Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Funeral for a Planet

Every once in a while someone says something in just the right way at just the right time for it to make a lasting impression on me. This is the case with an article entitled “Time to Up Our Game” by Dr. Susan S. Silbey, outgoing Faculty Chair at MIT. The article was addressed to her fellow faculty members and posted on the MIT website.

She begins the article saying, “we can no longer engage in business as usual at MIT. Time is running out. MIT, the United States, and the world face an existential threat unprecedented in human history. It may already be too late to reverse the catastrophes that wait as the warming climate continues to raise sea levels, acidify the oceans, worsen droughts, wildfires, storms and floods, and accelerate extinction rates….”

This article did not say anything new. What was different was who she was, and whom she was addressing. She was the head of the faculty at one of the premier technology schools in the world, speaking to a faculty steeped in science. She does not believe we can engineer our way out of this global crisis.

She writes: “But here’s the problem. Climate change is a social as much as a technological problem. Even if we accept the unlikely scenario that fusion is on the near horizon, the political, economic, and social obstacles will not produce functioning power plants before the temperatures rise above those catastrophic two degrees Celsius.”

I have accepted the consensus opinion of climate scientists for a long time. How can one not? All the science points to the reality of climate change and its anthropogenic origin. It is also clear to me that climate change deniers are framing their arguments and fudging the figures for ulterior motives, motivated by political advantage or commercial gain.

The problem is that climate change is just one among many crises facing our nation and our world. To many people it does not seem as urgent as some of the others. But when I read her words something changed for me. I could envision my grandchildren and great-grandchildren suffering because of our inaction.  They may not have a future – or at least not a very good one - if we do not take decisive action soon.

My generation is not taking the problem seriously enough because we are not going to live long enough to see the most serious consequences. We imagine we still have the luxury of debating whether climate change is real. We are more concerned about the stock market and whether our party will win the next election. Healthcare costs are more urgent for us than the health of our planet. Gun violence is more important than violence against the environment.

I think that historians will say that we put the most important issue of our time on the back burner because of our short-sidedness and selfishness. I hope I am wrong. Recently Time magazine devoted a whole issue to climate change with the optimistic title 2050: How Earth Survived. I hope Time’s prophecy comes true and that I live to be 100 to see it.

But I doubt that either will happen. The electorate’s response to Jay Inslee, the only presidential candidate to make climate change the central focus of his campaign, reveals our national attitude to the issue. When he boldly proclaimed, “We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change and we are the last generation that can do something about it,” one could hear a collective yawn.  Consequently this clear and prophetic voice dropped out of the race.

Several times during my ministry someone has approached me about planning their own funeral. They felt certain that the time of their departure was at hand, as the apostle Paul described his own approaching death. (Although I noticed they were never certain enough to prepay my honorarium!) I have the same sort of existential dread about the future of our planet. We can see its death throes already in the changes to our weather, just like we notice the signs of declining health in a terminally ill friend.

Recently hundreds of people held a funeral for the Pizol glacier in the Glarus Alps in eastern Switzerland. It is the first Swiss glacier to die in our lifetimes. A memorial plaque erected at the site speaks to our descendants. In what is labeled “A Letter to the Future” it proclaims: “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

We know what needs to be done. Will we do it? Or should we start planning a funeral for our planet?  Dr. Silbey asks her colleagues, “If we truly want to make a better world, why have we not embraced this existential threat as the single most important challenge for MIT? Why is climate change not the first and largest item on our agenda?”

Why indeed. It is time to either plan the funeral or save the patient. Personally I have done enough funerals in my lifetime. I vote for healing the planet. How about a healthcare plan for our mother earth? How about a pro-life plan for the million species threatened by extinction? How about a campaign against substance abuse committed against our environment? Our great-grandchildren will thank us.


Although I talk about a funeral for our planet, the truth is the earth will survive no matter what we do. The planet is bigger and older than us and will survive our abuse. It will bounce back. Life on earth will survive. But it won’t be human life. They will be the forms of life that existed for millions of years before Homo sapiens that will continue to swim our oceans and walk our continents after we are gone.

The funeral I speak of is actually a funeral for our species. Perhaps another intelligent species will arise in the distant future that will do a better job caring for this planet than we have. According to the Book of Genesis, God gave us the responsibility to “tend and care for the earth,” and we decided we had more important things to do. Perhaps God will try again with a more faithful species. The Lord is – after all – a God of new beginnings.

Shortly before he died, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking - who was no intellectual lightweight – predicted that the human species has only 100 years left on earth. Having lived as a species for 200,000 years, we will become the agents of our own destruction. Let’s prove him wrong … for our grandchildren’s sake.

1 comment:

Jean Knox said...

Thank you for speaking and writing the truth, Marshall. These are scary times.