These remarks were prepared for a panel presentation at St John’s Lutheran Church on Earth Sunday April 23, 2017.
I am trained as a political scientist and work in California water policy on the big questions of how to keep water flowing to 40 million people and 7.9 million acres of irrigated farmland whilst sustaining native threatened and endangered species.
The water policy discussions I have been a part of are gaining in sophistication and specialization. Policy makers are relying on science more and more; demanding real time data to make decisions about daily water operations. This is driven in large part by environmental regulation: the California Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act, to name a few.
As a result, there is a growing gap between the voting public’s understanding of the issues and the amount of technical information used to decide if water will be released from, say Shasta reservoir, or pumped at Tracy and so forth. This is eroding trust in decision-making processes and is part of the larger story of distrust of experts and anti-intellectualism in the US today.
Political scientists study power: for example, how it is held and exercised, and how tradeoffs are brokered. The story of the state of California can be told in the story of water rights, land use battles entwined with water, and battles for control of water. Whether water is absent in drought or over abundant in floods, Californians have debated water policy for its entire modern existence.
In the first half of the 20th century, civil engineers were the heroes of the story as they built the reservoirs, canals and pumping plants of the Central Valley Project and the State Water Project, plus the flood control structures of levees and bypasses. That generation’s gifts have allowed us to rapidly grow economically with both cheap hydroelectric power and relatively cheap and abundant water.
In the second half of the 20th century the chemists and the ecologists began to play a more prominent role in the story. We demanded better water quality, and sewage treatment, and we became aware of the damage we were doing to the environment by disrupting natural ecosystems–95% of the floodplain is gone; almost as much of the wetlands and vernal pools are gone.
In my work I am always looking for more information to better understand the challenges and to look for solutions to the conflicts that continually arise over water. I look to knowledge gained through science. I also look to what I call “native wisdom” from people who have worked or lived on the land for much longer—in some instances before we developed the water systems we have today. Wisdom can come in many forms.
Humility is invaluable especially humbly acknowledging what we do not know whether it is in the field of science or while reading my Bible. I also appreciate the times when the Holy Spirit inspired actions or ideas in my work.
When I became a Christian in the 1970s, the evangelical Presbyterian Church I attended was full of engineers and doctors. Over time, as the church became more and more certain or rigid about faith matters, I felt increasingly alienated. I thought then and now that since God gave me an intellect, it is my vocation to use it in ways that make the world in better alignment with the way God calls us to live and with reverence for God’s creation.
Scientists and persons of faith need not be mutually exclusive—listening to debates amongst scientists about salmon habitat has convinced me that there is as much faith in action amongst scientists arguing their theories as there is among theologians.
And in my experience there isn’t a conflict between the stories in the Bible and the truths that social science and physical science discover, because I do not always interpret God’s wisdom in the Bible literally nor do I swallow whole every hypotheses posed by scientists.
I have learned there are many ways to understanding reality and much mystery remains. This is true if you are trying to understand the mind of God, human behavior or determine the needs of Delta Smelt.
My friend and retired science teacher Michael Bickford recently posted this on his Facebook page: “All humans are qualified to be scientists! Many people misunderstand what science is. It’s a way of defining, knowing and understanding truth. We use the truth (facts) in turn, like a tool, to determine the nature of reality and then, individually and collectively through communication, the meaning and direction of our lives together.”
Michael is a self-proclaimed atheist. And he is as hostile to the Church as some evangelicals are to science. In fact he wrote: “(Science is) under attack by those with alternatives systems of defining the truth.” In my experience it need not be a battle. While we may not seek the truth with the same methods, we are all truth seekers.
For the person of faith I would ask: why must God have created the earth in a literal 6 days for creation to be divinely awesome and amazing? And for the scientist who may be an atheist or agnostic, why is it threatening to leave room in the equation for the divine?