Building arks: A call to action amidst ecological crisis

The great ecological flood of global warming is sweeping life away, writes Raymond R. Roberts, but we are not without options or hope.

Photo by Matt Palmer on Unsplash

I returned to a coral reef behind Johnny’s Cay in the Bahamas a few years ago. I brought my children along this time, eager to introduce them to the astonishing beauty of reef life. While I had read about the decline of the world’s reefs, I was not prepared for the stark difference I would witness in the reef.

What once had been a fantastical seascape looked like an underwater desert. Yellow staghorn coral no longer stretched to the water’s surface like limbs of a tree. They lay broken on the ocean sand, like bleached cow bones. Gone were the sea fans and the brilliant flamingo tongue snails cleaning them. Gone were the eels warily watching from crevices. Gone were the swarms of iridescent fish swarming up a stream of light. Gone were the urchins with their constantly moving spines and tiny fish darting between them. Gone were patrolling schools of yellowtail. Gone were the parrot fish. Gone were the grouper lurking in the shadows.

The saltwater in my mask was my tears.

Dead Reef under the sea
Photo by carlosrojas20

The most striking thing about my experience happened later that night at dinner. A mom at the next table spoke with her children: “Didn’t we have fun swimming on the reef behind Johnny’s Cay? Wasn’t it beautiful? So many fish!”

She didn’t know.

That’s the trouble with environmental degradation. We don’t remember how it used to be, so we don’t appreciate what’s been lost. The journals of Lewis and Clark report vast herds of buffalo, pronghorn and elk. Nobody alive remembers this. Older friends may recall farms and forests where strip malls and parking lots now stand, but commuters do not remember. My grandchildren will never know how streetlights used to attract colossal clouds of insects.

A great ecological flood is sweeping life away. Scientists say that we are living through the Anthropocene extinction. They tell us that the Great Barrier Reef has lost half its living mass since the 1950s, that California has lost 96% of its kelp forests, that between 2018 and 2022 the Gulf of Maine lost 50% of its seagrass meadows, that 75% of the ocean’s largest fish are gone.

Things are hardly better on land. Some estimate that Americans have transformed 95% of natural landscapes into cities, parking lots, roads, strip malls, farms, and suburban lawns. Over the past 50 years, wild populations of vertebrates have plummeted 69%. Scientists raise alarms about the staggering loss of insect and bird life. 2023 will go down as the hottest year on record.

When we consider the flood of bad news, we can feel helpless, swept away by forces beyond our control.

When we consider the flood of bad news, we can feel helpless, swept away by forces beyond our control. For this reason, we should consider the story of Noah and the great flood.

Build an ark

In preparation for the flood, God called Noah to build an ark. We, too, can respond to the flood of ecological disasters. For people in suburban neighborhoods, this may mean turning their yards into lifeboats for plants, insects, and animals. They can rip out lawns and invasive, non-native plants, replacing them with native shrubs, trees and meadow plants that support local insect and bird life. They can leave leaf litter in the beds, providing a habitat for small animals and shelter for moth and butterfly caterpillars. People in condominiums can ask their landscaping committees to do the same.

Urban dwellers can grow native plants on balconies, terraces or rooftops and push city councils to restore the urban canopy and expand greenspace that is friendly to local fauna.

We can branch out beyond our yards, encouraging our homeowners’ associations to change the aesthetic expectations and ethos of neighborhood gardens. We can join others in passing low-impact landscaping laws that prevent HOAs from forbidding environmentally friendly gardening. We can ask garden centers to offer native plants and encourage schools to teach children to appreciate native trees, shrubs and fauna.

ice caps melting
Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

Presbyterians can lead the rest of the church in establishing a liturgical holiday on par with Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, to celebrate God’s work of creation along with the human responsibility for creation care. It makes sense to celebrate this in the fall, coinciding with the Jewish celebration of Rosh Hashanah, which focuses on God’s work of creation and the beginning of the New Year. The current PC(USA) creation care emphasis is timed with Earth Day and gets lost amidst Lent, Holy Week and Easter.

Noah built an ark in preparation for the flood. He followed God’s direction and acted to save what was good. May we do the same.

The power of two

The prospect of an oncoming flood is overwhelming. Perhaps it helps to consider that Noah was not called to save every animal, just two of each. Two is doable.

That said, two can seem insignificant when the flood is upon us. And yet, for the cardinals nesting in the mountain laurel, the caterpillars devouring your milkweed, or the migrating wax wings feasting on the serviceberries, your yard or balcony can be a lifeline.

If we embark on the adventure of learning how to garden in harmony with nature, people will notice.

Two may not seem like many, but the impact becomes noteworthy in the aggregate. If we embark on the adventure of learning how to garden in harmony with nature and restore our little corner of Eden, people will notice. If we convince two households on our street to turn their yards into an ark, and if they each convince two other people, then, perhaps, our neighborhood can support a pair of red-shouldered hawks. Soon our lifeboat may join a flotilla.

The EPA estimates that gas-powered lawnmowers account for 5% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. A slight change in the collective ethos and aesthetic of gardening could easily knock a percentage or two off this. Noah reminds us of the power of two.


Fear and grief are natural responses when the world is burning. In small amounts, fear can alert us to problems and motivate us to solve them. But if we allow fear to possess us, it can produce a sense of powerlessness and paralysis. Or, conversely, it can inspire deadly, destructive action, as we fight to secure our existence at the expense of others.

The biblical tradition teaches that trust in God can be an antidote to consuming fear and its pathologies. Noah demonstrated such trust by building the ark and enduring the storm. The flood story closes with God placing a rainbow in the clouds. We are invited to view this as a sign of God’s promise and an invitation to trust the God of life.

Noah’s faithfulness was used to restore creation and repopulate the earth. We have reasons to believe that our faithfulness can be used similarly.

Noah’s faithfulness was used to restore creation and repopulate the earth. We have reasons to believe that our faithfulness can be used similarly. We have seen ecological disaster areas return to life. For example, Boston Harbor was once one of the most polluted harbors in the country. Thanks to efforts by federal, state and local officials as well as community and environmental organizations, it is now both fishable and swimmable. As a result, charter fishing in the harbor has become a flourishing industry.

Again, in the 1960s Rachel Carson warned of a “silent spring,” claiming that the indiscriminate use of DDT was causing the extinction of raptors. 50 years after DDT was banned, raptor populations are recovering.

We have yet to see what restoring the urban tree canopy and the suburban meadow and ecotone (or forest edge) might yield, but it promises to be beautiful for the planet and its creatures. We likely won’t be able to reverse all of the damage, but we can foster new life and hope. That is worth something.

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