Humility’s Inconvenient Truths

My wood-pallet compost bin is decomposing. Not only the leaves and coffee grounds and eggshells inside it, but the bin itself. It desperately needs to be replaced. But this is a truth I would rather not face. It is, to borrow the title of a recent movie, an inconvenient truth. For replacing my compost bin requires some work on my part–racking down four more pallets, hammering them together, slopping some paint on the finished product to make it look respectable. Not much work really, but work I would rather not do, at least not now, not yet.

So also with much greater and graver matters. There is much that we face in the world today that could be considered an inconvenient truth. Global warming, for example, the topic of Al Gore’s recent film. I saw the movie this summer when it premiered in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Nine hundred people packed the theatre that hot and muggy night, and almost all stayed for the panel presentations and hour-long discussion that followed. Melting Earth Indeed, I was a member of the panel, along with a climate scientist from the University of Michigan, a local green business leader, a community activist, and the mayor of Grand Rapids. It was clear to the crowd that night, as it was to the panel members (despite our other differences of opinion), that global warming is an extremely pressing issue and, inconvenient or not, something that must be acknowledged and addressed by us all.

The truth, to put it simply, is this: the greenhouse effect is real, greenhouse gases are rising, the global average temperature is increasing at an alarming rate, we humans are causing this increase in temperature, and we are now seeing all over the world many negative consequences of this increase in temperature. A nd perhaps the most disturbing truth is that we really don’t know how serious the effects will be. As one scientist put it, the climate system is like a wild animal, and we are poking it with a stick.

If so, then why was “An Inconvenient Truth” not seen by more people? Why not a rush to see a well-made movie that, as people on all sides of the political spectrum now admit, speaks to one of the most important issues of our time? Why did “An Inconvenient Truth” not top the box office this summer, instead of “Pirates of the Caribbean” part two?

Perhaps because A l Gore is right–global warming truly is an inconvenient truth–and we North Americans don’t want to face up to this truth about life in the twenty-first century. The power of denial is strong. For if what this film depicts is true, then we have to change how we live. But we just don’t want to change–our driving habits, our eating patterns, our way of life–even though living differently, more simply, might be healthier for us and our home planet.

For Christians, our refusal to face the reality of a warming world is yet another example of our failure to accept our finitude. We live in a finite world–a world of limits. There is only so much to go around–whether fossil fuel to burn or carbon sinks to absorb what we burn. A nd we are finite. There are limits to what we can know, including the short and long-term effects of our actions. Therefore we must, as Scripture often reminds us, acknowledge our finitude–the finitude of what we too unthinkingly call “resources” and what we too quickly call “knowledge.” We must, in short, be humble. We are, after all, as Genesis 2 teaches us, humans made from the humus, and so humility ought to come easily. Humus. What I get from my compost bin. A nother reminder that I–we–need to get to work.

Steven Bouma-Prediger teaches in the Religion Department at Hope College, when he isn’t turning his compost or paddling his canoe.