culture—we’ve laughed off religion. Secure that there’s no God up there to rain down, well, rain, we laugh and jeer at Noah. It’s a children’s story, after all, isn’t it? Okay, forget about the part where everyone in the entire world drowns, except eight people. And when he gets drunk and lays naked in his tent after it’s all over. Other than that, it’s a kid’s story, right? The story of the flood is one of the oldest myths in the world. It has been part of human story-telling for millennia. We now have very powerful people with smart phones in their pockets and access to vast hordes of money who believe it literally happened. And since God took care of his own once, he can do it again. The educated smirk. The smart start building arks.


Chilling Thoughts

GlaciersI don’t think much about glaciers. At least I didn’t. Now they keep me awake at night. Literally. I just finished Jorge Daniel Taillant’s Glaciers: The Politics of Ice. Never have these ice sheets ever seemed to have so much personality before. I don’t live near glaciers, but I have seen a couple. A number of years ago I visited Glacier National Park in Montana. It was summer and the one glacier that was right by the road (Highway to the Sun) was melting. It was the first glacier that I knowingly saw, and I went my usual way, not thinking any more about them. Taillant’s book, however, indicates why everyone should be concerned about ice sheets. Not only is global warming a reality, our ice caps are melting on what appears to be a runaway timetable and we are not likely able to reverse the process until the damage is done. Not only our ice caps endangered, but our glaciers as well.

Why should anyone care about glaciers? For purely selfish reasons, I might point out that they are crucial to supplying drinking water for much of the world. Looking at the globe, it seems there is plenty of water to go around. Only about 3 percent of all water on the planet is fresh water, however. And of that 3 percent about three quarters of it is locked up in glaciers. Glaciers are the only source of fresh water in dry climates during years of drought or excessive heat. Whatever water isn’t used as these ice giants melt flows into the ocean, becoming part of the salt water majority. When the glaciers are gone, they’re gone. They are part of the fine balance that makes life on earth possible. The politics enter the picture when Taillant reveals that large mining interests, particularly in South America, have been destroying glaciers to get at the gold underneath. They block legislation and provide disinformation, all in the name of wealth. When they destroy glaciers, they destroy future prospects for life in the regions they mine. It’s an issue of social justice.

On our little planet that seems so big, we don’t often stop to consider that we didn’t really show up here by accident. We evolved with the features that our planet gave us—notably water—and we have continued to thrive only in the presence of water. It has often been said that future wars will not be fought over petroleum, but water. We can live without oil. We can’t survive without water. And our industrial action is blithely wasting away the largest reserves of drinkable water on the planet. I don’t live near any glaciers. I’ve only seen one or two in my lifetime, but I now worry for their health. Their future is, in many respects, our future. And that makes me want to pour a glass of water and reflect.


Pontificating

I’ve been in a few New York crowds, but this one seemed on its best behavior. I was in the city later than usual since I’m giving a talk today at a friend’s church in the Upper West Side. My wife came to meet me and, knowing the Pope was going to be saying mass at Madison Square Garden shortly after her train arrived at Penn Station (for out-of-towners, Madison Square Garden sits atop Penn Station) we decided to meet at Herald Square and avoid the other kinds of masses. I walked to the square from work and realized my mistake—34th Street was barricaded and there were crowds already beginning to form. The Pope had a procession through Central Park, but I neglected to check on the remainder of his route. My wife arrived and, taken in by the rush of the moment, decided to stay and see what we could see. We were literally one person back from the road. The police kept saying that they couldn’t confirm he was going to come this way, but the helicopters hovering overhead seemed to tell a different story.

The crowd was so well behaved. No pushing or shoving, and even loud talking was mostly absent. It was, believe it or not, kind of reverent. Sure there were people with placards suggesting that one should get right with Jesus, and the occasional pedestrian saying, and I quote, “Why is there so much people here? The Pope? You’ve got to be kidding—can’t we cross the street?” By and large, however, there was good will. One of my coworkers had emailed during the day saying she’d gone by Saint Patrick’s the night before, but couldn’t see him. The crowd, she commented, was kind spirited. Perhaps that’s what having a kind-spirited Pope will do. After we’d stood for nearly an hour, I was beginning to wonder if the motorcade had taken another route—7th Avenue was closed as well. Then the cheering began.

Pope Francis rode by, the window down, waving at the crowd. My glimpse was only a fragment of a second, but it was clearly him. I’d met an Archbishop of Canterbury or two in my time, but here I was, no more than thirty feet from the Pontiff, if only for a second to two. And it was all pretty much by accident. Life surprises us that way sometimes. Reading his words about climate change to the leaders of the world, I can’t help but think we’ve needed a leader like this man for a long time. He’s as human as the rest of us, and he knows that we have only one world and in that one world are millions of people in need. And global warming will hit them first and hardest. And the God of the evangelicals who say the planet is ours to destroy is not the God he recognizes. He’s just one man, but he is able to bring the largest city in the country to a halt, even if just for a second or two. This could be saying something important for those who have ears.

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Hunter-Gatherers

PandorasSeedEvery once in a while I put down my work long enough to look at where we are. It’s often a frightening experience. Not many of us would be equipped to survive the collapse of civilization, despite the many television shows that depict such future anarchy. I suppose that’s why Spencer Wells’ Pandora’s Seed: Why the Hunter-Gatherer Holds the Key to Our Survival was such a compelling book. The more anthropological studies I read, the more clear it becomes that “civilization” has changed us about as much as evolution has. If not more. We have turned into something else, a creature of our own making. Wells demonstrates throughout the pages of this book how, with the first development of agriculture, we began on a track that has made us less healthy, less happy, and more dependent on technology than we have ever been. True, life as hunter-gatherers was never easy. Still, it is telling that they have much more free time than agriculturalists. And, as far as we can tell, they are better-adjusted. They are doing what we evolved to do.

Addressing issues as diverse as from how our diet has changed to genetic engineering, Pandora’s Seed is a wide-ranging and fascinating book. It does show that technology far outraces ethics and our ability to figure out the proper response to complicated questions. We often lack the time to reason things out. And yet, we live in a world where mental illness is set to become the number two natural cause of death within this century. We are profoundly unhappy. We deny climate change although it’s evident all around us. We’ve put into place a global warming that will take a millennium to dissipate even if we stopped using fossil fuels today. We deny that it’s true, we go to dehumanizing jobs, and we eat food that’s not nutritious because it’s the kind we can afford. We lack time and motivation for exercise and disease takes hold. Such a lifestyle even affects our religion.

Tellingly, Wells’ last chapter deals with Fundamentalism. Noting that humans use both logos (logical) and mythos (mystical) thinking for a balanced view of things, fundamentalisms utilize a logos system to try to explain mythos. Violence often ensues. In order to be fully human we have to admit that rationality alone does not solve all our problems, or meet all of our needs. Some of what we require is simply not material. While Wells does not suggest reverting to hunter-gatherer lifestyles, he does suggest that the only solutions to a world of limited material goods (food, fossil fuels, fresh water) that the only way to make civilization sustainable is to learn to want less. Evolution predisposes us to gather more than we need, and certainly, to hear college career counselors talk, we have to want jobs that will bring in more, more, more. The world is becoming smaller, and people are demanding that the greed come to an end. Until that day perhaps the best solution for us all would be to take a walk in the woods and to remind ourselves how we came to be where we are.