Friends, once in a while I receive a letter conveying such a deep religious concern for God’s Creation, I just have to pass it around.
That was the case here.
Today, at the end of what I experienced as an unusually deep and blessed meeting for worship, I heard a Friend give vocal ministry with a message somewhat like this:
“‘Are you ready?’ Early Friends often asked this question of one another, even of children. ‘Are you ready for death?’ Printed accounts were made of children’s spiritual journeys. Nowadays, with the advances of modern medicine, we’re less likely to hear such a query exchanged among Friends. But it’s still relevant.
“Einstein is said to have once said, ‘Once the bees die, the human race has only four more years to live.’ 1 In Eastern Ohio, a family of Friends has lost 80% of their apple crop and may lose their farm. Another family of Friends there that keeps bees has lost almost all their hives. Honeybees are dying in great numbers. And this 2 has been happening all over the country over the past six months.
“What if we all had only four more years to live? What would we do differently? What would we decide was not worth doing any more, and stop doing? What would we start putting much more time and effort into? What old grievances would we forget, what reconciliation’s would we make?
“Of course, we’ve had many expectations of an imminent end of human life over the past millennia, and in the end they’ve come to nothing. We may hope that, by the mercy of God, we’ll survive this one too. But the question is still timely and important: ‘Are you ready?’”
My first thought was that whatever happens in God’s universe is for our spiritual good, and whether we’re to live or die, God is to be trusted and glorified. But my second thought was that, if we humans were all to die over the next four years for want of pollinating bees to renew our crops, or for any other reason, those of us whose lives were dedicated to the service of God would surely be mobilized, and endowed with spiritual gifts, to give extraordinary service to our spiritually and materially distressed neighbors. So the next question, after “Are you ready for death?” would be, “Are you ready for your spiritual gifts?”
What would those spiritual gifts be? I couldn’t imagine. Oh, of course I could start to imagine what we might need as our threatened extinction approached: Peacemakers. Healers. Warners. Relief workers. Hearers of confessions. False prophets would predictably abound, and we’d surely need true ones to offer clarity.
We might need martyrs to model steadfastness as our more fearful and famine-driven neighbors stressed and tempted us. But God always knows our needs better than I or anyone else, and no doubt some of the gifts and offices we’d get don’t even have names yet – not in languages used on earth. And we’re not asked to second-guess God, only to be faithful, and willing to stretch to take on the new tasks as they come.
Our spiritual challenge is fundamentally no different from that faced by the first generation of Christians, to whom Peter announced that they were in the “last days” (Acts 2:17) and that “the end of all things is at hand” (1 Peter 4:7). Or, for that matter, from that faced by any generation of humans, to whom death can always come without warning, as Jesus reminded us in his parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:20).
Today, as we live through what scientists are calling the Holocene Extinction Event, the man-made and sixth great wave of species extinctions since 439 million years ago, we know beyond doubt that we’re at the threshold of great changes that put our survival at risk. A die-off of bees could well trigger a die-off of many staple crops, and then famine, economic collapse, plague, and a war of all but the peaceable against all.
Still lacking a world social order that reflects our obligation to love one another and treat the earth’s bounty as a sacred stewardship, humanity goes staggering into the future like a drunk in a mine field. But even in soberer times, the question is always “are you ready?” It always invites us to discern specific things we need to part with, and calls on us to let them go.
— John Edminster
Tuesday, May 8, 2007
- The recently named “Colony Collapse Disorder”. (Return to text.)
Editor’s note: Now, about the assumptions on which this letter rests. There are two points I suspect need to be addressed.
First — from where I sit, the honeybee die-off doesn’t appear to threaten enough crops to pose a danger of immediate human famine. Many of you will doubtless have thought of this, too. We humans get most of our calories and nourishment from five plant species — wheat, rice, corn, soybeans and potatoes — and of these, only soybeans are dependent on the honeybees. Wheat, rice and corn, being grasses, can get by on wind-borne pollination, and potatoes can be grown from cuttings.
But the impact on soybeans is still a very, very big problem. Both directly and as livestock feed, soybeans provide a major part of humanity’s protein; and their importance has been expected to increase as humanity’s population continues to swell. That changes if the honeybees do die off.
A honeybee on a yellow sunbride. Photo by Willi Schmitz, from iStockphoto.
In addition to soybeans, other human food crops directly threatened include apples, peaches, cherries, almonds, and other tree fruits and nuts, pumpkins and cucumbers and melons, and berries of all sorts. These crops are not needed for bare survival, but they’re important to the human race both nutritionally and psychologically.
So the fact that no immediate famine threatens, doesn’t mean that this issue is not of huge importance. A world-wide honeybee die-off still strikes directly at the shape of our children’s future.
Second — large-scale honeybee die-offs, at least reportedly from Colony Collapse Disorder (the link to CCD is not proven in all cases), are now occurring in twenty-four states of the U.S.A. (including such biggies as California and Texas), in parts of Canada, eight European nations, and parts of India and Brazil. In several U.S. states, more than three-quarters of the honeybee population is now gone.
But it is not yet proven that all these die-offs are due to the same cause. And if they’re not due to the same cause, then the overall problem might be easier to solve. Might be, I say, because having multiple causes of honeybee die-offs doesn’t really have to be better than having one world-wide cause.
So some of the assumptions implicit in Friend John’s letter do seem questionable. But even so, I expect we’ll be seeing some impact from this die-off in our supermarkets this very year. And if no solution is found, then in the course of a few more years our menus will become much simplified — especially in the fruit department — and the poorer parts of the world will have to struggle even harder against undernourishment and malnutrition than they do now.
And of course, none of this diminishes the pertinence of Friend John’s message. For his message is, at heart, not about the details of how the honeybee crisis will unfold, but about how we’ll respond to the global ecological crisis once it gets big enough.
I wish I knew the answer.