Christ preached against worldliness, in the sense that a life focused on external riches, power and status atrophies in its deeper essences. If we are thinking too much about the next possession or promotion, then we miss opportunities to grow in our spiritual endowments: love, compassion and intelligence.
But somehow, over the centuries, this “worldliness” Christ preached against got confused with the world in general—nature, the earth, the sky, the physical creation. Since worldliness was bad, the world must be bad too. We got to thinking that we could abuse the environment without offending God, who lived in a spiritual form and was indifferent to nature, even though in Genesis the Creator pronounced the creation good seven times.
So we don’t think of polluting a river or denuding a forest as a sin; we don’t think of overpopulating the planet until millions and millions are forced to live like rats as a sin. And on and on, until our top scientists (Carl Sagan, for example) say we must radically change our ways now, or we will soon hit a point where the damage will be too extensive to heal.
These science-prophets warn about what they call the latency effect. For example, the contaminants that have opened the big hole in the ozone layer above the South Pole were released from the earth years ago. If release of such pollutants were halted tomorrow, it would have no effect on the rate of ozone deterioration for over a decade. Similarly, the next doubling of population, projected within two decades, is already inevitable for lack of controls in place right now.
The American essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, described the problem quite clearly a century and a half ago in his first book, Nature. Nature serves man on many levels, Emerson says, the lowest of which is commodity (trees as lumber, rivers as transportation, land as real estate, etc.). Emerson does not condemn this attitude toward nature, unless it takes over the human mind altogether and diminishes nature’s more profound values: as the source of beauty, inspiration and revelation.
For those of us on this planet, like Emerson, who see the Creation as sacred, how it hurts to see the earth desecrated for its lowest uses (a process almost synonymous with “progress” and thus practically uncriticizable). For jobs, for lumber, for coffee tables and second homes, the firstgrowth forests will all come down in time, and that much more of God will have disappeared from the face of the earth. We strip, we deface, we denude, we pollute as if there is no tomorrow.
Through a variety of chronic abuses, we have aged the earth millions of years in one short century, and yet collectively, politically, we show almost no concern. Perot, in many ways the most visionary of our recent presidential candidates, dismissed environmental concern with an offhand retort: “How are we going to pay for environmental programs?”
I ask, how are we not going to pay for them? Ten miles up the road from where I live, the celebrated chicken industry is overwhelming the once quaint small town of Moorefield. In spite of all the industry’s promises to be a clean operation, the air quality has drastically deteriorated with this recent radical expansion. Worse, the South Branch of the Potomac is fast on its way to being virtually despoiled of its once-cherished recreational and spiritual values.
The vicious cycle has taken hold. Population is expanding for the available jobs, and now there is a strong push to bring the new superhighway, Corridor H, through Moorefield, to further facilitate the chicken industry and all its spinoffs. Soon local residents will have that same choked up feeling which sensitive and mobile city dwellers are desperate to get away from, knowing instinctively that a life removed from nature loses its flavor, i.e. its sense of the sacred.
I read a recent poll that said 75 percent of West Virginians think that Christ will come again within the next 1,000 years, and meanwhile we barely notice, all around us, that we have ceased to respect our natural resources, the creation that God pronounced good. Rather we are rapaciously using Nature up, fouling it beyond healing, all for a little extra money in our pockets, while, by world standards, even the medium poor of us live like aristocrats.
It’s a sad fact that 150 years after Emerson’s book, nature as commodity is the only voice that influences the future. While we wait for Christ to come again, we desecrate God’s work all around us with barely a pang of conscience.