The Canary in the Gulf of Mexico

China Recycling


At the moment the world is fixated on the video-cam of oil spewing up out of the earth to defile the Gulf of Mexico. Everyone is hoping and praying that a technical solution will be found to stabilize this environmental holocaust. Should this occur in the near future, we will breathe a collective sigh of relief. Inevitably there will be resolutions to tighten up oil drilling safety standards and improve emergency response strategies, but perhaps the greater tragedy will be if in a few weeks or months we resume our same dangerous and unsustainable way of life. If this disaster proves to be of sufficient magnitude that it will not be possible thereafter to revert to business as usual, the tragedy itself may end up a “severe mercy.” We may look back on it as the moment when “the canary died in the coal mine.” It may be our chance to break out of something that is otherwise going to kill us all.


The disaster in the Gulf is more than a freakish instance of bad luck. It is an arresting illustration of a larger, quiet genocide. As I write I am in Beijing, where very early every morning the sound of jackhammers wakens me. New skyscrapers push upward daily, their tops quickly obscured by the hanging pollution. I walk along the banks of a canal once famous for its beauty and clear water. On one side of the waterway is a landscaped park. On the other side is a mega-city skyline. A bilingual plaque touts the park as a marvelous illustration of harmony between urban development and preserved natural beauty. What the plaque does not mention is that the stench from the septic canal is so strong that I can only breath through my mouth to avoid nausea. The rhetoric is impressive, but it is false.


Which of the world’s religions is going to step up and address this global crisis? So far they have been virtually useless. The Christian faith has so many rich resources and perspectives to draw on in the cause of creation care, but sadly Christians continue to be among the worst abusers of the environment. Why is this? The late philosopher of culture Francis Schaeffer saw this coming. He detected some decades ago the real supreme deities of modern cultures and their citizens: personal peace and affluence. Everything else, even a viable future for the next generation, takes a second place to that. Think about this next time you hear a politician explain that they are very committed to environmental initiatives, as long as they do not negatively impact the economy.


Presently it seems impossible to differentiate between the environmental behavior of Christians and the practices of the host societies in which we are so uncritically enmeshed. If Christianity is going to be a global force for responsible environmental stewardship, it will require a fresh wave of spiritual renewal—one that will bring to life an army of hearts that beat in sync with the heart of the Creator God. Otherwise more than a canary is going to die. As Edward O. Wilson, a prominent biologist at Harvard University, has recently observed, it is becoming increasingly clear that “our supposed conquest of nature is, in the end, nature’s conquest of humanity.”


One Response to The Canary in the Gulf of Mexico

  1. John Mustol June 10, 2010 at 12:02 pm #

    I think that Glen is correct in pointing to the deeper implications of the Gulf Oil Spill – what is being called the worst ecological disaster in U.S. history. The ultimate impact of the spill on the ecosystem is unclear. If we have learned anything from our abuse of God’s creation, it is that it can withstand a lot of trauma and still survive. But as both Glen and Jim Wallace of Sojourners have suggested, this disaster could be a “teachable moment,” a moment of reflection, confession, and repentance, not only for our nation, but also for the Church of Jesus Christ (, accessed 6/5/10).

    The expected accusations are being made against British Petroleum – negligence, cover-up, greed, and so on. Perhaps BP made errors. It is a human organization, and humans make mistakes. I was a surgeon for 25 years, and I struggled mightily for perfection every day. Despite my exhausting efforts, perfection eluded me. I could never completely eliminate misjudgments, errors, imperfections, and complications – and I knew of no surgeon who could. It seems that uncertainty, error, and risk are woven into the fabric of earthly life. (See Atul Gawande, Complications: A Surgeon’s Notes on an Imperfect Science. New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2002.) Drilling for oil at 5000 feet depth, 18,000 feet below the sea floor is risky no matter how perfect you try to be or how powerful you think you are. If you do this kind of thing enough, a complication will occur – and it did.

    But, as Glen and Jim Wallis have suggested, it is our voracious appetite for oil that motivates oil companies to engage in this technically challenging, complex, and high risk enterprise of deep water off-shore drilling. Oil companies are racing to go farther, deeper, and riskier to get the oil and gas required to keep us in the life to which we have become accustomed. Clearly, if we continue on our current course, we will stop at nothing to extract every last drop of oil, gas, coal, metal, food, and every other resource (renewable or nonrenewable) we can squeeze from God’s good earth in order to support our “need” for luxury, entertainment, safety, comfort, mobility, and power.

    Since the nineteenth century, widely available, cheap petroleum products and fossil fuels have become woven into the very “fabric of our existence.” They form the foundation of modern material life. They power our cars and fuel our jet planes that carry us to and fro across God’s earth. They power the trucks, planes, and trains that bring us food, fashions, and all manner of “stuff.” They supply the plastics and polymers that make up our toys, machines, computers, gadgets – and the list goes on.

    So if Glen is correct that this is “our chance to break out of something that is otherwise going to kill us all,” then we will have to identify what that “something” is. If we are going to call into question our use of petroleum, then we will have to ask some difficult questions about the “fabric of our existence” and our way of life. The changes required would mean fundamental paradigm shifts in how we understand ourselves, our values and goods – what it means to live a meaningful and creative life. And then we would have to do what is much harder – we would have to change our behavior – not on the basis of economics or necessity (at least not yet), but on the basis of our theology – what we claim to believe about God, people, and the world.

    It is here, it seems to me, that Jesus comes in – Jesus, the great questioner – the one who challenges the basic “fabric of existence” for all humans in all times and places. He said: “Do not store up treasures on earth . . . but store up treasures in heaven” (Mt. 6:19-21); “You cannot serve both God and money” (Mt 6:24); “What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight” (Lk. 16:15); “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. . .” (Mk. 8:34); and on and on. Jesus didn’t say anything about oil spills, but he said a lot about the human values and spirituality that lead to overzealous exploitation and abuse of God’s earth, including high-risk oil drilling and its complications. Jesus’ incarnation, life, instruction, sacrifice, and resurrection are prophetic testimonies against us and our misuse and abuse of his creation (Jn 1:2).

    As Glen points out, despite a lot of trying by small minorities within them, none of the world’s religions have had much to offer regarding the ecological problems of our day. The general ethical behavior of Christians, including our ecological ethics, is not very different. We live pretty much like everyone else lives. We value the same things and seek the same goals – safety, comfort, mobility, limitlessness, wealth, and power. But Jesus and his gospel and his Scriptures present us with wondrous and transformative resources whereby we, the Church of Jesus Christ, could lead the world toward ecological responsibility and care – or at least offer a prophetic example in the way of Jesus of what that looks like. Of all the world’s religions, Christianity offers the best spiritual and moral resources for dealing with our ecological difficulties.

    But this is problematic for the following reason. It requires sacrifice. We have to actually give up things; we have to materially change in a way that is perceived by the world as a loss, although from a gospel perspective, it is great gain. We have to take that step of faith and actually do it. Jesus clearly calls us to sacrificial love and living. He calls into question the greed, selfishness, and pursuit of wealth, safety, comfort, and power that underlie our ecological difficulties. But Christian Bible scholars, preachers, and exegetes have spent centuries trying to explain how Jesus could not possibly have meant what he said, and it is far easier for us Christians to conform to this world than to be transformed (Ro. 12:1-2).

    Despite its magnitude, I don’t think the Gulf Oil Spill will be the “crisis” that will lead Christians to the prayer, reflection, repentance, and deeper engagement with Jesus Christ that are required in order for the Church to begin moving toward truly “Christian” care of God’s creation and ecological living. For most of us, the Gulf Oil Spill is little more than an interesting saga being played out on our TVs and computer screens. (We only hope it won’t make the price of gas go up.) As Glen has pointed out, Christian religiosity, like the religiosity he has observed in China, is about God helping us to get the things we want (see Please help me!, We will not change our ecological attitudes and behavior until something impacts us in a personal and immediate way. Then, perhaps, Christians (and everyone else) will begin to effect the paradigm shifts in values and lifestyles that are required to produce “an army of hearts that beat in sync with the heart of the Creator God.” As we have always done, we Christians will follow culture, not lead it. Until then, we can pray and hope. This is God’s earth, filled with his creatures; he cares, even if we don’t. God wants us and all his creation to have a good and abundant life, even though our understanding of “good” and “abundant” is distorted. In the end, our hope is not in corporations, politicians, people, pastors, or the church, but in God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever, amen” (Rom 11:36).