I hiked a piece of the AT with my brother. It wasn’t at all like I’d imagined: flat and in the company of humans. The piece closest to his home runs across a valley between the edge ridges of the Appalachian Mountains and the end of the Blue Ridge. There, in central Pennsylvania, the trail makes its way across farms, above marshy lowlands on a wooden walkway, across an interstate highway on the shoulder of 4-lane overpass, and above the Pennsylvania Turnpike on a concrete walkway.
My brother maintains this is the most “honest” section of the AT: it keeps us from romantic ideas of wildness, separated from human life and development. It also reminds him of the footpaths he enjoyed while living in England—public ways maintained by foot, opening up pathways through farmlands and private property. There, as in the other bits of Europe I’ve experienced, nature’s beauty doesn’t depend on our strange American notions of wilderness landscapes requiring the editing out of human interventions. But our wild lands, at least in my imagination, are only truly wild when I can cut development out of the frame.
The hike seemed even more honest, coming the day after he showed me a film he’d planned to use in the classroom, teaching about sustainability in a global context: Manufactured Landscapes. An exploration of Edward Burtinsky’s strikingly beautiful and unsettling photographs of landscapes created by modern human industry. Red rivers of copper mining trailings, monstrous and oddly squared-off canyons carved in granite mines, the endless stretch of a Chinese factory and its masses of their employees, the geometric patterns of masses of e-waste piled in a dump—the images capture an unmistakable beauty in a landscape that embarrasses.
I finished Michael Pollan’s Second Nature on this trip, too, and have been considering my own framework for care for the earth. I like the clarity with which he suggests a way past the dominant message of nature conservation, which seems to believe that a pristine environment, free of the taint of human interaction, could be preserved. (And, hiking through a state park made of second-growth pines replanted after 19th-century cast-iron factories burned the earlier trees to fuel their furnaces, I see a certain short-sightedness and forgetfulness in the idea, too.) A garden, he suggests, might be a better metaphor for nature: a realm to be tended for its beauty as well as its usefulness, and from which to gratefully draw things that will sustain our lives.
In the creation-care class at my church, someone raised the idea of the goodness and beauty of creation, at its beginning—suggesting a call to work at restoring Eden. While I like most things circular (restoration, recreation and renewal, for example), I also want to give resistance to the idea that we need to get back to the good old days, to repair things the way they used to be. I feel God drawing us forward—not to replacing what was, but to reimagining what could be. A spiral, perhaps, demanding our full engagement in cultivating ways to care for each other and the earth.
In Washington, with church folks charged to help implement the social principles we say we stand for as a United Methodist Church, we talked some about the impact of our present environmental crises on the world’s poor—on people already made vulnerable by economic systems that keep them out of power. In the present climate of economic crisis, it’s far too tempting to forget the poor, and just focus on protecting ourselves, or the people we know who are like us. If there are going to be bail-outs, we know we don’t want them to go to AIG executives, but we are skeptical that there will really be enough for everyone, so we’d just as soon protect our pension plans and investments.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve lost sleep over the mess I’m in, having taken out a mortgage I worry about being able to keep up with, on a house now worth half of what I owe. For now, though, I’m trying to remain grateful that I can pay that mortgage, that I have a decent place to live, and some space to grow some of my own food.
I’m glad for this church meeting, for helping lift my gaze beyond my own yard, to reconnect to my belonging in a global body of Christ, unbounded by national borders or economic systems. We advocate for serious climate control legislation, eager to find a way of living on this planet that won’t put us all—and, particularly, the poorest among us—in eminent danger.
Conversation among our politicians seems to have settled on carbon trading as the “feasible” solution for our time. And, yet, it leaves me unsettled: as our international economy proves itself insecure, do we really want to rely on the market to shape our solution to carbon emissions? And, what kind of strange values are embodied in the creation of a market for the trade of the right to destroy our environment in measurable increments?
As the global poor suffer disproportionately the effects of our industry’s carbon emissions, what recourse or remediation to they have in such a market?