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Sabbath Day

November 8, 2013

A weekly post to keep me accountable to the Fourth Commandment.

An entirely restorative day.

After taking my wife Noelle to the train and my son August to school, I spent the entire morning with a pot of coffee, some good music, and a book. Right now I am working on Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? by  Alan Weisman. This is his long awaited follow up to The World Without Us, which I finished a few weeks ago. In the latter book, Weisman imagines the future of our planet if humanity were to suddenly disappear (by magic, rapture, species specific virus or alien attack, etc). Chapter by chapter it details the decay of our achievements and the return of nature, even while chronicling  the lasting (and destructive) changes we have made to the planet. Again and again I found myself imagining with hope this human-free world and wondering, is there a hope for a world that could include us?

In Countdown, Weisman picks up where he left off, with the question of human population. (For those getting up the speed, here is a brief NYTimes piece review of the book). As I explained to my son on our walk to school, there are currently 7 billion people on earth. Within his lifetime, if nothing changes, that number will likely exceed 10 billion – at which point we are no longer viable as a species. Any future for us human beings requires that we avoid this 10 billion mark, and any sustainable future requires that we reduce ourselves from the current 7 billion. (Sustainability might be reached at 4 billion, with an optimum presence probably being 2 billion – neither of which are in our near future). And so Weisman travels the world, speaking to experts in every field and asking four questions:

* How many people can our planet really hold?

* Is there an acceptable, non-violent way of reducing our population?

* How much eco-system is required to maintain human life? (At what point to we push something off the planet that we didn’t realize our own existence depends on, until too late?)

* Can we imagine an economy for a shrinking population, and then a stable one – meaning an economy that can prosper without depending on constant growth?

The cumulative effect of both books is to be filled with images that demand attention and action. In just two months (post Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas) I will be celebrating with my church the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. But this year it will be impossible without thinking about the fact that all but 2 percent of the Jordan River water is today allotted to agriculture and other uses.

What dribbles to the Dead Sea is runoff from fields or fish farms, sour with pesticides, fertilizer, hormones, fish wastes, and untreated sewage. Pilgrims trying to bathe at the spot where tradition says Jesus was baptized and Joshua crossed into the Holy Land would contract a rash – or vomit, should they swallow some of the once-pure holy water.

On the way to school I told my son about the book I would be reading on my sabbath, and he wanted to know what the right answers were to the four questions. I told him (honestly) that I hadn’t gotten that far in the book, but that I knew asking how to reduce our numbers was at least the right question. Perhaps in his lifetime he could contribute to the answer.

Well, he is in second grade and currently proud of his ability to do quick math in his head. And he thinks concretely. So, granting that we need to step back from the brink of ten billion people and seek to reduce our numbers to something like four, he suggested that “the easiest way would be to simply kill 6 billion people,” which chilled me to the bone. He then suggested that we could also reduce population if people stopped getting married, because then we would stop having babies. Ignoring the need to propagate the species in some way, as well as how pregnancy actually happens, he then invented family planning (either through infanticide or decisions to have small families). I told him he was now a family planning advocate, and promised follow up conversations as I continued reading, and then he was off to school.

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My afternoon was taken up with a brief visit to my church, getting up to date with The Walking Dead, and answering the 14 item How Millennial Are You? questionnaire by the Pew Research Center. (Thanks to Susan De George for posting this and hosting the feedback). I’m scored 82 out of 100. I also managed two hours of much needed house cleaning.

After school, August and I picked up mom at the train station, dropped her off at home and then went to Toys-R-Us as a reward for his getting perfect scores on his first five spelling tests this year, including the “super spelling test.” We also did some grocery shopping and picked up dinner.

Following dinner, while he and mom did homework, I cleaned the bathroom and scrubbed the shower – including steam mopping the floor. We then retreated to the attic/play room which I had spent the afternoon cleaning and had a Family Dance Night. This was our best Dance Party since moving to White Plains three years ago, and August demonstrated new moves I can only imagine where he learned. I would not trade times like this for anything in the world. As bedtime approached, August insisted that Noelle and  sit to watch him do ballet to classical music and the “liturgical dance” to an organ concert of Christmas music.

In bed, August read Harry Potter to me and fell asleep imaging possible flavors for Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans. “Sweaty T-Shirt” was his favorite.

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