For a teacher who loves both chemistry and the environment, sometimes things turn out exactly right. (Original version 2003, expanded 2005)
Like Riding a Bicycle
Too often, we admire others for making things look easy, and don't give ourselves credit for what we do ourselves.
Targeted at environmental / lifestyle publications, this piece relates some of the frustrations and triumphs in an attempt to learn a new habit.
Approx. 1500 words. (2004)
Cherries in Winter
A poem. Almost. (Journal entry "Autumn in May," May 11th 2005.)
One sketch of a biblical argument for cherishing the Earth.
Approx. 500 words.
It’s too late for the buses to be running in this section of town. Need to get home now. Shouldn’t have stayed so late – can hardly think straight. Wet, dark, cold.
Car won’t start. Look under hood—too dark to see much, too tired to make any difference if I could see. Broke down in the middle of this rotten neighborhood, I remember that my grandma wouldn’t let us drive through here with the doors unlocked when I was little. Now do I sleep in the car, or head for high ground?
Could look for a pay phone… but no one to call this late that I’d want coming out here after dark. No need to share the pain. I’ll catch hell if I’m not home in the morning, car or not.
Close to 1:30 AM, getting colder. Bars empty out soon – unhappy people will be looking for dark doorways. Down the side-streets: shabby houses and overgrown shrubs tangled into chain-link fences. Deserted sidewalks. Park has bare earth under tall old trees with a few dead twigs for lower limbs. Desolate, wet, grimy. What you can see of the street has an oily shine from the advertisers’ eternal lights.
I cross the street away from a particularly dark doorway, and start heading east for home. It’s only three miles, I reckon – I can make it before it gets light, and still catch a little sleep tonight. Funny how the mind perks up at the idea of sleeping in my own warm bed.
Walking down the wet street, I see the white bicycle chained to the post. The little sign hanging from it reads, “a cyclist died here.” Someone has painted the bicycle with a thin coat of white spray-paint, and chained it here as a memorial. Waste of a bike in a neighborhood like this – old Cadillacs rusting on blocks, you’d think someone would have stolen it by now.
Was it the dead cyclists’ own bike? Or did they scrounge it from a garage sale? Does someone collect old bicycles and paint them white, line them up like blank tombstones, ready when needed? This one still has both tires, unlike other ghost cycles around town. It must be fairly recent.
As I walk past it, getting soggier by the minute, something clanks. I spook away from it, then look back. The chain sags in its plastic sleeve, gummy with wet rust. The wind picks up. As I watch, the bike sways against the chain and falls over.
You wouldn’t think it could do that.
The chain seems to have rusted through.
Behind me, another noise. Figures spilling out of the bar two blocks down. Angry voices, thumps… ghost bike or not, I’m not staying here any longer than I have to.
I pull the rusted chain off, set it upright, and shove off down a side street.
My skin crawls a bit on the handlebars. I’m remembering stories about sailors being cursed for using a dead man’s knife… will the bike betray me, for dishonoring its owner’s memory?
But it seems happy enough to be moving again. Swooping along under the wet trees, spokes whickering in the wind. I can hear the chain rattling, but it rides smooth as anything.
I cross Martin Luther King, JR. boulevard, the huge street never deserted even at this hour. My hands get colder, and stiffer, pedaling into the wind. I stick to the neighborhood streets, hoping everyone will be asleep.
It’s been ages since I rode a bike. This late, I have the street to myself. The bike skids a little on the clumps of fallen leaves, and we start making s-curves in the empty streets. It’s like the bike was a lost puppy, chained up waiting for someone who never came back. Disfigured, abandoned… longing to play again.
Slight downhill feels like flying, effortless. But then the uphill comes… I didn’t remember these streets being this hilly, but it all feels different on a bike. More vivid, more real, and at the same time vaster and darker and full of nameless lives.
I get a little mixed up, trying to find a flatter route… I lose track of the street numbers, and can’t tell anything from the house numbers either. I have a long way to go, though, and east seems the right direction. The bike is going faster now, my legs must be warming up… and thank God, I seem to be over the top of that stubborn hill.
My hands are still freezing. I’m tempted to put them in my pockets but how would I steer? Can I trust the bicycle? I try riding without hands for a moment – bike has perfect balance, it’s a treat. Raise my arms like a bird, just for fun. I touch the handlebars again to steady, then put my hands in my pockets. They start to thaw. The bike stays upright, sometimes swooping in long curves across the wet road. We pedal onward.
The bike takes a sharp turn without warning, south toward Alberta Street. I start to wrestle my hands out of my pockets, but catch my balance before I reach the handlebars. Alberta street has more bars, light industry, new-age boutiques… the jousting grounds of the "tall bikes" and activists. That crowd will lynch me if they catch me riding a ghost bike. The south-east crowd would at least give me a trial first.
I take over the steering, and head north, looking for emptier roads to take me east toward home. We cross Killingsworth, Lombard, the railroad tracks … swamps without houses … Cornfoot, isn’t that near the airport? I turn right on the causeway, trying to find the main roads again before I hit the Columbia slough.
My legs are starting to burn, but I have to keep pedaling. Where exactly am I? A crossroads near a golf course, industrial suppliers across the street, a flashing yellow light guarding the intersection with the main road. Am I getting any closer to home?
As I shove off, the steering sticks. The bike starts doing that swoopy thing again, only this time, I can’t control it. All I can do is lean for the side of the road. “Isn’t this fun?” the bike seems to be saying, “Here’s an even bigger road to play on!”
But this road belongs to the semi-trucks, and three in the morning is when they wake up. Engines rumbling in the shipping yards, backhoes and cherry-pickers rising out of the darkness behind flimsy chain-link fence.
“Playful,” my ass, this thing is going to get me killed squirreling around like this on a busy road. I stop pedaling, wrestle with the handlebars, and it grudgingly gives up control with a jerk. I hit the gravel shoulder and bounce sharply off a panel of chain-link, the bicycle somehow stays under me, and we end up facing backwards up the street. Truck headlamps glare, airhorn blasts, and a voice yells, “You trying to get yourself killed?”
I can’t even tell if it’s only in my head.
Stepping over the bike, I lean against the fence to calm down. Then I start walking the bike toward the next light, looking for a road sign. It waggles uncertainly. I torque on the bike’s handlebars, and it turns freely. Wants a second chance.
I warily, slowly, wearily, climb back on. I push lightly on the pedals, just enough to start to coast, keeping one foot near the ground. We glide along the shoulder toward the distant lights. It’s not a bad bike, seems to like me OK – but it's too rambunctious to be trusted. Could explain a lot.
The lights ahead should be a major street. On any major street, I can catch a bus in two or three hours. Tempted to heave the bike over the first pole I can find, pin it down, and walk the rest of the way. But for now, I need the ride….
By Erica Ritter
Life as we know it is ending
is always and irrevocably ending
into the past,
if it ever existed at all...
Familar ground changes,
leaving us lost,
of what will be coming
life as we have never known it
Among the shattered rules, we see
The sign of new life shines
through our tattered plans
(Awful, awesome grace
revealed in desolation)
The sign of new life is
and valiant grandmothers
become so commonplace
that we forget to be surprised.
all we once knew
dissolves into dreams
and life as we know it
Heralds of death,
The blind are awaiting you,
clinging and crying,
Give us all that was ours,
Nothing is easier granted.
Nothing is yours for the asking,
oh, death of hope.
Let us sing to them, drowning,
to open their arms
Let us startle them, striking
those terrified lungs
to awaken the breath.
Or indeed, worse than dying,
they will not live.
Don’t Pin Me Down
Don’t pin me down
like a butterfly
caught in choking glass
I have been Redeemed, transformed,
I am New
My crawling self,
my quiet times
I dance through the stars
and rouse the world,
there is nothing I cannot do...
who will remember
what I do?
Must all be forgotten every night,
to make every morning new?
So gather for an hour
Name the time,
this time, I’ll come
and still my wings
and tell my tale
of dancing stars,
creation on the wing
I’ll sing of gales
and breathless dew
awaiting inch by inch the sun
I’ll tell as much as can be told
of joy, and hope, and love
the wildest flights of freedom only heighten my desire,
to turn again home.
To stay a while,
bring all my joys,
to share with you.
It is Time
It is time
although perhaps not yet for you
to put aside the easy thing.
false grandeur, and false condemnation
to be delicately true
To wait in silence listening
While others argue, and reflect
Once insight strikes to break the chains,
then begin the real pains.
then we work for real gains
then we are elect.
I wandered out of my office to find my lab partner (and boss) tinkering under the fume hood with a multitude of tiny porcelain dishes. The usual black char was scattered around his dishes on the tiles; I smelled sulphur and caramel. This looked familiar -- all the usual trappings of one of our favorite teaching experiments, Sugar Fire. It's a combination of chemicals that produces a sudden, almost exlosive, flare of pink flame. We add other ingredients to color the flames blue, or red, or orange.
Today, he wanted to make something different: Green fire.
Knowing a bit about colors, I suspected he was in for a long struggle.
Different chemicals give off different color "signatures" in fire, and there are some that will glow green. But green does not include pink. If you start with pink flame, the pink will always be there, no matter how much green you add -- and green + pink = white. So the best we could hope for would be a pale, whitish green -- in fact, as I watched, he produced a pale minty-white flame that reminded me of toothpaste or ancient industrial kitchens. I suggested a different approach.
To produce true green, we'd have to get rid of the pink.
That meant finding a substitute for one of the fundamental ingredients, a potassium salt. The potassium gives the pinkish-lavender color to the basic flame recipe. Without this salt, or something like it, the trick wouldn't work. But it wasn't the potassium that provided the power: it was the other half, the "tail" of the chemical formula. If we could find a similar compound, with the same tail attached to something other than potassium, it might have the same oxidizing effect. The most obvious substitute, to my mind, was a barium salt. Trouble is, most barium salts are toxic.
Now, the idea of "toxic" is relative. Even common table salt will kill you if you eat enough of it -- two tablespoons, I'm told, could poison the average infant -- yet some amount of salt is essential for life. Without it, our heart and nerves stop working, and we die. This is true for potassium, too, but barium does not appear on micronutrient tables, and I was concerned the toxicity could be much worse.
Both my lab partner and I care about keeing toxics away from kids; and we care about the environment, on a personal level. We bike to work on a regular basis, recycle at home and at work, that sort of thing. Our employers also care about the same things: our educational lab is meant to be as kid-friendly and earth-friendly as possible. But our definition of "earth friendly" is different.
Sometimes, when I object to a new procedure, my lab partner doesn't share my objection. My chemistry is pretty basic; I'd prefer to only work with the 18 elements that show up on the "Building Blocks of Life" chart in pretty colors. The rest of them can be proven safe. or discovered to be deadly, by braver souls than me.
My partner is one such soul -- he has a lot more chemistry experience. He has worked in several different industries -- where they use much larger quantities, and more toxic materials, than we do. So he tends sometimes to see our lab work as inconsequentual compared to industry, whereas I tend to see it as a matter of precaution and principle.
The principle is, small "why bother" lapses can add up quickly. An everyday example: imagine you're walking a dog in a San Fransisco park. Ooops! You forgot the pooper-scooper. What do you do? Who really cares unless they step in it? Just once won't matter, right? ... but all those "once"s add up. Dog doo is the #1 source of bacteria in California's coastal waters. (Surfers beware...)
So I continue to felt strongly that our work should meet the highest standards for safety, and 'best practice." There aren't millions of other educational labs making the same decisions, like there are dog owners. But a teacher can have a huge impact, by influencing students, who carry those lessons into future industrial and household habits. This could become a far greater impact than dog doo. If we can't be bothered to showcase good habits in a teaching lab, why bother teaching?
As a result of being so adamant, guess who got the job of researching the safety procedures? So now developing this "green fire" was my baby, along with the toxic waste reclamation to follow. Some treat.
(I always wanted to be a pyrotechnician, by the way.) I could have resented the extra work, muttering "nobody supports me around here," "martyr for the cause." But I like challenges. So I went to work cheerfully, and let my partner catch up on his paperwork.
I was rewarded with a brilliant reminder of what makes chemistry so amazing in the first place: following theoretical ideas, I witnessed not one, but a series of lovely transformations.
First, I checked our suply cabinet, and sure enough, we had the barium salt I wanted. I looked it up in one of our teaching manuals, and made sure we had all the equipment I would need to dispose of it safely. I carefully measured the barium salt we'd need for the demonstration, to be sure I recaptured all of it afterwards.
I added the fuel, and a touch of copper to boost the yellowy-green barium flame to a true brilliant green. One tablespoon total, for the first attempt -- and I called my partner to watch me set it off. It was awesome, let me tell you -- pure emerald green roots about an inch deep, with a bright orange corona flaring in thin flickers at the edges and tips of each green spike. It was unreal -- like a flower, like a crown, deeper green than forest leaves with the sun behind them. Without those orange tips, I might have trouble believing it was a flame at all. (The orange was probably from the fuel, the same color we see in most "normal" flames).
After the brief spurt of exotic flame, we have a blackened caramel-sulphur char. This is normal; and normally, we dispose of it by neutralizing with baking soda and rinsing down the sink, in a messy and slightly annoying process. (Especially if you come in from lunch to discover that someone else has left this residue "soaking" in the sink.)
But this time, the charred mess wan't the end. It contained that toxic barium. It had to be processed. Step by step, I followed a disposal procedure I'd found in one of our teaching manuals. Carefully collecting all the steaming black gunk, I crushed it into a fine a powder. Then soaked it, filtered it, and got a clear, caramel-colored liquid. This actually looked kind of pretty, like apple juice, except way more poisonous. There was dissolved barium spread all throughout that liquid, ready to be absorbed by any plant or animal that encountered it after it got out into the world.
The trick, according to the manual, was to trap the barium in its safest form. Barium sulphate is the least soluble of all barium salts; it's a chalky stuff that would pass right through a person's body, stomach acid and all, without being absorbed. This is the chalky stuff of the "barium milkshake" that medical technicians feed patients for X-ray contrast, meaning in small quantities it's actually safe to drink (although disgustingly chalky).
One way to make a sulfate salt is to add straight sulfuric acid. I calculated out the amount of sulphuric acid I'd need per weight of barium, then multiplied by three as directed, to make sure I'd be certain to catch ALL of the barium and have acid to spare.
I set the apple-juice looking solution in a tall, slim cylinder so I could see the process, and began carefully adding sulphuric acid, drop-by-drop. Instantly, as those clear drops hit the clear liquid, tiny white clouds appeared -- swirling lazily, gently billowing in creamy caramel drifts as it floated down toward the bottom of the tube. It was mesmerising.
When the addition was complete, I had a great deal of very acidic solution, and a now-boring muddy bottom layer of chalky barium sulphate. THe next step was to filter out this chalky stuff, and let it dry to a pristine white powder: our toxic waste, now safe for disposal.
Once dry, I measured the amount. It was, to be honest, slightly higher than it should have been, suggesting that I had some other leftovers trapped along with the barium, but it was close enough to my calculations to be reassuring.
Finally, it was time to get rid of the intensely acid leftovers. I like to use baking soda to neutralize acids, because it's pretty harmless itself, and you can see when you're done because it stops bubbling. Of course, you do have to be careful, as you can get a LOT of bubbles, erupting into acidic foam ... so I went slowly.
In a big glass beaker, I started with a tiny amount of waste acid, and baking soda and water. Once I'd gotten used to the proportions and rate of bubbles, I added a lot more baking soda, and slowly added the rest of the acid solution. The baking soda and neutralized solution slid to the bottom; and, strangely, began to turn blue. I'd forgotten about the copper -- when acid, it's colorless, so we couldn't see it in the caramel "juice." But copper turns a beautiful turquoise blue in a mild base. The blue stayed on the bottom; above, the lighter acid was still a pale, clear apple-juice color. Where the two layers met, was green, and tiny, tiny bubbles slowly appeared and drifted up from this level. Gorgeous: "green champagne," only more magical and rare, and all a complete accident!
When I staged my stubborn stand, I was imagining my demands would involve a trade-off: cost us time, and make it harder to do our job, in order to stick to our principles. Instead, we traded up! This enthralling afternoon of research had definitely not wasted my time.
We gained results not only for "green" chemistry, but for our core mission of exciting education, and for cost-efficiency as well. The primary goal was to create an exciting new demonstration; we gained not only "green fire;" but "instant clouds" and "green chamagne," three for the price of one. Literally: for budget reasons, we already salvaged and re-used materials from other processes, but most of the reclamation steps weren't nearly this exciting. We'd never thought to do anything with that black sludge before.
For hands-on science, a cornerstone of our mission, we gained a new inspiration: ww realized that the "instant clouds" effect, or precipitation, wasn't represented in any of our student activities, and it could be done with less-toxic materials and retain the excitement. And of course, we honored our ethical principles by operating our lab in the most conscientious, environmentally-friendly way we know how.
My lesson-for-life: doing what you know is right doesn't have to be a chore: sometimes it's a pure delight.
Learning to balance and pedal took a few weeks of my childhood. Learning to fit bicycling into my adult life, and to enjoy it, took years.
After college, I got my first apartment in the city of Portland, Oregon. City life is not my favorite; it’s easier for me to enjoy the countryside, and even the quiet suburbs. But I wanted my city job, and I didn’t want to own a car. Three reasons: Environmental concerns, healthy exercise, and simple math. I could (almost) afford rent and food, but not insurance and gas.
Bicycles are reputedly the most efficient form of human transportation: they go farther per calorie of energy, while producing less waste, than any other vehicle. And by providing the calories myself, I wouldn’t need a gym membership to get my exercise. So I tuned up my old ten-speed, and bought a hefty lock.
Biking to work was easy and exhilarating. From my West-side apartment, it was a fast ten minutes to work. Cruise downhill through synchronised lights, and swoop! across the bridge. Sharing the road with rush-hour traffic was no joke, but I had my helmet and my youthful sense of adventure.
Returning home was another matter entirely.
It was uphill, but more than that, it was my first experience living alone. I learned to enjoy the city’s rusty sky and colored lights, but I wasn’t enjoying that lonely, messy apartment. Finding a steady boyfriend helped a little. Unfortunately, he was no more interested in doing my dishes than I was. Whenever we didn’t have a date, I found myself coming home late and later. After working hard on my housekeeping habits, I began to search for roommates.
My first experiment in shared housing was renting a sunny room from an aunt. During the two years I spent there, I learned a lot about housekeeping, cooking, family history, and the process of sharing space. I also tested my bicycling skills on a daily commute that was longer than any previous experience.
Experienced cyclists may laugh, but five miles each way felt like a long haul to me. Still does. I tried to cut corners: Designated “bike routes” made the commute 5.5 miles; it was only 4.7 miles if I was crazy enough to take Sandy, the arterial road that cut diagonally from our neighborhood into the heart of town. There was also a bus route that meandered from the house to within 5 blocks of work, but it took the longest of all.
As a rule, I avoid getting up any earlier in the morning than absolutely necessary -- and that doesn't allow time for the inevitable delays of most mornings. So for almost a year, I took the fastest option, the “suicidal” run down Sandy Boulevard.
The death of another cyclist on the same road that year, instead of warning me off, merely gave me a new justification: “Somebody definitely has to teach drivers on this road to watch for bicycles!”
I risked my death on an ordinary day, running late as usual, speeding over the scattered glass and gravel that are the “bike lane” on busy roads. I decided to pass the parked truck, moving quickly beside the slow, heavy traffic. And, as will happen with parked cars, the door opened. I spun and bounced. The bicycle landed on top of me, and I spat teeth. (It was only a few chips, not whole teeth, but an unforgettably awful moment.) Motorists, passers-by, and ambulance staff were all remarkably kind. After that accident, I considered my obligation to the education of Oregon’s motorists had been fulfilled. While my face healed, I had plenty of time to think things over on the bus.
I realized that I had been regarding bicycling as a form of self-deprivation. I resented bicycling on sticky hot days, or cold windy ones, or after a long day’s work, or early in the morning, or on my days off, or when it needed repairs and I couldn’t ride it at all. About the only time I was grateful for it was when I passed rush-hour traffic; and that was unwise on busy roads.
I was grumpy about the awkward process of packing the bike into a friend’s car when they offered a ride, or leaving it somewhere inconvenient to reclaim later, or about being the slowest one to get somewhere if we arranged to go separately. I even resented it when a friend wanted to bicycle instead of driving, since we had to focus on the road instead of chat. Plus, most of them were faster (on their modern bikes) than me. I was becoming a shining example of every reason not to get around by bicycle. Something had to change, starting with my habits of mind.
When I chose my new bike, I had a breakthrough. The mechanic taught me: Use a pedal as a step, you don’t have to reach the ground from the seat. With the correct seat height, and half-a-dozen extra gears, suddenly I could ride any slope without clicking or pain in my knees. Choosing the new bike and accessories was fun, and so were the compliments from other bicyclists.
I think that was when I began to savor bicycling, rather than treat it as a chore.
I began to learn the bike routes. They took about ten minutes longer, but what a difference! Instead of glass, gravel, and used-car lots, I rode past elegant gardens and gabled houses. I learned the balance point on my new bicycle carrying it up the pedestrian access stairs, which made a nice change of pace as I confronted the steepest hill on my way home. There was a strange irony in passing joggers on quiet streets, instead of being ridden off the road by motorists.
Night rides, along the safe routes, were exhilarating. Alert but not panicked, I found my thoughts turning in rhythmic circles as I enjoyed the scenery. Riding by the river in the rain, watching the wet city glow in the twilight, I felt brave and strong and independent for pedaling solo through any weather.
Five miles to bike home still put a damper on my night life, not to mention the guilt over waking my aunt when I arrived home late. I searched out a new place, two miles from work through lovely neighborhoods. The woman renting the room seemed like a good companion. I bought Chinese take-out, we painted the room together, and I was in.
With an extra three miles of energy at the end of the day, I could to run errands, bike to movies, and visit friends. I was closer to the night life. And with a new house-mate to talk to, I enjoyed coming home more than ever.
One day, I noticed with surprise that I didn’t actually enjoy riding in cars. More often than not, I felt nervous, carsick, or confined. The air inside the average car is more polluted than outside: smoky, stale, and full of VOC's (volatile organic compounds, chemicals like “new-car smell” and diesel fumes). The price of convenience is road-rage, frustration, and an unhealthy atmosphere; how often do commuters actively enjoy driving?
Bicycling took longer, but even the most unpleasant ride was not wasted time. Every ride was free exercise. The view was unrestricted, the night air exhilarating; no risk of falling asleep at the wheel. With the money I saved on gas and insurance, even on entry-level wages, I could afford to treat friends to dinner, and take myself on expensive vacations.
There were off-road perks, too: the ironic pleasure of locking up to “No Parking” signs. Transform into a pedestrian, to smell the roses or escape traffic. The odd fraternity of fellow bicyclists, motorcyclists, and truckers, whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by reckless drivers.
I began to turn down rides. Arranging to meet people, I would not mention bicycling. Instead of recruiting car-endowed friends, I began to explore the outskirts of the city under my own steam. I attended weekend workshops, went hiking and trail-biking, and brought home wild blackberries and farm-stand produce on the weekends.
My final breakthrough came when I quit work for a few months. Living quietly indoors, while wrestling with career plans, is deadly. All that adrenaline has nowhere to go: instant cabin fever. After two weeks of nervous panic, I finally spotted this connection. It was the first time in decades that I hadn’t had a daily destination, some activity to get to by walking or bicycling. I needed exercise.
I dug my bike out of storage, and reclaimed my sanity within hours. Savoring the late-afternoon sun, I remember being slightly astonished at my own transformation: when did I become someone who likes to bicycle? Who prefers it to free rides in cars? Once an annoyance, my bicycle has become a source of happiness, comfort, and relaxation.
I think I’ve finally learned to ride a bicycle.
I hope I never forget.
Cherries in Winter
Many poems are written
about the exquisite fleeting beauty of
pale warm snows of spring
I will celebrate the beauty
of cherry leaves, fallen
brighter than flame against the black earth
they say to me
"that the beauty of new life is fleeting,
"death has a beauty also."
this year they are flames
next year, the black earth
and some year soon,
they will again become cherries.
Concerning the Kingdom of Heaven, we hear (Matthew 25:1-13) Christ told a story. Ten virgins eagerly await the bridegroom; night falls while they wait. The wise maidens have brought extra fuel, and keep their lamps burning low until the bridegroom appears.
The foolish girls fall asleep with the lamps still burning. When the shout finally goes up, "He is coming!" they awaken to discover that their lamps have burned out. The prepared girls light their lamps and greet the groom. The careless girls run off in search of more fuel ... and get locked out of the party.
The moral of the story is: be ever-ready, "you know not the day nor the hour."
A popular way to interpret this story is: stay awake. Live every moment as though it might be our last. Store up spiritual "credit" constantly, because we never know when we may suddenly face the gates of Heaven. If we wait until the last minute, we may miss our chance. This is sensible; good behavior is a habit that must be cultivated, not something that's easy to "switch on" at the last minute.
Consider the implications of this story for our treatment of the Earth. In a real sense, we are wantonly burning vast quantities of the oil and other resources. Among the most stubborn exploiters of this natural power are certain Christian leaders. They find it easy to justify environmental and military destruction, but do not seem to value our irreplaceable natural heritage.
Genesis 1:28 is sometimes cited to justify this wanton exploitation: "Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." This can be interpreted to suggest God created the world as a sort of video-game for us to blast our way through: kill all the bad things and collect all the treasures before time runs out. Yet we are told to subdue, or dominate, not to "destroy;" we are to fill the earth, not empty it.
Others seem to think "worldly things" are not important; the more miserable we make each other, and the closer the world comes to destruction, the easier it is to imagine Christ will come again soon. It would be an easy out. But as the parable of the ten virgins reminds us, the time will not be when we expect. God gets to pick the time, not us. and He may leave it very late indeed. What a sad irony if we choose to make Earth into Hell, and God leaves us alive!
God's opinion of His own creation, stated again and again throughout Genesis, was: "It is good." You don't have to be Christian; imagine any Creator who makes something nice, and gives it to someone else. What seems more likely to please Him: to have it spoiled and worn to pieces, or to have it appreciated and maintained in something like its original condition?
If we have thousands of years left, or if the Lord came tomorrow, what would he think of what we have done with His creation? Are we wasting our oil, or are we preserving it for its intended purpose?
(Note: More thorough thinking along these lines has been done by others, e.g. an evangelical pastor carrying a sign to a Pro-Life rally saying "Stop Mercury Poisoning of the Unborn."
Most functional belief systems, in the end, provide some insight into the realities of life and death. My hope is that life-affirming religions tend to outlast the nihilistic ones, and non-nihilistic believers are likely to agree with rational science-types on at least some fundamental practices of sustainable living.
What? Jesus-Freaks and Athiest Geeks on the same page?
If you believe in evolution, then long-lasting religions are evolved like other cultural practices, to more or less fit the conditions (i.e. laws of nature) under which they evolved. There might be some locally abberations as religions move around the world, and due to human innovation adding more-than-random mutations. Ultimately these iron themselves out. What works, lasts; what doesn't, fades.
If you believe in Creation, then there's a pretty good chance that any non-sadistic Creator would lay down the same laws in physical Creation as in the religious writings. So, even though the science types may turn up a few contradictions with the written Word, by and large they're going to be collecting a picture of Nature as God intended it to work.
So don't be surprised if these groups come to similar conclusions from time to time, in spite of their mistrust of one another's premises. And if you're a card-carrying member of one camp or the other, do us all a favor and don't define your position by automatic disagreement with the others. Waste of everybody's time, and your good name.)