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Of course, we DO forget it...regularly. That is why we observe Earth Day in this nation again this week for the thirty-fifth year. In 1962, Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring(1), caught the nation's attention as it pointed out what was happening to the environment by our continued use of DDT and other pesticides. The following year, President Kennedy and Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson led a cross-country tour to further highlight the environmental crisis. Speech after speech warned that air and water pollution, species extinction, pesticide poisoning were threats to our nation's future. But the President later complained to the Senator that the press only seemed interested in stories about national defense or power politics and could care less about the environment. It was that experience, Nelson said, that led him to organize the first Earth Day eight years later.(2) Those were the days of heightening opposition to the Vietnam War with "teach-ins" on college campuses everywhere. The first Earth Day built on that teach-in model to highlight what was happening with our air and water.
It was well received and marked the beginning of two decades of slow yet steady progress in environmental consciousness and protective legislation. Because of emission control laws the air quality in our cities improved dramatically. Many lakes and rivers are cleaner and safer today than they were back then. And an entire generation of children has grown up with a deeper appreciation for how fragile and vulnerable our ecosystem actually is.
Some of the improvements came, not because of environmental sensitivity, but simply because of money (something that has long been known as a powerful motivator). For example, do you remember the gas crisis of the early '70's? Many of us well recall the three- and four-hour waits we had to endure just to fill up our tanks, all because the Middle Eastern oil producers slowed production to force prices up. To protect us from being held hostage to foreign interests like that again, our government instituted some strict standards to increase fuel efficiency of automobiles, reduce consumption and our dependence on foreign oil. As you recall, the auto industry screamed bloody murder and said they would go broke if these standards were not relaxed, but as we know, that was a lie and the auto industry has not been forced to hold any bake sales to fund their operations anywhere in the world.
As a matter of fact, the car companies did have some money to use for lobbyists. And they used it. Because the new standards did indeed make production more expensive, they lobbied to have them relaxed, regardless of whether or not that would make us vulnerable again. Now, before you jump on the wicked and heartless auto manufacturers, remember their job is not to encourage energy conservation; their job is to make a profit. They cannot be blamed for their position. And no one WOULD be blamed in this IF...and this is a huge IF...IF the government had stood its ground and kept the standards in place. But it did not. In 1986, as a favor to both Detroit and big oil, the standards for fuel efficiency were rolled back. Too bad. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, the non-profit energy research organization, if the United States had continued to conserve oil at the rate that we did in the late '70's and early '80's, we would have no longer needed Persian Gulf oil after 1986.(3)
For myself, my concern is closer to home. Recently Christie and I traded in our 1997 mini-van with 236,000 miles on it (it was time, wouldn't you say?) for a 2003 model with only 25,000 miles on it. The van we traded got about 28 miles to the gallon on the highway; the new one gets about 20. We thought something was wrong, so we took it in to the dealer to get it checked. We were told that nothing was wrong. The newer ones don't do as well on gas as the older ones. Whoopee. Thank you, Washington.
Speaking of Washington, perhaps you have noticed in the paper this week that Congress is considering a new energy bill. Ok. We should have a comprehensive energy policy. But according to Senator John McCain, this one should be called the No Lobbyist Left Behind bill. It contains billions of dollars in tax breaks for the energy industry, opens the Alaska Wildlife Refuge to drilling, and protects makers of the gasoline additive MTBE (methyl tertiary-butyl ether), from being sued. MTBE is a substance that is supposed to reduce air pollution, and according to those who have been raising a stink, these companies knew years ago that this stuff contaminated drinking water and they went on with it anyway.(4) Okee Dokee. By the way, these folks advocating all the tax breaks for industry are the same ones saying we have to cut food stamps for 300,000 poor American children because we have to reduce the deficit. Is there no such thing as shame anymore?
No question, conservation is an important environmental issue, but in terms of our theme this morning - "the earth is the Lord's and everything in it" - even more important is pollution. No question, we have made improvements. Good. After that first Earth Day in 1970, Republicans and Democrats, working together, created the Environmental Protection Agency and passed 28 major laws over the next ten years to protect our air, water, endangered species, wetlands, and food. Those who would use our air and our water would have to deal with any impact they made, and polluters would be held accountable. Unfortunately, many of those protections have been weakened in recent years, and unless a fresh political wind begins to blow, we will all pay the price for it. This is not the issue of one party or another - national polls consistently show that over 80% of all Americans, Republicans and Democrats, want our environmental laws strong and strictly enforced. Besides, we remember that old Indian proverb that reminds us that we do not inherit the land from our parents, we borrow it from our children. And as our lesson reminds us, "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it..." Be careful!
Perhaps the solution to this problem of pollution is as simple as what we learned from our mothers and fathers - you make a mess, you clean it up. Do not expect someone else to do it. You make a mess, you clean it up. If the mess you make is a result of your manufacturing process, you build in the cost of cleaning up the mess when you set your prices. If you want to keep all the money from the sale of your product, make sure you bear all the cost of manufacturing. If you would rather not handle the cleanup yourself, fine, then arrange to pay someone else to do it. This is simple free market capitalism. The only time government would have to get involved would be if your mess were so damaging to the environment that it could not be cleaned up, and the damage were permanent. Then you would have to find a new way of doing business for the good of everyone. That seems fair, doesn't it?
I was intrigued with Michelle Cottle's column on the last page of this week's TIME magazine.(5) She writes,
I've never been much of an environmentalist. Maybe it's because so many of the most ardent activists have a shrill, we-must-abandon-our-vehicles-and-go-live-in-a-mud-hut tone to their message. Or maybe it's because I was reared in the South, where a disproportionate number of folks drive big trucks, regard wildlife as something to be shot and mounted and deploy enough hairspray every day to open ozone holes the size of Georgia. Whatever the reason, even after more than a decade of environmental indoctrination on both the West and East Coasts, I still have a tough time working up gut-level outrage over mankind's assault on Mother Nature.She goes on to say that she is particularly concerned about the warning to pregnant women about eating tuna because of mercury contamination, a mineral that is VERY dangerous to unborn children. She notes that two weeks ago nine states filed suit against the Environmental Protection Agency charging that its reduction requirements for mercury are grossly inadequate and will allow some of the worst polluters (typically older, coal-fired power plants) to avoid installing mercury controls indefinitely. She writes, "I might be inclined to cut the EPA some slack if the rule-writing process didn't smell so, well, fishy. But the Government Accounting Office and the EPA inspector general have criticized the agency for ignoring scientific evidence and allowing industry lobbyists too much input." Here is the rule folks: You make a mess, you clean it up. Very simple. You make a mess, you clean it up.
A special love of the earth is a central pillar of certain ancient religions, but it has never figured prominently in Western Christianity. In a way, that could be surprising. Our scripture begins with the story of creation and the affirmation that the Creator made it all good. Then we read that humanity was created and was given "dominion"...to use the old King James language..."dominion" over creation.
God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."(6)Pretty straightforward. Humanity is placed in the role of middle management. Does that mean we are free to do anything we want? Some say YES.
Do you remember the name James Watt? He was our Secretary of the Interior back in the early '80's. James Watt came from a very conservative Christian tradition that espoused "dominion" theology. Humanity was in charge and what happened to anything else was of no importance. In fact Watt was very public in his disdain for environmentalism and thought it was a plot to weaken America. In addition Watt sold off public lands and water and mineral rights at what the General Accounting Office came to call "fire sale prices." When summoned before a Senate hearing on the matter, Watt explained why he was giving our stuff away. Why not get what we can for it now? He said, "I do not know how many future generations we can count on before the Lord returns."(7) Hmm. I am not sure I am comfortable with apocalyptic theology as the basis for public policy.
By the way, all conservative Christians do not share Mr. Watt's disdain for things environmental. Not long ago a group called the Evangelical Environmental Network launched a campaign called "What Would Jesus Drive?" a more specific version of the well-known question, "What Would Jesus Do?" Their website says, "We believe the Risen Lord Jesus cares about what we drive. Pollution from vehicles has a major impact on human health and the rest of God's creation. It contributes significantly to the threat of global warming. Our reliance on imported oil from unstable regions threatens peace and security. Obeying Jesus in our transportation choices is one of the great Christian obligations and opportunities of the twenty-first century."(8) They also note that fuel economy for passenger vehicles peaked in 1988 and is now at a 22 year low, which Christie and I are learning to our chagrin.
Now, you Bible scholars know there is a second creation story in Genesis that follows immediately after the first. This one comes from another source and also talks about the creation of humanity. But this one, instead of saying human beings are in charge, says, "The LORD God took the man (adam which is the Hebrew word for MAN, not a proper name) and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it."(9)
So which is it? To rule or to take care of? Why not both? Why not use our intelligence and scientific knowledge, not simply to do what we want when we want just because we want, but to make this little globe that we borrow better for all of us, all more than six-billion human beings plus lots of other plant and animal life? We certainly have the ability. But with it comes responsibility because, like it or not, we are in this together. An old Jewish proverb tells of a man in a boat who began to bore a hole under his seat. When his fellow passengers asked him what he was doing, he answered, "What do you care? I am only boring under MY seat." Uh-huh.
Do you remember Frank Rizzo, the former mayor of Philadelphia? Frank Rizzo was not backward about coming forward. We never had to wonder where Frank Rizzo stood on anything. He was controversial, to say the least. In terms of our thinking this morning, "Big Frank," as he was called, gave short shrift to those who would talk of the mess we were making of God's creation. He had names like "weirdos" and "pinko crazies," along with less polite designations, for those who joined Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, or other groups that raised a fuss over the environment. As far as Frank was concerned, the people who got agitated about such things were usually those "pointed-head, intellectual leftists" who were always making trouble for the rest of us. In some way that he could not quite explain, these "eco-freaks" were "unpatriotic."
All of this changed for Mayor Rizzo the day his dog got sick. He loved that dog and was beside himself when the animal had to be rushed to the vet. Rizzo cried when his dog died. The veterinarian explained that chemicals in the lawn fertilizer had caused the dog's sickness and death. Then the mayor got MAD! He called a press conference and said loud and clear, "I don't think those environmentalists are crazy anymore. I'm one of them!"(10)
Like Mayor Rizzo, sooner or later we will all get caught up in the environmental movement, whether it be this Friday's observance of Earth Day or some other time, because sooner or later we will all get hurt by what is happening to nature. The question is what kind of world will be waiting for our grandchildren when they come of age? Will we have to tell them about whales because there are none for them to see? Will there be no more mountain gorillas in Africa? Will the singing birds be gone from the trees? And in the midst of those questions is one that gets to the heart of the issue: What is so important for me to have that I am willing to sacrifice the future of my children and grandchildren in order to get it? Anything?
Then I read the words of the psalmist one more time: "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it..." Oops. I will try not to forget that.
1. Cambridge, Mass. : Riverside Press, 1962
2. Robert Kennedy, Jr., Crimes Against Nature, (New York : HarperCollins, 2004), p. 175
3. ibid., p. 108
4. "House advances energy tax package," Warren Times-Observer, 4/15/05, B-7
5. "Earth Mothers on Patrol," TIME, 4/18/05, p. 164
6. Genesis 1:26-28
7. Kennedy, p. 26
9. Genesis 2:15
10. Tony Campolo, How to Rescue the Earth Without Worshiping Nature, (Nashville : Thomas Nelson, 1992), p. 10