November 21, 1980 began like any other day for the men aboard a Texaco oil rig on Lake Pegneur, a 1300 acre lake in Louisiana USA. Day in, day out they would sink a drill down through the muddy bottom of the lake searching for oil. But on November 21, 1980 things got a little crazy. Below the surface of the lake was a salt mine, and it appears someone on the Texaco oil rig made a miscalculation that sent their drill straight into one of the salt mine’s tunnels.
What happened next was not dissimilar to pulling the plug out of a bath. A massive whirlpool formed, that first brought down the oil rig (the workers had earlier evacuated), took down a second oil rig, eleven barges, a tug boat, trucks, trees, a loading dock. In three hours all 13.2 billion litres of water in that lake were drained, along with everything on and around the lake.
I suspect this story is an apt parable for our times. God has given us a beautiful and amazing planet, a planet with two unique features. First, it has the ability to renew itself. We can harvest fish from the ocean and the fish that remain will reproduce to replace those we have taken. We can take trees from the forests and new ones will grow up to take their place. Second, the earth has the capacity to take the waste we produce and recycle it into something useful. Perhaps the greatest example is the one we all learned in school – trees absorb the carbon dioxide we produce and turn it into oxygen.
It’s quite amazing. But here’s the bad news. We are withdrawing resources from the earth at a rate faster than they can replenish and we are creating waste at a rate faster than the earth can absorb and recycle. And scientists tell us that we are heading for disaster.
In 2009 a group of scientists wrote a paper called “Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity”. The concept was profound but simple. The earth has a number of key systems that we depend on. But these systems all have limits, and once we cross those limits the negative impacts begin to cascade. Of these systems they were able to measure seven, and they found we have already crossed the safe boundary on three and we are rapidly approaching the boundary on the rest.