Here in rural Midwest farming country, I can offer two observations about this summer’s historic drought and heat wave. First, the drought made for a lot of work. We spent countless hours hauling a 400-gallon water tank around our farm, for example, trying to keep hundreds of new tree plantings alive—even as our water-supply pond began to look more like a puddle than a pond.
The work has nonetheless failed to alleviate a great deal of suffering and loss. Two-thirds of our newly planted trees have died. And in one blistering day we lost almost half of our laying flock. Even Fluffy the Roostery Chicken, a hardy and beloved old rooster, died in my daughter’s arms, despite her desperate attempts to save him with cool washrags. There were so many dead birds that I dug a mass grave for them with a tractor.
Our friends and neighbors have fared little better. Several farmers I know are hoping for 30 bushels per acre on corn ground that usually yields 180. A nearby organic dairy farmer sold off many head of cattle and sheep because his pastures burned to a crisp and he has to stretch his hay supply as far as possible. Some of his remaining cattle are showing ribs.
In my presentations as a climate ambassador for the Catholic Coalition on Climate Change, endorsed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, I have been hesitant to link particular extreme weather events, like droughts or floods or hurricanes, directly to climate change. And as a farmer, I hate to complain about weather. Good years come, and bad years come. But many prominent and respected climate scientists, like NASA’s James Hansen, have stated recently that this year’s extreme weather was not merely nature’s occasional fluke. The odds are utterly overwhelming that it was caused or at least intensified by the excessive amount of carbon dioxide human activity has put into the atmosphere.
In regard to climate change, I often feel we are living through a post-modern, slow-motion iteration of the fall of Adam and Eve. In the biblical account, the serpent promises them godlike powers if they partake of the forbidden fruit. After their transgression, God banishes them from Eden, and their life beyond the garden gates includes burdensome toil, as well as enmity and suffering.
One could argue that until very recently in human history, we still lived in Eden, at least in terms of climate. It seemed impossible that human activity could ever alter global environmental conditions. Then we discovered fossil fuels, which gave us power that seemed almost godlike.
If fossil fuels are our forbidden fruit, and if a planet on whose predictable climate we could depend was our version of the original garden, then we will soon be very far east of Eden. The activist and author Bill McKibben pointed out in a recent article that to keep climate change within tolerable limits, human beings may burn no more than 565 billion tons of carbon between now and 2050. Unfortunately, we are on track to blow through that 565-gigaton limit by 2016. And why stop there? Worldwide, energy companies currently have 2,795 gigatons of carbon in proven reserves, more than five times the safe limit.
Perhaps this cruel summer has simply beaten me down, but at this point I have little hope that we will kick our carbon addiction in time to prevent major climatic changes. I think we can expect even more work and woe, those same two curses that befell Adam and Eve. We experienced both on our farm during this year’s drought and heat wave. But the real victims are and will continue to be the world’s poor, who are the least responsible but the most vulnerable.
I would like to approach this crisis as neither a “doomer” nor a denier, but with clear-eyed Christian realism. Scripture and history witness to a God who continually brings a greater good out of any evil that humans unleash. Might we one day describe the now-unfolding climate crisis as “O happy fault,” the way we sing about the original Fall in the “Exsultet” at the Easter Vigil? It is hard to imagine, but eminently worth hoping for. Perhaps this crisis is humanity’s perilous passage through our collective adolescence, from immaturity to hard-won wisdom. Might it lead us to a more mature and responsible, though much chastened, way of belonging benignly in God’s creation? The garden is lost to us now, but I have to hope that God’s redeeming love never is.