Sensible Ecology

September 16, 2018

Genesis 1:26-29; Matt. 6:25-33


(Slide 1- Black) In the opening scene of the Graduate, young Benjamin has just graduated from U Cal Berkeley. He is wending his way through a cocktail party at his parent’s house, full of executives from the Mad men generation, drinking Martini’s. (Slide 2) One of his father’s friends pulls him aside and says “I just have one word to say to you.”

“What’s that?” Benjamin says.

The guys whispers “Plastics”.

Benjamin says “Plastics?”

“Plastics” the guy says

Benjamin wanders off saying to himself “Plastics”

The scene became a symbol of the entire generation of young Americans that weren’t quite sure they wanted to become part of their parent’s plastic lives.

But, man was that guy right about the proliferation of plastic. Who would of thunk?

Last year alone, we dumped about 8 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean. (slide 3) It is hard to actually envision just how much plastic this actually is.

But there are 5 massive patches of plastic around the world (slide 4), pretty far out in the ocean where people don’t usually go. But one of them is the size of Texas.

To give you some idea of the scope of this problem, we estimate today that by the year 2050 there will be more pounds of plastic in the ocean that there will be pounds of fish. That is a lot of plastic.

You may not realize just how destructive it is to the marine life in the ocean but it is. Birds and fish cannot tell the difference between brightly colored items that are food and brightly colored pieces of plastic, so many species of birds and fish will eat plastic regularly (slide 5).

It fills their stomachs up, but plastic is not digestible, so after a while their stomach fills up and they can’t actually eat anymore because their stomach is full of non-digestible debris and they starve to death.

It is pretty gross. But this is what we are actually doing to the shore birds… as it turns out almost every bird on the ocean… (slide 6)

Most of us don’t think about this but plastic is now in our food chain (slide 7). If the fish eat it and we eat the fish, then we ingest trace amounts of plastic that cannot be good for us. We have warnings about avoiding microwaving plastic, the speculation being that trace amounts may actually be carcinogenic.

I would have to imagine that something similar would be true here. When you listen the experts on cancer research, speaking about the origins of the rise in the incidence of cancer in the last hundred years, they usually conclude by saying something about ‘environmental factor’s’. These are inadvertent by-products of our cumulative way of living that have toxic consequences even though we have not yet been able to directly identify cause and effect.

But we are eating our own discarded plastic and suffering consequences and we don’t even really think about this. As my uncle would say to me when I was a child, ‘that is just stupid’. Well, yes, it is.

What are you going to do about it? There is not one answer. But rather a variety of creative new ways of thinking that together can detoxify our world.

Our scripture in Genesis this morning says that we are to be stewards (slide 8) of the oceans, stewards of the animals on the land, stewards of the fishes of the sea. We are called to cultivate the natural order so that it becomes a living garden that can sustain us, indeed heal others.

And Jesus’ reference in our gospel passage indicates that God sees the natural order as intrinsically worthwhile

I learned last summer that Europeans are ahead of us on this front. They don’t routinely hand out plastic bags. You are expected to bring your tote bag to the grocery store for regular shopping.

Soon, someone will likely start to address the way we package things. I’m incredulous at just how much packaging has multiplied. We are victims of our own success. Nothing breaks on delivery anymore. (slide 9)

But it is so well designed sometimes I will spend 10 minutes getting my product out of the plastic package. And there is so much of it now. Apparently, we just kept tossing it overboard on our Container ships and our Cruise ships for long enough that we have trashed the Garden of Eden without this being an issue that is brought to our minds as a society.

It is disturbing to see, particularly around the coral reefs (slide 10). We don’t yet understand why but when plastic comes into contact with coral reefs, the coral reefs chances of becoming sick and dying rise almost 100%.

Knowing that makes it even more difficult to see plastic pollution around the reefs. Like a morality play, in this case, it took a child to see what we adults were willing to look past for a generation.

Boyan Slat was 16 when he was on vacation in Greece, snorkeling and scuba diving. I’m sure he had the same eye popping, mind-opening experience on the reef that I had when I first put my dive mask in the water in Ras Muhammed on the Red Sea in Egypt in college. (slide 11)

It is a portal into a whole other world that is more magical and awe inspiring than any Disney animation film. As many of you know, it is a spiritual experience where you encounter the wonder of the natural order with all your senses. Overpowering and reorienting.

And he was distressed with all of the plastic grocery shopping bags that were floating in the water (slide 12). His dive partner commented on how many jelly fish there were in the water. But they weren’t jelly fish. They were plastic bags.

He’d seen the same thing in the far east and he realized that this would be one of the major issues of his generation. And he decided he was going to do something about it. Boyan was about to start his studies in engineering at college.

So, he started experimenting with ways to solve this problem using the work of Oceanographers to understand how the currents work in the oceans. He figured out that you could catch a large part of the debris if you just concentrate on putting booms in 5 different centers or gyres in the ocean.

Like a good graduate student, he started coming up with some different theoretical designs. (slide 13)

And then this story takes a decidedly modern turn. He manages to get enough interest in his idea that he is asked to give a TED talk. (Slide 14) His idea is simple enough, position these booms in the ocean that will catch over 90% of the debris theoretically.

Two things happen. One is that he gets the attention of several of the Silicon Valley Tech moguls like Peter Thiel who are very taken by simple, scalable technological solutions that can make a big social impact.

The other is that lots of journalists looking for an interesting story pick up his TED talk and broadcast his ideas literally around the world, attracting the attention of more and more moguls that are taken by simple, scalable technological solutions that make a big social impact.

So he decides to do what all young entrepeneurs decide to do and raise money to take his idea to the next level. He puts up a website that describes the idea. And he crowds funds something like 65 million dollars for his pilot project.

So he does what all of us would love to do, he drops out of college and goes to work on his pet project, one of the key ways that our psychology departments have discovered that will bring you true and lasting fulfillment, working on your project, deploying your competencies, and regularly getting positive feedback for doing what you do because you do it well.

Of course, with 65 million dollars, you can also surround yourself with a large team of world level experts that can help you perfect the design and attain the same results more efficiently than you could have imagined. (slide 15)

In this case, he thought he would have to attach these booms to the ocean floor but the experts realized you didn’t have to do that. (slide 16) If you just drop weights down far enough, currents that are lower in the ocean move less rapidly than currents on the surface, so you can create enough drag on the booms that they will catch stuff on the surface of the ocean. And this allows the booms to be free floating which is better, cheaper, and easier to deploy- meaning it is scalable, much better for startup ideas with limited capital for investment.

And then they investigated the cost of collecting the plastic from the booms with a large scow and they figured out that this should actually be profitable, so this enterprise is fiscally sustainable into the future.

Just this month. (slide 17) Actually a week ago, the very first boom set sail from San Francisco out to middle of the Pacific to be deployed for the first time.

I love the creative thinking. I want to lift this story up for that reason alone. But it is really an example of a fundamental spiritual insight that Martin Luther developed when he started the Reformation. For 1300 years before Luther, the Church taught us that there were two different levels of holiness, that for the laity, normal regular family people. And then there were the real spiritual athletes, the people who took vows of poverty, chastity, and fidelity and entered the monastery. Without the distractions of the secular world, monks and nuns in the monastery, could focus on the advanced spiritual disciplines and become really, really holy.

Only monasteries then, like monasteries today, are not really free from the ordinary challenges of power and temptation as we have been so vividly reminded lately with the report on sexual abuses from men in Holy Orders described by the Attorney General’s report from Pennsylvania.

Luther didn’t do to well at the Monastery himself. And he concluded that this whole dichotomy, this whole view of how we become more holy, needs to be re-imagined. Luther said we shouldn’t shun the world like it was some evil place to flee in order to become more virtuous. Actually, we should embrace the world and work out our salvation in the social order in which we find ourselves.

He said that we Christians build the Kingdom of God when we fulfill our vocations in the world and we make the world around us a better place. He also taught that all work has dignity. Our world gets better and our character develops integrity when teachers become the best teachers they can become, when carpenters build the most beautiful, well-made houses that they can, when Bankers actually develop the wisest, most efficient access to capital and deploy it towards productive projects.

It is rough and tumble, full of compromise and difficult decisions. It is messy but this is where and how we actually work out our salvation, not apart from the world, but precisely in it. It is an earthy holiness but it makes a difference and leaves our part of the world better for us having picked it up and organized it a bit better.

This simple spiritual teaching started the West in a completely different direction, the direction towards improving the world around us. It later became known as the Protestant Work Ethic and it was enormously instrumental in improving the world around us for the better.

I’m so glad that young Boyan Slat found such an enormous positive response to his simple, creative idea. But the point is not the size of his success.

I’m willing to bet that you have a pretty good idea of what is broken around you. What are the generational challenges that you can see in your work world? What is it that you can do- you yourself- that can start to address to make the part of the world that you interact with a better place? What challenges your imagination and inspires you?

You are an expert in your area? What would your vocational area look like if it actually worked the way it was supposed to. (Slide 18)

The bible calls us to be stewards of the earth. We in the spiritual business of cultivating a garden out of a patch filled with weeds that are choking beautiful fruit trees. We are called to make our patch of the world a better place by pruning, tending, socially reforming what is wrong with the world around us.

You have such promise. And in our world, some of you will find your creativity wildly rewarded because of the inner-connectedness of our wide planet through social media.

May you become like Boyan. May you be blessed to solve something worthwhile and leave your quadrant of the world a better place for having lived. You might just stumble on deeper spiritual way to live authentic, fulfilling meaning in your life. Amen.

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