The sacred, it would seem, is deeply and inextricably connected with that miraculous quality we call Life.
Life is inseparable from the whole domain of value. If the universe were lifeless, how could anything really matter? It is life â€“and the needs of living creaturesâ€”that makes one course of events better or worse than another.
Life also is the epitome of the Wholeness that is the essence of the Good and the Beautifulâ€”Wholeness being defined as the ordering of things in an ideal way. Whether one believes that life on earth is the result of an undirected evolutionary process, or that it shows the handiwork of some kind of intelligent Designer, one can hardly behold the fabric of life without a feeling of awe for the incredible intricacy of how life has ordered the matter and energy of which it is composed.
One can surely judge the godliness â€“or lack of itâ€”of any political leadership by the attitude it brings to the needs of life.
But our present leadership, and many of its followers â€“though they declare themselves â€œpro-lifeâ€â€“ have but the narrowest concept of what being â€œpro-lifeâ€ truly requires. Indeed, it seems that they have not really understood the true nature of life. And, in their ignorance, or indifference, they have made themselves into an anti-life force.
Nowhere has this failure of understanding been more in evidence than on the issue of climate change.
CREATURES AND THE SYSTEMS THAT SUSTAIN THEM
Not only is it insufficient to care about human life, as the old joke has it, only â€œbetween conception and birth,â€ but a true concern for human life cannot confine itself only to the purely human realm. The point here is not that other forms of life have inherent value in themselves, tooâ€”though that is certainly true, and the failure of many to extend their sense of the sacredness of life beyond the human is surely a spiritual failure of no small proportion. The issue here goes far beyond that: even those who care only to protect human life must protect also the larger Whole of the biosphere out of which humankind emerged and upon which humankind continues inescapably to depend for its survival.
Such is the Wholeness of life on earth.
Not only is no man an island, but neither can humanity itself safely see itself as an island cut off from the vast interconnected Whole that is life on earth. For four billion years, life has been creating Wholeness on this planet. At present, none of us knows whether this mind-bogglingly complex living system is unique in the universe, or rare, or one of many places where the creation of such intricately ordered, self-perpetuating living systems has been achieved in this cosmos. But however unique or common is the emergence of lifeâ€™s mind-bogglingly complex order, such as has occurred on our earth, the levels of this order go well beyond the individual creature, or species, to constitute an interlocking set of flows at the planetary level.
And the earthâ€™s climate is part of that Wholeness. Over these billions of years, the web of living things has developed to create and sustain the conditions for lifeâ€™s continuation, including the flows of gases that constitute the earthâ€™s atmosphere and regulate its climate.
This control is not complete, of course. Life had no way, for example, to prevent the intrusion onto the planet, some 65 million years ago, of an asteroid, from outside the domain of lifeâ€™s control, whose impact kicked up enough debris to alter the climate and force many life forms into extinction. But, partial though lifeâ€™s control over the planet may be, it is part of the miraculous order of life on earth that earthâ€™s many creatures work to sustain a stable and life-supporting climatic system.
Whether one gives any credence to the â€œGaia hypothesis,â€ according to which the Biosphere is to be seen as a single planet-encompassing living organism, or whether one sees this biospheric wholeness in other terms, any â€œpro-lifeâ€ vision of what is holy ought surely to recognize that in this life-serving stabilizing of the climate that life has striven for and, to a great extent, achieved, there is something sacred with which we are called upon to align ourselves.
For not only is it one of lifeâ€™s great achievements, but it is also part of the foundation of the well-being of our own species. Uncertainties there may be about the dynamics of earthâ€™s climatic system, but no prudent person would roll the dice on the only planet weâ€™ve got.
Foolish is the species that would bring down such a Temple upon its own head. Foolish or irresponsibleâ€”which is, perhaps, a species of wickedness.
THE VIRTUE OF PRUDENCE IN THE CARE OF LIFE
Yet great power in America today is recklessly refusing to change its ways to serve the needs of life â€“including human lifeâ€”on earth. The scientific consensus has declared that the coming decades could see significant damage to humankindâ€™s niche on the earth.
This damage might take â€“indeed may already be takingâ€“ many forms.
One possible form is the disruption of food production, as temperatures and rain patterns shift in lands on which food crops are grown. Another is the loss of land, as the melting of ice raises sea levels and submerges coastal territories and oceanic islands (including much of Manhattan, and a large chunk of the Florida peninsula). Yet another is the extinction of various species of plants and animals, as the extraordinary suddenness of these changes eliminates habitats faster than some life forms can adapt to or escape to find new niches. And then there is the predicted increased severity of weather, with fiercer storms and higher temperatures and greater extremes of drought and flood (Katrina as the wave of the future).
Stability of climate is the ally of life on earth, and life â€“including civilizationâ€“ suffers from the present destablization.
Despite the clear prospect of the subversion of the blessed wholeness of living systems, Americaâ€™s most powerful political leaders today â€“and the economic forces behind themâ€” say we should â€œstay the courseâ€ on those human practices that science says are contributing to climate change.
Some say that there is uncertainty about the actuality of this problem of climate change. And indeed there is SOME uncertainty, but far less than is claimed by those who stress it in our collective deliberations. The majority of experts find little reason to doubt that the planet is getting warmer.
But even if the reality of global warming were only a 50-50 proposition â€“indeed even if it were only a 10% probability, or even 5%â€“ how responsible would it be not to act now to take that contingency into account? A middle class American family man who does not buy life insurance is â€“rightlyâ€”considered irresponsible, even if the actuaries say thereâ€™s only a one in 200 chance that his family will need it in the year for which the premium is being paid. Why expose his wife and children to the possibility of such financial calamity, just to save the premium?
Still, political and economic powers have consistently refused to pay any premium now to protect those generations that will come after us. They say we need to know for sure before we pay the price for this insurance policy, even though by the time we know for sure it would be far too late for that knowledge to do us any good.
Some say that there is uncertainty whether the warming of the planet is due to human activity or to the natural cycles of climate. And indeed there is SOME uncertainty, though the evidence for human causation is persuasive to most who know what they are talking about.
But even if the ongoing warming of the planet were mostly caused by non-human factors in the climate picture, what difference would it make? It is well-established that certain gases â€“like carbon dioxide, whose presence in the atmosphere human activity has almost doubled in the past two centuries â€”contribute to the planetâ€™s getting hotter. So what sense does it make to COMPOUND the problem and amplify the speed and magnitude of climate change? If one has bronchitis for some reason other than smoking, does that alter the reality that someone with bronchitis is a fool to smoke?
The conduct of the Bush administration â€“and of American capitalismâ€”on the issue of climate change is a disgrace. Anyone who is truly â€œpro-lifeâ€ ought to be appalled.
REPAIRING THE DAMAGE
Foolish or wicked. In the case of the Bush administration, the choice of explanations is regrettably clear. For this same ruling group that does nothing about climate change has also damaged other essential dimensions of wholeness that represent much that is good in the world.
With a disastrous war of choice in Iraq, this American regime is also the one that has disturbed that vital and delicate form of wholenessâ€“ the peace of the world. And this Bushite regime has also set about dismantling the foundations of comparative justice and tranquility in the American body politic, the Constitution of the United States.
This pattern of the Bush regimeâ€™s wanton disregard for â€“perhaps even hostility toâ€“ a whole variety of dimensions of wholeness seems an unmistakeable clue to how immoral is the spirit that animates the regime. Given this pattern, it seems reasonable to attribute to wickedness, more than to folly, the source of their immoral indifference to taking care of the biosphereâ€“ the biosphere that is the foundation of every breath our descendents will take and every bite of food they will eat.
Now in America a piece of power has come into other hands. For the Democrats newly in the majority in Congress, the overriding task must be to continue the process of wresting power from the Bushites and to set about repairing the damage this regime has done to the nation and to the world. Of the many arenas in which this damage has occurred, none are more important than those three dimensions of Wholeness that have been under assault from this regime: the peace of the world, the Constitution, and the order of the biosphere.
Arguably, the threats to the first of these two â€“from the war in Iraq, and from the assertion of unchecked presidential powerâ€”are the most urgent, the dangers involved being measured in terms of months and years rather than in years and decades. But the threat from the failure to deal with the challenge of global warming â€“though the costs may be a bit further out into the futureâ€”is no less important to address.
Let us hope that the Democrats will have the wisdom and the courage to defend the interests of life effectively.