Who will speak for the trees?

On this trip, I find myself theologizing quite a bit. Last week it was theodicy, or, how do we defend God’s goodness in a world full of suffering. I have been down that road many times before, and I have read lots of really sophisticated and helpful efforts to wrestle with that question. Still, I always seem to end up with God’s response to Job (duly paraphrased): “were you present at the foundations of the world? If you were not, don’t expect a clear answer right now.” I was not present then and clear answers elude me. 

That was before Murchison Falls. In the game park I thought frequently about creation and how messed up we are making it. Murchison Falls is a small island of remnant wild Africa pressured on all sides by Uganda’s subsistence economy and by poachers. Despite global bans, elephant hunting continues, local fisherman in Lake Albert kill the hippos, and, I am told, “bush meat” (i.e. wild game) is quite popular. The larger animals live on the savanna portion of the park and in, or near, the river, but large trees and thick brush cover large parts of the preserve. (This is the forest from which the attacking flies emerged — see some of the other posts.) The tree cover offers a glimpse of what used to be, because outside the park boundaries, most of the big trees are gone. They have been cleared in part to make room for additional subsistence plots, but more have fallen to the local charcoal industry. Ugandans lack fuel for cooking, so they use wood and charcoal instead.  This is true even in Kampala, where the price of cooking gas is so high that many city dwellers can only afford charcoal. Most of the that charcoal comes from northern Uganda and the result is an increasingly denuded and degraded landscape. 

The thread connecting poverty and environmental destruction is easy to follow. As the population grows, they need land to grow food and they need fuel to cook it: the trees hinder the first and allow for the second. Some day the trees will be gone and Uganda’s poverty will be worse, which is difficult to imagine.

Folks in North America who are worried about the economy and the future of medicare probably do not worry much about the loss of trees in Uganda and other parts of equatorial Africa. But we should worry. These trees suck up huge amounts of carbon and give back oxygen, which is a pretty good deal since on this earth we all breath the same air. 

In her book “Replenishing the Earth: Spiritual Values for Healing Ourselves and the World,” Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai has called for a new spiritual consciousness where “we understand that we belong to the larger family of life on Earth.” Yesterday, as we cruised our way up (south) the Nile river and saw large schools of hippos, scores of hungry crocodiles, and a herd of about 30 elephants, Maathai’s words struck a deep chord. I keep wondering what it will take to bring about this change of consciousness. I hope and prayer that it happens soon. 

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