A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, September 8, 2013
Ezekiel 3:16; 33:1-5 The Message
Selection from Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (pp. 103, 127)
We read in the Hebrew scriptures of sentinels or watchmen who felt called to be discerner of the times and give warning of imminent danger or judgment to come. Ezekiel felt himself to be one such watchman. So did the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk. The watchman, perhaps, felt he had been given divine inspiration to give the warnings that he gave. But could it also have been that the watchman was privy to political intelligence about international affairs that the general public didn’t have? Or was it that the watchman was sensitive to current issues in a way that most were not? Or was there some other reason that the watchman could discern the signs of the times and warn his fellow countrymen and countrywomen of disaster to come, if they didn’t take adequate precautions or change course in some way?
Ezekiel was a sixth century BCE Hebrew prophet and priest who warned the Jewish people of the coming fall and destruction of Jerusalem, which did occur in 586 BCE. Ezekiel felt compelled to give warning of the danger and destruction he saw coming. And he felt that if he did not give the warning, then the blood of those who were destroyed would be on his hands. But if Ezekiel did give warning, and those who heard his warning refused to take it to heart, then whatever trouble or destruction that came upon them would be their own fault.
In every generation, I suppose, there have been watchmen or sentinels who were sensitive to the signs of the times, who had a keen observation of life and what was going on in the world, and who may have been privy to information or data that the general public did not have. When it comes to the Earth, and the negative effects that humankind has had and continues to have on the Earth, there have been watchmen or sentinels as well. One of my sabbatical projects was an in-depth study of Creation care and Earth-related theology. I read around 2,000 pages from 8-10 different books. My study included some of the classic writings of the early naturalists and environmental activists, and some of the most recent works that have been published.
One of the earliest and most important Earth sentinels who warned of impending crisis was environmentalist Rachel Carson. Carson’s publication in 1962 of Silent Spring set off an alarm that made the world stand up and take notice of the impending ecological crisis that was coming unless something was done to stop it. I had not read Silent Spring previously, but I am really glad that I did. I found it to be a foundational work to all environmental literature. As Edward O. Wilson has noted, “The general environmental concern abetted by Silent Spring resulted in the passage in 1973 of the Endangered Species Act by a near-unanimous vote in Congress. In concept and effect the act is easily the most important piece of conservation legislation in the nation’s history. Its most dramatic successes include the recovery of the American alligator, gray whale, bald eagle, peregrine falcon, and eastern population of the brown pelican.”1
Carson sounded the alarm about the many insecticides, pesticides, and herbicides such as DDT, that were being used indiscriminately without studies or data to show what long-term effects they might be having on those who came into contact with them and on the environment in general. Alarming to me, Carson makes mention of chemicals that were commonly used in my home community to spray fruit trees or treat homes for pests, chemicals that are no longer deemed safe. It scares me when I think about it. Carson believed, and rightly so, that by using carcinogens as was being done in mid-twentieth century, humans were not only adversely affecting the natural environment, but bringing death on themselves. Carson stated, “The question is whether any civilization can wage relentless war on life without destroying itself, and without losing the right to be called civilized.”2 If we see a bald eagle in the wild, we owe thanks to Rachel Carson for sounding the alarm about DDT which drastically reduced, and came close to annihilating, driving into extinction, the bald eagle population.
But Rachel Carson was also a naturalist, a marine biologist, who also left us more pleasant thoughts on the wonders and beauties of Nature. She taught us that each new generation must establish a relationship with the natural world. “It seems reasonable to believe,” she wrote, “that the more clearly we can focus our attention on the wonders and realities of the universe about us, the less taste we shall have for the destruction of our race.”3 She also reminds us, “in nature nothing exists alone.”4 Well, that was fifty years ago.
Other contemporary watchmen or sentinels have come along and taken up the cause of environmental advocacy, warning of impending doom unless we do something to change our ways. I have already made mention of some of these sentinels in preceding sermons—Marilou Awiakta and Thomas Berry, to name just two.
Three weeks ago, we here in Oak Ridge were privileged to have Bill McKibben, one of today’s most important Creation care watchmen, visit us and share information with us. McKibben is an environmentalist who has his finger on Earth-related data and the negative impact that human actions—especially in the use of fossil fuels—have had on our Earth. McKibben’s 1989 book, The End of Nature, was the first book for the general public sounding the alarm about global warming. Some of the negative results of global warming (due in large part to the use of fossil fuels and the release of carbon into the atmosphere) contends McKibben, are longer and stronger hurricanes, shorter winters, hotter temperatures, rising oceans, and loss of some vegetation, just to name a few. McKibben states, “I believe that without recognizing it we have already stepped over the threshold of . . . change: that we are at the end of nature.”5
“By the end of nature I do not mean the end of the world. . . When I say ‘nature,’ I mean a certain set of human ideas about the world and our place in it. . . our sense of nature as eternal and separate is washed away, and we will see all too clearly what we have done.”6 McKibben notes that stronger hurricanes and thunderstorms and more powerful tornadoes are not acts of God, but are acts of man because of the changes we have wrought upon Nature and the environment. McKibben bemoans the fact that “In the years since the Civil War, and mostly in the years since World War II, we have changed the atmosphere—changed it enough so that the climate will change dramatically.”7 He continues, “We have changed the atmosphere, and thus we are changing the weather. . . We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning.”8
In the course of his lecture here, McKibben noted that the average Earth temperature has risen, the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere is changing, and we have already passed the point that just changing our light bulbs will make any real difference in the mess we have gotten ourselves into on the Earth.
The sad truth is, you and I really can’t make much of a difference on a large scale. We can’t do much about the rapid growth in the world’s population which will eventually reach the point that we can no longer sustain ourselves on the Earth. We can’t do much about the amount of carbon dioxide that China is spewing into the atmosphere with all the coal they are burning. We can’t do much about the massive oil spills that occur every few years.
But we can hear the ecological warnings and change the way we live by driving less, recycling more, consuming less (especially products with so much packaging), eating food grown closer to home, eating lower on the food chain, and so on. To cite just one example, it is so much more environmentally friendly to eat smaller fish like sardines and mackerel than it is to eat larger fish like tuna, swordfish, and mau hi mau hi. We can lobby by writing letters and calling our representatives when there is an ecological or environmental issue that calls for united action, such as mountaintop removal mining (MTR).
As Earth watchman Thomas Berry put it, “The Great Work now, as we move into a new millennium, is to carry out the transition from a period of human devastation of the Earth to a period when humans would be present to the planet in a mutually beneficial manner.”9 What it really boils down to in large measure is a change in our attitude toward the Earth that results in a change in our actions. And for some of us, speaking for myself anyway, our attitude and actions toward the Earth is more than a survival or self-interest issue; it is also a religious or spiritual issue.
As with those in Ezekiel’s day who heard the watchmen’s warning, we can choose to ignore McKibben and his watchmen colleagues (and there are many), bury our heads in the sand as it were, and pretend that nothing is wrong and nothing we do will make any difference. Or, we can hear the warnings and do what we can to respond to the ecological crisis accordingly. Amen.
1Rachel Carson, Silent Spring. New York: Mariner Books, 1962, 2002. Pp. 361-362. 2Carson, p. 99. 3Carson, p. xix. 4Carson, p. 51.
5Bill McKibben. The End of Nature. New York: Random House, 1989, 2006. p. 7. 6McKibben, p. 7. 7McKibben, p. 39. 8McKibben, p. 50.
9Thomas Berry, The Great Work. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1999. P. 3.