Today is acknowledged as the 500th anniversary of the beginning of what is known now as the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther , a priest, monk and university professor at Wittenberg in Saxony, Germany, concerned that true Christian teaching about salvation was being corrupted by the sale of indulgences by Church authorities, posted 95 theses for debate on the university noticeboard, the door of the church next to the castle (not pictured). From that simple act of academic freedom flowed a process of religious, political ,cultural and psychological transformation which changed the world for ever.
My efforts to write a daily blog during the season of Creation Time fell apart around Day 13. Other demands on my time took over. But I’ve rallied myself for the final day of this season, which is the feast of Saint Francis, patron saint of the natural world including animals, and also international World Animal Day, supported in the UK by the animal charity Naturewatch Foundation. It also happens to be the first day this year of the Jewish festival of Sukkot, or Booths, which is the equivalent of a harvest festival.
Later this morning at my local church primary school I’ll be telling the story of Saint Francis and the wolf of Gubbio. and we’ll be singing “Make me a channel of your peace” based on words attributed to Francis. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio is a great story. Yes it’s mythological, but that doesn’t stop it containing some very topical messages for today.
There are different possible messages of course depending on how you tell it! I’ll be avoiding some of the less helpful versions of the story I’ve found online. Some use the story to strike the fear of God into hapless listeners – obey God or else the wolf will gobble you up. This subverts the life and teaching of Francis which was to release people from fear and guilt. Others attempt a more rationalist use of the story, as theodicy – the theological attempt to justify the ways of God to humanity. In its more hard-core versions these tellings of the story explain the existence of violence, whilst not conforming to God’s will for the world, as nonetheless something God had to impose on the world to keep people in line. This is the kind of argument that justifies the application of pain, as in corporal punishment, as chastisement in discipline. Or justifies pushing benefit claimants to near-starvation to force them to try harder to avoid relying on the public purse. And then there are those versions which simply eviscerate any subtleties and mystery by portraying it as a simple story of how kind Francis was to animals and what a rapport he had with them.
What will I make of the story? It will be about the possibility of forgiveness and of making peace.
John Muir (1838 – 1914) American naturalist and wilderness conservationist is best known for his work to ensure Yosemite became a natural park. His vision and concern for preserving wilderness had a strong influence on President Roosevelt.
Although raised in Wisconsin and after travels in North America and the Caribbean as a young man he settled eventually in Caifornia. Muir founded the Sierra Club, now a powerful environmental organisation.
He believed that wilderness areas should be preserved unexploited, opposing even apparently sustainable use. He led campaigns to prevent various schemes to use or develop wilderness areas, in some cases at the cost of personal friendship.
Muir’s experience of mountains and wilderness was framed by him in terms of a strong spiritual connection. He regarded these areas as a special sacred gift of the Creator.
Sandra Steingraber (b.1959) is an American biologist and author who writes and campaigns on environmental issues especially to eliminate the use of carcinogenic chemicals in the environment. A cancer survivor herself, she advocates for increased public awareness and political action on, and greater medical research resources to be devoted to, the role of toxic chemicals in the relationship between environmental factors and cancer.
Steingraber has been hailed as the “new Rachel Carson” (see day 1 of this blog series). Since the publication of her 1997 book, Living Downstream, and subsequent documentary film of the same name, she has received numerous accolades and awards both for her success in communicating and making accessible to the public the scientific research on this topic, and for her political advocacy and campaign work.
As a result of her direct action trying to protect wild areas from contamination and industrialisation in the United States she has served some weeks in prison, through refusal to pay fines on charges of trespass and disorderly conduct.
Her work makes the connections between the environment and human rights. Steingraber is also campaigning for continued concerted action on climate change and to prevent the spread of fracking, the extraction of shale gas by hydraulic fracture.
“From the right to know and the obligation to inquire flows the duty to act”
Sandra Steingraber ( Living Downstream 2nd ed)
Boyan Slat (b.1994) is a Dutch inventor who founded The Ocean Cleanup in 2013, a non-profit organisation of which he is now the CEO. After becoming deeply concerned about the amount of plastic he found whilst diving off Greece, and impatient with the prevailing notion that nothing could be done quickly to eliminate ocean plastic pollution, he developed an innovative idea for a technological solution. This was widely picked up in the media and on the internet. Slat dropped out of his university course in Aerospace Engineering , crowd-funded start-up costs, and founded The Ocean Cleanup with its global mission to develop advanced technologies to rid the world’s oceans of plastic.
Slat has developed a system through which, driven by the ocean currents, the plastic concentrates itself, reducing the theoretical clean-up time from millennia to mere years. The first full-scale system is scheduled to be operational in the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” by 2018.
He is the youngest person ever to be awarded the United Nations highest environmental honour, Champion of the Earth, in 2015. He has been named by Goldman Sachs as one of the world’s 100 most intriguing entrepreneurs, and by Reader’s Digest as European of the Year in 2017.
“Technology is the most potent agent of change. It is an amplifier of our human capabilities. Whereas other change-agents rely on reshuffling the existing building blocks of society, technological innovation creates entirely new ones, expanding our problem-solving toolbox.”
Lack of general public awareness in Britain of the towering scientific achievements of Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859) may be a function of the language barrier between the British and German spheres of influence and/or the parochialism of British education in the twentieth century!
Alexander von Humboldt was a Prussian geographer, naturalist, explorer, and prolific author of papers and books whose life spanned the later 18th and first half of the 19th century. He is credited with being the first scientist to identify human-induced climate change, and to have founded the discipline of biogeography. He journeyed throughout Latin America and was the first to study and describe it from a scientific point of view. His promotion of systematic quantitative measurement was the forerunner of modern monitoring in geophysics and meteorology. His major work, Kosmos, presented a fresh vision of the natural world as a unified system. He has been described as the inventor of the very concept of “the environment”.
Charles Darwin described Humboldt as the “greatest scientific traveller who ever lived”. During his lifetime Humboldt became a highly revered and respected public figure in Prussia and throughout Germany. He was given a state funeral in Berlin; his coffin was met at the door of the cathedral by the Prince-Regent. Today it is said that more places and species are named after Humboldt than after any other human being!
“The most dangerous worldview is the worldview of those have not viewed the world.”
Alexander von Humboldt