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Our Living World, Part 5: Air

A flock of egrets flies over the Amazon River near Manaus, Brazil. The air in the Earth's atmosphere is made up of 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen. Facts courtesy of NASA; photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist Communications.
A flock of egrets flies over the Amazon River near Manaus, Brazil. The air in the Earth's atmosphere is made up of 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen. Facts courtesy of NASA; photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist Communications.

Access the entire "Our Living World" series here.

The first creation story in the Bible (Genesis 1:1-2:3) never mentions air. In the second creation story (Genesis 2:4 ff.), air appears for the first time in the form of a breath (“nishmath” in Hebrew) “puffed” into a human being, one formed from the dust of the earth, by God. This puff of air brings the human being to life (Genesis 2:7).

The measure of whether a being is living in the Hebrew Bible is whether it breathes, whether it inhales and exhales air. Air and life are inextricably bound together. Yet, air as such is never described as something created by God. Its existence, essential though it is, is simply taken for granted in the creation stories.

Much the same is true about the existence of the air all around us in our lives. We take it for granted. We barely notice it.

Unless, that is, something about it causes us discomfort.

In recent times, heat domes, bomb blizzards, alterations in the location of the polar vortex or major ocean currents, and smoke from wildfires have caused many more of us to notice the air around us and either adapt or find ways to address our discomfort. If the air is too hot or too cold, we adapt or try to alter its temperature. If the air is too humid or too dry, we change its moisture level. If it brings bad smells, or carries too much pollen, pollution or smoke, we try to get away from it, or filter it or do what we can to reduce air pollution.

United Methodist statements about air and our relationship with air mirror this dual sense of its necessity for life for all in our living world and the fact that we do not otherwise notice it or speak about it until it becomes uncomfortable or polluted.

Valuing air as part of creation

The Social Principles state the intrinsic value of air as part of our living world. “Water, air, soil, minerals, energy resources, plants, animal life, and space are to be valued and conserved because they are God’s creation and not solely because they are useful to human beings.” While the biblical creation accounts never speak of the creation of air itself, it is, with animal life, plants, water and land, part of God’s creative work, to be treated as holy because the Holy One made it. 

How does an awareness of air as holy affect how you interact with air? How you breathe? How you approach the tasks of daily living? Whether or how much you will continue to use internal combustion engines for driving, lawn care or generating power, even in emergencies? Whether or how much you will continue to support and tolerate industries that pollute the air more than they preserve it?

Clean air: a basic right for all

Resolution 1033 (Caring for Creation: A Call to Stewardship and Justice) sets a positive platform for United Methodist advocacy and action to protect air quality across our living world. “We believe clean air is a basic right and necessity for all life.” For that reason, air must be understood to be “outside the control of different nations” and, instead, “must be developed and preserved for the benefit of all.”

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These beliefs have several practical consequences. First, protection of air cannot be left up to individual cities, states, or nations. It requires the development of policies that apply worldwide. This is why the resolution calls on United Methodists, including the General Board of Church and Society and United Women and Faith, to be directly involved in “the ongoing global dialog on sustainability through the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development” (now known as the High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development).

Second, United Methodists are to do all in our power, as individuals, churches and agencies, to reduce our impacts on polluting the air and compromising the atmosphere in ways that contribute to the acceleration of global climate change. The resolution specifically calls upon Wespath to oversee this work at the denominational level.

The ongoing development of net-zero carbon emission plans by the general agencies are one part of this initiative. The Earthkeepers program of Global Ministries is another. A training event to help launch new Earthkeepers groups in local communities worldwide and connect them to the Global Ministries Creation Care Network is scheduled for Oct. 5-8, 2023, in three venues across the United States (Birmingham, Alabama; Denver, Colorado; Hartford, Connecticut). 

How are United Women in Faith units in your congregation, district and conference involved in advocacy for international protocols to protect air and our atmosphere for the good of all in our living world? How are plans to reduce air pollution and climate impacts proceeding in your conference, local church and community?

Reducing air pollution

The Social Principles call United Methodists to advocate for social policies that “assist the cleanup of polluted air.” This call plays out in two resolutions specifically addressing life in the region of North America and actions of the United States.

Resolution 6058, “U.S. Policy in Vieques” notes the success of efforts to end (in 2003) U.S. Navy military practice on the island near Puerto Rico that had been used for bomb practice since the 1930s, but laments the fact that the process of “cleaning up” the unexploded bombs in the region is open-air explosion, thus creating even more air and environmental contamination that contributes to high rates of cancer and respiratory disease on the island. United Methodists are asked to provide ongoing advocacy through the U.S. Congress and the Environmental Protection Agency to end open-air explosion as part of a larger program of environmental restoration. Progress is being made. Cleanup at Vieques and Culebra is anticipated to be completed by 2032.

And Resolution 6072, “United States-Mexico Border,” notes that air pollution levels on both sides of the border are continuing to increase. This exacerbates the already-challenging social, political, health and economic situation of people and all living things near the border. United Methodists “recommend and urge the Mexican and U.S. governments to … develop binational and multilateral agreements that … prevent the contamination of air, water, and land of both sides of the border.” Advocacy from United Methodists and others resulted in the Border 2020 framework that, in turn, has led to a Border 2025 framework. Under these frameworks, air quality is regularly on both sides of the border by the Environmental Protection Agency (United States) and  the Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (Mexico). Both governmental organizations are taking steps to improve the quality of air, water and land in this region.  

While United Methodist resolutions have specifically addressed air pollution and air quality in regions of or close to the United States, they have yet to address such matters in other places in our living world. Especially if you are reading this series in places other than the United States, or you have knowledge of pressing needs for the protection of or cleanup of air or other elements of our living world where you are, what resolutions will you propose to the 2024 General Conference?

The United Methodist Church remains a worldwide denomination. The air, part of God’s good creation, is shared by all humans and living things. Your voice can help our General Conference take actions to advocate and work for the good of all of us in our living world. You may submit your own resolutions to the 2024 General Conference by Sept. 6, 2023.   


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