By Fr. Bud Grant
Scientific research is sounding dire warnings. One set of studies examines the slowing of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), meaning a current, basically, which cycles warm water north and cooler water south. It is at a 1,600-year low and, significantly, has dropped 15 percent since the Industrial Revolution. AMOC controls the circulation of nutrients in the ocean and heat all over the planet. How all this happens is best left for scientists to describe (Nature, April 11, 2018). But we should be aware of the consequences … which are annoyingly untidy.
It seems that Europe and the U.S. will experience “pockets of record warm and record cold right next to one another” (NPR “Here & Now,” April 13, 2018). The Gulf of Maine is the warmest it has been since St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that “the whole universe, along with every part thereof is ordered by God toward an end, as such it reflects Divine goodness and demonstrates the Glory of God” (ST I.65.2).
Long-range prognosis is yet inconclusive, but it is possible that the calculations are underestimating the consequences. More research is required, although we may be overwhelmed by the consequences before we know exactly what is going on.
We might lean on Thomas for a bit of wisdom: it is by “remembrance of the past … and understanding of what is present [that] we craft how to provide for the future” (ST I.22.a.1). Put simply, we would be prudent to prepare for the future by carefully examining the past and present. We can’t really put that off.
Another pair of studies hits closer to home, if such a thing can be said in reference to global changes. The “climate boundary” between the agricultural Midwest and the “arid west” is shifting. The explorer-scientist John Wesley Powell designated the 100th meridian as the dividing line between the Tallgrass and Shortgrass prairies or, in our times, corn and wheat country (the prairies mostly having succumbed to the plow long ago). According to researcher Richard Seager, that ecological boundary has moved 140 miles to the east (the 98th meridian) and will keep moving.
This is tied to climate change. Rainfall hasn’t changed (yet, rain is expected to increase — in fewer, more intense, early season storms). Rather, creeping aridity results from rising temperatures which trigger “evapotranspiration” of moisture from the soil. Seager predicts that farms farther and farther east “will have to consolidate and become larger in order to remain viable. Unless farmers turn to irrigation or otherwise adapt, they will have to turn from corn to wheat…. Large expanses of cropland may fail altogether, and have to be converted to western-style grazing range.” (State of the Planet, Earth Institute, Columbia University, “The 100th Meridian…” Kevin Krajick, April 11, 2018). In short, Iowa is becoming Kansas.
Prophesy, in our tradition, means “reading the signs of the times” (Mt.16:3) and warning God’s people with the choice: persist in a destructive trajectory and lose the holy land or change the trajectory and be restored to it. The prophet challenges our complacency and comforts in our afflictions. In this “anthropocene” epoch (Nature, Feb. 12, 2004) of ecological degradation, humans are simultaneously the afflicted and the complacent.
We have need of prophets to stir us to an awareness of our crisis, to awaken our conscience, grow more attentive to our choices and to take care in our actions. We are not without prophets — scientists certainly stir our awareness. Thomas, arguably, stimulates our intellectual awakening. And there is this from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: “salvation consists in our union with Christ who, by his Incarnation, death and Resurrection has brought about a new order…to accept, heal, and renew our relationships with others and with the created world” (Plaucit Deo [“God was pleased…” c.f. Ephesians 1:9] Feb. 22, 2018). Responding to such prophetic warnings would surely please God.
(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)