Friday, December 14, 2007

It's not about being Green

Henri Nouwen wrote, in The Way of the Heart:

"...the end of the persecutions [in the 4th and 5th centuries A.D.] did not mean that the world had accepted the ideals of Christ and altered its ways; the world continued to prefer the darkness to the light (John 3:19). But if the world was no longer the enemy of the Christian, then the Christian had to become the enemy of the dark world."

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Last Thursday, when having lunch with Fang Hai and Guruparan at Annalakshmi Mid Valley, the topic of biofuels surfaced in conversation. Guru pointed out that, despite the success of cane ethanol, sugarcane plantations were eating into the Amazon.

I support biofuels and I think cane ethanol is a wonderful energy source. It was reported in National Geographic (October 2007) that cane ethanol has a lower retail price compared to an energy-equivalent amount of petrol, produces 56% less greenhouse gas emissions than petrol, and has a whopping 1:8 input:output ratio of fossil-fuel energy used to make the fuel compared with the energy in the fuel.

However, Guru's remark alerted me to the flip side of agro-fuels and, indirectly, the darker side of environmentalism.

Al Gore's recent hit An Inconvenient Truth had the world talking about global warming, but I have always thought of the whole environmental problem as much more than a matter of trading in carbon credits and/or adopting an energy-efficient lifestyle. Because if you think about it from his point of view, then sugarcane plantations are a good thing, because they maintain the green cover on the planet in addition to producing cheap, clean fuel.

But then in Annalakshmi I saw the whole 'Let's Fight for a Greener Earth' argument fall before me. Extrapolating the idea to Singapore (and to YTL's Sentul East and Sentul West projects), I realised that green landscaping is not the same as conservation. Singapore is well-known as a 'garden city' with lots of trees everywhere, but no serious biologist will consider Singapore's greenery a thriving ecosystem (save, perhaps some parts around Bukit Timah).

The point is, we can eradicate all the forests on Earth and still maintain the greenery. Brazil's situation is proof of that: clear all of the Amazon and replace it with plantations; Earth remains green, global warming is in check... so what's the problem? Only this: we would have lost thousands upon thousands of plant and animal species, most of them probably as yet unknown to science.

Mr Gore and a lot of 'green earth' activists overlook this. You can fill a city with trees and have all the plant-a-tree campaigns you want, but the value of a forest is not that it has a lot of trees; it is that it has a lot of different trees. That's what biodiversity means, and diversity means there are plants that just won't be feasible in a city either due to maintenance or aesthetic issues. Keeping Earth green will keep carbon dioxide levels low, but not prevent mass extinctions.

Deforestation is a bad thing; reforestation good but nearly impossible. To effectively 'reforest' a plot of land, the reforester has to know the exact composition of plant and animal species in the area before it was cleared. And even if all the plants can be replaced by some miracle of seed-sourcing, most of the insect and animal species may be gone for good. It is also folly to assume that animal species are homogenous in the same region; Perak's rainforests exhibit a different biodiversity from those in Pahang.

Global warming is a big issue, but it is only a small portion of the environmental problems humanity faces. Ultimately the question is not about monitoring greenhouse gas emissions because from an evolutionary point of view, it is no threat to the environment at all, as polar bears which lose their icy homes will probably evolve aquatic appendages... or die in a classic case of 'survival of the fittest'.

And surely the Big Meltdown can't be any bigger than the other famous disruptions in the history of the universe like the Big Bang, the Big Dino-busting Meteor and the Ice Age. I mean, we're probably living in the Oven Age; what's so bad about that? Thermophilic bacteria aren't complaining.

The heart of the problem is what we make of Earth. Is it worth saving? And if it is, why? To me there is no better answer than the preservation of Earth's biodiversity. But this is also the least profitable and fashionable reason. Al Gore has made environmentalism 'cool' and accessible, but there is more to it than high-profile campaigns. It involves convincing governments all over the world to choose the preservation of nature over massive economic gains, and in a greedy world it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

I believe this is a subject I will return to in the near future with newer insights. Environmentalism is a big thing and questions about what it is and how best to go about it have yet to be answered at length.

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So where does the Nouwen quote come in?

If we take it as part of our Christian duty to care for the environment as stewards of God's creation, then the present situation is this: the world is also following suit. Environmentalism is becoming a subject of international acceptance, much like the Church under the rule of Constantine the Great.

But the physical growth of a church (i.e. its numbers) says nothing about its spiritual condition. Likewise environmentalism is becoming something like wearing a red ribbon in support of AIDS sufferers not because you actually care, but because it is easy to do so. Not many who eagerly wear the badge will volunteer to work amongst AIDS patients for fear of, among other things, infection.

The world has ceased to become the enemy of the Church in this sense. In fact there are Christians who claim the environment is not worth caring for, simply because the universe is temporal and we should be investing in heaven, not earth. (I shall leave the stupidity of this statement to speak for itself.) Hello, if this Earth is pointless, then why does the Bible open with a grand account of God creating it and declaring it 'very good'?! Does an artist produce a masterpiece only to have it trampled underfoot by swine?

But the alignment of the world to what seems to be a noble ideal does not mean that it has accepted the ideals of Christ. As I have pointed out, the vogue in environmentalism today is about doing as much as we can but not too much; it's about convenient methods which do not compromise on profits too much. It is, ultimately, merely utilitarian.

How does the Christian become the enemy of an environmentally conscious world? Not by saying the environment is not important, but by being aware of the hypocrisy of environmentalism. By remembering the Maker of all things created, seen and unseen. By working for the preservation of God's creation despite it being difficult and unprofitable. In many ways this reflects the call of Christ to deny ourselves, carry our crosses and follow Him.

In His teachings, Jesus would begin with a contemporary problem, examine it in the context of Jewish (and sometimes Roman) law, and then shed 'new' insights on it based on the original purposes of God. Like when the Sadducees asked about marriage and heaven, and Jesus said that they had their whole concept of God wrong, that God is God of the living and not the dead.

Our contemporary problem is the deteriorating world. In the context of present-day environmentalism, we are aware of measures we must take to keep this world afloat. But we must move beyond the sacrifices of lambs and pigeons to the One Sacrifice; beyond the purposes of man to the purposes of God. To save the world because at the end of the day, it belongs to God and He will call His stewards to account. And we are His stewards.

1 comment:

Tan Kee Aun said...

awesome post ben! it's just so you lah.. the language