Environment Stories

Olga Huckins Writes a Revolution

In 1958 Olga Owens Huckins penned a letter to The Boston Globe that triggered a revolution. In an effort to control mosquitoes, her property and a large number of others had been sprayed with DDT.  The unforeseen consequence was the death of many birds and  Olga Huckins wrote to the Boston Globe to express her concerns. Olga sent a copy of the letter to her friend Rachel Carson. That letter inspired Rachel Carson to write the book Silent Spring, which catalogued the impact of pesticides such as DDT on the environment and generated such interest that it brought the fledgling environmental movement to mainstream attention. Carson decried the arrogance of humankind in seeking to alter the delicate balance of nature. This, she claimed, could only end in disaster, and was rooted in a worldview that saw the earth as ours to do with as we pleased.

“The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man.

A few years later American historian Lyn White Jr, blamed western Christianity for that arrogance. His 1974 journal article, titled “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis” became the focus of intense interest, especially among academics. White argued that the fusion of science and technology in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gave us command over nature unlike anything seen before. Humankind shifted from being part of nature to being an exploiter and shaper of it, creating the ecological crises of the modern era. Driving all this, White claimed, was the Christian attitude to nature. Western Christianity taught that because human beings were created in the image of God, we were separate from the rest of creation, which was designed “explicitly for man’s benefit and rule: no item in the physical creation had any purpose save to serve man’s purposes.” Imbued with a sense of superiority and entitlement, we plundered and continued to plunder the earth, sowing the seeds of its destruction.  

Rachel Carson’s and Lyn White’s arguments have been contested, but whether overstated or not, they challenge us to think carefully about how we view and engage with the creation.

Source: Scott Higgins, A Beautiful WorldChristianity and Creation (2014)

Two Boats

In 1986 archaeologists discovered a hidden treasure in the mud of the Sea of Galilee, the intact hull of a fishing boat from the time of Jesus. A little over 8 metres long and 2.3 metres wide, it was the type of boat from which James and John fished when Jesus called them.

The same year the “Jesus boat” was discovered construction began on the “Moownzund” series of fishing supertrawlers. Dwarfing those boats that plied their trade on the Galilean waters, these one hundred and twenty metre long behemoths are capable of traversing oceans and processing two hundred and ten tons of fish every day. Theirs are not hand nets cast by Hebrew fisherman but massive meshed domes that stretch hundreds of metres. Their catch is not located by experiment and line of sight, but through the use of sophisticated sonar electronics.

In these two boats is summed the environmental challenge of our time. Human beings have long imposed a heavy toll on the environment. The era of the Jesus boat saw the introduction of fishing methods such as night fishing and fish traps that led to Mediterranean marine species such as the giant white groper, the murex, red coral, and sponges becoming so overfished they almost became extinct.[i] But in the era of the super trawler such degradation is happening on an unprecedented scale. Traversing the oceans these supertrawlers plunder one fishing ground after another, hauling fish out of the water at such a rate that the fish population goes into decline, then move on to wreak havoc somewhere else.  

That which is happening in the oceans is being repeated on the land and in the atmosphere. Species are becoming extinct at an unprecedented rate, dead zones are appearing in our oceans as we overload them with nitrogen, the earth’s climate is changing as a result of the greenhouse gases we emit.

Source: Scott Higgins, A Beautiful World. Christianity and Creation (2014)

[i] Grull, Tibor, “Ecological Changes in the Roman Mediterranean”, unpublished paper accessed at https://www.academia.edu/2037107/Ecological_Changes_in_the_Roman_Mediterranean July 2014

The Lake Becomes a Whirlpool

November 21, 1980 began like any other day for the men aboard a Texaco oil rig on Lake Pegneur, a 1300 acre lake in Louisiana USA. Day in, day out they would sink a drill down through the muddy bottom of the lake searching for oil. But on November 21, 1980 things got a little crazy. Below the surface of the lake was a salt mine, and it appears someone on the Texaco oil rig made a miscalculation that sent their drill straight into one of the salt mine’s tunnels.

What happened next was not dissimilar to pulling the plug out of a bath. A massive whirlpool formed, that first brought down the oil rig (the workers had earlier evacuated), took down a second oil rig, eleven barges, a tug boat, trucks, trees, and a loading dock. In three hours all 13.2 billion litres of water in that lake were drained, along with everything on and around the lake.

For a history.com video report see https://youtu.be/p_iZr2-Coqc

Environmental Application

I suspect this story is an apt parable for our times. God has given us a beautiful and amazing planet, a planet with two unique features. First, it has the ability to renew itself. We can harvest fish from the ocean and the fish that remain will reproduce to replace those we have taken. We can take trees from the forests and new ones will grow up to take their place. Second, the earth has the capacity to take the waste we produce and recycle it into something useful. Perhaps the greatest example is the one we all learned in school – trees absorb the carbon dioxide we produce and turn it into oxygen.

It’s quite amazing. But here’s the bad news. We are withdrawing resources from the earth at a rate faster than they can replenish and we are creating waste at a rate faster than the earth can absorb and recycle. And scientists tell us that we are heading for disaster.

In 2009 a group of scientists wrote a paper called “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity”. The concept was profound but simple. The earth has a number of key systems that we depend on. But these systems all have limits, and once we cross those limits the negative impacts begin to cascade. Of these systems they were able to measure seven, and they found we have already crossed the safe boundary on three and we are rapidly approaching the boundary on the rest.

The Whaling Station

On the South coast of NSW, Australia, in a town named Eden, there is an old whaling station. No longer used for whaling it has been turned into a whale museum. If you visit you’ll read the story of a killer whale that struck up a very special relationship with the whalers. When whales were swimming by it would herd them inshore, then race close into shore and leap about to get the whalers’ attention. This would tell the whalers that there were whales out in the ocean. They’d jump into their long open whaling boats and pass a rope into the water. The killer whale would take the rope between its teeth and tow them out to where the whales were. The whalers would then pull out their harpoons and spear the whales. Blood rushed out, the pain of the harpoon drove the whales into frenzied panic and protest, until they were overcome and died. The Whalers then lashed them to the boats and dragged them to shore. As a reward the killer whale would be thrown pieces of whale meat.

Attitudes to whaling have changed dramatically since those days, perhaps to a more biblical line. The writer of Psalm 104 speaks of whales, in verse 26. The Psalm writer says God made leviathan (here meaning whales) for no other reason than to frolic in the ocean, to spend its days with the earths oceans as its playpen. It doesn’t exist for human benefit but for God’s enjoyment, to frolic and play in the seas, a delightful celebration of God’s creative power.

This takes us way beyond a purely domination view of the environment – the what can we get from it approach – to tell us that God delights in his creation, God enjoys the world’s natural environment. And so the Psalm ends in verse 31 by calling on God to “rejoice in his works”.

Source: whaling information for Eden whaling museum website