Tag Archives | ecology

The Hidden Life of Trees | Peter Wohlleben

The cover of Wohlleben's The Hidden Life of Trees

In the woods just north of the house I grew up in lived a massive hemlock, about ten feet off the main trail. During winter the snow would pin its lower branches to the ground. If you tucked the collar of your coat up under your toque, you could sneak through the branches without getting too much snow down your back. Once inside those perimeter branches, you entered a different world. The frigid wind and cold was gone and the snow that made walking so difficult was less than an inch thick. Every time I walked that trail in the winter, I made sure to pause underneath that hemlock.

Trees have always fascinated me which is why I was quick to pick up German forester Peter Wohlleben’s book. The Hidden Life of Trees is interesting reading. Did you know that trees can feed nutrients to the stumps of their fallen comrades, keeping the stump alive for centuries? Did you know that trees communicate with each other, warning their neighbours of pests?

Wohlleben convincing demonstrates that trees are far more complex organisms than we have understood. A fully functioning forest—forests that take five centuries to develop—are perfectly balanced examples of biodiversity.

Unfortunately, Wohlleben’s fascinating information and observations about the forests are mixed with overly anthropomorphic ideas. You get the impression that Wohlleben has spent a little too much time in the woods alone! The Hidden Life of Trees walks the fine line between research and romanticisation, falling too often into the latter.

Wohlleben, Peter. The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate; Discoveries from a Secret World. Translated by Jane Billinghurst. Vancouver, BC: Greystone Books, 2015.

Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community | Wendell Berry

The cover of Berry's Sex, Economy, Freedom and CommunityWendell Berry sees the world through a different lens. An accomplished poet, essayist, and novelist, he chose to ignore the lure of literary New York to stay rooted in his Kentucky farm.

Rooted is an important idea for Berry. If more people were rooted in their land, they would want what’s best for it. In our global age we have traded in the local concrete for the global abstraction. As Berry reminds us, “abstraction is the enemy wherever it is found” (23).

Berry’s rootedness extends beyond his physical location. He has developed strong, firm, and often contrarian opinions which he is not ashamed to publish. For example, take his thoughts on economic growth:

Unlimited economic growth implies unlimited consumption, which in turn implies unlimited pride, covetousness, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. (xvii)

Try his views on war:

War is obsolete, in short, because it can no longer produce a net good, even to the winner. (77)

Berry on Christian government:

Jesus would have been horrified by just about every “Christian” government the world has ever seen. He would be horrified by our government and its works, and it would be horrified by him. (115)

In the 8 essays (along with the superb preface, “The Joy of Sales Resistance”) which make up this volume, Berry speaks the truth as clearly as he sees it. You can either disagree with him and offer counter arguments, or agree and examine your own lifestyle. One thing is impossible: when it comes to Berry, you cannot be neutral!

—Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community (New York: Pantheon, 1993).

The Windup Girl | Paolo Bacigalupi

The cover of Bacigalupi's The Windup GirlTime Magazine said it best in their blurb (printed inside the front cover): “Bacigalupi is a worthy successor to William Gibson: this is cyberpunk without computers.”

The Windup Girl is disturbing science fiction precisely because the future it imagines feels so real. From the first pages that describe Anderson’s search for a newly engineered blight-resistant fruit to the depraved handlers of the windup girl herself, everything feels plausible.

When you read about Anderson’s factory (complete with mastodon-like creatures that turn giant posts to generate power), you can almost feel the grit and smell the muggy stench.

This is not escapist fiction—this is fiction with a critical edge. The world has suffered major ecological collapse. Genetically engineered crops from the leading agribusinesses have (ironically) destroyed most of the world’s traditional food sources. (Does Wendell Barry read science fiction?) Racism and nationalism run wild in the collapse of society. Trade leaders become more powerful than politicians. There’s much to digest here.

Bacigalupi’s imagined world will stick in your memory long after the book’s finished. Here’s hoping for a sequel!

—Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl (San Francisco: Night Shade Books, 2009).

The Gospel According to the Earth | Matthew Sleeth

The cover of Sleeth's Gospel According to the EarthA cursory glance around this blog should make it clear that I place a high value on God’s creation. I would struggle to enjoy life without the lakes, rivers, granite outcroppings, and all the rest of the flora and fauna of Ontario.

As a pastor, I’ve struggled to preach on these issues. When I think about Christianity and ecology, I feel challenged on two fronts:

  1. Any talk of environmentalism raises the specter of liberal theology.
  2. I’ve only heard three main Biblical texts used to speak of “natural theology”, and they all come with conservative rejoinders: Genesis 1-3 (“but the world be destroyed anyway”), Psalm 19 (“but the climax of this Psalm is on the written word”) and Romans 1 (“Paul only speaks of the natural world to leave pagans without excuse”).

The Gospel According to the Earth is the book I’ve been wanting to read for a long time. Sleeth speaks about the relationship between the body of Christ and Christ’s greater creation without getting caught up in such limited perspectives. He explores topics you wouldn’t expect—like music, hospitality, and rest—along with the traditional categories.

I do have to note that some of his biblical quotes felt forced. He stretched the interpretation of a few verses to fit his framework. Overall, though, I was amazed at the sheer amount of scripture that speaks to our responsibility toward God’s good creation.

This book is very easy to read and filled with practical ideas at the end of each chapter to put the message into practice. I’d recommend it highly to any Christian seeking to understand their role on our planet.

—Matthew Sleeth, The Gospel According to the Earth (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2010).

Salvation Means Creation Healed | Howard A. Snyder

The cover of Snyder's Salvation Means Creation HealedSnyder has done something remarkable here. He has distilled the entire Bible into four words: Salvation Means Creation Healed. This book unpacks that idea.

For Snyder, our understanding of God’s salvation is far too limited. We understand salvation primarily as the salvation of individual humans, not the complete restoration of creation indicated by Romans 8 and Revelation 21. There are many reasons for our limited view of salvation—Snyder challenges everything from Neo-Platonism to Premillennial Dispensationalism.

The problem of sin is greater than we realized. It doesn’t just effect humanity’s relationship with God—it includes the suffering of all creation. When we focus exclusively on the salvation of human souls while neglecting our ecological responsibility to God’s creation, we’re missing out on part of God’s desire to see his will accomplished “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Snyder’s diagnosis is accurate and his vision of salvation breathtaking in breadth. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that he had to twist scripture that didn’t quite fit in order to cram it into his framework. As ecology begins to trump theology by the end of the book you see quotes like this from Amber Medin:

After my eco-conversion, I found I had added an entirely new dimension to my sacramental living. . . . I am beginning to view myself as part of the created order rather than the pinnacle of it, as a member of a worshipful orchestra rather than the principal soloist. I am learning to worship the Creator, rather than myself, just one of His creations. (205)

On one hand, this quote reflects a biblical truth: humans were created on the sixth day of creation along with all the rest of the animals. On the other hand, we humans have been gifted with the breath of God and installed as his icon-bearers in this world. We are one of His many creations, but we’re never just one them.

Read this book. While it may swing the pendulum a little too far, it’s an important corrective to our creation-denying society.

—Howard A. Snyder with Joel Scandrett, Salvation Means Creation Healed: The Ecology of Sin and Grace (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2011).

A Short History of Progress | Ronald Wright

The cover of A Short History of Progress by Ronald WrightMost of us take civilization for granted—Ronald Wright does not.

For Wright, civilization is a relatively recent experiment with devastating consequences in many of its forms. He centres his talks on four main societies that all self-destructed:

  1. Sumer
  2. Rome
  3. Maya
  4. Easter Island

Societies destroy themselves when they (seemingly inevitably) overuse their environmental assets. The societies which didn’t self-destruct (Egypt and China) only remained viable because of their special-case natural resources. China had an abnormal amount of topsoil which sustained their soil-degrading farming practices, while Egypt had the Nile which brought new resources from the South every season.

This is a stern warning to us since Western society is following all the societies that crashed before it. As the cynical graffiti says, “Each time history repeats itself, the price goes up” (107).

Wright’s argument is solid, although his cavalier throw-away statements towards Judaism and Christianity are irritating. Take this example in his discussion about ancient Sumer (65):

Legends we know from the Hebrew Bible—the Garden of Eden, the Flood—appear in Gilgamesh in earlier forms, along with other tales deemed too racy, perhaps, for inclusion in the Pentateuch.

He’s half right—the Garden of Eden and the Flood do exist in earlier literary form in Gilgamesh. He wildly misunderstands the nature of the Pentateuch, though. Those ancient stories were rewritten as a polemic against the surrounding nation’s polytheistic milieu.

(Also, if Wright thinks Gilgamesh contains stories too racy for the Pentateuch, then he clearly hasn’t read the Pentateuch!)

Despite these minor irritations, A Short History of Progress is a highly readable ecological treatise. It deserves a wide reading today.

—Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress (Toronto, ON: Anansi Press, 2004).

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