Gene Nelson column

Gene Nelson 

At the beginning of February, it was reported that Homero Gomez Gonzalez and Raul Hernandez Romero had been murdered near the El Rosario Monarch Butterfly Sanctuary in Michoacan, Mexico. Gonzalez and Hernandez were well-known and outspoken environmental activists, speaking and working for years on behalf of the sanctuary whose old growth forests are home to millions of migrating Monarch butterflies every year. Unfortunately these same forests are also coveted by wealthy and powerful logging and agricultural interests who couldn’t care less about butterflies and who found the two activists to be a major roadblock to development plans. That roadblock has now been violently removed. And the fate of the Monarchs, whose numbers have already declined by 80% over the last 20 years largely because of the destruction of habitat? Oh well, I guess that is the price of progress…and greed.

And closer to home, there is great concern that warming and increasingly acidic oceans could have a devastating effect on north coast sea life — plant and animal — including our wonderful Dungeness Crab. Oh well, I guess nothing, certainly nothing in the natural world, can be allowed to interfere with the pursuit of profit. Is it true that the buffalo on the seal of the Department of the Interior is being replaced with a dollar sign?

But is so-called progress worth the price? What might such short-sightedness be doing, not only to the environment, but also to us? The novelist, Richard Powers, speaks of “species loneliness.”  For Powers, species loneliness denotes the way human beings have cut themselves off from the nonhuman species inhabiting our shared world. Says Powers, “In our desire for dominance and self-gratification, we have put ourselves in solitary confinement, and in the worse cases, become the tormentor of all things nonhuman. We have deprived ourselves of love relationships with nonhumans, and it is making us sick.”

I can imagine policy makers in Washington laughing off such words as just more weird environmentalist craziness. But is it? A whale that washed up on a beach in the Philippines last year was found to have 88 pounds of plastic in its stomach. The earth’s magnificent creatures, from butterflies to whales, are being destroyed by human recklessness and greed, with up to one million species in danger of becoming extinct in the next half century. As wetlands are drained, forests are cleared, water is polluted, and animal and plant habitats shrink, bio-diversity goes into rapid decline. And when that happens human life becomes more precarious. As one scientist says, “A less biodiverse world, with fewer species of crops, will mean that crops are less resilient. It will be harder to feed the human population.”

But perhaps this view of the natural world is still too instrumental, suggesting that plants and animals exist only to be useful to humans. And so I turn to the poet, Annie Dillard, who wrote, “We wake…to mystery, rumors of death, beauty , violence…some unwonted, taught pride diverts us from our original intent, which is to explore the neighborhood, view the landscape, to discover where it is that we have been so startlingly set down, even if we can’t learn why.”  Perhaps all that can save us is for us to learn what the world is like and how we fit into it — this neighborhood in which we live and share with every living thing. For the whole cannot flourish unless all the parts are cared for. Anything less is self-destructive and, in the words of one theologian, “a denial of creation’s intrinsic worth and of humanity’s fundamental vocation of wonder and praise.” Indeed, speaking as a minister, anything less becomes a denial of the One who first called the neighborhood into being and calls us to join together in maintaining the health of creation. And make no mistake about it…anything less will leave us lonely and ultimately alone.

The Rev. Gene Nelson is the retired pastor of Sebastopol Community Church.

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