Cathedrals in sea decline: Reef should show how creation is knit together

I am asked, often, “I know what you are opposed to, but what are you for?”

How is this for an answer? I am for a sustainable creation. I am for Jerusalem.

Oh, I know: Who is against Jerusalem? Who is for chaos?

Yet the question moves with the questioner, toward a familiar direction: compromise, the magnetic north of politics.

In 15 years of watching Florida’s environment — and intensely now, global warming and climate change — even when land purchases, global assurances and hard lines drawn on a map are held as signs of progress, compromise is no match to the threats.

And so it was a few weeks ago I hovered with swim fins and face mask above a patch of coral reef in the Caribbean, and in a mood alternating between determination and resignation, what came to mind first, was Jerusalem.

As recently as a few years ago, this patch reef would have showed how creation is knit together. That is what Jerusalem does, and reefs, too, the most ecologically diverse places on the planet.

But what I found knit nothing. The reef was gray, as though erased, and on closer inspection as if a hammer had blasted what had been elkhorn, staghorn and brain corals to colorless bits.

I knew what I was seeing: It is happening off the coast of Florida.

As I floated over this rubble — a few wrasse and parrot fish like orphans in a gutted cathedral — I thought to myself: This is what trouble looks like.

Not the trouble we endure with work, or to put food on the table, and not even the trouble of life-threatening disease. This trouble speaks of more than we know.

You don’t have to swim over a reef to understand this. You don’t even have to be in the Caribbean — it could be Key West. You don’t even have to know how to swim to understand that, as evidence of sustainable creation disappears, our grasp of what needs defending disappears, too.

Warming oceans are altering critical components of the food chain faster than species can adapt around the changes. There is evidence that rising sea levels are destroying communities at the polar north, altering the normal flow of ocean currents, and fueling more intense, extreme weather events on land and sea. Around the world, coral reefs are in sharp decline.

And within our own bodies, genetic changes from industrial and agricultural pollution are altering the clockspring of life.

Billions of people look to Jerusalem as the single place that represents the whole of creation. But I take Jerusalem to be every place where mankind breathes. I take every coral reef in decline to be a place showing how we have pushed nature beyond the capacity of compensatory systems based on knowledge, ingenuity and government.

So what am I for?

I am for the common wealth of society. I am for our common wealth, the coral reefs, rivers and streams, the Everglades, the clean air and clean water life requires.

I am for fair and equitable assessment of costs to growth, so that the road paved with good intentions and concrete made from limestone is not also a six-lane highway to perdition.

I am for the coral reef and every action that washes one generation after the next, unguided by human hand. I am for Jerusalem that is, like the coral reef, an edge of a place.

Without an edge of a place to penetrate the mystery of creation, we are lost, and Jerusalem is nothing but a city expressing mankind’s most crippling tendencies.

So when people ask what I am for, my answer has to do with space and breathing room, and the urgency of returning economic imperatives and false statistics to the lower rungs of the ladder we climb to reach a useful and productive life, measured not by consumption of valuable possessions but by appreciation, respect and caring for the gifts we have been given as caretakers and stewards for future generations.
Am I an idealist?

I think I am a realist.

Life is a cathedral held together by the fragile, thin layer of atmosphere and unique, so far as we can see, in the entire universe. We don’t need any more evidence.

Near the surface, we can reach out to creation, but only if it is intact.

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