Save the Planet! O.K. How Long?

I am not the first person to wince at “Save the Planet!” bumper stickers  I know there is a context that needs to be taken into account, but sometimes you can get a fresh look at an issue by refusing to place the message in that context, so today I am going to begin with just the words and see where it takes me.

save the planet 2First, the planet is not going to be saved.  It is not.  In the two scenarios I have heard, we either crash into the sun and are obliterated or we cool to the point that, although the planet still exits, there is no life on it at all.  To the best of our knowledge, one or the other of those is going to happen and I would not want to refer to either of them as “saving the planet.”  That brings us to a bumper sticker that would read, “Extend the time of human inhabitation on the Planet!”[1]

When we begin with the notion of “saving the planet,” we skip by two questions I would like to put before you today.  The first is, “Save it for what?”  The second is, “How long does it need to be saved?”  You can tell right away that these are not scientific questions.  I am a fan of the scientific accounts of how there came to be matter and suns and elements and planets and life and vertebrates.  But to say, within the context of scientific discourse that the earth is “for something” is to commit the teleological fallacy, and eliminating that particular fallacy was the work of many centuries and I am the beneficiary of that work just as much as you are.[2]

I think the  “What is it for” question is the harder one.  The idea that this planet we live on is “for something” is daunting, just to start with.  But if  it is for something, then we need to ask what it is for.  Science, by the way, doesn’t help us with this.  On the other hand, the “last long enough” question requires an answer to “last long enough for what?” and that gets us where science can’t go.  For me, it’s a theological question.  If anyone is going to have “intentions” for the solar system, it’s going to have to be God.[3]  There is a paucity of candidates.  If we know what God had in mind for this planet—not what is going to happen to it (we already know that), but what is going to happen on it while we are still on it, then we would be in a position to ask the “long enough question.”

save the planet 4So we need an analogy; something to help us work this through.  I offer a Broadway play.  The planet is the set.  There is a drama going on—variously understood, of course—which requires this set.  Say it has something to do with toxic ground water and in the crucial scene, the homeowner turns on the tap and tosses a match into the sink.  The sink bursts into flame and the rest of the play is a response to that demonstration.  To do this play, you need that set.

Now.  Let’s imagine a bumper sticker that says, “Save the set!”  People are going to look at that sticker and scratch their heads in puzzlement.  The play is having a long and successful run.  The set is necessary for the play.  Why would anyone think the set is in danger and if no one thought that, why would this sticker be displayed?[4]

The puzzlement would come from the fact that everyone knows the play is still being performed and that the set is necessary for the performance.  I postulate the same relationship between our planet and God’s intentions.  God is the Playwright in this metaphor.  He is telling a story.  We are the actors—or at least we are some of the actors—and the planet is the set.  Speaking on behalf of the Playwright, I say that the set needs to last as long as it takes to tell the story.

Here is how far we have gotten.  Question 1: What is earth for?  Answer: It is the set that is required for the Grand Narrative, the “play” God is producing and that we are performing.  Question 2: How long does this set need to be saved?  Answer: As long as is needed to finish the play.

Let’s pause briefly to note how unsatisfying this is. If we have responsibility to keep the set in good—good enough—order until it is no longer needed, we will want urgently to know how long that is.  If we knew what the story was going to require of the set—we don’t—we might have an idea how long it is going to take and…we don’t.

save the planet 5But, frankly, our situation isn’t all that unusual.  Let’s take Bertuccio, the servant of the Count of Monte Cristo.  The Count tells him to buy a bunch of horses and a bunch of stables—just a certain distance apart—so they the Count can go from one place to another faster than anyone could have imagined.  Bertuccio does not say, “How long do you want me to keep this arrangement in place” and here’s why he doesn’t.  He knows he will get one of two answers.  The first is: until I tell you I don’t need them anymore.  The second is: because that’s your job.  I added the comic book cover because that is the way I first learned the story.

Neither of those answers changed Bertuccio’s grasp of his situation in the least.  He has assets to maintain—a set—and he has the resources, both the money and the authority, to maintain them in good condition or, at least, in “good enough” condition.  If the set we built for the play about toxic water is used every day, it is going to begin to show marks of wear.  That’s fine.  On the other hand, the day the flames stop shooting out of the sink, the story begins to die.

As stewards, then we can take on the task of taking care of the set until God’s need of it has ended.

Nevertheless, I am going to postulate that God has some purpose for us, humankind, and that the earth is the place this purpose will either be fulfilled or will fail utterly.  That is what the earth is for.  It is the place where God’s purpose for us it to be fulfilled.  It is, in that sense, like a set for a play on Broadway.  No one asks what the set is for apart from the play that requires it.  The play is important and the set is there so the play can be performed.

Now, having answered nothing yet, we can proceed to the second question, which is, “How long does it need to be saved?”  The answer is obvious in a way; it needs to be saved long enough to serve as the setting for the story to be told completely.

save the planet 3I don’t know how long that is but I would like you to notice that all this fumbling around has moved us to a place from which “how long” could actually mean something.   Neither of the first two images—a fiery nuclear death in the sun or a cold entropic death in space—had any place to put that question.

Here’s an analogy that might help.  A few years ago, I set about exploring the notion of redemption provided for Israelites under the Law.  An Israelite who was a slave was someone who needed to be redeemed.  We may set aside, here, any questions about whether he wanted to be redeemed or whether, after being redeemed, he would return to slavery.  And we may set these aside because the reason for redeeming him doesn’t have anything to do with him at all.  Being an Israelite, he belongs to God.  That means that it is unacceptable for him to be owned by someone else and because of that logic, a kinsman must pay the owner enough to redeem—to buy back his freedom—the slave.  Notice that nothing in this transaction is about the slave.  It is about God’s true ownership of these people; about a social relationship that violates that ownership; and about the consequent duty of the kinsman to restore things to their rightful place.

In a similar way, I want to introduce the notion that the story God is telling—the one that requires a habitable planet as a prop—is really not about us.  In the redemption analogy, the Israelite was to be “restored” to God because he “belonged” to God.  We don’t ask what the Israelite was “for.”  The covenant God made with Israel spells out what that particular Israelite—any Israelite—was for.  The stage set analogy isn’t like that.  The stage isn’t “for” something –having inherent worth—the way the Israelite was.  The stage is there for the play.  It doesn’t have any meaning apart from the play.  It doesn’t have any worth apart from the play.  Contrary to the “Save the Planet!” notion, the set does not have to be saved because of its inherent worth, but because the story requires it.

On the other hand, God has also given us the charge of taking care of the planet.  We are tosave the planet 6 be “stewards” of the earth.  In this new way of looking at the matter, however, our charge is related to the narrative.  We have a complicated relationship with the earth, it is true.  It nourishes us, so it would be only prudent to manage it sustainably.  That gets us as far as my “Extend the time of human habitation on the planet!” bumper sticker, but it does not get us any further.

You can look at population demographics and environmental constraints and say that using currently available techniques, we can support so many billions of people with so many calories per day per person.  This is, in a manner of speaking, a way of “taking care of the planet,” but this is no more than maintaining a set in such a way that the play can continue to be performed.

In the dramatic performance metaphor, taking care of the planet means keeping it fit to serve as a setting for the story God is telling.  This clarifies what “not taking care of the planet” might mean.  If we pollute the planet beyond a certain level or reduce the protection our atmosphere gives us beyond a certain level or unleash nuclear catastrophe, we have not taken care of the planet.  But that’s still about us and the earth is for the story, not for us.  It is for the storyteller’s use, not for us.

The play was not written as a device for employing set builders and stage hands.  It was built so a story could be told.  There is a lot of disagreement about what “the story” is, but I think we have taken a step in the right direction by insisting that the story is more important than the set.



[1] That’s the way it always goes with my bumper stickers: too big for the size currently in fashion among bumper makers.
[2] Darwin, especially, had to fight off the idea that species were being “pulled” to some , some “appropriate end point.”  He argued that evolution was all “push” and that there wasn’t a natural end state.
[3] Or “the gods,” or “the goddesses,” etc.  Some “divine” being who is imagined to be capable of having intentions.  That’s why “fate” or “destiny” don’t work.  I’m working within the Christian tradition, myself, so I am not trying to find an approach that is broadly applicable.  I am only trying to work out the implications for those of us who accept the presuppositions of the Christian position.
[4] After the play closes, it might turn out that some people have a strong attachment to it and want to preserve it as an artifact.  If there are other people who want to tear it down and build another set with the materials—THEN you could imagine a bumper sticker war.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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