Thursday, June 16, 2011

Innocents at home

"The earth doesn't care if you drive a hybrid." So proclaimed Nobel Prize winning physicist Robert Laughlin recently, in a line that was promptly picked up by George Will and has resonated widely among those who prefer to ignore environmental issues and inconvenient truths like what I recently dubbed "global weirding."

Interestingly, I agree. The earth really doesn't care what happens to it, and it will do perfectly well if most (or all) of the species currently living die out. The point that Will and others seem to miss (I won't presume to speak for Laughlin) is that our children and grandchildren will care. That's just one of the many reasons I drive a hybrid and buy electricity generated exclusively by the abundant Texas wind.

Let me dig deeper, though, because this really is an existential and even theological issue, and I want to make it clear where I stand, and where I believe others stand.

Human beings are unique. That is one of the central claims of most religions, even if they find very different ways of expressing it. Our place in the world - our uniquely fragmented, contentious relationship with the rest of creation - is, in a real sense, the issue on which everything else depends. That's why, as I've said several times before, our relationship to the environment is my number one moral issue.

The fact is, human beings are the only things in the universe capable of caring about what happens to the environment in which we live. Other species may reproduce at will and die out when the food supply is exhausted, or when predators grow too abundant. That's more or less how natural selection works. The earth, indeed, doesn't care. It also doesn't care if beautiful mountain vistas are distorted by earthquakes or worn down by erosion. It doesn't care if beautiful seacoast scenes are devastated by hurricanes. This is all in a day's work. Only people have a sense of beauty, and will mourn the loss of these things - if we survive to do so. This is our blessing and our curse. It is the seed of the divine that we bear within us. It is the shame we also bear for not being able to carry the burden.

Those who - correctly - point out that the earth doesn't care what happens to the environment just don't get this. They are the innocents among us: those who have not known sin. They cannot possibly share the horror that J. Robert Oppenheimer felt in quoting the Bhagavad Gita: "We are become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds."

So here is my response. Indeed the earth doesn't care. Whatever we do to the precious ecological balance that has allowed us to thrive and enjoy our brief lives of pain and beauty will be but a small blip - an unnoticed deviation - in the grand geological history of the world. It truly won't matter to anybody but us. However, since we are the ones whose glory and fragility are both exposed and challenged by the current environmental crisis, we should indeed care very much. We stand at one of the great dividing points in human history, in which both our limitations and the divine spark we bear within us are being exposed and tested as never before. Our response will have moral, theological, ethical, economic and cultural ramifications that will dwarf anything we have previously faced in our history. On all of these fronts, driving a hybrid is the very, very least that we can do.

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