True Confessions and Thoughts on Ecology

Photo: miniCooper93402
     Sometimes I struggle with the importance of the whole environmental stewardship thing. Theologically I’m on board with the centrality of creation care to authentic Christian living, but sometimes my heart wants to perform triage on the needs of the world so I can prioritize my vocational work and financial giving accordingly. On most days malnourished African babies and AIDS sufferers in Asia go to the front of the line while the pretty fish and waving strands of eelgrass can twiddle their thumbs and wait all day to see the doctor as far as I’m concerned.

     But when I perform this kind of triage I’m forgetting the principle on which all conservation is founded. I’m forgetting the fundamental definition of ecology: that everything is interconnected. I might not care about the eelgrass, but the salmon do. And the bears and blue herons need the salmon, not to mention the fisheries, and so it goes, spinning an intricate web of interwoven relationships.

     Brian Brett, in his excellent book Trauma Farm, tells a story which illustrates the rippling aftershocks created when we tamper with one bit of creation’s web. He recounts the devastating results of Chairman Mao’s fateful Four Pests Campaign. It seems that Mao, as part of his Great Leap Forward, decided his nation would be far better off without sparrows, flies, rats and mosquitoes. The latter three seem logical pest suspects, but sweet little House Sparrows? Evidently a sparrow can eat ten pounds of grain a year, landing it on Mao’s most wanted list. Hoping to eradicate this pest from his nation, Mao instructed every citizen of China to kill sparrows on a single spring day in 1958. Over six hundred million dutiful citizens did just this—chasing sparrows from their nests and banging pots to scare them from returning, thus rendering the eggs left behind unviable. What Mao wasn’t told was that while a sparrow can eat ten pounds of grain a year they seldom do; their diet consists mainly of insects, locusts in particular. Within two years China’s crops were overrun by noxious insects, with locusts leading the assault. This, along with several other supposedly ‘scientific’ decisions affecting farming practices, led to China’s famine, which killed over twenty million people.

     Turns out it’s not so easy to say that conservation is a luxury for citizens of wealthy nations who value hiking trails and salmon dinners, not when the survival of the world’s most vulnerable people depends almost entirely on healthy ecosystems to sustain them. Again, this is where the definition of ‘ecology’ is helpful: ‘Eco,’ from the Greek oikos, for household, and logia, for ‘the study of.’ Anyone who has grown up in a household understands that it’s a complicated web of interrelated relationships. (If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy, right?) In essence, the word ecology draws attention to the relationships between living things and their environment and implies that if one tinkers with one bit of the world, the effects are felt in radiating ripples throughout the rest of the world. Tug at this bit of creation, to paraphrase John Muir, and you find it is attached to everything else. Even the smallest actions for creation care have implications for the larger web that makes up our larger home.
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