This year’s official U.S. hurricane season is wrapping up with a vengeance, and many streets in Southeast Florida are experiencing flooded coastal streets. What’s worse, residents there fear that the salty water on the roads may now also carry the toxic algae-based Red Tide that’s been plaguing both southern coasts of Florida. But the high water isn’t about hurricanes at all, surprisingly. This flooding represents an increasingly routine phenomenon called the annual King Tides. These overflowing tides occur each year during the September-November months. Global warming-driven climate change (and rising sea levels) will only exacerbate this occurrence in years to come. Elsewhere, on Florida’s Panhandle, Hurricane Michael recently lashed the coast on a far more catastrophic, destructive, and furious basis. Michael’s storm surge (and wind damage) wreaked unimaginable havoc, creating literal ‘war zones’ in Panhandle towns like Mexico Beach. The rapid intensification of this ‘monster’ storm changed its very scope and strength– from a Tropical Storm to a devastating Major Hurricane in a matter of only a few days. This intensification was, itself, aided and abetted by human-caused global climate change and the associated warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico that results from it.
The Gulf of Mexico suffers not simply from rising, warming waters (and the associated risks of even more horrific coastal hurricanes). It’s being polluted by any number of human-made agents. Our insatiable hunger for fossil fuels means that the cry of ‘drill baby drill’ continues to ring out loud and strong from offshore drilling rigs in the Gulf. Big, one-time oil spills like the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster some years ago tend to grab sensational headlines. The visuals of seeing major rig explosions and vast coverage areas of floating oil in the Gulf are hard to miss. But the Washington Post has just reported on a less well-known, but chronic, oil leak off the Gulf coast of Louisiana that’s on track to become one of the worst spills in our country’s history. Hurricane Ivan in 2004 created underwater dislocations that incapacitated a series of offshore oil wells. Some of these wells have been successfully capped. Others have not– and have been steadily seeping oil into the Gulf of Mexico for 14 long years now. According to sources, these still-damaged wells are leaking between 300-700 barrels of oil into the water each day. So far, this ecological disaster has largely escaped the scrutiny of the media and the wider public. But while it may be missing the main headlines, it’s a chronic disaster nonetheless. Future Gulf of Mexico hurricanes may drive storm surge of not just water onto beleaguered shores… but toxic oil as well.
As frightening as these unmitigated climate disasters should be to us, they’re too often seen as ‘not so scary’ at all by many people. For we’re too preoccupied with getting on with our own lives. With getting on with the lives of our children and family members. With the lives of our friends. And with the lives of our co-workers. Rising water, red tides, and oil spills seem too far away to many of us. The causes of global warming are too many. It all feels too obtuse, undefined, technical and scientific, remote, and bigger than we can comprehend right now. The effects of a changing climate are perceived as tangential to many across our country. We may see Twitter posts showing hurricane-battered and flattened homes. May see pictures of boats and cars turned upside down. Watch news footage of downed trees and branches. Power lines dangling in the air. Signs and roofs now untethered from their bases. We may watch news coverage of boat rescues, overcrowded storm shelters, queuing lines for food and clean water distribution. We may also see human suffering on our laptops or TVs.
However, far too often, we place unspoken, even unconscious, blame on those very people for their own predicaments and losses. We smugly ask ourselves why these ‘victims’ chose to live so close to the ocean. We wonder why they didn’t evacuate instead of sticking-out the hurricane. We’re bemused at why they didn’t build their homes higher off the ground or with sturdier foundations to withstand the howling winds. So even when we’re able to see these catastrophes in human terms, too many of us make the victims, themselves, accountable for the unspeakable tragedies that beset them. It’s all about ‘them’, and not at all about ‘us’ at the moment. We may feel some pity and send a small donation in the mail to help. But we have to be stewards of our own lives, don’t you know. And they have to be stewards of their own. It’s all about accountability for our own, respective human decisions, as the story goes. Enough said.
But that’s the whole point of the problem here. It’s always about Us. It’s about our unrelenting Un-Beautiful ‘Stewardship’ of our human circumstances on this earth. The definition of the word ‘stewardship’ is fairly straightforward. Stewardship refers to a person’s duty to supervise, manage, or care for some ‘thing’ or its associated financial viability. That something is often an organization, a piece of property, a community, an important resource, or even an individual who is no longer able to care for him or herself. The notion of stewardship implies a level of human responsibility for something entrusted to you and your care. When looked at administratively, it usually entails a set of ethical and legal duties owed to that thing or person managed. When looked at environmentally, it’s often seen from the perspective of mitigating or reducing the detrimental impacts of human activity on the planet we’re supposed to be managing. About slowing climate change. About adopting new ‘green’ technologies, practices, and ethos. Alternatively, when stewardship is looked at theologically or religiously, it’s often viewed as partnering with our Creator God (to whom all creation actually belongs) to manage all that God has given us as human caretakers of the earth. The thinking goes like this: God has generously provided resources to us for our use and wellbeing. We, in turn, are responsible for tapping these resources in a manner that honors God.
The aforementioned administrative, environmental, and theological/religious applications of ‘stewardship’ are all well and good. And there are absolutely helpful, important elements contained in each of them. But they’re lacking in important Spiritual aspects. For the root of Un-Beautiful Stewardship resides squarely in how we define our very identities and ‘beings’ as human stewards in the first place. The notion of stewardship implies our human responsibility for the world and all its living things. It implies our day-to-day supremacy (however humane) over lower life forms such as our waters, our air, the land, and the complex web of plant and animal life on earth. This supremacy rests on the idea of Anthropocentrism. It rests on the belief that God or the Universe created human beings as somehow exceptional. Created as inherently more powerful and important than all other things and life on earth. We were placed, by God or the Universe, in charge of tending God’s ‘garden’. And, in turn, the world should be viewed from a human lens. In accord with human values. Aligned with human wants and needs. As a ‘human’ resource to be used, however responsibly, nobly, or sensibly.
And how has that worked out for everybody if we’re honest with ourselves? How’s that been working out for our increasingly smoggy air, melting artic ice sheets, endangered and now-extinct species, clear-cut rainforests, bleached-out barrier reefs, floating plastic-laden oceanic garbage dumps, depleted fish stocks, disappearing underwater sea-kelp forests, more ferocious hurricanes, rising red tides, larger wildfires, massive chronic flooding, longer droughts, hotter temperatures, drug-resistant superbug diseases, sinking islands, and climate-induced human migration? In truth, it’s not working out at all. And it’s working out less well with every passing day. The studies exploring and explaining the fallout from our Un-Beautiful Stewardship of planet earth are so numerous as to be exhausting. But if we’re not inclined to read the vast volumes of conclusive climate change research, we need only look around us. Open our eyes and see what is painfully obvious to any rational, truly responsible human ‘steward’.
If human anthropocentrism is at the root of our global climate problem, then what’s the answer? To be fair, there simply isn’t one single answer. This problem is far bigger than some neat, tidy, and comforting– but deceivingly false– solutions. Our human-made climate debacle has been a long, long time in the making. As such, solving the riddle will take creative, innovative, fundamental, and literally transformational changes in how we humans live and work. And those changes must occur within incredibly tight timelines if nearly imminent climate catastrophes are to be averted. But changing our core thinking about our pivotal role as human ‘beings’ might help here. And this starts with the idea that humans don’t ‘reside’ at the center of all things on this earth. We’re not the end-all, be-all. We’re not in charge of God’s creation. The earth’s resources are not ours to use, discard, and plunder. Now, of course, human beings need to consume things from our earth in order to survive. But there’s a significant difference between meeting our basic ‘needs’ versus satisfying our selfish ‘wants’. There’s a substantial difference between living a sustainable, manageable existence versus gratifying our self-centered creature comforts. And there’s a huge difference between respectfully using versus recklessly abusing earth’s precious God-given resources.
But fully understanding these differences isn’t nearly enough. We must go well beyond the exercise of human moderation in our consumption, management, and restoration practices. Further, it’s not enough to simply say that humans need to share our earth more graciously with other creatures. Nor is it enough to simply posit that we need to better appreciate the inter-connectedness of our fragile human ecosystems here on earth. To be sure, we do have to stop cutting the proverbial limb that so safely supports us in the ‘tree’ in order to provide the firewood we think is necessary to keep us warm. This analogy does actually fit. For we are connected with everything else in our environment in a symbiotic way. What destructively happens in distant oceans and reefs does eventually impact those of us ensconced on dry land. But the notion of environmental interconnectivity doesn’t go nearly far enough. It’s not even enough to cease and desist with the audacious human belief that we can control nature in the first place. We need so much more than these things. We need a lasting, transformational change in our human ‘spiritual’ hearts.
Changing our spiritual hearts begins with our humbly appreciating that all things on this earth, whether seen by us as living or non-living, are worthy and ‘Sacred’. All created things are inherently deserving of our human gratitude and respect. They are uniquely valued and treasured as important in their own right. They’re not something to be used-up or managed or even cared for. Instead, they are to be honored. They’re deserving of an equal place and ‘voice’ at the table. In turn, we need to ‘listen’ to them. Then listen even harder because these animals, plants, and things don’t actually have a voice… at least not voices that we can hear or understand. In the end, all things on this earth have meaning and are sacred because they come from God. As human beings we, too, are created by God. But we’re not superior. We’re not better. We’re not even more powerful, really. We’re simply different. We’re created in partnership with all other things on earth by God. Created in order to exist and thrive together. Created, as human beings, not to espouse and practice some distorted, dislocated human ‘vision’ of Un-Beautiful Stewardship over the supposed subservient minions in our dominion. But, instead, created, knitted, and bonded together by God…to exist and thrive together. Truly together.