March 2010

… you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them.  (Deut. 20:19)

Environmental concern in the bible is hard to come by, could this little snippet give us a sniff at an environmental conscience.  Well lets look at the full verse in context …

“When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.”

Deuteronomy 20:19-20 (ESV)

At a closer inspection it turns out that this was an ancient weapon of mass destruction, a type of scorched earth tactic.  The viability of the besieged community would have been heavily reliant on the fruit trees, such a slash and burn policy would have left a devastating economic legacy for the towns inhabitants.

So this is ultimately legislation against a spiteful destructive act and a preventative measure to limit undue human suffering during warfare.  However, lets not cut ourselves short! – there might well be some environmental overtones to consider here.  Robert Alter has noted an interesting echo of “the tree was good for food” (Gen. 3:6), making an association with the Garden of Eden story in which God provided all good things for human enjoyment, and prohibited the fruit of two of the trees.  Destroying fruit trees is a despoliation of God’s natural gifts, and surely it is worth considering whether we are guilty of plundering natural habitats on a mass scale.

A scientific response to such a question has been provided by the recent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment.  This is a comprehensive appraisal of the condition and trends in the world’s ecosystems and the services they provide as well as options to restore, conserve or enhance the sustainable use of ecosystems.  The synthesis report can be found here, but a two sentence summary of the findings is as follows:

“The bottom line of the Millennium Assessment findings is that human actions are depleting Earth’s natural capital, putting such strain on the environment that the ability of the planet’s ecosystems to sustain future generations can no longer be taken for granted. At the same time, the assessment shows that with appropriate actions it is possible to reverse the degradation of many ecosystem services over the next 50 years, but the changes in policy and practice required are substantial and not currently underway.”

“And God said, Let the earth bring forth the living creature after his kind, cattle, and creeping thing, and beast of the earth after his kind: and it was so.”  Genesis 1:24 (KJV)

“How many are your works, LORD!
In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.”

Psalm 104:24 (TNIV)

Last month I attended a fascinating seminar by Dr. Brian Lanoil of the University of Alberta entitled “The Microbiologist Who Come in from the Cold: Adventures in Polar Microbiology”.  He studies the microbiology of extreme environments.  His investigations have led him to discoveries of mircoorganisms living in such harsh realities as subglacial systems, high Arctic tundra soils, ice cores, and sub-ice marine environments.  One such example includes Lake Vostok in Antarctica, this description is taken from his website:

“Lake Vostok, buried for at least 15 million years beneath approximately 4 km of ice that has prevented any communication with the external environment for as much as 1.5 million years …  Due to concerns about potential contamination of this pristine environment, samples are not available directly from the lake; however, water from the lake that has frozen on to the bottom of the ice sheet (accretion ice) is available for study.  Several studies have indicated the presence of low abundance, but detectable microbial communities in the accretion ice.  Our central hypothesis maintains that Lake Vostok microbes are specifically adapted to life in conditions of extreme cold, dark, and oligotrophy and that signatures of those adaptations can be observed in their genome sequences at the gene, organism, and community levels.”

Well Avatar didn’t win the oscar and rightly so in my mind.  The amount of money made by this film is mind boggling (its the highest grossing film of all time) unfortunately the film itself is not.  I personally was not overly impressed, the themes and plot lines are predictable and shallow to say the least, and I was not totally convinced that the 3D effects added to the movie.  A damning review! – perhaps I felt letdown, I had not seen a feature film in 3D before and we went all out for the full IMAX experience.  The hype surrounding the film suggested a truly extraordinary viewing experience, alas it wasn’t to be.  However, there were some themes germane to this blog that merit some attention.  Seemingly in it’s effort to portray a holist view of the environment as well as provide a commentary on environmental concerns in our own time ultimately resulted in a disappointing position on both religion and science.  Let me explain my views; firstly science: a work obsessed, bossy, smoking, drinking, lab coat adorning female scientist who discovers some kind of biologically interconnected sentient life force … really is this the best they could come up with.  Secondly religion: the film clearly espouses pantheism: identifying God with nature, the Creator with the creation (this sentiment was also conveyed in James Cameron’s recent Golden Globe acceptance speech).  This is contra to traditional Christianity which has held the position of divine transcendence, set apart and wholly distinct from creation.  Recent thinking has moved towards the middle ground of panentheism (see, for example, Philip Clayton, God and Contemporary Science, 1997).  Whereby “the Being of God includes and penetrates the whole universe, so that every part exists in Him but (as against pantheism) that his Being is more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe” (The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church).  John Polkinghorne has a more nuanced view (see, for example, Science and Christian Belief/Faith of a Physicist, 1984 and Faith, Science & Understanding, 2000) whereby panentheism isn’t the present reality, but will prove to be the the eschatological (end time) relationship between God and creation.  Although no Philosopher I like this view especially when considered alongside the brilliant passage of Mark 1:10 (“And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove” ESV).  This violent imagery of heaven being ripped open, puncturing Earth with that triple point connection of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in intimate relationship which sets in motion the ministry of “Jesus Christ, the son of God” (Mark 1:1) culminating in the death and resurrection of our Lord and laying the seed of the new creation which will grow until eventually God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28)

Well where better to begin than the beginning!  Whole rainforests have probably been felled to produce the number of books written on the subject of the first couple of chapter of Genesis.  I don’t want to say much, but it may be prudent to start with the oft-quoted:

“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. ” Genesis 1:28 KJV

So it seems we have the Almighty’s permission to reap from the Earth whatever we can, to denude its resources and trample over anything that gets in our way.  This of cause is a very naive interpretation, but unfortunately not too far removed from the perspectives of some.  However, another view point emerges when we read on into the second creation account:

“And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.  And the LORD God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed.”  Genesis 2:7-8 KJV

Now we see how we are not owners of the Earth, but have ourselves been lovingly fashioned from the earth (literally an earth clod) and placed in a garden with the imposition to serve and preserve it.  Therefore, could it be that we are commanded to master the Earth (a call to Scientific endeavour?) in order that we can fulfill our call of caring and nurturing the garden in which we have been placed.  The stewardship of creation can be achieved with the help of understanding and technology garnered from science.

In part as a response to the recent challenge set by an editorial in the journal Nature (see quotation below), I am endeavouring, as a scientist working in a climate related research field, to present my own personal perspective on various overlapping interests. I do not want to jump directly into the highly charged climate-change shouting match, but hope to shed some light by skirting around some of the connected and not so connected issues in a somewhat unique manner. I intend to come at this from a faith perspective, as a practicing Christian, and someone who has a deep fascination with the Bible. Lets see how it evolves.

“… No matter how evident climate change becomes, however, other factors will ultimately determine whether the public accepts the facts. Empirical evidence shows that people tend to react to reports on issues such as climate change according to their personal values.  Those who favour individualism over egalitarianism are  more likely to reject evidence of climate change and calls to restrict emissions. And the messenger matters perhaps  just as much as the message. People have more trust in experts — and scientists — when they sense that the  speaker shares their values. The climate-research community would thus do well to use a diverse set of voices, from  different backgrounds, when communicating with policy-makers and the public. And scientists should be careful not to  disparage those on the other side of a debate: a respectful tone makes it easier for people to change their  minds if they share something in common with that other side. …”

Nature 463, 269 (21 January 2010) | doi:10.1038/463269a; Published online 20 January 2010