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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.

Human Chains

By Ameret Vahle While working with cutouts and stencils of human chains in my paintings, I got the idea to put a call out asking people for cutouts of their own. Participants could make them out of many different materials such as waste paper, advertisement posters or plastics for inclusion in the installation of "The world in my backyard.’’ I received numerous cutout chains of various forms, dimensions and materials from nearly all over the world and from people of all ages and professions.

In Berlin, I installed these cutouts on the garbage cage in my backyard. The cage was illuminated from within for an event on March 12, 2011. Then, something unexpected happened as a result of the recent news of the nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan: visitors began to spontaneously build human chains, reflected as shadows on the surrounding walls.

The day of the event, a young lady in the street who had never before taken part in creating art or in building human chains stated, "When we took each other by the hand, I felt a deep and touching energy of solidarity I never had before. Now I feel the power of this kind of manifestation and start to understand and will participate more." This was one of the most touching statements I received for the project.

The dialogue of the garbage cage and symbolism of human chains came to represent barriers against the use of nuclear energy in Germany before the Fukushima event, and after, in Japan. It became a sign of solidarity, even for those who had not participated before, creating discussion, reflection and engagement.

These chains symbolize democracy and real human chains, and are organized to express political opinions and demands. The feeling of taking somebody by the hand and building a real chain conveys a special experience that can make us feel related and united. Further, the making of chains cut out of paper, a form of play by children in many cultures, is a contemplative way to tap into one’s childhood roots.

The qualities of interactive performance and ephemeral installation reflect actual problems and demands, discussed in a lively way during and after the event, and encourage material, as well as mental, sustainability.

Contributor’s biography

Born in Dortmund, Germany, Ameret lives and works primarily in Berlin. She has studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Düsseldorf and as guest at the Académie des Beaux Arts of Paris. She has participated in, among others, the 15th International Visual Arts Symposium in Padgorica/Serbia and Cetinje/Montenegro, and was an invited artist to the Beijing Art Space. Recent works include a street project titled, "I am here," in Nice, France, and "Shadows," a street project and exposition with the people of Berlin/Spandau. To view more of her work, please visit www.ameret.eu.

Creating a Sustainable Desert Metropolis

Artists have long appreciated the desert for its otherworldly landscape. Painter Georgia O'Keefe devoted much of her late career to capturing the distinct elements of the American Southwest, and architect and designer Frank Lloyd Wright felt a strong connection to the desert – a place, he said, which inspired its own singular style of architecture. Environmental artist Joan Baron is no different in her appreciation of the desert's unique attributes and the creative opportunities they present. Such opportunities are the subject of Baron's ongoing urban landscape installation, The Edible Landscape Project – a unique rental property for those who crave the hands-on approach to their food source.

The Homeowner

In 1980, Baron bought and renovated a house on the same street as her property with the goal of creating a functional desert living space far different than your typical track house. The rental home offers her tenants a completely edible landscape and the opportunity to collaborate with her art and environmental sensibilities in a garden setting.

Baron bounces ideas off her tenants to try to answer the question that drives her art: what is it that sustains us?

"Respecting the land and what it can provide for us, living in purpose, growing one’s food and spending time outdoors with nature all contribute to best practices for sustained happiness and well-being," Baron says. "This is the making of a sustainable desert metropolis."

The Tenants

Midwest transplants, Melissa and Ben Beresford left their native Chicago to begin their respective graduate programs in Tempe. Disappointed by the sterile apartment landscape of the Phoenix metro area, they took a chance on a less traditional rental agreement when they found Baron’s project.

"We liked the emphasis on sustainability, and we both come from a family of gardeners, so it was perfect," says Melissa, who added that she and Ben had limited knowledge of how to garden in a climate with six growing seasons. Shortly after moving in, they started reaping the benefits.

Both successful harvests and failed attempts have taught them a great deal.

The Lessons

Baron and her tenants have learned the importance of strategically planning and planting for the best sun orientation. Fruit trees can handle more sun exposure, so south-side planting tends to work best. Plants that need a bit more shade can still be planted on the south side as long as some shading is provided.

They have learned that raised plant beds allow for companion planting—spatial relationships that are mutually beneficial—such as tomatoes with pole beans and kale, broccoli and cauliflower with garlic and dill.

"Mint and chives help to repel bugs and aphids, while spinach provides a living mulch for garlic," Baron says. "Marigold and oregano provide overall protection."

Raised beds also offer an element of flexibility. They can be custom designed to fit a space, and in the summer months if the raised beds need more shading, shade screen tents can be added. The beds also make it practical to use locally produced mulch and soil as well as fish oil and other nutrients.

"The beds allow me to provide my own soil mix rather than rely on the hard-dirt soil found on most properties," Baron says.

Finally, they have learned to focus their gardening energy on lesser known foods rather than the ubiquitous types of produce they can get cheaply from their local grocer.

"I encourage people to try different varieties of greens, such as microgreens or different varieties of basils or mints," Baron says. "When you go into a grocery store you will find one basic choice for your basil."

The Edible Landscape currently produces three varieties of plums, Anna apples, Desert Gold peaches, figs, pomegranates, Valencia oranges, Meyer lemons, Mexican limes, kumquats, blood oranges, Swiss chard, kale, arugula, society garlic, six varieties of peppers, artichokes, Armenian cucumbers, rosemary, oregano, sage, fennel, dill, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, okra, lavender, thyme, mint and lettuces.

"Joan taught us about some of the native medicinal plants of the desert," Ben says. "We have creosote growing along with senna, agaves, aloe, globe mallow calendula and Navajo tea." Cresote, a prevalent desert shrub, helps cure sore throats and congestion, while senna, in small quantities, can help treat digestive problems.

Re-imagining Desert Space

Growing food makes up only half of the equation, Baron says. The other half is how to use space and materials efficiently—a key idea to developing a sustainable desert metropolis.

"The Edible Landscape Project is a look at a different kind of system," Baron says.

For example, Baron collects the desert's most precious resource with a rain gutter that guides rainwater into a 400-gallon cistern she created from a section of metal culvert. She also stripped the driveway of concrete to reduce heat island and improve water absorption. She created more opportunities for natural cooling by planting five mesquite trees that are now fully grown and provide up to 40 feet of shade in the front garden. Using limbs of the native ocotillo, Baron constructed a living fence to help create a communal space for the tenants in the front garden as opposed to the back. Baron sees the frequent non-use of homes’ front space as a lost opportunity.

"We live in a backyard culture, and often the front spaces are dismissed and not considered as viable active areas," Baron says. "The ocotillo provides a lovely sculptural element to the landscape of the front space. It’s private yet welcoming."

Baron also planted a row of hollyhocks and sunflowers in the back alleyway of her studio. The gardening tactic has community implications as well: to make a shared space, solely reserved for the discarding of trash, more welcoming to the community that shares it.

If the focus of the Edible Landscape Project is how to live more sustainably in the desert, then its underlying theme is community stewardship. Baron and her tenants break the mold of the traditional owner-renter relationship, in that they must work together to care for the property and make the project grow—literally. The sense of community the project cultivates is what ultimately leads to further success.

When it comes to creating a sustainable desert metropolis, Baron reminds us that we’re all stewards, and we can all share in the bounties of nature.

Contributor's Biography:

Britt Lewis is a graduate student in the Department of English at Arizona State University, where she is studying ecocriticism.