A Solstice Sermon

Today is – at least to my northern hemisphere readers – the winter solstice, shortest day of the year. For three months now, we’ve seen the sun set and the night fall progressively earlier each day. But this date marks the terminus of that trend, and though the heart of winter still lies ahead, from now on the days will start to grow longer again.

The solstice has always been a date invested with great importance. In the bitter depths of winter, our ancestors surrounded themselves with all the plants they could find that stayed green and grew – conifers, mistletoe, holly – perhaps as a form of sympathetic magic intended to speed the return of spring, or perhaps simply to draw comfort from the presence of life around them when so much else was barren and dead. On this day, those defiant celebrations came to their high point. The ceremonial kindling of flame; the feasts and the good cheer; the companionship and gift-giving – all are meant to remind us that the dark and the cold do not have exclusive power over our lives, and that the spring will come again.

As we can imagine, our ancestors were utterly dependent on the cycle of the seasons, and it’s no surprise that they imbued this date with vast symbolic significance. Mythologies and traditions clustered around this date, and the calendar soon became cluttered with the dying and rising gods of the harvest. At first these religions were living metaphors, reflecting humanity’s rudimentary understanding of the annual pattern of plant death and rebirth. But as time went by, the symbol gradually took precedence until it superseded the reality, to the point that many people today are ignorant of the harvest metaphor and think that the mythology is all. Yet even today, when so many of us are divorced from the land, we still feel nature’s rhythms. We too feel the sinking of the sun in our veins, and we too kindle lights in anticipation of the sun’s annual return. Not for nothing is the humanist reinvention of these ancient agricultural holidays named HumanLight.

As I say, humanity was once at the mercy of the seasons. Indeed, to a much greater extent than most people realize, that is still very much the case. We depend on the natural world for a huge variety of vital services – fresh air and water, fertile soil, natural waste disposal and remediation, the fertilization of our crops, buffering against storm and drought, ore and timber and fuel, new pharmaceuticals and other products – services that would cost us trillions of dollars if we had to supply them ourselves. The critical drought facing Georgia reminds us that, despite the emancipation of science and technology, our well-being is still very much tied to the ebb and flow of nature.

However, the balance of power is no longer tilted completely to one end. As the natural world influences us, so too do we influence it – and often, not for the better. Rather than treating natural capital as something valuable in its own right, both economically and for less tangible reasons, humanity for most of its history has taken the view that the world is valueless until we harvest and exploit it. And now that humanity is a planetary civilization, that outlook necessarily has planetary repercussions.

The most serious of those repercussions that we are now confronting is the threat of climate change, caused by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels which every year sends billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. After many decades of unwise use, we are now facing the real prospect of permanently altering climate patterns worldwide, with drastic consequences both for thousands of other species and for tens of millions of members of the human species. We’re gambling recklessly with our own future, and though it’s not too late to turn things around and avert the worst possible effects, the time to act is short, and the changes we must still make are vast.

It may help to put our struggle in perspective if we realize that climate change is the defining issue of our time. In two hundred years, or five hundred years, or a thousand years, conflicts like the “war on terrorism” will be historical footnotes however they turn out. But people may be living for tens of thousands of years with the repercussions of what we do to our planet here and now, in this generation. For better or for worse, we will be remembered.

Thankfully, there are signs that the global community has at last woken up to the impact of climate change, and is taking steps – frustratingly slow, but still promising – steps to solve the problem. The recently concluded 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia, successor to the Kyoto Protocol, seems to have been a qualified success, with many nations agreeing to take concrete steps toward reducing their emissions – despite opposition by the U.S. that weakened the language of the final agreement. (I’m ashamed that my country, out of all the nations in the world, was the roadblock to solving this serious global challenge. We still have far too many anti-science ideologues polluting our government.) This is a problem that can only be confronted and solved collectively, and much work remains to be done.

Nevertheless, on this solstice season, we have seen the way leading to the future, and there is still reason to hope. Like almost all the problems we face, this is one where we lack neither the ability nor the resources. All we need is the will of the global community of nations and of humankind itself.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • Chris Swanson

    Meh, I still remain somewhat unconvinced on the whole global warming issue. I’ll conceed that temperatures do appear to be rising, though this is just a small blip in the climate history of a planet that’s billions of years old. I am still not entirely buying into the notion that we’re the cause of the warming trend, however.

    But mostly, to me, it doesn’t matter one bit. I think it’s worth ending pollution entirely for the goal of ending pollution and having a clean envrioment. The other stuff doesn’t much matter to me.

  • Friday

    A ‘small blip’ in climate history can constitute a variation lasting several hundred thousand years. Should we wait that long to finally concede there is a problem?

    Unless one is looking to make a buck out of polluting industries (or one is simply obstinate) – then most people would agree that reducing pollution and energy efficiency is indeed a good thing.

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    I think it’s worth ending pollution entirely for the goal of ending pollution and having a clean envrioment. [sic]

    My thoughts exactly! Though I’m willing to believe that AGW is happening (I trust those climate guys who know way more about such things than I do), it doesn’t matter to me if it isn’t; there are many other reasons to reduce pollution anyway.

  • bassmanpete

    But mostly, to me, it doesn’t matter one bit.

    Well it matters to a great many people here in Australia where the south-east has just had its 11th year of below average rainfall. Many farmers are suffering from depression because they haven’t shown a profit in those 11 years and several have committed suicide.

    A lot of people seem to think that climate change/global warming is just something new that’s being used by governments as an excuse to impose more taxes. But that isn’t so. I first heard about it when I was at school in the 50s, and many of the effects predicted back then are happening now. Seems like too much of a coincidence to me. The concept of global cooling leading to a new ice age that was proposed in the 70s, and is much touted by GW skeptics, never gained wide acceptance in the scientific community.

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    I knew you’d probably have a sermon of some sort for this time of year, and I’m glad you’re posting it early enough that I can read it before I travel off to meet the relatives for Christmas day.

    And yes, human beings are a small blip on the planetary scale; small enough to be affected by the ‘small blips’ we cause. It’s hard to be absolutely certain what increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will do, but the possible consequences are dire. My father was saying the other day that if you’re an engineer building a bridge, you calculate roughly the strength of steel you need (or whatever) and then multiply by some safety margin. By contrast, climate physics tries to be conservative in its predictions so as not to be wrong. But if we’re engineering our future, well, it’s worth putting in a safety margin, don’t you think?

  • Chris Swanson

    I have no problem at all with sensible enviromental laws and controls. Things that stop companies from dumping toxic waste, things that encourage eco-friendly practices, extra taxes on extremely high polluters. Stuff like that is just dandy. I DO have a problem with some of the more extremist positions (which I haven’t seen anyone on here voice, btw, so don’t worry), that would basically shut down industry in all forms and knock us back to an agrarian society.

    Yes, minor blips do effect us, cause we haven’t been around long. I have no problem with the idea of decreasing pollution simply to make the world more comfortable for us, if nothing else (ignoring all the other good reasons to decrease pollution). But during human history the world has been warmer than it is now, and colder than it is now. I hestitate to think that the climate we have now is the best and most perfect and therefore we must pull out all the stops to keep it this way no matter the cost.

    Again, though, all this said, I long for a day with less pollution. I used to live in Los Angles, where I sometimes described the air as “chewy”. I dread to see the effects the really bad pollution in Beijing, and the rest of China, is going have on the Olympics. I see pictures from there and shudder. Yeesh.

  • Petrucio

    I think Pascal’s wager applies here nicelly. In one hand, we might be causing great damage that might last thousands of years to fix. On the other hand, you may “still remain somewhat unconvinced on the whole global warming issue”. But trying to fix the issue is the safer bet.

    But this bet does not suffer the many fallacies the Pascal wager in it’s usual form suffer. You do not have alternative global warming treats happening, with different ways to fix it.

    This is the here, and this is the now, and who speaks for the Earth? It seems we do. I also do not in the least agree with the more extremist views of the green assholes, but the issue is important indeed.

    I think it’s very unfortunate that Carl Sagan is no longer here, for I guess he would be the greatest asset in the GW issue.

  • Chris Swanson

    Ah, but see the problem with the idea of “fixing” the problem is that we can run headlong into the Law of Unintended Consequences. Now, I don’t advocate doing NOTHING. I would love to see more pollution controls, but I do feel it’s important to balance ecological, social and economic needs in doing so. Too much imbalance one ways leads to horrible pollution and, well, China, as I mentioned before. Too much imabalance the other way leads to massive unemployment and poverty.

    It is indeed unfortunate that Carl Sagan is no longer with us. Sadly, he died before I was old enough to appreciate him and his works. But the nature of life is transitory, and if nothing else, the problem of global warming will, in the long run, be fixed no matter if we do anything about it or not. One of the great things that has gotten me through the rough patches in my life is the quote, “This, too, shall pass.” :)

    BTW: I always loved the “Discworld” version of Pascal’s Wager, where someone makes a similar comment about belief in the many gods of that world and when he dies, wakes up with a circle of gods surrounding him, carrying heavy sticks and saying, “Let us show you what we think of Mister Clever Dick in these parts”.

  • Friday

    “and if nothing else, the problem of global warming will, in the long run, be fixed no matter if we do anything about it or not.”

    This assumes that Earth’s atmosphere will remain within certain parameters in perpetuity. The atmosphere and oceans are nonlinear systems, and in such systems there can exist sets of equally stable parameters – well outside the tolerance range of humans (or more importantly, the plants we need to survive).

  • Tomas S

    In response to the opening comments, perhaps we can annex the holly leaf for another kind of symbolism. In a book about the “Megafauna dispersal syndrome” of the Honey Locust and other plants (I’ve forgotten the name of the book), Holly was mentioned as one of the plants which doesn’t bother to grow thorns above a certain height. The idea is that the plants don’t need thorns 50 feet up because deer are not that tall. Holly, however, grows thorns way higher than a deer could reach — but not higher than various forms of “megafauna” (mammoth, wooly rinocerous, giant sloth) could have reached. It seems Holly remembers these long-parted members of our planet.

    (Speaking pantheistically, of course. Feel free to reword the above so it makes sense to people who don’t like to think of trees having ancesteral memory.)

  • Mrnaglfar

    Tomas,

    Reworded:

    Large scale evolution takes place over incredibly vast periods of time, and if the evolution of holly had been shaped by larger, now extinct, animals that lived only a few thousand years ago, we could expect to still see their effects.

  • Tomas S

    Thanks Mr Naglfar!

  • lpetrich

    That sort of coevolution has been implicated in some similar oddities:

    Avocado pits are rather big for most present-day South American herbivores to swallow, however, giant ground sloths could swallow them just fine.

    In Mauritius, the tambalacoque tree’s fruits could only germinate after having become eaten by herbivores like dodos and abraded inside of them.

  • Friday

    In Australia, indigenous peoples have used fire to stimulate the growth of grass (and in turn the growth of herbivorous food sources such as kangaroos).

    Over tens of thousands of years, this selection pressure has yielded forest types that quickly bounce back from fire. As well as plant species such as Banksia – with seed pods that open under high temperatures.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Banksia#Response_to_fire
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bushfire

  • Tomas S

    lpetrich,

    Both of your examples were discussed in that same book I mentioned. I just looked up the title: Ghosts of Evolution: Nonsensical Fruit, Missing Partners, and other Ecological Acronisms – By Connie Barlow.

    I wouldn’t suggest using avocado pits as part of a seasonal decoration display, but I could imagine that a wreath of holly branches and honey locust pods could be quite attractive.

    One of my favoriate parts of her book was the suggestion that just as the re-introduction of the horse was beneficial to the plants of the new world, so would the re-introduction of the (naked) mammoth.

    The book is worth a read – especially for pantheists – but I have the impression that it doesn’t demonstrate the truth of Evolution the way other books might, since her data all fit nicely into a world designed by God, in which man helped drive some of His creation into extinction within the comparatively recent past.

  • Mrnaglfar

    Tomas,

    The book is worth a read – especially for pantheists – but I have the impression that it doesn’t demonstrate the truth of Evolution the way other books might, since her data all fit nicely into a world designed by God, in which man helped drive some of His creation into extinction within the comparatively recent past.

    The thing about “world created by god” view is that it’s outragously non-specific; Hypothetically, you could point to anything anywhere and say “that is the way it is because that’s how god wants it”. For instance “you see, god wanted man to drive some of his animals into extinction, so he made them do it instead of removing all the animals himself all the sudden”.

    I guess I’m curious to what the distinct difference between a world designed by evolution and natural selection is, versus a world designed by a god(s).

  • Alex Weaver

    Meh, I still remain somewhat unconvinced on the whole global warming issue. I’ll conceed that temperatures do appear to be rising, though this is just a small blip in the climate history of a planet that’s billions of years old. I am still not entirely buying into the notion that we’re the cause of the warming trend, however.

    And why is that?

    The concept of global cooling leading to a new ice age that was proposed in the 70s, and is much touted by GW skeptics, never gained wide acceptance in the scientific community.

    I wasn’t aware that anything of the scale of a “new ice age” was ever held to be a reasonable proposition. Concerns about global cooling were, as I understand, based on a level of particulate and especially sulfur particulate emissions that no longer occurs (fine particles suspended in the atmosphere block sunlight from reaching the earth just as carbon dioxide and other gases reduce the ability of the planet to radiate heat, as events like major volcanic eruptions have spectacularly illustrated). It’s been argued in some quarters that part of the reason we’re only now seeing a warming trend is that for a while particulates may have been partly cancelling it out (by reducing the amount of sunlight that reached the earth to create heat that wouldn’t fully escape).

  • bassmanpete

    I wasn’t aware that anything of the scale of a “new ice age” was ever held to be a reasonable proposition.

    There’s a reference here, and another here. I remember reading about it at the time and I think most of the ice age stuff was popular press sensationalism but the prospect was raised.

  • Tomas S

    Mr Nagalfar,

    For the sake of clarity to others, I’ll point out that I’m playing “God’s Advocate” here. I fully enjoyed Barlow’s book from my non-Theistic point of view, but having once held a different view, I can put my God goggles back on if I want to, and this I do now at your request.

    One could imagine a world created by God which includes honey locust trees and mammoths to eat the pods. This is, to my understanding, basic Creationist doctrine. One might even point out Bible verses which talk about the mammoths. (Whether these verses would stand up to scrutiny is incedental to my current point.) After that point, it takes no creative power to drive a species to extinction. Creationists such as the late Whatsisname Morris openly acknolwedge that species do indeed go extinct.

    Someone holding this world view would not be swayed by information presented by an ecologist that indicates that holly, avocado, and honey locust are plants with “missing partners”, since this only indicates that there was some destruction in recent times, not that there was any new creation or evolution going on.

    I don’t see where I (or anybody) suggested that God wanted the mammoth to go extinct, even as “god’s advocate.”

    As to the second part of your question, perhaps this story quoted by Dawkins is relevant. For thousands of years, humans thought the sun went around the earth because that’s what it looks like — but what would it look like if it looked the other way around? (Dawkins left this question unanswered, and so will I, because I think the point is to get people to think.)

    In other words, the world looks like it was designed. What would it look like if it looked like it wasn’t designed? Answer — just like it does now! My point here is that Barlow was writing from the point of view of an ecologist, talking about reletively recent events. It’s a good read, even if it’s not all about poking holes in Creationism.

    For the record, my belief in evolution would be shaken if anybody discovered a hairy frog with nipples or a gastric breeding gerbil. :-)

  • Dutch

    Global warming, global cooling whatever. Are we warmer now than in the 1970s when “global cooling” was the scare; yes. Is this manmade? maybe, maybe not. My wife asked me; are we in global warming? Why, of course, as we live near chicago, I explained, a mere 10 to 15 thousand years ago there was an ice sheet a thousand feet thick where we now live. This is the only “fact” I can hang my hat on. Everything else is unkown to me. Since this last ice age is still in recession(I hope), we are most definitely in a warming phase.

    I am always skeptical of scientific “knowledge.” Scientists are people, and hence prone to bias and depending on who’s paying them, will skew the data unknowingly or knowingly.

    We the people, will also read what verifies our opinion, and set aside reading that may contradict our opinions – this is normal. Much like a futures or stock trader will stare at the charts to confirm his opinion and hence keep him in the trade untill the loss is too painfull; at which point he exits the trade. Now looking at the same chart he sees all too clearly he should have exited or reversed his trade. By having nothing riding on the trade, his vision clears.

    JMHO, Dutch

  • OMGF

    I am always skeptical of scientific “knowledge.” Scientists are people, and hence prone to bias and depending on who’s paying them, will skew the data unknowingly or knowingly.

    Yes, and the vast majority of scientists that conclude there is global warming are either all conspiring due to some bias, or are paid by interests that want to promote global warming. I just wonder how they can all keep the secret, I mean a conspiracy of that size is just really difficult to fathom. Maybe it’s the secret pills that they developed long ago that keep them from slipping and telling the truth, or maybe it’s the mind control rays they use (you do know that you can block those rays with tinfoil, right?)

    Come off it.