September 22, 2015

Time to Wake Up: God’s Humblest Beasts

I rise today in my series of “Time to Wake Up” speeches to bring attention to two of God’s humblest but most useful creatures.

Here in the high political majesty of the Senate, it is easy to forget Matthew: “No man can serve two masters…Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

Who do we serve here? I submit it is mammon, all day long, no doubt about it. Mammon surrounds and submerges us. We swim in its currents. This Senate of ours, this is “Mammon Hall.”

How easy it is from our perch of worldly power here in Mammon Hall to overlook the humble, and what could be humbler than God’s humblest beasts? So, today, I want us to remember two: The bumblebee and the pteropod.

When was the last time any of us thought of the humble bumblebee? Not recently, I expect, and not often. We have important things to do. Who can be thinking about bumblebees? Yet, by the millions, by God’s plan, these small creatures spend their days out busily pollinating the plants that yield the crops that turn into the food we humans depend on to survive.

The humble bumblebee does much more good in God’s natural realm than we humans do. On the spectrum between givers and takers of this good Earth’s blessings, we humans are way over on the taker end of the spectrum, and the bumblebee–it is humble–but it is way over on the giver end. And the humble pteropod, how many of us even know what it is? Not many in this Senate, I would bet. The pteropod is a winged snail that populates the ocean in immense numbers. It is sometimes called the sea butterfly because, over millenia, God’s evolution of these creatures has turned their snail foot into an oceanic wing. A cousin species is called the sea angel.

Like the bumblebee, the pteropod performs an unheralded service in God’s natural realm. The pteropod is an essential link in the oceanic food chain, supporting the whole great network of trophic levels and species above it.

In what Pope Francis calls “the mysterious network of relations between things”–in that mysterious network of relations between things, the pteropod gives its life to transmit food energy from the microscopic plants it eats, that would be no use to us, up to the fish that consume the pteropod–fish, which we, in turn, consume–all in that great “mysterious network.”

Back here in Mammon Hall, many interests can only appreciate nature in monetary terms and can only value things to the extent that they can be monetized. They are the mercenary sort Pope John Paul II said “see no other meaning in their natural environment than what serves for immediate use and consumption.” Or, as Pope Benedict said, think “everything is simply our property and we use it for ourselves alone.” They are the interests who, as Pope Francis said, have the attitude “of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs.” According to them, if you can’t grab it and sell it, it has no value–not here in Mammon Hall.

So, to them, let me say that the money-making salmon fishery depends in large part on the humble pteropod. For them, let me say that our enormous agribusiness enterprise depends on pollination by the humble bumblebee.

In Mammon Hall here, we have actually gotten used to this kind of behavior. It no longer even seems deviant to us. It has become normalized, but in our hearts we have to still know it is not normal. It is wrong.

Pope Francis reminds us in his recent encyclical: “When nature is viewed solely as a source of profit and gain,” that is “[c]ompletely at odds with ….. the ideals ….. proposed by Jesus.”

Completely at odds with the ideals proposed by Jesus.

The Pope was blunt. He said: “Today, ….. sin is manifest in ….. attacks on nature. ….. a sin against ourselves and a sin against God.”

That is what the interests we traffic with do all day long–no doubt about it.

The Pope has said that “our common home is falling into serious disrepair. ….. [T]hings are now reaching a breaking point. ….. [H]umanity has disappointed God’s expectations.” The Earth herself, he said, “groans in travail,” and we are leaving to our children a world that, to use his words, “is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” If we don’t see that, it is because we see so poorly outside our privileged bubble of consumption.

But if we don’t see that, the bumblebee and the pteropod do. Here is what is happening to them.

A study in the peer-reviewed journal Science, published in early July, shows that as temperatures warm, bumblebee populations are retreating northward from the hottest part of their ranges as they warm further and further. But here is the rub: The northern range for the bumblebees for some reason is not expanding, which means the changing climate is crushing bumblebee populations in a climate vice.

“Bumblebee species across Europe and North America are declining at continental scales,” warns study author Dr. Jeremy Kerr of the University of Ottawa. “Our data suggest that climate change plays a leading role, or perhaps the leading role, in this trend.”

Carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels floods the atmosphere and causes climate change. But about 25 percent of it actually enters the oceans, and there, it acidifies the waters, souring them for creatures such as the pteropod.

Research led by NOAA scientists published last year found that acidified water off our west coast is hitting the pteropod especially hard. They found “severe shell damage” on more than half of the pteropods they collected from Central California to the Canadian border. That was more than double the expected rate. The pteropods are being eaten away by acidic water.

Oceanographer William Peterson, coauthor of the study, said, “We did not expect to see pteropods being affected to this extent in our coastal region for several decades.”

The pace and extent of ocean acidification that we are observing now, that we are measuring now, that we are driving now with our carbon pollution, are nearly unprecedented in the geological record. The closest historical analogs, scientists say, are the great extinctions, when marine creatures were wiped out en masse and ocean ecosystems took millions of years to recover.

John Kenneth Galbraith knew something about importance, and he said this about importance: “The threat to men of great dignity, privilege, and pretense is ….. from accepting their own myth.” That happens when that “great dignity, privilege, and pretense” become so great that we no longer feel the need to listen–certainly not to something as insignificant as a bumblebee, as humble as a pteropod. But remember why Jesus was so angry with the Pharisees. What was their sin? Their dignity, their privilege, and their pretense blinded them to how out of touch they were with the truth.

So here we are in mammon hall, where powerful special interests court us, gigantic corporations lobby us, and billionaires pay us attention, and indeed they fund some of us. Presidents must deal with us. Truly, we are today’s Pharisees. But Jesus taught that truth is among the things that are humble.

We had better start listening to the bumblebee and the pteropod, to the coral polyp and the oyster spat, to the New Hampshire moose and the Idaho pine, to the Utah snowfall and the California drought, to the measured carbon concentration of our only atmosphere and the measured pH level of our only oceans. These are gifts, and these gifts are all God’s creations, and their signals are all God’s voice. We ignore them in our arrogance, we ignore them in our folly, and we ignore them at our peril.

It has already begun, as we careen into the next great extinction. As Pope Francis wrote, “Because of us, thousands of species will no longer give glory to God by their very existence, nor convey their message to us. We have no such right,” he said.

Indeed, we have no such right. The day the bumblebee and pteropod no longer give glory to God by their very existence will be a bleak and perilous day for humankind. In the meantime, we had better smarten up to the message they convey to us. If their message, if the message of God’s creatures–if that message of warning is not God’s voice, then whose voice is it?

I challenge you. If the voice of God’s creatures to us in the way they lead their lives and the way they are dying is not God’s voice, then whose voice is it and what message does it convey?

As Pope Francis comes to this Congress this week, I hope we will listen to the voice of God as expressed through his humblest creatures and just for a second turn off the noise from mammon that surrounds us.

I yield the floor.