I think some local history in Centre County can be illustrative of the climate change dilemma.
As I understand it, in the early 1970s, Sayers Dam was built to protect Lock Haven from flooding, because Lock Haven didn’t want to build dikes. The problem was that the lake the dam created took about half of the town of Howard, and a lot of surrounding farms. Graves in cemeteries had to be dug up and moved. Some homes were moved, most were condemned with the owners receiving pennies on the dollar. Many had to leave farms that had been in their families for generations.
Prior to the dam being built, the residents of Howard complained, wrote letters, many even went to Washington D.C., but no one listened. The dam was built anyway.
Within only a couple years of the dam’s completion, Hurricane Agnes came through and the flood waters not only cut off the remaining town of Howard for several days, but Lock Haven flooded yet again.
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And so then the dikes were built in Lock Haven — which should have been built in the first place.
And today Howard has a beautiful lake and state park, with camping, a beach and many hiking trails. Most of the residents have come to enjoy the lake and state park, letting go of the anger at the past.
But many had to leave the town their families had lived in for generations. And those farmlands and family homes are gone forever, due to shortsighted decision-making.
Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change, “Laudato Si,” goes far beyond the topic of climate change. It talks about our relationships with God, with our neighbors — pretty standard Christian topics — but also adds our relationship with the earth itself.
Francis goes further to talk about how in the past the Genesis creation story has been read in a way that emphasizes human domination of the natural world. Sadly, all too often this teaching was used to justify the unbridled exploitation of natural resources, with short-sighted decisions — such as the Sayers Dam.
Francis instead calls for a reading of the Genesis creation story that emphasizes human stewardship of the natural world. Not only does the natural world have value in of itself as a creation of God, that reflects the beauty and wonder of God, but we must also recognize that our quality of life — and of our children and children’s children — can also be effected by our decisions today.
All in all, Francis calls for an attitude of humility — for us to look beyond ourselves for the consequences of our actions. For us to be deliberate in our decision making, weighing the benefits and impacts, both the obvious and the hidden. For us to recognize what might be good for us, here, today, might not be good for others far removed from us, whether by distance or time.
Francis wants us recognize that much of our world is connected today. He calls for an “integral ecology” of healthy balance that weighs the needs for resources for economic growth today but also the long-term needs of the future. He wants us to weigh the needs of the whole society, not just those with power and a say, but also those without power and without a say — and not just because all of humanity is a creation of God, but also because future societies will be healthier and more productive if the needs of the voiceless are met too.
We are at a crossroads today. Our world is connected more so today than at any other time in history. Our decisions have enormous potential to create either harm or good. Shortsighted decisions, that don’t weigh the potential long-term consequences, could wreck devastation in many places of the world we hear little about. And we won’t hear, until the situations have grown catastrophic — with those with the least say and voice, bearing the most burden.
I would say you could ask the people in Howard displaced by the dam, what that feels like.
But that’s hard to do. Because so many of them are gone.
Craig Rose is the pastor at Howard United Methodist Church.