The Indonesian island of Sumatra has lost half of its forest since 1985, primarily through mass burnings to clear land for palm oil plantations. Indonesia and Malaysia supply more than 80 percent of the world’s palm oil. It is used for biofuel and cooking oil, lipstick and chocolate. The destruction of habitat has been devastating to the orangutan, whose name means “people of the forest” in Malay. Fewer than 15,000 orangutans remain in Sumatra. Even though another 100,000 orangutans still survive on the neighboring island of Borneo, the number of orangutans there declined by more than that number between 1999 and 2015.
Some predict the orangutan, as forest continues to be cleared for agriculture, will be the first great ape to be extinguished in the wild.
A few days after I learned of the orangutan decimation, I read that almost 200 gray whales have washed ashore dead this year along Pacific beaches between Mexico and Alaska. Countless other carcasses have dropped to the ocean floor — an ocean congested with plastic, as about 8 million tons of it end up there each year.
Scientists aren’t sure why this big die-off is happening; it isn’t the first. They’re looking at factors like marine pollution, water temperature on a warming planet, melting sea ice, food availability, entanglement in fishing gear, toxic algae blooms, collisions with large ships, even predation by larger whales. Not only has climate change made oceans warmer, they’re more acidic and contain less oxygen. All this affects the whales and their food sources, resulting in malnourishment and other symptoms of decline — such as one-third fewer gray whale calves this year than last.
Stories like these appear daily now. Animals, those other nations with whom we share this earth, are dying off. And it’s because of what we humans have done to them and their habitats.
The hour is late. The house is dark. I’m restless; the children are asleep in their rooms. My thoughts are with them and their future — the world they will inherit. It’s harsh out there, the signs are ominous, and my nighttime ruminations send them down worrisome pathways. They seem so tender now, vulnerable, as does the planet that is their home.
I have tried to show them my love for life on Earth — hikes in the woods, sunsets at the lake, fireflies in summer, starry skies on cold winter nights. The wondrous exuberance of life to be discovered in a creek, in the leafy, loamy corners of our backyard. When they were little, we read the storybooks populated with foxes and bears, watched the nature shows, made frequent trips to zoos. We delighted in dolphins and giraffes, penguins and otters, hummingbirds and sharks. Dinosaurs lit up their imaginations. Rollicking thunderstorms drew us outdoors. The world provided a menagerie of accomplices and charm, all wrapped in a faith in the mysteries of Being.
But life on planet Earth is shifting in severe and detrimental ways; the decades-old predictions of environmental calamity are coming true. I worry about the changes looming in the years ahead — what my kids and grandkids will encounter. I feel guilty I have done so little to reduce my own carbon footprint, to change my careless ways. I fear small steps no longer matter. The household recycling, reusable grocery bags and minor conservations cannot make a real difference. No act of mine will alter the course of human history. So I lie awake and fret, then get up in the morning and go about my business, driving my gasoline-powered vehicle as if everything will turn out all right somehow. In the end.
“We are sleepwalking towards the edge of a cliff,” said Mike Barrett, the executive director of science and conservation for the World Wildlife Fund, responding to the 2018 Living Planet Index. The global study reported that 60 percent of the world’s mammals, birds, fish and reptiles have disappeared since 1970. “This is far more than just being about losing the wonders of nature, desperately sad though that is,” Barrett said. “This is actually now jeopardizing the future of people. Nature is not a ‘nice to have’ — it is our life-support system.”
As children, we learn about the web of life and the interrelatedness of creatures large and small. As adults, we joke about the ripple effect of a butterfly’s flight, but there is truth in the precept. It’s more than a fanciful thought used to encourage sensitivity toward the planet’s fellow inhabitants, promote harmonious living or tamp down humanity’s hubris — our thinking that the earth’s purpose is to serve as the groundwork for human habitation, the raw material for relentless consumption. The notion of human lordship has real repercussions — and alarming ones, especially as nearly 8 billion people now sprawl over the earth. There are more than twice as many of us today as in 1970, and the accelerating force of this population explosion threatens the planet. And us.
Not only has the earth’s nonhuman vertebrate population declined by three-fifths over the past 50 years, but the number of insects, butterflies and bees has dropped significantly — which may seem like a blessing until you factor in the impact on insect-eating birds. North America has more than a billion fewer birds than it did 40 years ago, with dozens of species losing more than half their populations between 1970 and 2014. The losses are more than aesthetic.
While it may sadden us to consider the silencing of birdsong, to see the images of polar bears struggling with disappearing sea ice or elephant herds suffering from lost habitat, drought and poaching, the more selfishly pragmatic impact of animal loss may be on human survival. Even the tiniest creatures make a difference. Honey bees in the United States, for example, pollinate an estimated $15 billion worth of crops annually. Seventy-five of the top 115 global food crops depend upon pollination; one in three bites of food we humans enjoy is possible because of bees and other pollinators. Yet over the past 35 years, the world’s bee population has severely declined.
“We are eroding the very foundations of our economies, livelihoods, food security, health and quality of life worldwide,” said the chair of a United Nations panel on biodiversity and ecosystems, which found that 75 percent of the earth’s land surface has been “significantly altered” by humans, with one-fourth of the species assessed in the study facing extinction. In fact, scientists are beginning to talk about the environmental degradation that humans have wrought as possibly leading to “the sixth extinction,” following five previous epochal cataclysms that drastically altered life on the planet. It isn’t just the whales we need to save, or the great apes, the rainforests or the coral reefs, the oceans or polar ice caps. It is ourselves.
And the hour is late.
Several decades ago, when I first heard the term “global warming,” much of the attention was on rising sea levels and receding shorelines. Coastal cities would be inundated with water. The scientific explanation made sense. Carbon dioxide and other “greenhouse gases” — mostly those being produced by burning fossil fuels — were trapped in the earth’s atmosphere, wrapping the planet in a kind of blanket that would steadily raise temperatures. This “greenhouse effect” would heat things up, ice would melt and water levels would rise. Humans living at the seashore would be forced to adapt, to move back from the shrinking coastlines.
The timeline stirred no urgency. It was still the 20th century then; the real consequences loomed late in the 21st. Despite Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature, predictions of a hotter planet drew doubt and denial. Corporate and government leaders seemed unwilling to sacrifice short-term profits and comforts for long-range forecasts that might or might not come to pass — however potentially devastating to future generations. Some naysayers eventually acknowledged the symptoms of climate change but attributed the shifts to natural cycles and balked at the idea that humans were causing it. Meanwhile, scientists did their work but were reluctant to step into an activist role. The prophets among us were seen as alarmists, the issue got politicized and people in general — folks like me — read about it and talked about it but hardly changed the way we lived.
Maybe we didn’t fully understand what the scientists with their models and calculations were saying — about the real impact on all life forms of raising the average temperature even a few degrees above preindustrial levels. About the effect on ocean water and sea animals. About the changing climate, the severity of storms and weird weather patterns, hurricanes and tornadoes. About the likelihood of wildfires and droughts. Mudslides. About death by heat and death by pollution. About the desperation of poor and starving people whose land could no longer support farming, those facing desertification and dwindling resources. About refugee migration. About islands, nations and coastal settlements disappearing under water.
The prognoses were too big, too remote, too indefinite, too gradual to penetrate our national consciousness; more immediate priorities, fears and concerns occupied our minds. Climate change was the gathering storm on the far distant horizon, less real and less threatening than the day’s hassles, the nation’s economic, racial or political tensions or the world’s hostilities, conflicts and injustices. Yet it loomed, ever-present, as the backdrop against which these other human activities have played out.
I worry about my children living in a world crippled by human conceits, whose perilous ways are expected to intensify in the years ahead. What I fear most, though, is what we will do to each other.
In time, as the science-driven scenarios became increasingly grim, the global community responded, with governments working to develop cooperative plans to reduce carbon emissions. In 1988, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established by the World Meteorological Organization and the U.N.; it became the gold standard in assessing the impact of climate change over time. The IPCC has also provided clear evidence that the global scientific community was unified in attesting that climate change was real and due to human activity.
International consensus was again reflected in the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992, extended by the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, followed by the Paris Agreement that took effect in November 2016 (an international pact the U.S. abandoned in 2017).
Participants talked of fast-approaching tipping points and the dire warnings of further warming exceeding 2 degrees Celsius. Even the skeptics — watching glaciers dissolve and polar ice disappear, experiencing oppressive heat waves and the increasing prevalence and severity of storms and fires and floods — began suspecting truth in the forecasts. As more people recognized that Mother Nature’s personality was changing, scientists were monitoring an array of interrelated geophysical factors — and determined that the sinister processes of a global meltdown were accelerating. It’s all happening faster than predicted and will be worse than previously thought.
Meanwhile, the human population has more than doubled since 1970, consuming more of the natural landscape, depleting fisheries, eliminating vast tracts of forest that serve as a natural curative for carbon dioxide buildup and demanding more energy — augmented by those nations now making the technological advances to keep pace with 21st-century lifestyles. As leaders pondered strategies and apathy reigned, carbon dioxide emissions reached a record high in 2018. More than half the carbon historically spewed into the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels has been emitted in the past 30 years — prompting David Wallace-Wells to write in The Uninhabitable Earth, “This means we have now engineered as much ruin knowingly as we ever managed in ignorance.”
The Christian creation story in Genesis is a favorite of mine. God has created the world, called it good and given the first humans dominion over it. They will name the animals, be responsible for them; the earth is theirs. Just don’t eat of the tree of knowledge, God warns. But the snake comes to the garden and offers the power of godlike knowledge — by eating from the forbidden tree. It is that act of hubris, that ambition for power, that excludes them from the garden, separates them from God. The original sin.
Christians have had a conflicted relationship with the natural world ever since. They rarely heed what Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans: “Ever since the creation of the world, God’s invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made.”
Redemption in this 21st century will not look like redemption. According to current trends and best predictions, the hope for tomorrow is more mitigation than restitution. We’ve begun to experience a new and disturbing normal, and we have little reason to believe the chaos now gaining momentum will be reversed. The key variable is how much warmer the earth will become. A sliding scale of possibilities starts around 2 degrees and runs to 3 or 5 or 8. “Since 1980,” writes Wallace-Wells, “the planet has experienced a fiftyfold increase in the number of dangerous heat waves; a bigger increase is to come.” He continues, “Even if we meet the Paris goals, cities like Karachi and Kolkata will annually encounter deadly heat waves like those that crippled them in 2015, when heat killed thousands in India and Pakistan. At four degrees, the deadly European heat wave of 2003, which killed as many as 2,000 people a day, will be a normal summer. Then, it was one of the worst weather events in Continental history, killing 35,000 Europeans.”
The U.N. estimates that air pollution now claims 7 million lives per year. A paper presented in the journal Nature Climate Change estimated that 150 million more people would die from air pollution alone if the world were 2 degrees warmer instead of 1.5 degrees warmer. “This is what is meant,” writes Wallace-Wells, “when climate change is called an ‘existential crisis.’”
Warming by 3 or 3.5 degrees, he adds, “would unleash suffering beyond anything that humans have ever experienced. . . . But it is not a fatalistic scenario; in fact, it’s a whole lot better than where we are headed.” The U.N. estimates a 4.5-degree increase by the end of this century if we stay on current emission pathways. An 8-degree increase by 2100 is conceivable.
Of course, much of the future is unknown. There are variables and contingencies. For example, carbon dioxide has been the target of most concern during climate change conversations, but another culprit in the atmosphere is methane, responsible for one-fourth of today’s global warming. It is 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide when measured over a century — 86 times more powerful over the span of 20 years. The oil and gas industry produces one-third of all methane emissions, but methane also comes from decomposing vegetation, burning trees and plants, degenerating wetlands and rice paddies, and livestock. Cattle alone release 30 to 50 gallons of methane per day; with 1.5 billion cows and bulls in the world, that’s a lot of emissions.
While coal and cars deservedly get most of the attention, almost one-fifth of the greenhouse gases produced globally come from agriculture — 15 percent from livestock. As land continues to be cleared for farming to feed expanding populations, the impact of fertilizers and the fuel used in farm machinery will be even greater. Not only do current agricultural practices contribute to global warming,+ but clearing trees for farming reduces the healing effects of forests, which supply oxygen and soak up greenhouse gases. A U.N. study revealed that 80,000 acres of forest were being leveled daily in 2009, a rate of deforestation almost 10 percent higher than in the 1990s. While some observers point to reforms and progress in some areas, the World Bank estimates that 502,000 square miles of forest were lost between 1990 and 2016, and the deterioration continues.
Other cycles threaten to accelerate the doomsday mechanisms, with methane the villain in some. For example, rising temperatures will not only melt the polar ice caps but also the Arctic permafrost, which contains 1.8 trillion tons of carbon — double what currently hovers in the atmosphere. When that thaws, it will release more greenhouse gas — largely methane — turning up the thermostat further. The melting Arctic ice will reduce the amount of sunlight reflected and increase the sunlight absorbed, heating up the planet further still. Warmer oceans also absorb less heat, leaving more heat in the air. And they contain less oxygen, which spells doom for the phytoplankton that not only supply a critical bounty of nutrients to the ocean’s food chain but also perform upon the earth’s vast seas the same functions that trees serve on land — exhaling oxygen, inhaling carbon dioxide, keeping the rhythms of life on Earth in harmony.
These are but a few of the loops or cycles, “cascades” or “systems crises” that scientists say will exacerbate the processes already damaging the world in which we live. We have made the bed of our own demise. Made ugly lost realms of beauty, divinity and grace.
I lie awake, too, in the predawn mornings, when the nighttime darkness lightens to a pensive grey. I listen to birdsong through an open window and feel a light breeze stirring. I like how the outdoors comes inside at times like this. I was young when I first knew the dimensions of nature unseen. Something present in the tall-pine park near my house when I was little, along the banks of the Sabine River, out by Bayou Pierre before it was engulfed in upscale suburban living. There was that epiphany on a sandbar in the middle of the Red River and summer days joyriding on country two-lanes through Texas, Arkansas and southern Louisiana. It was all intuitive then, the pull on the heart from places explored, from spaces hidden inside tree and field and mountaintop. But I knew, even then, it had to do with the spirit of things, with the divine, with God.
In college I learned that others knew about this. The soul of nature. The immanent God. That some cultures have had a system of beliefs cultivating a communion with creation. That most religious traditions trace paths to the holy ways of nature. Teachers pointed me in such directions, to writers, thinkers and theologians who spoke of spiritual longings answered by revelations in stream and stone and sky. “I was a hidden treasure and I wanted to be known,” says God in an ancient Islamic parable. “Therefore I created the world so that I would be known.”
I discovered that Rabbi Menachem Nahum of Chernobyl wrote, “All being itself is derived from God and the presence of the Creator is in each created thing,” and that Islam teaches, “Whithersoever you turn, there is the face of God.” And that a fourth-century monk, Anthony of the Desert, wrote, “My book, O philosopher, is the nature of created things, and any time I wish to read the words of God, the book is before me.”
Thomas Aquinas, that hallowed Catholic philosopher, advised, “Sacred writings are bound in two volumes — that of creation and that of Holy Scripture.”
This wasn’t pantheism or animism; it was a belief in the sanctity and integrity, the intentional order and divinity, of God’s universe. The idea that my soul and the soul of all creation were one. That the earth and all its creatures were the original blessing, a gift from its Creator. This covenant, too, is something I have tried to hand down to my children.
Scientists have taken to calling this era of human domination upon the earth the Anthropocene Epoch. Humans rule the world; we fashion it in our likeness. But ultimately we are not in charge. The planet’s tempestuous nature — its hurricanes and droughts, scorching heat and devastating tornadoes, its wildfires, floods and earthquakes — prove otherwise. Nature unleashes powerful forces both threatening and humbling. Randomly, fiercely destructive. I worry about my children living in such a place. In a world crippled by human conceits. Whose perilous ways are expected to intensify in the years and decades ahead.
What I fear most, though, is what we will do to each other.
I know that policies can be implemented to reduce greenhouse-gas pollution, that strategies can transform the ways we produce and distribute food, that agreements can be imposed to swap fossil fuels for alternative sources of energy, that steps can be taken to preserve forests and wildlife while limiting the damaging effects of agriculture. Solutions exist for reducing the impact of climate change. What’s needed, of course, is a healthy sense of urgency, the political will and global collaboration — a coming together to combat a threat to the entire planet, to preserve human well-being. I am not optimistic.
There are still those in power who deny what is happening, who refute the damage done, who dismiss the consequences, who, in fact, are intent on rolling back the progress that has been made. The past suggests little reason to have confidence in government and business leaders finding consensus on practices to alter course and avoid the most troubling scenarios. We have greater evidence of humans following their basic survival instincts when confronted with pressures and threats of dwindling resources — choosing not sacrifice and charity but to battle for self-interest.
Millions of Syrian refugees have fled their homeland because of a civil war fueled by poverty, drought and climate change. Already hundreds of thousands of displaced people have gathered in dusty refugee camps throughout Africa, lacking food, water and humane conditions. Others have been targets of tribal and religious warfare. As more of the world becomes uninhabitable and other areas lose their capacity to support agriculture, the human toll and potential for further conflict ratchets upward.
Whether fleeing desertification, flooding or warfare, climate refugees will test our humanity. A U.N. report predicts as many as 200 million climate refugees by 2050, with the possibility that the next 30 years will see “a billion or more vulnerable poor people with little choice but to fight or flee.” By then, the human population is expected to have increased by another 2 billion. It’s hard to imagine a lot of sharing going on.
I hope I’m wrong in this critique of human nature, but I am not encouraged by the news of the day and the divides already inciting us, even in this land of plenty. The global trend toward defiant nationalism does not suggest an understanding of our common humanity.
Climate change was once a distant thought, its impacts expected near the end of this century. But we are 20 years into that century now, and the first gusts of trouble are hounding the earth. The strife will pain my children, not some future generation. A menacing cluster of thoughts haunt my predawn deliberations, expose my remorse. I have done so little to temper what’s coming. I let daily life get most of my attention. I have floated along on currents that made things worse. I have figured it’s all too little and too late. A sense of resignation set in; what does it matter what I do?
Fifty years ago, as a student of those who saw God in the things he made, I quoted the Catholic mystic Meister Eckhart: “Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things. Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God.” And yet — even knowing what all was at stake — I have not lived that belief, haven’t always followed Paul’s instructions to perceive God’s invisible nature in the things he has made. If creation is really God’s handiwork, a reflection of his generosity and a book by which we know him, what have we done? What sacrilege have we committed as we corrupted the earth, squandered his gifts? What will future generations see and read and learn from the planet we hand down?
Yet it occurred to me, during my nighttime mental excursions, dispirited by my own inadequacies, that we don’t do what’s right because of the difference it will make. We do the right thing because that’s the moral imperative. The way we treat God’s earth is essentially a question of morality, of conscience. And whether or not we accept the business of climate change or believe God’s presence lurks in the physical universe or think one person can remedy a global crisis, it just seems right to choose beneficence over indifference or selfishness, to take care of the environment, to protect the natural resources, and leave a healthier planet to our children. How do you consciously choose otherwise?
What that means to me is trying harder to act right — even in seemingly inconsequential ways, because it’s what we’re called to do to share in the banquet that is life on Earth.
Kerry Temple is editor of this magazine and author of Back to Earth: A Backpacker’s Journey into Self and Soul.