Last week a great theological debate broke out in the world's greatest deliberative body. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island rose on the floor of the U.S. Senate to challenge the remark of an unidentified fellow senator, whom, he said, told him that God would not allow humanity to ruin the planet. Putting the responsibility squarely back on us, Whitehouse insisted that if God created the Earth, "We must also believe that God gave us our human powers of intellect and reason. He gives us these powers so that we his children can learn and understand earth's natural laws."
The debate, as it turns out, is more than academic: Someone with godlike powers -- God or otherwise -- is reshaping the planet as we know it. The evidence keeps piling up. Climatologists are now reporting for the first time ever that the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has reached 400 ppm, the highest such concentration in several million years. The last time carbon dioxide levels were that high, the seas ultimately rose 60 to 80 feet higher than they are today.
The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) warned a few days ago that the loss of vital habitats is threatening large numbers of migratory birds with extinction, and as dramatized by a recent National Geographic documentary, we are well on our way to wiping out African elephants. And it is not just elephants that are on the fast track to oblivion. Within the lifetimes of children being born today, humanity may preside over the virtual extinction of lions, tigers, rhinos, polar bears, and countless other mammals. Scientists writing for the journal of Nature Climate Change recently estimated that 57 percent of plants and 34 percent of animal species were likely to lose about half or more of their habitats by the 2080s if nothing more is done to limit greenhouse gas emissions and global warming.
In short, the human juggernaut, now 7.1 billion people strong, is on a roll, and it is destroying or changing much of the world around us. For those who must see it to believe it, Google last week released some jaw-dropping, time-lapsed videos vividly illustrating the impact that climate change and humanity are having on the planet. The satellite images only date back to 1984, but they show just how fast the glaciers are shrinking and urban areas are expanding. To anyone who believes that we have it in our power to destroy much of life as we have known it on this planet, it's an alarming picture of what many scientists are now calling the Anthropocene Epoch, or the Age of Man.
God or nature may have given us "dominion" over "all the earth," including fish, fowl, cattle, and "every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth," but surely neither God nor nature have given us license to extinguish all of the above.
For centuries we have been vigorously exploiting God's creation, now we must become its steward... before it is too late. Over a century ago, when our impact on the planet was a fraction of what it is today, the poet Matthew Arnold wrote, "The will is free, strong is the Soul, and wise, and beautiful; the seeds of godlike power are in us still; Gods are we, Bards, Saints, Heroes, if we will."
When Arnold wrote those words, they were intended to be inspirational. Today, when we reflect on what our "godlike power" is actually doing to the planet, they should inspire caution. For unless we change course, our descendants may see as gods, but they will not see as saints and heroes; they will see as plunderers and wastrels.
Science, technology, and our ever expanding numbers may have endowed us with godlike power, but it's only great to have that power if we exercise it with godlike discretion. So far, not so good.