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Pagan Theology

Pagan theology:  Are we the last hope?

By nature I’m a pretty fatalistic and ruthlessly practical person.  Make a psychic prediction?  Then you’ve got to convince me you’re not a cold reader [1].  If you claim that recycling is beneficial to the environment: you’d better have done a mass and energy balance [2].  I try to look at the data, but, unfortunately when one does look at the data one can often come to some pretty depressing conclusions.  Like the state of the environment.

Since we just dumped a 435,000 – 2,262,000 barrels [3] of oil into the Gulf of Mexico I thought it might be useful to consider some even more depressing environmental facts.   Facts that make the Gulf spill pale in comparison.

One of the problems that humans have is a tendency toward ethnocentrism.  We focus on our problems and ourselves and often miss the bigger picture of what is going on.  One place where this is especially true is time.  It’s hard for us to conceive of time horizons beyond the range between our grandparents and our grandchildren, and it is even harder for us to comprehend time outside of historical time.  However I contend that to really understand the environment, Gaia, or whatever you want to call the world, you need to understand it in the context of geological time because that is the time horizon for Gaia.

In the last 530 million years that have elapsed since creatures with skeletons evolved on the earth there have been more or less 15 mass extinctions.  Five of these may have resulted in the elimination of 50 percent or more of the species living at the time [4] and three can be said to have completely reorganized the way things work [5].

We are in the middle of the fourth.  Between 2.5 million and 10,000 years into the middle of the fourth, depending on which continent you are living on.

Coincidentally the numbers for when the large mammals began going extinct on various continents coincide roughly with the arrival of people [6].    There is also considerable debate and discussion about modern extinction events.  Islands, particularly the Hawaiian islands, are known to be particularly vulnerable due to the lack of predators and the unique and highly speciated ecosystems that develop on them.  However, even in historical times, the number of native species being lost on the Hawaiian Islands is enormous.  Of the 1000 (roughly) native snail types found on the islands in the 1800’s when such things began to be cataloged, the islands may now be down to 75 percent of what it once was, and it is most likely headed downward [7].

Similarly there were about 70 bird species in the islands when Cook visited in 1778, since then 16 have gone extinct, and 24 are listed as endangered.  Looking further back in time, of the 100 or so unique bird species that existed before the arrival of Polynesians, only 9 are in sufficient numbers now to say they will survive [8].  And the Hawaiian Islands are merely a metaphor for what is happening elsewhere. Exact estimates of human-caused extinction difficult because good baseline data on species variety and on what is and isn’t extinct is not available.  But things are not looking good for many species around the world.

There is no need to go into a lot of detail about extinction.  You get the point.  When humans arrive, species start going extinct.

But there are some more subtle points.  First, “modern” peoples are not the only ones to blame for extinction.  In many cases first peoples did enormous damage to the ecosystems they encountered.  What we see today as “untouched” nature may in fact be only a shadow of what it was before we began moving around the world.

This, in turn, means that the current extinctions we see in our ecosystems are part of a larger change in current fauna that is taking place ever since people became mobile hunters.  When we arrive we change the fundamental nature of the ecology, and we import non-native species that eventually end up affecting local ecosystems.  Many of these changes, on a geological scale, are fundamental to the ecosystems and represent the same kind of changes that would occur due to climate change, volcanism, or other natural disruptions.  There may be no going back to a nature anywhere near what it once was.

And it continues: species are going extinct every day.  They may not be large land mammals, but insects, plants, fish, and other small creatures are constantly succumbing to habitat disruption and human imported species [9].  As we need to claim more of the earth to accommodate ourselves, more and more species don’t have the space in which to maintain reproductive populations, much less actually have a chance to survive disruptions on a geologic time scale.  Small populations are simply the walking dead.

The problem with our simple, ethnocentric, perspective is that we don’t see the true magnitude of the problem.  We see that some species are endangered, and we are happy when they are put on a list and they bounce back.  What we don’t see is that even if they bounce back there is insufficient long-term viability in either the ecosystem range available to them or the population for them to survive.  They will likely survive 100 or even 1000 years, but that is merely a blink of an eye in geologic time.  Given population and climate pressures is it likely that your grandchildren will only be able to see large African animals in zoos.  And not long after that, nowhere.

So what is the cause of extinction?  In the geologic past, barring meteors or humans, it has been climate change.  Human induced climate change has been much in the news lately, but it represents only a few degrees of change in global mean temperature over many years, and the changes will not be uniform.  Not everywhere will bake to death, and ecosystems have dealt with such changes in the past.   There will be changes that take place, most worrisome in the oceans, but they may not be as dramatic as other changes.  It is human activity that is responsible for most modern extinctions on land.  Habitat reduction and burning are the two most significant things we can do to kill off species on land.  If the animals don’t have any place to live, or they are actively hunted, then they will die.  Pretty simple.   Introduced species are another problem, but that boat has pretty much sailed.  All we are waiting for is the snakes to arrive in Hawaii to finish all the birds off.  And they’ll get there eventually as long as we keep sailing ships and flying airplanes.

What will kill many of the species in the future is simply bumping into humans, a lot of humans, who need to be fed, housed, and given space to run their All Terrain Vehicles (ATVs).  The current African megafauna will simply be displaced by farming, because an increasing population has to eat somewhere.   If by 2050 China, for example, starts eating as much meat as the United States does now the total number of additional cows (not pounds of meat, but whole cows) will need to increase by about 632 million cows, or 6.5 times the total number of cows in the US right now, in order to supply just the Chinese and the additional US domestic population with 125 kg of meat per person that we eat now.  And that does not include other developing countries, or an increase in waistlines here in the US.  That’s a lot of cows.  Cows that have to be put somewhere (along with their poop).   Those cows will displace existing species at a ferocious rate, unless some sort of “space cow” is developed where meat is grown in vats.

While you could argue that technology, and development, will diminish many of the issues associated with population and economic growth, there is, ultimately, a carrying limit where the only thing happening on the planet is sustainment of humans.  Not to mention the occasional Gulf Oil Spill.  Say we “only” do one of those ever ten years.  What will the oceans look like in 100 years, or 500?  The trends are pretty grim, no matter what Fox News says.

So what can we do about it?  Recycling will not stop ecosystem deforestation in the developing world, or make the Chinese any less hungry for steak.  The forces we are dealing with are large, and strong.  Individual solutions, like you choosing to stop eating meat, while laudatory, are not going to work.  Probably the best we could hope for is to stop current species extinction, and create some steady-state environment where additional destruction and conversion to human resource requirements did not happen.  A steady-state economic model as opposed to a growth model.

Growth, however, is an essential component of the current economic system.  Lack of economic growth seems to send everything spiraling out of whack, probably because we are all constantly demanding increased control over our environment, and individual status.  There are many things that go into a need for economic growth, but luxury, status, and entertainment are key aspects of what we seem to need.  We need to re-think this idea of constant linear progress, trade it in for something more organic, seasonal, and closely tied to the environment.  Sure sounds like trading in the book religions for Paganism [10].

What would living in a world where Paganism was the dominant religion look like?  First, time in human terms would be viewed as a cycle not a line that stretches out to some ultimate paradise.   We celebrate the seasons for a reason: they are what sustains agricultural life.  A life we have gotten away from (farm much?). This lack of linear time would imply that progress was not the only goal, living in time might also be important.  Second, modern Pagans are nothing if not attuned to technology.  And it would be crazy to throw out thousands of years of technological progress.  But technology can be used to increase output, or it can be used to increase flexibility.  It can be used to differentiate, or it can be used to bring people together.  Our choices in technology might be more organic, more attuned to a natural set of priorities associated with health, peace, and the earth.  Third, a focus on the earth and our connection with it might be important.  Modern living with its constant movement requires a lot of infrastructure to sustain.  It is expensive in many ways to move people around, both locally and internationally.  And movement separates us from the land, from our local space which is an essential part of understanding the Gods and Goddesses.

So what would the world look like?  It might be more local, more focused on production of high quality food and goods and less on moving manufactured materials from a distance.  We’d have less, but we’d produce more of what we and our immediate neighbors need.  Technology would enable all of us to entertain all of us.  Instead of a great, centralized entertainment infrastructure, democratic distribution of entertainment production would mean a lot more, but lower quality, entertainment.  At least until people got good at it.  It would mean more farming and less travel.  It would mean distributing the population over a wider area, but in farms and communities that were more integrated with the local ecology.  You’d have more trees, more shade, and more time to interact locally with other people, and with the world through technology.  Species would again localize with less travel, and less travel would mean fewer emissions.

So what might you do now?  Plant a garden.  Open your windows more.  Don’t get in an airplane (lots of resources going out those engines).  Stay, eat, live local.  Buy less stuff, and create through both craft and technology.  Much of this is going on, but its not organized into a coherent movement or theology.  That is where we could help.

At least that’s one world.  Others are possible, but in order to get anywhere we need a Pagan vision for a post-industrial world, and we need to think about whether we need more Pagans.  I’d say we need both.  And soon.

[1] A stage magic technique that uses astute observations about the person and their condition to convince the person (usually “victim”) that the reader knows a lot more about them than they actually do.  If you’re over 55 you’ve probably “lost someone significant to you in the past,” for example.

[2] You’d be surprised.  Don’t want to generate trash?  Don’t buy stuff in the first place.

[3] 5,000-26,000 (estimated range) barrels per day times 87 days (till it was stopped).  But who is counting.

[4] Species.  Not individuals, but species.  And not genera, you could lose several different species but not lose the genus.

[5] I’m drawing directly from the really accessible book by Peter D. Ward:  Rivers in Time:  The Search for Clues to Earth’s Mass Extinctions, Columbia, 2000

[6]  Though the overhunting hypothesis is strongly debated by many, it just seems too coincidental to me to be an accident.  However other factors, such as climate and human set fires may have been a factor in some ecosystems.  For a summary see Timothy F. Flannery.  “Debating Extinction,”  Science, 283:5399, 8 Jan 1999, pp. 182-183.  For a pretty convincing case study see the discussion on the Australian megafauna here:  Gifford H. Miller, et al. “Ecosystem Collapse in Pleistocene Australia and a Human Role in Megafaunal Extinction,” Science, 309:287,  8 Jul 2005, pp. 287-290.   There are other references but the basic idea is that climate change, combined with human hunting, sent many of these species down the extinction tube.  (Note that throughout this I’m simply referencing Science as it was easy for me to access, other journals will have similar stuff).

[7]  The problem with estimating species extinction on isolated islands is made difficult by the fact they are isolated, you can’t count something that you can’t count.  However this was made a bit easier in the case of Hawaiian snails due to a huge mid 1800’s snail shell collecting craze that hit the islands.  Of course that didn’t help the snails very much.  A wildlife management mistake gone awry killed another 25% of the snail species in the 70’s.  And none of this, of course, counts for the damage done by the indigenous peoples who arrived on the islands before 1800.

[8] Ward, pp. 252.

[9]  One estimate (Jennifer B. Hughes, et al. “Population Diversity:  Its Extent and Extinction”, Science, 278, 689, 24 Oct 1997, pp. 689-692) has it at 1800 per HOUR or 16 million populations per year (populations are geographical entities within a species, distinguished either ecologically or genetically, there is an average of 220 populations per species which would give 8 per hour or 73,000 per year species going extinct).  The data is, of course, all over the map and these are controversial estimates.  The authors claim they were being conservative.

[10]  Just to be clear, a lot of the current problem was created by Pagans.  However early Pagans also worked with trophy heads of their enemies and sacrificed live animals.  We evolve.