Sometimes I am perfectly capable of scanning large swathes of bad news with aplomb, keeping my feelings at bay. I know how to brace myself before I open the morning paper, turn on the TV, or scan the news online. OK, world, I’m ready! Bring it on! Give me the latest list of apocalyptic woes! I can take it! I can handle it without blinking an eye!
But then comes a story about one small bird.
Researchers have confirmed the first death from malaria of a loon in New Hampshire. As the global climate heats up, diseases of the south, including malaria, are marching north. Although human beings are not susceptible to avian malaria, this tropical disease could have “devastating impacts” on birds with no natural resistance. To find a bird killed by malaria in the northern reaches of New England is a foreboding discovery. As one researcher observed, “This might be a canary in a coal mine situation.”
The metaphor is apt. In the old days coal miners would bring a caged canary into the mine to provide advance warning if dangerous gases like methane or carbon monoxide were building up. A canary is sensitive. A sickened or dead canary warned miners to take action quickly lest they, too, breathe their last. Today the whole world is in “a coal mine situation,” for extracting dirty fuels like coal, gas, and oil is releasing dangerous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, disrupting the delicate balance of the climate and threatening the web of life.
A loon is our canary today. News that a loon has died from malaria spread by climate change stops me in my tracks, appalled. I love loons. Summer by summer our family spends a week in New Hampshire beside a lake. Loons’ haunting cries erupt in the night, thrilling and wild. During the day we watch for loons as we paddle our canoes, and if we spot one – precious sight! – we pause to let the boat drift so as not to disturb these shy birds. I am not a scientist, and I can’t describe how loons contribute to the intricate balance of life in the lakes and woods of northern New England nor how their loss would affect the ecosystem, but I do know that losing the loons would somehow empty the lake, leave an aching muteness in the air, and tear a hole in my heart.
I weep for loons.
Can we grieve the losses brought about by a changing climate? I raised that question last week with Episcopal clergy from the Diocese of Delaware when we gathered for a three-day retreat in Pennsylvania at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study and contemplation. We talked about how easy it is, in the face of the danger and loss brought on by climate change, to go numb, change the subject, minimize the threat, and find a way to distance and distract ourselves. Most of us don’t challenge outright the science of climate change – we know it’s real, we know that human activities account for most of it, we know it’s already having profound, damaging, and sometimes irreversible effects worldwide. But most of us do engage in a kind of everyday climate denial: we avoid thinking about it. We consider it someone else’s problem. As the Australian ethicist Clive Hamilton points out in Requiem for a Species, we resist the truth about climate change for all kinds of reasons:
“Sometimes facing up to the truth is just too hard. When the facts are distressing it is easier to reframe or ignore them. Around the world only a few have truly faced up to the facts about global warming… It’s the same with our own deaths; we all ‘accept’ that we will die, but it is only when our death is imminent that we confront the true meaning of our mortality.”
When the full truth of the climate crisis finally... (To read the remainder of Margaret's blog and see comments please go to: http://revivingcreation.org/pray-the-bird/)
The Rev. Dr. Margaret Bullitt-Jonas is the non-stipendiary Missioner for Creation Care for both the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts and the Southern New England Conference, United Church of Christ.