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Climate Change, the Presidential Debates and Genesis

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The three presidential debates we just witnessed were supposed to cover a wide range of topics that the winner of the election will have to address. Yet we did not hear a single question on climate change, arguably the defining issue of the 21st century. None of the moderators and neither of the two candidates mentioned the topic (President Obama did acknowledge the reality of global warming in his convention speech, and Gov. Romney made a dismissive remark in his convention address).

The reasons for the omission are clear: Sluggish employment and rising fuel prices have led to dismissive attitudes about environmental issues. Conventional wisdom holds that one cannot support both a robust economy and attentiveness to climate change. Skepticism about "green jobs" has also contributed to the current state of affairs. Even as other industrial countries like Germany attain great success in this area, it is not politically expedient in our American context to harp on innovative, "green" ideas. An aversion to calling for sacrifice also plays a role. President Carter's "crisis of confidence" speech in 1979 is seen as proof-positive that one does not ask for sacrifice in an election year, especially on issues related to energy and the environment.

I also want to suggest that a common biblical justification lurks in the background of skirting the climate change issue. The assumption is based on the famous language of Genesis 1:26: "Then God said, 'Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.'" This verse has been understood as divine permission for human lordship over creation, as giving us carte blanche to do what we will to the earth, because God has entrusted the planet to our control.

Yet this is a misreading of the verse in Genesis, the entire passage and the historical context. Such an interpretation constitutes what biblical exegetes often call "prooftexting." This is when you have a particular belief and go to Scripture to find validation for that belief, pulling individual verses out of their context. The original command "to subdue" (Genesis 1:28) the earth and "have dominion" (1:26) over it meant something quite specific for the struggling residents of ancient Israel, as they sought to till the land and carve out a life for themselves on rocky soil, among hostile nations. This was a pre-market, agrarian society, and the call to take control of the land related to subsistence farming in difficult conditions, not exploitation or even mastery of natural resources. The sense here is determining how much one needs to provide for one's family and trying to make the most of it. Such a setting is quite different from our industrialized economy.

Moreover, the theologian Jürgen Moltmann has noted that the celebratory, hymnic language of Genesis 1 does not culminate in the sixth day, when humanity is created. Rather, it ends with the following: "So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation" (2:3). Through the Sabbath, God acknowledges the entirety of creation and the interdependence of all living beings. Biblical scholar Jon Levenson explains that the Sabbath represents a "weekly celebration of the creation of the world," not just humanity.

With the reality of annual droughts that threaten farmers in the Midwest, devastating tropical storms and rising sea levels and temperatures, it has become necessary for us to view this language from Genesis through a different lens, to see ourselves as guardians and preservers of the earth, as opposed to conquerors of it. As Wendell Barry explains, "No matter how sophisticated and complex and powerful our institutions, we are still exactly as dependent on the earth as the earth worms."

There is a helpful model for this perspective in the New Testament, the famous "Christ hymn" from Philippians 2. These verses from Paul's letter and the self-sacrifice they describe can provide us with a vision of servant leadership: "Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness" (2:5-7). One of the critical Greek words in this passage is harpagmos in v. 6, effectively rendered in the NRSV translation as "something to be exploited." Jesus "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited." In Philippians 2, the point is specific: Jesus had a unique vantage point from which to exploit his position, but he chose not to do so. Regardless of whether a person is a Christian, this is a useful contrast between personal fulfillment and necessary restraint. The model of non-exploitation is a helpful one in our current predicament.

Genesis 1 explains that we have been made in God's image, which brings real responsibility with it. Our Creator has bestowed upon us mental faculties that enable us to dominate and destroy, to exploit just about anything we please.

In a sense, Genesis 1 is still correct about the freedoms we have. In the modern context, we have in a sense lifted ourselves above the entire creation, as our technological wizardry has given us the ability to destroy all that God has made. We can seek all manner of earthly treasures, no matter the cost to the planet we inhabit. We have the capability to burn through fuels and consume other natural resources at a rapid rate, especially now that the global population has exploded. It has become necessary, however, to recognize that God's good creation is not harpagmos, not a resource that can be continually exploited with little or no thought for the future. As the pioneering marine biologist Rachel Carson has explained of our relationship to the planet, "The human race is challenged more than ever before to demonstrate our mastery, not over nature but of ourselves."

The omission of climate change discussions during the presidential campaign is regrettable, but not surprising. Yet we cannot sideline discourse on this pivotal issue, especially based on Genesis 1. This opening chapter of the Bible calls us to celebrate and honor all of creation, not as masters, but co-participants who want the planet to be viable for millennia to come.