Environmentally, an unbridled, run-amok growth is killing us

Another Earth Day is scheduled for this month. I remember the first one, April 22, 1970. I thought it was a good idea then to encourage people to tread more lightly on the planet, to preserve Earth's resources and not pollute the air or water.

It all seemed pretty simple back then. But the simplistic enthusiasm of those early prophetic voices has run into all kinds of barricades, and the cruel truth is that the possibilities for moving into the future as residents of a healthy planet are increasingly remote.

It's not that environmentalists have been idle, paralyzed by fear. Groups like the Sierra Club and the Environmental Defense Fund have been hard at work.

And it's not that at least some faith communities haven't joined the chorus of voices decrying the degradation of our ecosystems. My Presbyterian denomination has done plenty of work in this area, as has the Catholic church through such efforts as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' Environmental Justice Program.

But barring some major technological breakthrough (cold fusion, where are you when we need you?), all of this consciousness-raising will not be enough to prevent the kinds of ecological calamities we can barely imagine.

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Part of the problem is the failure of faith communities to challenge us directly about the pro-growth way we live. Unbridled, run-amok growth, which is what our nation's business leaders seem to want -- and Americans often mindlessly support -- has another name when it's found in human bodies: cancer. Environmentally, growth is killing us.

Another part of the problem is that voters elect people to Congress who deny climate change despite evidence so alarming that they should want to act immediately. By one count, a stunning 56 percent of Republicans in the current Congress deny or question the science behind the idea of human-caused climate change.

There are many religious traditions to which we might turn for wisdom about our responsibility to care for the Earth. But perhaps the one best known to Catholics is Celtic spirituality. This tradition teaches us that the world we can measure and observe and feel points to a spiritual reality beyond itself -- and, more to the point, within itself. The Celts have a wonderful term for the locations where we experience the presence of heaven on Earth: "thin places."

It's this kind of sensitivity, which I learned from my friend J. Philip Newell, former warden of Iona Abbey in Scotland, that Celtic spirituality can bring to any Earth Day celebration. It's what Philip describes as the center of the Celtic mission: "its passion for finding God at the heart of all life."

But instead of finding God there, our American culture seems increasingly interested in finding money, political power and relentless but brainless entertainment at the heart of all life. Our appetite for circuses, not bread, is terrifically disheartening.

In the Kansas City, Mo., metro area, where I live, we add to the problems by continuing the malignancy of urban sprawl, building grossly large houses in new subdivisions carved out of soybean fields. The Energy Star appliances that go into such homes amount to Band-Aids on the cancer our endless growth strategy creates. And, of course, the standard single-family 60-year-old homes in my urban neighborhood suck up energy in ridiculously inefficient ways so we can continue to live essentially isolated lives. How did we get so much of this so wrong?

Earth Day is a sweet, maybe even naïve, effort to sound a note for ecological sense. Yet it's all but drowned out by the Earth-shattering way we live, by willfully ignorant lawmakers and by the failure of faith communities to be the insistent prophetic voices necessary to get us engaged in the struggle to preserve, protect and defend the planet.

One day before long, our grandchildren will inhabit a wrecked globe and be furious at us for what they've inherited.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at wtammeus@gmail.com.]

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