Friday, December 5, 2014

On the End of the World As We Know It

Surah 29, Al-Ankabut:62-63:
Allahu yabsutur-rizqa limany-yashaa ‘u min ibadihi wa yaqdiru lah. 
God grants abundant sustenance, or gives it in scant measure, to whichever He wills of His creatures: 
Innal-laha bikulli shay’in Alim.
for behold, God has full knowledge of everything. (62)
Wa la in-sa ‘altahum-man-nazzala minas-samaa ‘i maa ‘an-fa ‘ahya bihil- arda mim-ba di mawtiha laya
And thus it is:  if thou ask them, ‘Who is it that sends down water from the skies, giving life thereby to the earth after it had been lifeless?’ 
-yaqulunn Allah.
- they will surely answer, ‘God.’
Qulil-hamdu lillah. 
Say thou: ‘All praise is due to God alone.’
Bal aktharuhum la ya qilun.
 But most of them will not use their reason. (63)

When I was doing my doctoral studies in international relations in the early 1990’s, I became intrigued by the developing field of international environmental policy.   Since there was no course offered at the University of Kansas on the topic, I designed a course myself and found a professor to supervise it.  My daughter was three years old at the time.  Her crayon scribbles are still on the notes I took for that class. 

I read everything I could about policies related to population trends, ozone depletion, pollution of all kinds, garbage disposal, water resources, resource depletion, extinction rates, etc.  I read about global treaties signed and abrogated.  I read about environmental movements, legislative initiatives that could not get passed, or only in inadequate forms.  I read about the history of the exploitation of carbon-based energy sources – basically coal and oil - and the development of the corporations that control their exploitation and distribution, megalithic entities built on our ever-escalating need for energy, ungovernable by any single nation-state.  But the most impactful of what I read was about the consequences of climate change.

One analogy made by one of the researchers really stuck in my mind - the story of the frog – maybe you’ve heard it.  If you put a live frog in boiling water, it will immediately jump out and save itself.  But if you put a frog in cool water and heat the water very slowly, it will not recognize the critical point at which it needs to jump out, and it will cook to death.  The researcher was alluding to greenhouse gases, implying that we will pass the critical threshold before we can do anything to keep ourselves from getting “cooked.” 

My research scared and depressed me…. so much so that I put aside the idea of
focusing on environmental policy.  I became one of those people Naomi Klein refers
to in her recent book, This Changes Everything, those of us who are
“telling ourselves comforting stories about how humans are clever and will come up with a technological miracle that will safely suck the carbon out of the skies or magically turn down the heat of the sun.” 
Klein contends, “We deny because we fear that letting in the full reality of this crisis will change everything.  And we are right.”[1] 

Twenty odd years ago I could not face the prospect of working with that knowledge day after day.  I would, I felt, be immobilized by despair.  I needed to focus on something that would allow me to nurture my marriage and raise my daughter.   And besides, I told myself, we will find technological solutions….

That was over 20 years ago.  Now researchers are trying to figure out if we have already passed the critical threshold.  Now my daughter is a Ph.D. student in Integrative Biology, studying the history of life on earth and the iterations it has undergone, and she sends me an article that begins with these words: 

Localized ecological systems are known to shift abruptly and irreversibly from one state [of being] to another when they are forced across critical thresholds.  Here we review evidence that the global ecosystem as a whole can react in the same way and is approaching a planetary-scale transition as a result of human influence…. We summarize evidence that such planetary scale critical transitions have occurred previously in the biosphere, albeit rarely, and that humans are now forcing another such transition, with the potential to transform Earth rapidly and irreversibly into a state unknown in human experience.”[2]

The article continues, “… shifts … can be difficult to anticipate, because the critical threshold is reached as incremental changes accumulate and the threshold value is generally not known in advance.”
There is a lot of information in this article about the interplay of all the ways in which humans have impacted the global environment, but a few conclusions stand out. 
“…if fertility rates remain at 2005-2010 levels, [by 2100 – in 85 years - the earth’s population will be 27,000,000,000]; this population size is not thought to be supportable)….
Climates found at present on 10-48% of the planet are projected to disappear within a century, and climates that contemporary organisms have never experienced are likely to cover 12-39% of Earth.  The mean global temperature by 2070 (or possibly a few decades earlier) will be higher than it has been since the human species evolved.”

The article concludes, “… averting a planetary-scale critical transition demands global cooperation,” to  reduce world population growth and per-capita resource use, to replace fossil fuels,  increase the efficiency of food production and distribution, enhance efforts to manage reservoirs of biodiversity and ecosystem services on land and in the oceans.   “These are admittedly huge tasks, but are vital if the goal of science and society is to steer the biosphere towards conditions we desire, rather than those that are thrust upon us unwittingly.”

There have been five mass extinction events in the history of the earth, where 75% or more of the existing species went extinct.  We are in the first throws of a 6th. Mass extinction.   This is pretty scary stuff.  This is cataclysmic.  But there is a difference in my response to this information now as opposed to 20 years ago.  #1, I no longer see the option of pretending it’s not happening.  #2, my understanding of my faith has grown and given me a new perspective on how to face the issue, a new drive, and a new strength of purpose.   


As we know from the stories of the prophets, cataclysm is no stranger to the Quran. The communities of the earliest prophets - Nuh (Noah) Hud, Saleh, Lut (Lot), and Shoaib (Jethro), who did not accept their prophets’ messages about the Oneness of God, were completely destroyed.  The Abrahamic prophets - Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses) and all the Jewish prophets - Isaac, Yacoub (Jacob), Yusuf (Joseph), Zakarriah, Yahya (John), and Esa (Jesus), ending with Prophet Muhammad, pbuh,  saw a different fate for their communities.

For the most part, the enemies of Abraham and the prophets who followed him were no longer completely destroyed.  Some of the greatest transgressors were destroyed, but the communities themselves survived.  Instead, Allah told Abraham to migrate from his native land – from Mesopotamia to Palestine.  The example of emigration would be followed by Prophet Moses.   In the case of the final Abrahamic prophet, Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, after emigrating he returned to his people, and they became his followers.  This began a new era. 

When Prophet Muhammad performed the rituals of Hajj at the end of his life, in every ritual he did, he said “I am here doing what my father Abraham did, and here I am fulfilling his prophecy.”  The final day of this Hajj he told his followers in his farewell speech, “Today I completed your faith, and I fulfilled my mission.  I want God to witness, and I want you to be my witness.”  He completed his message, and left this world.  14 centuries later, we Muslims are the progeny of his journey.  The human species has evolved through history to where we are now – a world where those who study “the signs” of the earth are telling us that if we continue on our present course, we will overwhelm the resource God gave us in trust, as His Vice-Gerents of this planet.   

And now I have to wonder if we have come full circle in the prophetic narrative.  I had always counted the stories of the ancient prophets – those whose communities were completely destroyed – as ancient history with no real relevance to our lives.  But this story – unless you are a believer in science fiction scenarios of journeys to other planets – cannot end in emigration.  Are we facing our complete and ultimate destruction, by our behaviors and the belief that God’s gift to us includes the right to unlimited consumption, with no regard to collective needs and consequences, or the sustainability of the planet God gave us in trust?  In other words, are we to be destroyed by our own pride and arrogance?  As I see it, all the signs – scientific and religious - point to one conclusion - this is a defining time for the human species.   

In Surah 22, Al-Hajj , Allah addressed the Prophet about those of his time who would not accept the Divine origin of his messages:
And if they [who are bent on denying the truth] give thee the lie, [O Muhammad, remember that long] before their time, the people of Noah and [the tribes of] Ad and Thamud gave the lie [to their prophets], (42) as did the people of Abraham, and the people of Lot, (43) and the dwellers of Madyan; and [so too] Moses was given the lie [by Pharoah].
And in every case I gave rein, for awhile, to the deniers of the truth:  but then I took them to task – and how awesome was My denial [of them]!  (44)
And how many a township have We destroyed because it had been immersed in evildoing – and now they [all] lie deserted, with their roofs caved in!  And how many a well lies abandoned, and how many a castle that [once] stood high! (45)

Will we human beings bring on such devastation that our whole planet sees this fate?  God only knows.  If it is our collective destiny is to destroy the life support system that sustains us, Allah reminds us – and science confirms - that we only destroy ourselves.  Quran tells us that God made worlds before us, and can make new worlds again.   Science tells us that the five previous mass extinctions were followed by the evolution of completely new species of life. 

Naomi Klein concludes, after her exhaustive analysis of the reasons why we have been unable to effectively address climate change:
“Fundamentally, the task is to articulate … an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis – [a worldview that is] embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.”

Wasn’t this the very message that Allah delivered to us through our prophet?    Surah Al-Hajj continues:
Have they, then, never journeyed about the earth, letting their hearts gain wisdom, and causing their ears to hear?  Yet, verily, it is not their eyes that have become blind – but blind have become the hearts that are in their breasts!  (46)
And [so, O Muhammad,] they challenge thee to hasten the coming upon them of God’s chastisement:  but God never fails to fulfill His promise – and, behold, in thy Sustainer’s sight a day is like a thousand years of your reckoning. (47)
And to how many a community that was immersed in evildoing have I given rein for awhile!  But then I took it to task:  for with Me is all journey’s end!  (48)

Klein goes on
“… in the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable … an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism.”

From Surah 35:  Fatir (The Originator):
Verily, God knows the hidden reality of the heavens and earth: [and] behold, He has full knowledge of what is in the hearts [of people]. (38)
He it is who has made you inherit the earth.  Hence, he who is bent on denying the truth - this denial of his will fall back upon him:  for their denial of this truth does but add to the deniers’ loathsomeness in their Sustainer’s sight and, thus, their denial of this truth does but add to the deniers’ loss. (39)…
Verily, it is God [alone] who upholds the celestial bodies and the earth, lest they deviate [from their orbits] – for if they should ever deviate, there is none that could uphold them after He will have ceased to do so. 
            [But] verily, He is ever-forbearing, much-forgiving. (41)
As it is, they [who are averse to the truth] swear by God with their most solemn oaths that if a warner should ever come to them, they would follow his guidance better than any of the communities [of old had followed the warner sent to them]:  but now that a warner has come unto them, [his call] but increases their aversion, (42) their arrogant behavior on earth, and their devising of evil [arguments against God’s messages].
Yet [in the end,] such evil scheming will engulf none but its authors; and can they expect anything but [to be made to go] the way of those [sinners] of olden times?...
Now if God were to take men to task for whatever they commit [on earth], He would not leave a single living creature upon its surface.  However, He grants them respite for a term set:  but when their term comes to an end – then, verily, [they come to know that] God sees all that is in [the hearts of] His servants. (45)

Prophet Muhammad, pbuh, was the last of the Prophets who came to share the message of God’s Oneness and transcendant power.  But he was not the last of the warners.  God gave Adam – all of us – the ability to name things – consciousness.  We have used that ability to develop a system of understanding God’s creation – science.  That understanding is now showing us the enormity of God’s gift of freedom of choice.  We are on track to collectively destroy our life support system, maybe not in our lifetimes, but within those of our grandchildren.  We can only pray that we have the will and the ability to save it. 

I am not pretending that I have any answers to climate change.   I am among those who live in a developed country, a lifestyle based on the use of fossil fuels and consumption way beyond my basic needs.  According to the calculations of The Nature Conservancy, I, as an individual, contribute approximately 35 tons of co2 to the atmosphere every year.  And I am not going to give up my house or my car or my flights or my lights or my water, or much of anything, really.  And it may well be that Allah knows we will self-destruct, and that is our fate.  But my heart tells me that even if that is the case, I do not want to be counted among those who give in to denial or despair.  I have had the advantage of an education and I am aware that I need to educate myself more and figure out what changes I can realistically make moving forward… changes that reflect my love and gratitude for this planet, for the gift of my life on it, and my own responsibility before our Creator.  Sharing this is part of my prayer that I will keep that commitment.

2:286  The last ayah of Surah 2, The Cow
Rabbana la tu’akhizna in-nasina aw akh-ta’na.
Our Lord! Do not punish us if we forget or make a mistake.
Rabbana wa la tahmil ‘alayna isran kama hamaltahu ‘ala-llatheena min qablina.
Our Lord! Do not load on us a severe test as You did burden on those before us.
Rabbana wa la tuhammilna ma la taqata lana bih, wa- ‘fu ‘anna wa ‘ghfirlana warhamna
Our Lord! Do not impose upon us that which we have not the strength to bear; and pardon us and forgive us and have mercy on us.
Anta Maulana fansurna ‘alal-ghawmil kafirin.
You are our Defender, so help us against the ungrateful people.

[1] Klein, Naomi, This Changes Everything:  Capitalism vs. The Climate.  Simon & Schuster:  2014.

[2] Barnosky, Anthony D., “Approaching a State Shift in Earth’s Biosphere,” Nature:  7 June 2012, pp. 52-58.

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