I am thankful to have an essay in the June issue of The Unmooring. This issue’s theme is Environment and offered me the opportunity to write about one of my favorite things: the spirituality of caring for the planet. See “The Sacred Why” on page 52.
Sabbath Day Thoughts: “A New Earth” Isaiah 65:17-25
When it comes to climate change, the Adirondacks may not be at the top of our list of regions most impacted by our warming earth.
We are more likely to think of island nations like the Maldives, an archipelago in the Indian Ocean that rises only 2.4 meters above sea level at its high point. As sea level rises with the melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, the Maldives are in peril. In 2015, the charismatic young President of the Maldives drew world attention to his nation’s plight by holding his first cabinet meeting underwater. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), by 2010, sea levels will potentially rise 100 centimeters, covering almost the entire nation.
When it comes to climate change, we think of polar bears, the poster-child for the impact of global warming on our animal species. Climate projections anticipate that, before mid-century, we could have a nearly ice-free Arctic in the summer. Polar bears rely heavily on sea ice for traveling, hunting, mating, resting, and in some areas, for dens where cubs are birthed and nurtured. Studies have linked the demise of sea ice with a 40% decline in the number of polar bears in northeast Alaska and Canada. Will the bears survive a warming Arctic?
In the lower forty-eight states, we tend to think of the south when it comes to the impact of global warming. Our warmer, wetter world has caused a surge in powerful tropical storms that have pounded the Gulf states and beyond. Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana in August, second only to Hurricane Katrina as the most damaging and intense hurricane to hit the U.S., with maximum winds of 150 mph. As Ida moved north, so did its destructive power. The storm caused catastrophic flooding across northeastern states. Ida caused $50.1 billion in damages. In the storm’s aftermath, 95 Americans had been killed—33 deaths in Louisiana and 9 more across the southland, 30 in New Jersey, 18 in New York, and 5 in Pennsylvania.
Island nations sinking into the sea, polar bears threatened with extinction, massive storms inflicting heavy property damage and loss of life. This is often the face of climate change on the evening news. Yet we might be surprised to learn that the Adirondacks are being profoundly affected by our warming world.
Researchers at SUNY Plattsburgh report that the Adirondacks are warming at a rate that is twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The global average temperature has increased 1.8 degrees over the past 30 years, but in Lake Placid, that increase has doubled to 3.6 degrees. That means that our fall is longer than it once was. Our spring comes earlier. We have more winter warm-ups. Ask anyone who grew up in Saranac Lake and they will tell you that winter isn’t what it used to be.
The Adirondacks sit at the southern edge of the great boreal forest that stretches north across Canada to the Arctic. As our weather warms, that boreal forest will creep north as native plants and trees can’t take the relative heat. It’s already happening. It’s already having a big impact on our wild creatures. The National Audubon Society reports that we are seeing a dramatic decline in our northern boreal birds, like gray jays, Bicknell’s thrush, spruce grouse, and the black-backed woodpecker. We are also seeing a decline in fish. Brook trout, lake trout, salmon, and round whitefish all need cold water to thrive. An EPA report anticipates that brook trout fishing could disappear from the Adirondacks by the year 2100. As the Adirondacks continue to warm, the animals of the boreal forest will migrate north in search of habitat. Can we imagine the park without moose, bobcats, fishers, pine martens, and loons? Unless there is collective action to limit the amount of carbon in our atmosphere, that will be the Adirondack Park that we leave to our children and grandchildren. It’s a sobering possibility.
In our scripture lesson, the Prophet Isaiah shares God’s promise of a new heaven and a new earth. The people who first heard Isaiah’s prophecy were likewise living with the impact of their actions upon the good land that God had entrusted to their care. The Israelites had returned home from decades of captivity in Babylon. Their land, which had once flowed with milk and honey, had been devastated by foreign invasion and decades of war. When the Babylonian army had rolled across Israel, they had destroyed everything in their path. Every fortified city from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south had been conquered and flattened. Jerusalem was hardly recognizable: its protective walls breached and pulled down, its homes in ruins, its Temple burned to the ground. The reality was so overwhelming, that people didn’t know where to begin. That may be how we feel about the reality of climate change.
In the midst of the people’s despair, God spoke a vision of hope. God, who had created heaven and earth, would create again, a new world of harmony and abundance. God’s word to the Prophet Isaiah is a sweet and joyous promise of long life, rebuilt homes, fruitful vineyards, simple abundance, and good health. God anticipates a healed relationship between humanity and the holy: before we even begin to pray, God will hear and respond. God anticipates a healed relationship between humanity and all creatures, great and small. All will dwell peaceably, free from harm and the threat of destruction. Isiah’s promise is so sweet, that we hear it and we want it for ourselves. We want it for the generations to come.
It’s a promise that reveals God’s best hope for us. Indeed, in the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos described God’s coming Kingdom as Isaiah did, as a new heaven and a new earth, a new Jerusalem in right relationship with God. Humanity gets things so wrong. The ancient Israelites bring death to the land by exploiting its bounty, oppressing one another, and waging endless wars in pursuit of wealth and national greatness. We, with our unbridled consumption and short-sighted pursuit of prosperity, pump the atmosphere full of greenhouse gases that trap ultraviolet rays and turn up the heat. Our world is suffering. Creation is groaning. And in the middle of the mess that we have made, God dares to dream that things can be different. There can be a fresh start, a new earth.
What might it look like for us to claim Isaiah’s vision, to begin living in ways that give us a foretaste of the coming Kingdom that God will one day bring to completion? Jerry Jenkins, the leading expert on climate change in the Adirondacks, says that we can personally start to mitigate climate change with simple thrift. Don’t buy new stuff: reduce, re-use, recycle.
We can make changes at home. If we dial back the thermostat by two degrees, we can not only reduce our household carbon emissions, but also save as much as 5% on our heating bill. We can turn off un-needed lights. We can replace energy-wasting lightbulbs with high-quality LED bulbs that last a long time, consume less electricity, and save lots of money, year in and year out. We can use native plants in our flower gardens to attract pollinators, like bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds.
We can change our habits. We can bring our own re-useable bottle or mug wherever we go. We can drive less—plan our trips into town, walk to nearby destinations, or ride our bikes instead of hopping in the car. We can cut down on food waste by eating leftovers. We can eat less meat—those concentrated animal feeding operations, where cattle and pork are warehoused in close proximity and force-fed, are massive emitters of methane, a greenhouse gas.
If we are in a position to make big ticket investments, we can consider purchasing a hybrid car. We could add a solar array to our homes to begin moving off the grid. We could invest in a renewable heat source. Burn wood pellets. Go geo-thermal.
These are simple steps that each of us can embrace. You can give them a try, even if you deny the truth of climate science. What’s to lose? These simple actions are good for us, good for the planet, and they save money. Who doesn’t want to save money?
William Janeway of the Adirondack Council envisions a day when the Adirondack Park will be “energy neutral.” We’ll preserve our wild beauty and ecological integrity. We’ll be a world-class natural resource and a premier tourism destination. We’ll be a model for the world to see of a “climate-smart, public-private conservation landscape.” The stakes are huge. Our failure to take action could have dire consequences for our children and grandchildren. Jerry Jenkins cautions that if we do not slow the course of human-caused climate change, “We may be the last generation to see the big bogs and the boreal creatures.” Would our children ever forgive us?
May we find in Isaiah’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth the holy will to make a better future for our park and our planet.
–. “Peril and Promise” on Mountain Lakes Journal, May 21, 2019.
Craig, Gewndolyn. “Adirondacks Affected by Warming Climate in a Number of Ways” in The Post Start, October 13, 2018. Accessed online at www.poststar.com.
Foderaro, Lisa. “Savoring Bogs and Moss, Fearing They’ll Vanish as the Adirondacks Warm” in The New York Times, Dec. 11, 2011. Accessed online at www.nytimes.com
Kerlin, Kat. “18 Simple Things You Can Do about Climate Change” in UC Davis: Science and Health. January 8, 2019. Accessed online at www.climatechange.ucdavis.edu
Mann, Brian. “Effects of Climate Change on the Adirondacks” on North Country Public Radio, Feb. 25, 2019. Accessed online at www.ncpr.org
Rivera, Nelson. “Homiletical Perspective on Isaiah 65:17-25” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.
Johns, Mary Eleanor. “Pastoral Perspective on Isaiah 65:17-25” in Feasting on the Word, Year C, vol. 4. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010.