Keeling Curve: May 15, 2019
The Keeling Curve is a chart depicting the steady and astounding cumulative build-up of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. It’s named after scientist Charles Keeling, who first began recording it in 1958 at Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. He’s also one of the first to alert us to something called the “Greenhouse Effect” of global warming.
I’ve been thinking about this chart since I read news of the worrisome, no, terrifying summary released from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Among other dire news, the summary asserts that up to a million—that’s 1,000,000—species will go extinct within the next few decades because of human activity. Current estimates are that there are around 10 million species on Earth, but we don’t know, because most haven’t been described. One million of those are set to ‘go extinct’ because of humans. To put it another way, one species (one out of 10 million) is causing the complete annihilation of 1,000,000 other species. In a human body, this would be diagnosed as an advanced cancer.
And if the moral implications of this news aren’t enough to jolt you out of your complacency, then consider it through a purely self-interested lens. The human species cannot survive the destruction we are causing our planet. The only home we have in the vast, immense, expanding universe. This is it.
Let’s consider it from the Earth’s perspective. Our solar system is a relative newcomer to the 14-billion-year-old universe. Our sweet, feisty planet has only been around for, say, 4.54 billion years. That number looks like this: 4,540,000,000. Over the course of those years the oceans and landmasses formed and moved around, and life began somewhere in the first 500 million years or so. Then things really got interesting, with single-celled life and eventually multi-celled life and—woo hoo—sexual reproduction and mutation and diversification and finally, 3840 million years later, simple plants!!
Plants, who inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen, which would (eventually) allow mammals and birds and insects to do the reverse. (Earliest photosynthesis, involving CO2, was a billion years earlier, but that’s another subject.)
I like to think of it as Earth breathing. Simplistically, and somewhat imaginatively, that’s what the smaller inset in Keeling’s chart shows. It shows that beginning in May, plants all over the Earth begin a long, satisfying inhale of carbon dioxide and then, beginning in October, they exhale. One breath in, one breath out. One year. One breath in, one breath out. One year.
Here’s a fanciful number game I played last week while waiting at a red light.
An average adult human breathes 16 times per minute. That’s 8,409,600 breaths per year. Earth takes one breath per year. At a human rate of respiration, this 4.5-billion-year-old planet would be roughly a 540-year-old human. Our pesky species would have shown up an hour ago and be threatening the extinction of one million species by the time it took you to read this sentence.
Good grief, people. Why are we worried about a border wall or the Muller report or Dabo Swinney’s contract? The house is on fire!
This past Sunday was Mother’s Day. You may remember that my husband fell off our roof last year, so this year my bar for a good day was set pretty low. No ladders, no blood. Just don’t die.
In addition to Mother’s Day, it was also Youth Sunday. The graduating seniors each offered a short meditation during the sermon time, and toward the end of the 5th of 6 messages, a man passed me on the aisle, muttering, as he made his way to the front row and sat down. Another man, who happened to be my husband, followed him down and tried to sit next to him, but was rebuffed. Even with new security protocols in place, our congregation was unprepared to know how best to welcome and accommodate a stranger who was clearly agitated and—here’s the kicker—was carrying a backpack.
The world feels particularly scary these days. Our country so divided. The amazing opportunity of technology and connection every day used to harm and isolate and menace. Guns so prolific and people so willing to wield them against each other. Houses of worship no longer sanctuaries. And here’s an agitated stranger with a backpack moving to the front row in the middle of Youth Sunday.
At the end of April, I asked you whether you lead with fear or anxiety. I told you that I’m making a concerted effort to try to lead with love. That I want joy and abundance to be forefront in my attitude toward family, career and my spiritual life. I tried to do this on Sunday when I was a guest in the Senior High Sunday School class and I ended by saying that my two big take-aways from the Bible are: 1) Do not be afraid and 2) Pay attention.
An hour later I was paying acute attention to a stranger with a backpack in the front row. He tried to leave at the end of service but got trapped in the narthex with all the youth while they sang Sanctuary, which felt deeply ironic. I was afraid of this man and afraid for this man, who, in retrospect, needed so much more than we could offer him that day. He quickly escaped what must have been a scary situation for him, too. And everyone was rattled.
The immediate feels so immediate! But the larger picture is always important.
The reason humans are concerned about politics and policies is because the now feels so immediate. And current policies and decisions absolutely affect the life and well-being of millions of people. But the larger picture is that our world-wide biodiversity and climate crises will take world-wide leadership and cooperation. We have to lift our eyes from the immediacy of our screens and notice that our house is on fire.
Dr. Christopher Preston’s article: Biodiversity Loss and (What is Not) Rocket Science is a great synopsis of the bad news/good news in the IPBES report. There’s plenty of bad news about how humans have selfishly exploited our Eden. But there’s also hope in the amazing regenerative ability of our lovely, abused planet. And if our selfishness has contributed, nay driven, the abuse, our selfishness could also prove to be our salvation, if we can understand ‘self’ to mean ‘humanity’ instead of ‘this particular human’.
The IPBES’s media release offers some ways forward and rays of hope. Dr. Preston translates the message in a more approachable way.
I doubt I need to spell out for you the numerous Biblical injunctions that just might apply here. Old Testament aside, Jesus gave us quite a few relevant parables. Any spring to your mind?
Here’s my other pollen grain of hope. It’s Spring. Have you noticed the pollen? The God that we proclaim and worship and follow is a God of abundance! Take one baby step toward God and God flings the whole gene pool at you. “I’ve come that they may have life and have it abundantly!”
I don’t think Jesus is just talking about one species.
In nautical terms, keeling means capsizing. Let’s heed our Keeling Curve and right our ship while still we may.