Brief Book Review: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

Image result for the uninhabitable earth“It is worse, much worse, than you think.”

So opens David Wallace-Wells’ harrowing, terrifying journey into the almost inevitable future of our planet.

Except it’s not really the future of the planet, the book’s title notwithstanding; it’s the future of humanity, or the immiserated, dessicated disaster-plagued remnants of it we have inflicted upon ourselves.

Everything about The Uninhabitable Earth, from its title to the minimalist cover to the unrelenting parade of horribles Wallace-Wells describes, is bleak. Here, for example, is the list of chapter titles in Part II, titled “Elements of Chaos:”

Heat Death
Hunger
Drowning
Wildfire
Disasters No Longer Natural
Freshwater Drain
Dying Ocean
Unbreathable Air
Plagues of Warming
Economic Collapse
Climate Conflict

This is no dry and technical document of climate science; Wallace-Wells is a journalist and brings a journalist’s gift for distilling complicated concepts into digestible prose – even if the result makes you lose your appetite. In fact, Wallace-Wells spends little time attempting to convince the skeptics of climate change; at this point, as yet another hurricane described as unprecedented has leveled another island in the western Atlantic, only the willfully obtuse continue to deny the existence of global warming. Rather, his goal is different: To make abundantly clear that our current trajectory is catastrophic, and what exactly that means in terms of temperatures, sea levels, food shortages, pollution, migration, disease and disasters.

Because, Wallace-Wells argues, even those who accept the factuality of anthropogenic climate change have swathed themselves in comforting falsehoods:

The slowness of climate change is a fairy tale, perhaps as pernicious as the one that says it isn’t happening at all, and comes to us bundled with several others in an anthology of comforting delusions: that global warming is an Arctic saga, unfolding remotely; that it is strictly a mater of sea level and coastlines, not an enveloping crisis sparing no place and leaving no life undeformed; that it is a crisis of the “natural” world, not the human one; that those two are distinct, and that we live today somehow outside or beyond or at the very least defended agains nature, not inescapably within and literally overwhelmed by it; that wealth can be a shield against the ravages of warming; that the burning of fossil fuels is the price of continued economic growth; that growth, and the technology it produces, will allow us to engineer our way out of environmental disaster; that there is any analogue to the scale or scope of this threat, in the long span of human history, that might give us confidence in staring it down.

None of this is true.

And that’s just the first paragraph.

Continue reading Brief Book Review: The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells

The Most Important Letter

This month’s events in El Paso, the presidency of Donald Trump, the realignment of American political parties over the past fifty years – indeed the totality of American history itself on this, the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first documented black slave on our shores – can be summarized by one powerful letter:

W.

Mariana Chmielowicz was born and raised in the kingdom of Galicia in the late 19th century.Galicia was the poorest region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an amalgam of Poles and Slavs in the middle of what would soon become Europe’s bloodiest battleground.

Whether through good luck, ingenuity or a little of both, Mariana joined thousands of Galicians in emigrating first to Germany then by ship to New York City. She left the day after Valentine’s Day, 1902, with $12 in her pocket and, for the Anglophones of her new home, an unspellable, unpronounceable Polish name. The clerk recording her entry beneath the shadow of the Statue of Liberty on March 1 noted her simply as “Chmiel, Maria.”

She told immigration officials she was joining a cousin at a labor farm in Priceburg, a suburb of Scranton in eastern Pennsylvania whose name would soon be changed to Dickson City.

By 1910, Mariana had met and married Josef Matan, a fellow Polish migrant, who had been born on the western edge of Russia – a couple in the

closing years of the long 19th century fleeing the convulsive final decades of European empires soon to vanish in flame and blood, entering through the golden door beside which the Mother of Exiles lifted her lamp.

“Matan” was a shorter name, but apparently no easier for English speakers to spell correctly. The growing family – three living children by the time Census taker Joseph Eisenberg knocked on their door across the railroad tracks from the Lackawanna River in the working-class Scranton suburbs – was spelled “Matta,” “Maden” and “Maton” on official documents for decades.

But regardless of misspellings, the Matan family received something far more valuable from Eisenberg on April 26, 1910: under the column marked “Race,” he scratched the letter W.

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No matter their language (they couldn’t read or write English yet), no matter their birthplace (European backwaters), no matter their nationality (nonexistent at the time), the Matans had the W.

Continue reading The Most Important Letter

A Meditation on Luke 10

Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus.

“Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” 

He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.”

And Jesus said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.”

But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” 

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Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. 

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Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. 

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So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 

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But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. 

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He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. 

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The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’

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Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

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He said, “The one who showed him mercy.”

Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”

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Independence Day

Independence is the radical statement that all humans are created equal…

written by a man who raped his slaves and forced them to bear his children.

 

Independence is the creation of a republic by “we the people”…

in which some people counted for three-fifths of a whole and the vast majority were given no voice in its government.

 

Independence is the rugged individualism of frontier settlements carved out of the inhospitable wilds of the west…

on land gained through subterfuge, betrayal, theft, bloodshed, genocide.

 

Independence is government of the people, by the people, for the people…

followed by assassination, coups, terrorism, disenfranchisement, lynchings and the crushing imposition of “separate but equal.”

 

Independence is the words of Emma Lazarus etched into a statue in New York Harbor welcoming “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”…

while sending away ships of Jews fleeing Nazi oppression in the name of “America First.”

 

Independence is the president of the United States saying, “We Shall Overcome” in a nationally televised address to Congress…

after decades of attack dogs, fire hoses, batons, blood and broken bones.

 

Independence is electing a president with a name like Barack Hussein…

before subjecting him to conspiracy theories arguing he is not truly American, then electing to succeed him the man who spread those racist lies.

 

Independence is celebrating 243 years of striving to achieve principles of liberty, justice and equality for all…

while separating, imprisoning, abusing and torturing families seeking asylum at our southern border.

 

The story of American independence is a story of tension between the mythology arising out of one set of historical facts and the shame arising out of another, more painful, less well remembered set of historical facts.

This July 4 – as with the first – we celebrate our independence while unjustly depriving others of theirs. The power on display in Washington, D.C., in the form of tanks and flyovers and high-value VIP tickets awarded to campaign donors and partisan lickspittles is felt in cages near El Paso, in lines on international bridges, in bodies losing oxygen in the rapid current of the Rio Grande.

Independence is the best of America…

and it is the worst of America.

 

Do not celebrate the former without remembering the latter.

How a Confederate Monument Erases History

“We shouldn’t erase history.”

I’ve heard this multiple times – on the news, from friends on Facebook, in person – when people talk about Confederate monuments.

As someone with a master’s degree in church history, I absolutely agree with not erasing it.

IMG_5439I recently travelled to Denton for a work conference, and during my spare time made a trip downtown to check out the beautiful Denton County Courthouse. On one side of the courthouse square stands a large arch topped by a soldier gripping a rifle. On the arch itself reads, “Our Confederate Soldiers.”

To enter the courthouse from that side (without stepping on the grass), you must pass under this archway. On either side are the dates of the Civil War – 1861 on the left, 1865 on the right – and a pair of inscriptions.

On the left reads: “Erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy in memory of our Confederate soldiers, who in heroic self-sacrifice and devoted loyalty, give their manhood and their lives to the South in her hour of need.”

And on the right, under an all-caps “In Memoriam,” the following sentence in quotation marks: “Their names graved on memorial columns are a song heard far in the future, and their examples reach a hand through all the years to meet and kindle generous purpose and mold it into acts as pure as theirs.”

A quick Google search tells me the quote is slightly altered from a passage in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1885 poem “Tiresias.”

So let’s talk about history. Because this arch contains precious little of it. There was indeed a Confederate States of America with soldiers who fought for it. The war in which they fought did in fact begin in 1861 and end in 1865.

Thus ends the historical statements made by the monument.

But there’s a lot of history that seems not to have made it on to this memorial; what they were fighting for, beyond the South’s “hour of need,” is a glaring omission.

Continue reading How a Confederate Monument Erases History

The Fizzling of the Cambrian – and Creationism

Image result for cambrian explosion creationismYou may or may not be aware that one of my research interests is the response of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians to the theory of evolution. It was actually my whole master’s thesis.

So in studying how Christians have tended to oppose the teaching of Darwinian evolution (in which all living species are descended from a single common ancestor through natural selection and genetic mutation, among other processes) over the past century, one of the key arguments they’ve used against it is the existence of the Cambrian Explosion.

The argument is typically made this way: “Darwinism argues that all of life has gradually evolved from a single common ancestor, but they can’t explain the Cambrian Explosion, where the fossil record goes from basically no living species to an incredible amount of diversity in a very short time.”

This argument had two prongs: One was negative – the explosion is something evolution cannot explain; therefore, it chips at the foundation of support for the theory – and one was positive: The explosion is the fossil record’s evidence of God’s special creation of a limited number of “kinds” that then evolved to the current diversity of life. This idea, let’s call it young earth evolutionism, is still propagated by Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum and Ark Experience, as scientific creationism.

Here are some examples from my research: Continue reading The Fizzling of the Cambrian – and Creationism

Centaurs, Harry Potter and the Book of Revelation

Once you teach a class focusing on a single book of the Bible for 10 straight weeks, you notice allusions everywhere, even if the author didn’t have that in mind.

Last week, it was while I was reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone to my daughters.

The scene was when Harry and his friends are serving detention in the Forbidden Forest, looking for a unicorn who seems to have been wounded by someone or something – an act of unimaginable evil.

The group runs into some centaurs, and quickly grow frustrated at their enigmatic answers; they read portents of danger in the stars but provide no practical help.

Firenze, a centaur with apparently different views on relationships with humans, eventually rescues Harry from a sticky spot. His centaur brethren are less than pleased:

“What have you been telling him?” growled Bane. “Remember, Firenze, we are sworn not to set ourselves against the heavens. Have we not read what is to come in the movements of the planets? … Centaurs are concerned with what has been foretold! It is not our business to run around like donkeys after stray humans in our Forest!”

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Firenze responds with some heat of his own: “I set myself against what is lurking in this Forest, Bane, yes, with humans alongside me if I must.”

Later, Firenze tells Harry, “The planets have been read wrongly before now, even by centaurs. I hope this is one of those times.”

It strikes me this could apply to many interpreters of Revelation – so certain they have read the signs correctly, they disengage from the world around them. Evil runs rampant, but that’s just what the prophecies foretold so there’s nothing that can be done. Better to wait for the rapture and let God take care of business.

But that’s not the message of Revelation at all. It’s very interested in this world – in the powers that control it and the ability of the followers of Jesus to resist them. It’s filled with warnings about assimilating into the dominant political and economic cultures and compromising the self-sacrificing example of Jesus.

In fact, to take it one step further, I’d argue it’s precisely because so many Christians have trained themselves to look for portents in the heavens that they have become so vulnerable to the whispers of Revelation’s corrupting and violent Beast.

Let me be clear: Donald Trump is not the Beast. To the extent any world leader ever was the Beast, it was probably Nero. But the Beast as a symbol for the rapacious and seductive power of empire lives in every time and culture, including ours.

And perhaps no one better personifies that power in our time and culture than the American president – especially when that president uses fear and paranoia to amass power and wield it against the marginalized.

This is one of the greatest and saddest ironies of the current American moment: Numerous Christians raised to scrutinize world leaders for signs of the Beast have fallen prey to it. Senses dulled by the drugs of fear and paranoia fed them by the False Prophets in their pulpits, over their airwaves and on their televisions, they have embraced the Beast’s promise of security and victory in this world, abandoning the values of grace, love and self-sacrifice typified by the Lamb and his promise of eternal security and victory in the next.

To merge the metaphors, we are now deep within the Forest, and the Beast is lurking. A large number of Christians, believing they read the stars correctly, have abandoned the fight against the Beast – many have even embraced it, mistaking it for a savior who will lead them to safety. Which of us will stand against it, no matter who is alongside us?

The prophecies of Revelation have been read wrongly many times before now, even by Christians. I hope this is one of those times.