For almost three days in late October 2011, a couple of hundred people in Claremont, California, discussed the state of the world and found it precarious, nay, unacceptable.
Brave New Planet
On Thursday evening, October 27, Bill McKibben gave a speech to more than 2,000 students and non-students at Pomona College. McKibben, best-selling environmentalist, is the Steve Jobs of “climate change.” He even looks like Jobs. Tall and thin in his blue jeans, he gives the impression of confidence and know-how. He speaks eloquently about a “climate-disrupted world.” He is cautious on matters of corporate power. Yet, on the crisis of a warmer earth, he is straightforward. The petroleum companies did it; the US is responsible for 40 percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. He invents strategies for spreading the news that business as usual is raising the planet's temperature.
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McKibben spoke warmly about the bountiful gardens of Bangladesh, how much he admired the climate adaptability of the Bangladeshis. Yet, the people of Bangladesh, through no fault of their own, will pay the ultimate price for the “right” of industrialized countries to petroleum. The rising waters of the polluters will wash Bangladesh away.
McKibben then turned to the Canadian Keystone XL pipeline scheduled to carry tar sands oil over the United States to the Gulf of Mexico. He rightly attacked such an insidious scheme because it guarantees a steady and deadly rise of the amount of carbon in the atmosphere. The very idea of such a pipeline makes a mockery of caring for the earth and human survival.
After all, we know that the burning of petroleum, coal and natural gas is primarily responsible for global warming. We also know that temperature and life have always been in a balance. Change the temperature, as we are doing, and life enters an unknown risky zone. The heat-trapping molecules of burned petroleum, for example, will be doing their dirty work for a millennium.
So, given such a picture of danger, why are most states apathetic? Why has the United States been fighting petroleum wars? Has the US government given up on science, public health and the protection of nature, or has it become a subsidiary of behemoths like Exxon Mobil and BP? The answer, of course, comes from the theater of the Canadian pipeline where the State Department is colluding with the owners of the pipeline. Thus, the Obama administration, no less than the pro-petroleum George W. Bush administration, is defending the burning of petroleum. In other words, the Obama administration is risking life on earth for the ephemeral profits of the petroleum establishment.
These unspoken thoughts probably explain why McKibben insisted we call our senators: hoping that Sens. Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein could possibly embarrass Obama to, at least, delay his approval of the pipeline until after the 2012 election.
Hymning the Earth
Meanwhile, at Claremont, during the next two days, October 28 and 29, a lively debate took place in the town's large Presbyterian church. This time, hardly any students showed up. The crowd was made up of men and women over 50 years old. These men and women call themselves “Progressive Christians Uniting.” They started the conference with cheerful music. What I found almost ground-breaking about their attitudes and motivations were the ecological lyrics of their music, hymning our suffering and life-giving earth. Biblical passages did intrude into the music and speeches but, in general, they were like afterthoughts in an all-round prayer to the earth.
I spoke to a “breakout” group of these progressive Christians about the democratic nature of agriculture: why many small family farmers are essential for healthy food, good health and democracy.
Other speakers addressed social, economic and environmental issues: the heart of the dilemma being the continuation of the 17th-century metaphysics that has been legitimizing the mechanization and dehumanization of the world. Global warming is but one, if not the most lethal, of the tragedies engulfing the planet and its growing population, now at the seven billion mark.
Feudalism, 2011 Style
I am a historian. I see a Dark-Age precedent in the present impasse. The “Dark Ages” lasted nearly a thousand years. And the name, “Dark Age,” is equivalent to misery and war for the Europeans from the fall of Rome to the barbarians in early fifth century to the Renaissance of the 15th century.
Like the feudal lords of the Dark Ages, our “leaders” in 2011 don't like democracy and the sense of fairness, equity and justice inherent in democracy. That's why they allow foreclosure of homes, by far the most humiliating and violent act against families. Millions of Americans have been losing their homes through foreclosure. American politicians, however, live in a different world. In large measure, they are millionaires or servants of the oligarchs owning corporations. They don't mind that vast numbers of Americans are being impoverished by the willful policies of banks and other corporations. They prefer serfs to citizens.
These new Dark-Age managers are destroying Greece, for example. Their International Monetary Fund and Europe's corresponding central bank are squeezing Greece so much that, in addition to bringing poverty to millions of Greeks, they are also demanding the shredding of a few pockets of outstanding scientific research taking place in the country that invented science.
On October 19, 2011, Stamatis Krimizis, a Greek American scientist with a distinguished record of accomplishments at NASA and now heading Greece's National Council for Research and Technology, sent a letter to academic scientists, pleading with them to intervene with their governments to help Greece in any way they can. He warned, “the grave present danger is that the [Greek] research infrastructure, as well as many other essential institutions relevant to its upgrading, may disintegrate due to the inordinate pressures being placed on the country.”
However, the thoughtless and ungrateful bankers and corporate managers demanding all their money back from Greece forget that, without Greece, they would still be living in caves. They share none of the humanistic ideas of the Renaissance: the desire to read and learn from the Greek and Roman classics; appreciate beautiful art and architecture; employ their inordinate wealth for the betterment of America, much less Greece. They care less about the integrity of the natural world.
Like Dark-Age barons, international bankers and members of the industrial-military-academic complex have embraced death in nuclear bombs, genetic engineering, nuclear power plants, industrialized agriculture, perpetual war – fueling higher temperatures for the planet.
The Antidote of a Renaissance
There's no easy or magic way out of this new Dark Age. The only antidote to this Dark Age is another Renaissance. Progressive Christians are moving in the right direction. Put the earth in your theology, prayers and actions, especially that. Sophocles spoke about the earth as the oldest of the gods. Harvest electricity from the sun, not a nuclear or coal-powered plant.
Universities need to shut down their departments of death and stop preparing students to manufacture nuclear bombs, pesticides, chemical or biological weapons and industrialized farming. Replace this abominable science with the science of solar power and life. John Cobb, a process theologian and philosopher, was right in his denunciation of universities that speed up the plans of rapacious banks and the industrial-military complex, including petroleum corporations responsible for fuelling global warming.
As for colleges, they ought to spread knowledge and enlightenment for a better and gentler world, one where humans and the natural world can coexist. They ought to do what we all must do: become solar, organic and geocentric. Teach and practice biophilia. Teach the great Greek and Latin classic texts to inspire students with virtue. Only then and if there's time, those students, tomorrow's leaders, will celebrate a Renaissance and pull the earth out of the grasp of this new Dark Age.