Extinction within Creation

Published on Friday, February 10th, 2012

Great Auk—Wikipedia Commons

The year 2011 saw a number of species go into extinction. These include among others, the western black rhinoceros. Others are in danger as well. On  Friday, Oct 28, 2011 USA Today ran and article entitled, “Extinct in 20 Years?” “Tigers, Lions, Cheetahs, extinct in 20 years? In response to that prospect, the National Geographic launched its “Big Cats Initiative.” And not too long ago, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) updated its red list that provides an assessment of the state of various creatures.

What does extinction mean? In my reading on whooping cranes the last few years, I ran across, the following blunt assessment by Henry Beetle Hough, who in 1933 reflected on the extinction of the Heath Hen in Martha’s Vineyard.  He lamented, “There is no survivor, there is no future, there is no life to be created in this form again. We are looking upon the uttermost finality which can be written, glimpsing the darkness which will not know another ray of light. We are in touch with the reality of extinction.” (J.J. McCoy, The Hunt for Whooping Cranes, viii).

Nothing seems more contradictory than to juxtapose the words creation and extinction. God creates life, abundantly, and lavishly. God is a God of life. In the resurrection of Christ, life triumphs over death. God infuses his breath into his creatures (Psalm 104). Extinction squeezes that breath out that for good. It extinguishes that life, at least for one entire species and all the individual creatures that comprised it. And yet, Christians seem to have come to accept the extinction of other creatures without nary a theological thought.  I myself hadn’t thought much about it either in terms of a worldview until I recently read a fascinating historical account of the history of extinction entitled, Nature’s Ghosts: Confronting Extinction from the Age of Jefferson to the Age of Ecology, by Mark V. Barrow, Jr. (University of Chicago Press, 2009).natures-ghosts

Here’s what caught my attention. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, it was virtually inconceivable for any thinking person in the west, Christian or not, to conceive the possibility that a species of creatures could go extinct—especially at the hands of humans. Why was it so inconceivable? Their view of the world did not allow for it (a view that was resulted in part from a conflation of platonic and Christian thought). First, there was the providence of God. He created such a plenitude of various creatures that there was no way that humans could over harvest it much less exhaust it. In addition, God created a resilient world. He would not allow that to happen. Second, they operated with a view regarding the perfection of creation that regarded it as intrinsically stable and static. To allow for extinction, would be to allow for imperfection within the world. God created a fixed number at the beginning and it would never become less than that. In addition, people saw everything in the world as linked together by the “great chain of being” from the highest creature down to the lowest creature. Should any of those links be snapped, the entire order of the world would come crashing down. Third, human creatures simply were not powerful enough to disrupt creation and destroy an entire species of creatures.  (Barrow, 18-23)

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Whooping Cranes

Published on Monday, November 28th, 2011

Peter Mathieson, in his book, Birds of Heaven, made the comment that one “one way to grasp the main perspectives of environment
and biodiversity is to understand the origins and precious nature of a single living form” (Mathieson, xv). Following that advice, I’ve taken up an interest in whooping cranes and am seeking to learn all that I can them in terms of their life, habitat, and conservation efforts to save them. In addition, I’m hoping to visit various places in this country where those efforts are ongoing and write about them in the future. In the meantime, I ran across this really nice video from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Service that highlights their graceful beauty and sonorous bugling.

Visualizing the Anthropocene

Published on Sunday, November 20th, 2011

In the last post, I mentioned a few examples of human influence on earth that have prompted many to now speak of the Anthropocene Epoch, the age of human transformation of the planet. But as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words (or more. Since then, I’ve run across several things that help us to visualize the extent of our impact upon the earth, both for good and ill.

I found the first video at Resilience Science and it shows the earth from outer space. It is time lapsed images of the earth taken “by the crew of the the International Space Station” over the period of the last couple months. It shows natural auroras as well as humanly lit lights across the planet.

Earth | Time Lapse View from Space, Fly Over | NASA, ISS from Michael König on Vimeo.

The second video is, a “Cartography of the Anthropocene.” I ran across this website on the UK’s Wired website. In addition to providing a handy primer that describes the Anthropcene, it seeks to map the human impact upon the earth since 1800. It does so by mapping out cities, paved and unpaved roads, railways, power lines, pipelines, cable Internet, airlines, shipping lanes across the earth. The visuals and maps are striking. You can see the earth as it was and then roll your mouse over the earth to see all of these systems. In addition to revealing our impact, they also highlight our interconnectedness across the globe. The following is the video. But be sure to check out the interactive maps on the website.

The images are beautiful and amazing. The video concludes with the words on screen: “Planet Earth is Our Place, Our Home; It is Our Past, Present, and Future. Let’s Act Accordingly.” As that sentence suggests, these images provide us with a fresh way of seeing our relation to creation and thus poses the question of how shall we then live within it? But what we need to note here, is that at the heart of such issues are profound theological questions. What is the character of creation? What does it mean to be a human creature? What is our place and role within creation? What is our goal/purpose in life as creatures. These are matters of world views, of values, and of ethics.

And now…The Anthropocene Epoch, or The Age of Man

Published on Monday, November 14th, 2011


We’ve done it. We’ve remade creation according to our own needs, desires, and vision. And so it is now different than it has ever been before. That appears to be the message of an increasing number of scientists and writers who argue that we have moved out of the 10,000 year holocene epoch (the period of time since the end of the last ice age) and entered into a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene. The National Geographic covered it in March followed by a helpful article by Oliver Morton titled, “A Man-made World” in The Economist. One of my favorite bloggers, Andrew Revkin of the NYT, has several entries on it. The idea of an anthropcene epoch says something about how we now see ourselves and our relationship to creation.

The Anthropocene epoch is marked by the impact of human creatures upon the entire earth, its ecosystems, and all its creatures. Paul Crutzen, a Nobel winning atmospheric chemist, used the term in 2000 to describe the way humans have transformed the earth. He notes, “From their trawlers scraping the floors of the seas to their dams impounding sediment by the gigatonne, from their stripping of forests to their irrigation of farms, from their mile-deep mines to their melting of glaciers, humans were bringing about an age of planetary change.” Similarly, Erle Ellis, an ecologist at the University of Maryland, notes that there are now “more trees on farms than in wild forests.” Morton concludes his article, “dam by dam, mine by mine, farm by farm and city by city it is remaking the Earth before your eyes.”

So now what? Many lament this achievement of power often fueled by greed and pride. They argue that we must resist the technology that destroys or at the least use it cautiously. We need to preserve the oceans, rain forests, wilderness, and the diversity of life on earth. On this point, environmentalists often show themselves to be conservatives. We need to preserve what we have inherited. Yet others suggest that such efforts are too late and doomed to fail. So forget it. Instead, we would do best to embrace our godlike status and try to manage the earth as best we can Our job is now to remake and rebuild it as sustainable and livable we can.

Andrew Revkin suggests that it is time for humanity to move out of adolescence, grow up, and become responsible adults as a species. After all, “The earth is Us.” Revkin notes, “One clear reality is that for a long to come, Earth is what we choose to make it, for better or worse.” Revkin, cites Stewart Brand, of the “Whole Earth Catalog” who asserts with his latest book, Whole Earth Discipline, “We are as gods and have to get good at it.” Along these same lines, The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans, by Mark Lynas notes that “We humans are the God species, both creatures and destroyers of life.”

This discussion raises important theological questions for us. How do we see ourselves and our relationship to the world in which we live? What does it mean to be a creature? And more specifically, what does it mean to be a human creature? And for that matter, what are the implications for the earth of being a fallen human creature? These questions lie behind nearly everything that Christians have to say about the story they tell.

For example, Christian theology with its emphasis on the Fall, speak of disobedience to God. But what lay at the heart of that disobedience? A refusal be creatures, a refusal to accept our creatureliness. We did not want to live by faith from the gifts of God. We wanted to be more than creaturely, to be like God. The theme continued with the result that the tower of Babel syndrome infects us still. We want to be like gods (powerful, in charge, and in control)…and now it looks like we have achieved that goal?

It seems to me that we need a theology of creatureliness more than ever. After all, Christ affirmed our creatureliness by becoming a creature. And he promises to restore completely our creatureliness with the resurrection (and not make us little deities). So what does it mean to be a human creature and embrace our creatureliness in the “Age of Man?”

For starters, it might mean that as creatures we willingly accept certain limits to our knowledge and power. We are not the creator. We did not design creation. Yet as human creatures, God has given us the capability and responsibility for looking after his creation and the needs of all his creatures so that creation may flourish. That’s quite a balancing act without sin. But as a fallen human creature, do we have the knowledge and capability of “managing” the planet so that it all life flourishes and it gives witness to the creator? And to what end? When we now look around, should we increasingly see only our fingerprints all over creation rather than God’s fingerprints?

7 Billion—Now What?

Published on Monday, November 7th, 2011

istock_000013889311medium2Seven billion people as of Oct 31, Reformation Day. The world’s population has more than doubled in my lifetime. For that matter, it’s increased three billion since I was in high school. It has increased by one billion in the last twelve years. By 2050 some estimate that we will need another planet to support 9 billion people.

Many doubt that the earth can sustain such a growing population and so focus on our need to slow the growth of population or even reduce it (sometimes by whatever means necessary as in China’s once child policy). Others believe that technology will find a way to save us no matter the size of population. But the question regarding how man people can the earth support is only one part of the equation.

In some ways, the more important question—at least for many of us who live in the West—is the question of how shall we live once our basic needs of food, water, shelter, and medicine, etc) have been met (and for many, I know that in itself is a big if)? What constitutes the good life to which we aspire? What constitutes a life well-lived?

I suspect how we answer that depends on how we view ourselves. For example, if we define ourselves as consumers, we will find our identity in what we consume. And then our purpose in life is to consume…and to consume abundantly. The earth becomes our shopping mall. And so the question of whether or not the earth can support many billions more depends in part on how we consume National Geographic has made very point. “The number of people does matter…But how people consume resources matters a lot more” (January 2011, p.63). And we might add, to what end do we consume?

What if we recaptured the insight that we are fundamentally human creatures? As creatures, we do not have life from ourselves. After all, as someone once said, what do we have that we have not received? This means we are contingent and dependent beings. We are defined by our dependence upon God, upon each other, and upon other creatures. As the creator became the creature for us in Jesus Christ and entered his creation to bring new life, so God sends us back into the world. He has called us to embrace the gift of life that we share with each other and with all of our fellow creatures on earth. The “good life” then, is constituted by these relationships and bonds. In this regard, I’ve always liked those words by Wendell Berry, “…material sufficiency met, life, which is a membership in the living world, is already an abundance” (The Way of Ignorance, 133).

So what does it mean to embrace the gift of life? Well, I’m going to take my point of departure from Martin Luther’s “thank and praise, serve and obey” in his Small Catechism. This suggests that it is a life that is first lived gratefully for the gift of life that we share with all other creatures on earth; and secondly a life that is lived gracefully for the sake of the life that we share with all other creatures around us. And so we might ask, what contributes to the flourishing of life that we share? Conversely, what diminishes that life that we share? At least, that might be a start.

In the meantime, the issues of population growth and the earth’s ability to sustain that growth will continue to be with us. National Geographic has looked at the issue throughout 2011. But one of the more thought provoking books that looks at the issue both theologically and ethically from a few years ago was by Susan Bratton, Six Billion & More: Human Population Regulation and Christian Ethics (Westminster, 1992).