The holy work of disaster prevention

The work of disaster relief is more crucial than words can say — crucial, as in highly important and urgent, but also crucial, as in cross-shaped, cruciform. Emptying ourselves in the service of others is essential if we are to follow the way of Christ (as in Philippians 2).  And the “others” include not only neighbors and friends, but also the stranger and even the enemy whom Christ calls us to love. 

Disasters manifest themselves in many forms. Some are weather-related. Some are terrorist-instigated. Some are racially and ethnically motivated. 

Often our attention is captured by the immediacy of sheer numbers; the greater number of lives lost, the more our hearts break. But immediacy is not the only measure of need. Cumulative pain is just as essential for us to attend to — it’s just harder for us to notice. 

It takes effort to keep on our radar asylum-seekers escaping drug cartels and violence and undocumented Bahamians fleeing the devastation of Hurricane Dorian who are no longer welcome in the U.S. This is not new to America: The 900 Jewish refugees on the M.S. St. Louis who sought shelter here in 1939 were turned away and sent to their fate in Nazi Germany. We are prone to forget. In planning the extermination of the Jews, Adolf Hitler famously said, “Who remembers the Armenians?” — referring to the genocide of 1915, which my family endured.  

Paying attention to ongoing needs is as crucial as immediate disaster relief. And – even more importantly – we also need to engage in disaster prevention. 

Prevention may seem impossible — and indeed, in some cases it is. But much can be done. We can hold our government accountable for the safety of the children in our care who have crossed our Southern border. We can press for reasonable gun legislation to prevent more mass shootings. We can resist cultural silos based on racial, ethnic, political and religious differences to prevent civil fragmentation. 

And – most urgently – we can intervene in the fast-progressing climate change. Here are a few facts offered by NASA: 

The Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets have decreased in mass. Greenland lost an average of 286 billion tons of ice per year between 1993 and 2016, while Antarctica lost about 127 billion tons of ice per year during the same time period. The rate of Antarctic ice mass loss has tripled in the last decade.

Global sea levels rose about eight inches in the last century. The rate in the last two decades is nearly double that of the last century and is accelerating every year.

The planet’s average surface temperature has risen about 1.62 degrees Fahrenheit since the late 19th century, a change driven largely by increased carbon dioxide and other human-made emissions into the atmosphere. Most of the warming occurred in the past 35 years, with the five warmest years on record taking place since 2010. Not only was 2016 the warmest year on record, but eight of the 12 months that make up the year were the warmest on record for those respective months. 

With climate change unfolding at this rate, we are putting millions of people at risk of preventable weather-related catastrophes. 

What can we do? Plenty, and fast. We can take a cue from India’s playbook: Committed to keeping its forests, but hampered by rapid industrialization, they planted 220 million trees in a single day.  We can follow the World Resources Institute’s mandate to cut in half the 1.3 billion tons of food wasted every year — which would lower greenhouse gas emissions, eliminate the need to clear more land for crops and vastly mitigate food insecurity. And – perhaps most urgently – we can press our government to reverse its current trend of reversing protections for the environment.  

Without urgent action, all the generous compassion in the world ex post facto will be hopelessly inadequate. Disaster relief is important; much more crucial is disaster prevention.