When I was a kid, maybe seven or eight years old, I liked to go fishing on the lake near our family’s Ontario home. A friend and I would hike to a rocky point with room cast the heavy line and lures we used. Sometimes my younger brother and I would row a little boat out into the bay and fish. The best part was that it was just us kids—no adults. The only rule was that we had to wear life jackets.
A few things stand out to me as I think back on those little fishing expeditions in the 1980s. One is that I expect there was probably more adult supervision than we knew. Our sense of freedom was complete, but I doubt we were really out of sight for very long. The second thing, which I knew nothing of at the time, was that the place we fished was part of a horrifically polluted watershed. We lived just outside of Dryden, Ontario, home to a pulp mill and, at one time, a chemical plant. According to the province, in the 1960s and 70s the pulp and paper operation dumped “around 10 metric tonnes of mercury” into the Wabigoon River. A paper published last year in The Lancet Planetary Health called this “one of the worst environmental disasters in Canadian history.”
A couple of weeks ago my family and I needed to get out of the house. Since we live on the southern edge of Ottawa, it doesn’t take us long to drive down to the Saint Lawrence River. The afternoon we spent there started cloudy and blustery, but it ended with brilliant sunshine and a perfect breeze. We didn’t do anything exceptional. It wasn’t warm enough to swim. We watched boats, threw some rocks, built a few sandcastles, and tried to name the waterfowl. It was a perfect afternoon (well, except for that one thing that happened . . . and that other thing).
I was standing with my young sons on the edge of a cornfield. It was late-December and snowing. We let the dog off her leash and watched as she ran across the field. Then she turned and leapt her way back toward us, jumping rows of downed cornstalks two-at-a-time. Bits of unfrozen soil flew through the air. I bent down so my face was even with that of my youngest son. We watched together. The falling snow thickened and the wind picked up. We could hardly see the opposite side of the field. “It’s very pretty,” he said. There was nothing really special about the place—a farm field that abutted a soccer pitch and a schoolyard. But my son was right; it was very pretty. As I dug the dog’s leash out of my pocket, the snowflakes grew heavy, like airborne slush. By the time we got home and I returned to sermon-writing, it was raining. Weeks later we learned that 2020 tied 2016 as the warmest year on record.
There is much at stake in the ecological crisis unfurling around us: places we love, crops we grow and eat, ecosystems we depend on in more ways than we know, even the character of the world our children will inherit. Despite all this, our collective response is falling far short. Too much of our action, including that of the church, is merely individual or half-hearted. What is the way forward? What would meaningfully address the crisis of climate change? Seth Klein’s new book, A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency aims to answer this question.
It’s spring here in eastern Ontario. The low-lying spots where we went skating just a few weeks ago are now stopover sites for migrating ducks. The fencerows and backyard shrubs host the birds that booked the earliest flights out of the south. While the birds were away and while the snow and ice accumulated, I spent time considering the natural world from a different perspective.
A little over a decade ago, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada published a short booklet that outlined a biblical case for environmental stewardship or “earth-keeping.” At the heart of the document was this observation: “We stand . . . at a watershed in human history: we are no longer at the mercy of the seasons, yet our continued drive for mastery may lead to disastrous environmental consequences.” This assessment is hard to refute, yet even years later the way forward is fraught.
A few weeks ago, just beyond the edge of our neighborhood, an excavator crawled off a low bed trailer and went to work. The big machine was equipped with a brush-clearing attachment. Over the span of a couple of days, the operator worked his way around the retention pond, munching through small deciduous trees and mowing down the cattails. The excavator’s twin steel tracks left deep ruts in the wet ground. The work blocked off the path we use for our daily walks. Nevertheless, my family and I watched anxiously to see what would be left. [the rest of this column for Mennonite Creation Care Network is available through this link]
Texts: Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
I don’t know if there is such a thing as a rock star biologist, but if there is then E.O. Wilson is one. Wilson is retired now. He’s hook-nosed and in his 90s. But he remains one of the world’s leading experts on ants. Wilson spent his career teaching biology at Harvard, doing field research, writing books, and winning a slew of awards. E.O. (or Ed) Wilson is a fierce advocate for protecting and mapping the full diversity of life on earth. Continue reading “Homily for Sunday, July 26 – Of Fungi and the Kingdom”→
Some time ago, I found myself sitting in front of a very crowded room. I was part of a panel discussing Christian responses to climate science. Earlier in the discussion, a fellow panelist had told the group that he didn’t believe human activity was causing climate change; therefore, he saw no need for any particular Christian response. The third panelist and I had disagreed with his take. The room was divided—and emotionally charged. The moderators did their best to tamp down the shouting and wring questions for us out of long statements from the floor. We were just about out of time when someone asked a question that I thought was really provocative: “Given the fact that Canada’s CO2 emissions don’t make up a very large percentage of the global total, what would be the point in making any costly changes?” Continue reading “But We Can’t Make a Difference . . .”→
There’s something still stuck in my head from Advent. I’ve thought about it before, but for some reason the question is sticking with me longer this year (probably because I’m also reading an old book by Holmes Rolston III). The thought is this: What do we do with Isaiah’s peaceful vision? Is the arrival of the Prince of Peace bad news for environmental ethics? It seems an odd question at first. Within the current political alignment, concerns for peace are often allied with concerns for the environment. And in the annual run-up to Christmas churches typically work their way through some of the prophetic passages in Isaiah, the ones that New Testament writers then link to Jesus of Nazareth. Preachers like myself then tie the radical enemy-love of Jesus with Isaiah’s picture of predator and prey living peacefully together. Lion and calf, wolf and lamb, leopard and kid, bear and cow, baby and asp—they are all put together in the nursery of Isaiah 11. And we think this depicts a great future. Continue reading “Is the Prince of Peace Bad for the King of the Jungle?”→
How much is a great whale worth—alive? One study puts the number at $2 million. Whales are an important part of marine ecosystems. They sequester carbon and distribute nutrients. But putting a number like that on a whale brings up deeper questions about value.
Yesterday young people led a global protest against the lack of serious action on climate change. Let’s be clear, the debate is not essentially a disagreement about the relative importance of the economy or the environment. There are jobs to be had and money to be made on both sides. The real issue raised by these activists is one of value. Continue reading “The Climate Strike, Scripture and the Deep Question of Value”→
The other week I was thinking about the way life unfolds along all kinds of unpredictable lines. I was reminded of an unfinished essay I’ve had sitting on my laptop for some time. Here it is . . .
The hike was not more than four or five kilometers long. We had just started when two fat-tire bikers zipped by. As I watched them drift up the banked turns and grab as much of the up-and-down as they could, it was hard not to be a little envious. They were alone. They could travel at speed if they wanted. I on the other-hand, was trying to convince a four-year-old that it makes more sense to let the legs of his rain pants hang over his boots than to tuck them inside. Not yet out of sight behind us was the place where we stopped to deal with an issue of bunchy socks. It was chilly, the rain morphed into snow and then back to rain. Continue reading “Big Mountains and Dreams that were too Small”→