My wife and I recently took a vacation in the southern Caribbean. It was our 25th wedding anniversary and the first time the we had been outside the country together (unless we count Canada).
We spent a lot of time exploring the small island, including those remote and barren parts that see relatively few tourists. We spent one morning on the rugged east coast, where large lava outcroppings relentlessly battle with gigantic waves, waves rolling thousands of miles unchallenged from across the Atlantic Ocean. A new sun glinted through fast scudding clouds as the pewter sea threw itself violently upon the rocks. Salt spray coated our sunglasses and camera lenses. The ceaseless wind roared in off the water, allowing nothing more than the occasional cactus any kind of purchase. It was exhilarating.
Until we crested a rocky escarpment and took in the long, narrow, sandy bay below. The tremendous breakers funneled in between rocky capes of hardened lava, their power compressed and intensified. Over the centuries they had swept a broad fan of ivory colored sand deep into the island’s interior. Among the rocks and pieces of driftwood lay an immense garbage dump of bottles, clothes, furniture, toys – the discarded trash of mankind. The litter lay in deep and topographical layers, periodically strewn upon the beach.
Where did all this debris come from? It seemed unlikely that the islanders, who so desperately needed tourist dollars to sustain their economy, would tolerate this wholesale littering. My wife suggested that perhaps it came from ocean going vessels, dumping their trash over the side. Maybe, but there was junk on this beach that did not jive with any picture I had of a sailor’s kit – baby dolls and toys, women’s clothing, laundry detergent bottles, plastic garden tools, tennis shoes….this beach looked like a disaster area.
And then it occurred to us; these weren’t items that people had just flippantly cast away. These were things that people had lost, things that they needed, even loved. These things the sea had taken from them.
It was now obvious that this beach was a natural repository for the relics of human suffering. As the hurricanes batter the islands and coastlines of the Caribbean and Gulf they leave in their wake devastation and destruction. But they also take away. As their tidal surges recede, the inventories of both families and businesses are pulled out to sea. It has to go somewhere and much of it must end up on beaches around the world, like those of this island.
While at first we were angry over the what we took to be the contemptable behavior of our fellow man, now we were ashamed of ourselves. We had judged harshly and emotionally, solely upon this ‘clear’ evidence of man’s disregard for nature. The litter was not the result of the selfish actions of ‘American Consumerists’ or capitalist profiteers. This beach was a silent monument to the suffering of millions of our brothers and sisters, most of them too poor to escape nature’s wrath.
A lot of people have taken to pointing their fingers at people they blame for destroying our planet. It is taken for granted that mankind has defeated the earth, that because of our efforts, accidental or otherwise, the planet will succumb to a less than gradual death. Drastic measures need to be taken, they say, even if they are at the expense of individual liberty and freedom. All of us will need to tighten the belt.
There is little doubt that the human race needs to improve its stewardship of the planet. Most of us need to do a better job at working towards this goal, but with kindness and compassion. It is all too easy to throw the first stone, making monsters out of the rich and the well off. But it is rarely the rich or the well off who have to pay a (relatively) big price for their efforts. Many of those environmentally concerned people who now are calling for personal sacrifice can easily afford to pull in the buckle a few notches without feeling too much pain. But most of the people on this Earth do not have that luxury.
If we try to turn the environmental problems facing us into esthetically acceptable spiritual challenges, (with all of the inherent noble sacrifices) while writing off the possible economic side effects as merely the self-serving rants of unsophisticated capitalists, then we could be consigning the majority of or our world’s poor to even more hardship.
Instead of getting behind solutions that just ‘feel’ right, perhaps we should dig a little deeper and look for other answers that might work, without demanding more from our neighbors than from ourselves. Perhaps if we look towards furthering God’s kingdom in a more holistic and all encompassing fashion, rather than obsessing on single issues, then many of the problems we face today will work themselves out.