Monday, January 20, 2014

Ours to take care of

Without apology, I am an evolutionist.  What that means, to be precise, is that I believe based upon the evidence before me that the theory of evolution as an explanation for human origins is essentially correct.  Of course, over time, our knowledge and understanding of the facts of evolution will grow, and that may require some revision to the theory.  But the theory is substantially correct.

But I also believe that our understanding of evolution requires us to make some moral judgments about particular acts.  Stated another way, I tend to view moral questions through the lens of whether particular acts lead to greater or lesser evolutionary success.  For example, consider that murder is against the law--but why? 

Theists tend to believe, of course, that murder should be against the law because their god has decreed it so.  But that leads to some problems.  What about killing in war?  What about self-defense, or defense of others?  We seem to have little difficulty parsing out which kinds of killing ought to be legal and which ought not to be, but the three major theist religions have their differences, and in any event there is a disturbing lack of specificity in the various scriptures that cover such matters.
I take a different view.  Murder should be generally against the law because allowing murder tends to defeat the process of civilization, which has conferred upon humans a great survival advantage.  Human groupings that allow murder without consequence will not long prosper, or even survive, and those who prohibit it are more likely to survive and prosper.  Viewing these things from an evolutionary perspective also allows for reasonable exceptions that promote our survival, including self-defense and some kinds of war.

Viewing moral choices in their evolutionary context can help plug the apparent gap between the scientific approach to life and morality.  (I've never believed that gap actually existed, but religious people in particular seem to believe that it's impossible for atheists to hold a "good" morality.)  But that same approach can help to expose some rather immoral beliefs and conduct on the part of theists--even judged by their own standards.

Against that background, I'd like you to consider the recent comments about global climate change by a semi-celebrity, a theist who is well known in Arkansas but primarily known as a sports commentator.  Earlier this month, most of the U.S. was in the grip of a weather phenomenon whereby the "polar vortex" had strengthened and aligned itself much farther south than it usually does, resulting in bitterly, dangerously cold temperatures.*  The result of this, politically, was that the hard-core right wingers who deny the existence of climate change were using the abnormally cold temperatures to justify those denials.

* - The polar vortex exists all of the time; most of us had never heard of it because it rarely ventures this far south.

From Media Matters:

ESPN announcers Brad Nessler and Jimmy Dykes mainstreamed the right-wing myth that cold weather in January disproves man-made climate change.

During the first half of a January 7 game, Dykes discussed a pattern of cold weather blanketing much of the United States and said he had observed a national television debate earlier over "whether or not global warming was still taking place." While laughing Dykes said, "I listened to about 30 seconds of it, but the guy saying no it has not, I think he won the debate." Nessler laughed in response.
The fact that it is cold in January, even exceptionally cold, does not disprove the existence of anthropogenic climate change.  A cold day is a matter of weather, not climate.

But if we were put a name to the weather-related consequences of anthropogenic climate change, the best name would be "global weirding," a term coined by Hunter Lovins, co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a global sustainability think tank.  Weather and climate are chaotic by definition--the behavior of the climate is nonlinear and exhibits sensitive dependence upon initial conditions.  (Stated another way, small changes lead to large consequences.) 

Because of the global average temperate rise that accompanies it, the introduction of excess greenhouse gases is a small but significant change in the inputs of our climate.  The logical result of that is a change in the equilibrium points of the climate, which may mean melting ice caps and rising seas over time.  But it also means wilder swings in day-to-day weather.  Hurricanes become more intense.  Hot days become hotter.  Tornadoes become more frequent.  Rainy seasons become rainier, and dry seasons become drier. 

More importantly, global warming can produce extremes at the other end of the scale--colder cold days, more snow, thicker ice caps.  The thing that all of this extreme weather has in common is that it differs from what we are accustomed to thinking of as normal.  It's weird.

Back to Jimmy Dykes.  After he exhibited his ignorance on television, the Twitter response called him out.  But Jimmy doubled down, tweeting:

God is in control of our climate. He does not make mistakes. Plus it's 3 degrees where I stand right now : )
Hey, if you want to be an idiot about climate change, that's fine.  I doubt anyone is taking their cues about the subject from some half-wit sports color commentator.  But whether you approach the world from a scientific perspective, as I do, or you prefer the Bible to explain things for you, I think you have to end up in the same position. 

The scientific consensus now is that what we do to the environment matters, not just over the short term, but for the long-term survival of our species.  That part is easy.

But I've read Genesis, too.  I don't know what version Jimmy Dykes reads from, if at all, but Genesis 1:26 (KJV) reads:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
If you believe that the Bible is true, either literally or just generally, doesn't it say pretty much the opposite of what Jimmy Dykes believes?  What does that verse mean, if it does not mean that God gave humans the responsibility to take care of the earth?  Even if you believed we couldn't destroy the earth, wouldn't you want to be a good steward of that which God had entrusted to you?

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