Climate refugees are a growing reality

By Father Bud Grant

Years ago I planted about 30 species of native grasses and forbs on my property. Over the years I noticed that several species had “moved,” seeking shade or sun, wetter or drier soil. Of course they didn’t really move, but, by seed or rhizome, they cast their pro­geny abroad as migrants looking for better living conditions. Soon, colonies of Maximillian Sunflower set up near the barn while Ironweed dropped roots around the culvert. New England Astor encircled the house. Canada Wild Rye is showing up in fence lines.

Native prairies, being God’s creation, are intrinsically good. Natives also have practical value. They don’t need mowing or fertilizers. They attract other natives, including pollinators. They build soil and sequester carbon dioxide. They’re excellent forage. Prairie wetlands reduce flooding and erosion and purify water.

Prairies are beautiful, once we get over the artificial tidiness of parks and yards and recognize their deeper order and complex harmony. But we’ve been conditioned to prefer domesticated “drug dependent rugs,” as ecologist Chad Graeve calls bluegrass (incidentally, not from Kentucky but Europe). Prairies are wild — they can be managed but not tamed. While we like to arrange plants like ornaments, by color or height, or we use them to camouflage the fuel tank, natives remind us that natural beauty cannot be easily subdued and dominated.

I learned a lot from my experiments of living with natives, but the most interesting thing they’ve taught me is that nature moves. It has a phenomenal capacity to adapt. Nature is always changing, shifting, accommodating to circumstances. It is kinetic equilibrium … balance in motion … like a hawk coursing an air current.

However, as with forced human migrations, there is a dark side: most species in my prairie have declined and some have just disappeared. That’s true all over the Tallgrass Prairie, only 0.01 percent of which survives in Iowa. That’s because we have fundamentally changed the rules. Capstone native graziers are locally extinct. Fire is generally suppressed. We channel away water like a problem and pour on chemicals as if they are solutions. Prairies have become plowed fields and paradise a parking lot.

Nature moves very slowly. That has never before been a cause for concern. But now anthropogenic climate change is so rapid that ecosystems are shuffling like Ents (tree herders in Lord of the Rings). The transition from Plains to Prairie has moved 140 miles east. Aspen and Maple forests are headed north. Oceans are headed up. Natural and human obstacles make species migration a race against time. Because plant and animal phenology (timing of seasonal activities) are intimately synchronized to the benefit of both, like bees to bee balm, they must move at the same rate. But we really don’t know if they can.

For some, the race is probably already lost. Vertebrates would have to speed up their evolutionary adaptation 10,000 times faster than they can in order to keep up with the transformation of their ecosystem, which is now measured in decades instead of millennia.

Humans are migrating too: climate refugees are a growing reality. Tens of millions of people may already be impacted. The gross injustice is that impoverished countries who least contribute to the climate crisis are paying the highest and most immediate price.

Our faith demands that we care for the “stranger and sojourner” (LV.19:33-34) but, we are all “strangers and guests” on the land of God (LV 25:23). In 1980, the bishops of the Midwestern region warned us that “The land is living and helps provide life for all creatures. When it is abused, the land and all creatures dependent on it suffer. Abuse of the land is therefore abuse of people, abuse of God’s creation and abuse of the responsibility of stewardship. On the other hand, conservation of the land promotes its vitality, assures a harmonious relationship between people and the natural environment and fosters the wellbeing of all creatures.” (“Strangers and Guests” 66).

(Father Bud Grant is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)

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