The past couple of weeks have been a wild ride for me.

At work, this is always the busiest time of year because we’re getting ready for a new school year. This year is busier than usual because so many things have to be moved online. Fortunately, we were able to delay the start of Sunday school classes till after Labor Day, but even with that there’s a lot to be done.

The weather has been crazy. We had thunderstorms last week that lit wildfires all around us, and now just about the whole state of California is covered in a big smoke cloud. There are fires burning to our south — they’ve closed Highway 1 south of Half Moon Bay down to Santa Cruz because of the fires — and fires burning to our east, and fires burning to our north. There’s smoke everywhere. At its worst, the AQI peaked at over 400 in our area, then we had a couple of clear days, and now the AQI is up to about 150. Here’s a recent screenshot of fire.airnow.gov. Density of smoke plumes is indicated by the darkness of the gray overlays; the little squares and circles are AQI monitors, with green being healthy, yellow moderate, orange unhealthy, and purple hazardous; then the little flame icons show locations of fires, and the little glowing dots are potential fires from satellite imagery:

And now we have a Red Flag Warning — a warning for high danger of potential fires — because of a forecast of the possibility of more dry lightning over the next four days. Someone recently asked what a Red Flag Warning means. For me, it means: double-check your go-bag, then place it by the front door because you may only get 30 minutes warning to evacuate. Ah yes; the joys of living in a world dominated by global climate change.

Then if that’s not enough, I’ve been sitting too long at the computer — because, of course, when you work at home you have to spend hours and hours sitting in front of your computer — and my foot muscles got all cramped up; so much so that it’s actually painful to walk. I didn’t even know that could happen to my feet.

Pandemic, wildfires, and job. It would be easy to get discouraged, but I look at it this way — at least I get to work indoors.

A letter about learning and salvation

Dear Mark,

You ask us to write a “Letter to Mark,” in which we are to talk about what we learned during the week-long course at Ferry Beach. You also invite us to post this on some public forum — Facebook, a congregational newsletter, a blog, etc. — and so I am posting this to my blog before I even send it to you. But before I address the issues you ask about, I have to begin by talking about one or two big problems that overshadow liberal religion right now, in this moment in history; those problems will require some theology; and after doing some theology I will finally address the issues you ask about, what I learned at Ferry Beach and how what I learned is shaping my own praxis and my own spiritual journey.

A big problem that we religious liberals face right now is whether science has made religion outdated. Science and technology hold out great promise for improving human life, and indeed they have accomplished many things already: science and technology have cured many diseases, extended our life spans, made it possible to feed many more people so that fewer need to go hungry, and so on. Perhaps liberal religion is now outdated, for what could religion offer to compare with the accomplishments of science and technology? On the other hand, science and technology have also created some horrors: atomic bombs, chemicals that have caused damage to us and other organisms, and a massive miasma of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that threatens the long-term survival of large mammals (including human beings). Perhaps science and technology are not an unmitigated good; in which case, does religion have something to offer a world that is both enriched by scientific wonders and technological marvels, and endangered by scientific and technological horrors?

To put all this another way: science and technology investigate the world and make things, but they don’t judge what they learn or make. Richard Feynman, a physicist who worked at Los Alamos during the Second World War, made this clear when he talked about his excitement at helping design and build the first atomic bomb: “You see, what happened to me — what happened to the rest of us — is we started for a good reason, and then you’re working very hard to accomplish something and it’s a pleasure, it’s excitement. And you stop thinking [about the consequences of what you’re doing], you know; you just stop.” (1) If scientists have stopped thinking, then who is thinking, who’s calling the shots, who or what is determining what is right and what is wrong? Continue reading “A letter about learning and salvation”

On the ethical implications of the biomass of domain archaea

A friend of mine is a graduate student doing research in microorganisms in the domain archaea. Archaea are one of three domains of life, the other two being eukaryotes and bacteria; plants, animals, algae, protozoa, slime molds, and fungi are included in the domain eukaryotes.

In talking with my friend graduate student recently, he mentioned that some biologists believe that organisms of the domain archaea might well comprise a significant portion of the biomass of the planet; archaea and bacteria together probably comprise half the biomass of the planet. Many organisms in archaea live in extreme environments, like deep sea ecosystems. It is unclear to what extent archaea and bacteria will be affected by global climate change, but at the very least deep sea ecosystems may remain relatively unaffected for some time.

This raises an interesting ethical point. A popular ethical argument says we should stop global climate change because it will lead to massive species extinctions. But what is really meant is that global climate change will cause extinctions to a small percentage of organisms in the domain Eukaryotes, specifically larger plants and animals; that is, it may be that a small portion of the earth’s biomass will be affected.

Considered another way, while a huge number of species may be driven to extinction by global climate change within a relatively short time, that’s in comparison to past numbers of extinctions within a given time period. But if you compare the number of extinctions to the total number of species on Earth, then it’s a very small number.

So from an ethical point of view, what we find most troubling about global climate change is that it has the potential for killing off the species with which we are most familiar, and on which we are most dependent. We know so little about archaea, and cyanobacteria, and the hundreds of thousands of insect species that have yet to be described, that it’s hard for us to have much in the way of concrete ethical concern for them — we don’t even know if we should be concerned for them. My friend the graduate student put it something like this: We don’t really know what the effects of global climate change are going to be, but it seems likely that most of earth’s organisms won’t be affected by it.

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be concerned about global climate change. We should be desperately concerned about global climate change. But any ethical concern should stem from our ethical concerns about how it is going to affect us human beings — whether global climate change will kill species we love, ruin ecosystems we depend on, and maybe even drive us to extinction. Our ethical concern should not stem from worries about archaea, or even about termites, both of which comprise a great deal of the earth’s biomass and both of which will probably survive global climate change quite nicely, thank you.