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Squirrel gliders are exquisite little creatures. As symbols of our local environment, they can stand for loving the environment. Why wouldn't we want to look after them? Like the locals who do bushcare, they are only good.
But not many of us think that squirrel gliders alone are a reason for paying big environmental taxes such as a carbon tax, and we worry if such taxes might affect jobs.
We need to understand our relationship with the environment in deeper terms than cuddly sugar gliders if we are to make the hard decisions for the future.
The environment is not just soft furry animals, or birds or frogs. We have had lots of chances recently to experience some of the harsh side of the environment.
We had The Storm through our valley in November 2008, destroying trees and houses. It turned our valley into chaos for quite a long time, and cost a lot of money to fix. What was that like for us here?
We had a massive drought, and we had to make drastic changes in how we used water just to eke out the small amount remaining in our dams. We would all have reflected on what would happen if it ran out completely. We saw our gardens die, and we had to stop washing our cars. We learned to live with flushing our toilets a lot less, and using water very frugally.
Then we have had floods, although fortunately few in this valley. But most of us have been directly affected one way or the other by all the rain and flooding over this summer. The grief we have witnessed has touched us all.
Then we saw the earthquakes in Christchurch and Japan on our television, and the tsunami in Japan.
We've seen massive bushfires in Victoria burning hundreds of people to death, and we all know such fires are a reality of the Australian bush.
This is a side of nature that humbles us all. We spent billions on insurance to try to protect ourselves, but the protection will always have its limits. Nature has awesome power.
The environment of the Earth does what it does according to the laws of physics. It doesn't have a heart. We are well-adapted to live in it, but we can equally be destroyed by it. Just like all the plants and animals, we are totally and completely dependent on the natural systems of the Earth for our survival, and when they go into violent change or extremes, we all quail and suffer.
Even the little furry animals like squirrel gliders can let us know about big changes going on in the global environment that are very extreme and alarming. For example, the species of the Earth are right now going through one of the greatest extinction events they have ever experienced. The rate of extinction is racing ahead at breakneck speed. We talk about the end of the age of dinosaurs. We are right now in the middle of the end of the age of a whole lot of species.
When we think of love and care, we mostly think of loving each other, loving our families, of God loving us. We grieve for the loss of a loved person. We forgive someone who has done something wrong to us, or we apologize for doing something wrong to someone else.
We are much less inclined to think about terms like this for the environment, unless we are one of those people who personifies the environment. But you don't have to personify the environment to start taking it very seriously right now.
The Earth is a mass of interconnected systems of air and water currents, evaporation, heat cycles, nutrient flows. When we look at the other planets, we can see how unusual our own planet is in its current stability with such ideal conditions for life. Yet when we look at the history of change on our planet, we can also see that the comfortable environmental niche of temperature and abundance we live in is not unchangeable.
Stability and equilibrium in our planet's environment mean that we can adapt and live in parts of it. There is every indication though, that when the planet's environment changes, it often does so very abruptly. Things like trigger points and feedback cycles come into play.
Our political systems focus heavily on economics for decision-making. They have paid very little attention by comparison to living within our ecological limits. Or even to working out what those limits are.
It is as if we are flying through space on an airplane together that no-one is asking what it needs to keep flying. But no-one would fly a plane that way. There are whole rafts of people whose jobs are highly technical professional roles to do with fail-safe systems for aircraft. Every tiny detail is monitored and managed. This is a risk management approach.
It is time we started taking a risk-management approach to the earth's environment, not only because of the little furry animals, but because all our lives depend on it.
We trust our health to medical scientists. We trust our lives to airline pilots. We need to listen to the scientists who are telling us that what is happening to the earth's environment is a life and death matter for all of us.
We wouldn't want to be on the Titanic without a liferaft, and right now that is what the earth's environment looks like it is heading into.
When we think about the environment, it is also something we have feelings about. For many people nowadays who live in cities and get little opportunity to get out into the bush, the environment might be something that evokes fear, of the unknown, of creepy crawlies, of not knowing how to manage in it. But early humans lived successfully in the wild and went on to populate the whole earth. We are remarkably adapted to be close to the natural world. A camping trip in the bush, a picnic in the local park can refresh our spirits and bring peace and pleasure and lower our blood pressure.
The rapid rate at which species are going extinct or reducing sharply in numbers, the rapid loss of bushland, degradation of soil, these are all things to grieve. If we don't take time to reflect on how precious and important they are both in themselves and to our own happiness and survival, we won't make the effort to save what is left, and we won't stop doing the things that are destroying them.
It's very hard to understand the urgency of the climate change debate unless we understand how completely dependent we are for life on the environment. Not only the air we breathe. We were brought to confront our dependence on water from the rain not only to wash and for hygeine, but to drink, and for the on-going viability of our homes and businesses and jobs. If Brisbane had run out of water, it would have been history. We are equally dependent on our soils, and on the supply of minerals for food and energy. Our oil supply that took millenia to create is now used up to the point that what is left is hard to extract. Our fish supplies are exhausting. The only thing that is growing fast is the number of people on earth.
This is humbling to realise how dependent and limited we are by factors that we ultimately don't control. It is also scary what we are facing, and depressing because it is very hard to work out anything that can be done about it effectively, and the costs will be huge at the very least, even if they don't work. We are going to have to change and adapt, and if we are to have a chance of surviving, we are going to have to become very responsive to the limits of what our environment can provide, probably only very locally.
One response to the environment is to pray. When there is a drought, our leaders gathered together and prayed for rain. We pray for the people hurt by huge catastrophes such as the tsunami, earthquakes, the flash floods in Toowoomba. It evokes our compassion to help in whatever ways we can. We don't change the environmental effects that way, but we do change our hearts, and that is one of the things that will be most important.
Maybe we will be able to stop the damage we are doing to the climate. Maybe it is too late. There is still a moral question. If we understand that what we have been doing, in innocence, has turned out to have such destructive consequences, how can we in conscience not attempt to stop? How we do that is a journey for each of us individually, and all of us collectively as a community. And we will need our communities, our churches, our families, each other to compassionately and supportively look after each other through the changes ahead.