“Hope springs eternal,” we say, and Earth Day certainly demonstrates that truth. Earth Day was founded in hope in 1970; as you will read below, we are still hopeful. The question is, should we be? In the face of all of our challenges, where should we look for real hope? These are my Earth Day #44 thoughts (see some earlier year’s thoughts here and here:
Madison Wisconsin, can arguably claim to be the historical center of the modern US environmental movement. This small city has direct connections to many of the movement’s pioneers: John Muir (Yellowstone National Park), Aldo Leopold (“Sand County Almanac” and many other works), Sigurd Olsen (The US/Canadian Boundary Waters), Gaylord Nelson (founder of the first Earth Day), and Cal DeWitt (Au Sable Institute). Perhaps because of these historical connections, the current voices of the environmental movement can often be heard in this city, and what these voices are saying – and not saying – is worth noting.
Two events here the last two weeks deserve mention. In the first, Dr. Frederick Denny, a prominent Islamic scholar addressed the topic of Ecological Principles in Islam. Dr. Denny is the author of one of the standard textbooks in the field of Islamic Studies, and has recently begun exploring what Islam, the Qur’an and Islamic scholars have to say about environmental issues and ethics. For full disclosure, and as an interesting footnote, my own brother is the author of the other major textbook and both of these scholars speak highly of each other.
We might begin by noting that this lecture was hosted by the Religious Studies Department of the University of Wisconsin and not by the Environmental Studies Institute. This would at least suggest an indication of the extent to which environmental concerns have spread throughout the academic community. The environmental crisis is not just the concern of scientists any more.
What was memorable was not the content of the lecture – it appears that while an ecological ethic can be built on Islamic doctrine, there is not a lot to start with (my conclusion, not the lecturers). No, it was the lively discussion that began (I won’t tell you how) to explore the question of sin, repentance and forgiveness with regard to things we do to harm the environment, God’s creation. The most memorable comment of the evening: “God may forgive us for what we have done, but will creation do so?” All in all it was a most refreshing kind of discussion to have in the middle of one of America’s great (secular) universities.
The second event was a talk by none other than Jane Goodall. Introduced by Tia Nelson, daughter of Gaylord (of Earth Day fame), Jane spoke to a crowd of more than 2000 people. I don’t have to tell you that Jane Goodall is as close to an environmental saint as we have today (you can read some of her inspiring life story here). Her topic was in keeping with her reputation: “Reasons for Hope”. Having the recent discussion on sin still on my mind, I was eager to hear what hope Jane might have to offer.
She is a marvelous story teller, and her quiet, understated delivery is nonetheless powerfully eloquent. Unfortunately, when you look carefully at what she was offering under the label of “hope”, the message fell short.
“I do feel hopeful,” she said, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. Her main reasons for hope: Human intellect. We’re smart enough to know what damage we’re causing to the environment, and smart enough to find solutions. The resilience of nature. Creation shows an astounding ability to rebound from insult and injury. And what she calls the indomitable human spirit as evidenced, she believes, in the enthusiasm she sees among young people around the world today.
I listened carefully. I wanted to share her hope, I really did. But my mind kept going back to that discussion about sin.
If the problem really is sin – if environmental problems are sin problems, a phrase that is repeated often at Care of Creation – then there will be no hope in intellect. If there ever were a hope that human brains can outwit human greed, the corruption on Wall Street should put that idea to rest more or less permanently. Yes, nature can bounce back, but how many times and how often? It’s kind of hard to bounce back from extinction, as the Passenger Pigeon and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker would tell us if they could. And that indomitable human spirit? We were just as enthusiastic about Earth Day 44 years ago. Somehow our shortsightedness and our sinful materialism outlived that young enthusiasm.
So what’s the lesson for us this Earth Day? Is there any hope?
I would answer with a cautious yes. There is hope in our struggle against environmental sin, because there is hope for environmental sinners. It is the same hope that is there for sinners of every other kind – hope that comes from Jesus
For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him [Jesus], 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. [Colossians 1:19-20]
May this Earth Day be another step toward recognizing that sin is the deep root cause of our environmental challenges, and may we respond to that awareness with the kind of repentance that God will accept.
Then there will be hope.