My Turn: Humans have harmed Earth; humans can save Earth

For the Monitor
Published: 8/17/2019 8:00:11 AM

Now that the second round of Democratic presidential debates is behind us, there is growing pressure and enthusiasm to reduce the number of potential nominees.

The field may narrow as candidates become more identified with particular issues. One receiving increasing attention is the health of the Earth’s climate. However, often the debate is over the degree to which human beings affect climate change. Some believe humans have a minor impact while others see humanity bearing a major responsibility.

In my lifetime there has been an extensive impact on the Earth by human beings. One of my childhood memories is the dropping of two atom bombs destroying two Japanese cities and their civilian population.

In the 1940s and early ’50s the building of the Route 128 beltway around Boston went within a mile of our family farm, spawning housing and commercial development. It marked the end of vegetable farm trucks sending produce to Faneuil Hall Market to feed Boston and its suburbs.

Since then I have climbed over the barren tailings from mines in the Cascade Mountains. I have smelled a river polluted by a paper mill running through a New Hampshire village. I have breathed the grimy air that formed a gray film on all vegetation in New Delhi, India. And I have experienced the water shortage in Palestine and Israel.

The overuse of water has reduced the flow of the Jordan River and lowered the water table. The result has been a conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank over water access.

For example, I lived in a Palestinian village where the Israeli military has taken possession of four out of five Palestinian wells for use by illegal Israeli settlements. The fifth well is metered, limiting and charging the Palestinian villagers for the water.

There is hardly a place on the planet that is not imprinted with the dominance of human beings. The population of humans, their pets and their livestock has grown to 96% to 98% of the mass of all the mammals of the Earth. “The poor old elephants and tigers and rhinos and whales and kangaroos and all the rest of the mammals have gone from 99.9% to just 2% to 4%” (Population Media Center).

There is no denying the overwhelming transformation of the Earth’s resources by human beings, for good and ill. It’s absolutely amazing the way the elements of the Earth have been fabricated into cities of tall buildings, expansive suburbs, robots, cell phones and tablets, floating luxury liners and flying jumbo jets and weapons of mass destruction, including armed missiles poised to explode in cataclysmic nuclear blasts. There are also clothes and costumes for every occasion, Disney Land, pharmaceuticals, artificial limbs, ice cream cones and miracle mattresses.

Wilderness has been transformed into vast mono-culture farmlands. Mountain tops have been removed, valleys filled in. There is a web of roads, wilderness trails, super highways, railways, and even microwaves and contrails shrouding the Earth. Traces of humanity can be found from the trash on Mount Everest and a Hawaiian beach to flags and buildings in the ice and snows of the north and south poles.

Human skeletons bleach in the sun of the Arizona/Mexico wilderness and the bones of felled trees languish where there was once a tropical rain forest. Pollution and warming water smother coral reefs in the oceans. Compared to 200 years ago, the Earth is practically unrecognizable in its transformed state.

The ancient Psalmist said, “O God, what are human beings that you regard them, or mortals that you think of them? They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow” (Psalm 144). Today a Psalmist might observe, “O God, human beings overshadow and devour the Earth of your creation. How do you regard them now?”

The conversation and debates of candidates for president and Congress must include an awareness of the effect human beings have on the planet. Care for all human beings and care for the Earth are not elitist ideas. Either humanity wrings its hands and continues hell-bent to destroy itself or recognizes that a new era is upon us, a new choice: employ humanity’s intellect, skills and wisdom to correct unintended consequences of past actions and heal the planet.

Some may say that we can’t put technology back into the box. However, that is old thinking. The spirit, the will and the reasoning power of humanity are transformative.

Just because we’ve developed the capability to strip the Earth of its resources does not mean we have to use them up. We can transform (recycle) them over and over for the enhancement of our lives and a healthy environment.

Just because humans have learned to make high-capacity firearms does not mean we have automatically created the right to possess them. We can deconstruct them and transform the material into instruments for education, health, agriculture and peace.

Just because nations have learned to produce nuclear weapons does not mean they have created the right to stockpile them and have the audacity to consider using them.

Just because we’ve learned to build walls does not mean they should be used to enhance fear and hate toward the stranger.

Marianne Williamson had it right when she pointed out, in the Democratic presidential debate, the need to recognize the intersection of the primary issues we face in our country, such as global warming, mass migration, racism, gun possession, a war economy and the threat of nuclear annihilation. They are all influenced by the way humans have chosen to transform and use the natural resources of the Earth.

Let’s look for political candidates who understand humanity’s extraordinary historic impact on the planet and who understand that human beings can use that same power, influence and skill to enhance the future well-being of humankind and the Earth’s habitat.

We are responsible for the Earth and all that springs from it.

(The Rev. John Buttrick, United Church of Christ, lives in Concord.)

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