Occupy Creation!: The Role of Religion and Ethics in Addressing Climate Change

By Rev. Doug Bland Standing on the steps of the Newman Catholic Student Center across the street from ASU’s campus and the Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS), Rev. Jan Olav Flaaten told the story of climate refugees in the Pacific island nation of Tuvalu.  As he recounted the story of rising sea levels, Flaaten grasped the blue shower curtain that encircled him and slowly raised it from his knees to his waist to his chest.  He finished the story with only his nose sticking above the rising cloth waves.

The 350.org "Moving Planet" march on September 24, 2011, at which this dramatic recitation occurred, was co-sponsored by GIOS and Arizona Interfaith Power & Light (a coalition of religious communities concerned about climate change). It happened because Lauren Kuby of GIOS brought sustainability students and staff together with people from the faith community.  Rev. Flaaten, Executive Director of the Arizona Ecumenical Council, was one of several religious leaders who facilitated the event.

The "Moving Planet" march united people of faith with those who claim no religious affiliation in a walk from the Newman Catholic Center to the Tempe Mosque to the Hillel Jewish Center and finally to the First United Methodist Church.  At each stop we told stories of some of the world’s environmental refugees, including the forced migration of the Bog Copper Butterfly populations, disappearing glaciers, and refugees from Ethiopia’s drought.  We honored the suffering, mourned the losses and shared confessions of our own complicity.

Religion and spirituality are some of the most significant influences on environmental values—both good and ill.  Lynn White Jr. famously argued that Western Christianity "bears a huge burden of guilt" for the contemporary environmental crisis.  He went on to explain: "What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to things around them.  Human ecology is deeply conditioned by beliefs about our nature and destiny—that is, by religion" (1).

Today, religious communities are increasingly providing resources and teachings to affirm and deepen environmental ethics.  Whether in the Vatican’s bid to become the world’s first carbon-neutral state, the host of environmental policy statements generated by religious denominations, the embrace of "creation care" by evangelical Christians, or the rise of faith-based environmental organizations, religious worldviews are being applied as never before to help solve environmental problems and preserve ecological integrity.

Just as healthy religion fosters healthy ecology, noxious religion fosters noxious ecology.  For the environment, the most menacing religion of them all is the Materialism and Consumerism of western civilization.  One of the reasons that our culture is so impervious to the scientific data that verify anthropogenic climate change is, at its core, religious.  As a society, regardless of our stated creeds, we are inclined to idolize the same bottom line that Exxon worships.

Frank conversation about climate change has stalled because we keep debating whether climate mitigation makes economic sense (jobs, jobs, jobs) and whether the scientific evidence for anthropogenic climate change is settled.  We need to ask deeper questions: ethical questions, religious questions. Questions investigating why we have developed ethics for suicide, homicide and genocide, but not for biocide or geo-cide (2).

At the most fundamental level, climate change is not a scientific, political, economic or energy problem.  It is a moral and ethical crisis.  Our energy use and consumption threaten life as we know it.   Solutions won’t come simply by stacking up more scientific facts or technical arguments.  From civil rights to women’s suffrage, history has shown that toxic pieties, practices and policies can be overcome only when they are recognized to be morally wrong and decidedly unjust (climateethicscampaign.org).

We need a religious and ethical revolution.  Occupy Creation!  Let the human 1 percent listen to the flora and fauna of the 99 percent.  As the writer of Job suggests, "Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you" (Job 12:7).

Gus Speth, Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and the Environment said, "Thirty years ago, I thought that with enough good science, we would be able to solve the environmental crisis.  I was wrong.  I used to think the greatest problems threatening the planet were pollution, bio-diversity loss and climate change.  I was wrong there, too.  I now believe that the greatest problems are pride, apathy and greed."  Speth called for "a cultural and spiritual transformation" and admitted "we in the scientific community don’t know how to do that" but religious teachers do (3).

As a religious leader in our community it is my intention to be part of the sustainability dialogue that GIOS helps to foster.  Learning to live sustainably is not just the work of the "The Great American University"; it is "The Great Work" (4) for all of us, and it is Holy.

References

1. White, L (1967) The Historical Roots of the Environmental Crisis. Science 155: 1203-1207.

2. Rasmussen, L (2010) An Earth-Honoring Faith. Sojourners. June 2010.

3. Richard, C (2009) "What If?" in  Love God Heal Earth, ed. Bingham, SG (St Lynn's Press, Pittsburgh, PA), pp 9.

4. Berry, T (2000) The Great Work: Our Way into the Future. (Harmony Books, New York).

Contributor’s biography

Doug Bland is Pastor of the Tempe Community Christian Church.  He serves as Executive Director for Arizona Interfaith Power & Light and teaches storytelling classes at South Mountain Community College.

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