What does faith have to do with climate change?

10/28/2016 07:44 am ET Updated Oct 28, 2016
Storm at the Diamond T
Jacob J. Erickson
Storm at the Diamond T

Recently, a high school student asked to interview me about what I think about climate change, faith, and where we need to go. I bristled a little bit. To talk about ethics in the wake of climate change or global warming with authority is a lesson in humility. (Even for those of us who are authorities in such things). I wrote her, and now you, the following brief response:

1) What are the major challenges posed today?: There are really two parts to this answer. My sense is that the major challenges human beings face today are all entangled in human social inequality.  Injustice loves company.  The reality is that folks in the "global north"—Europe and America, and now China—consume more energy and emit more CO2 than anyone else in the world.  That disproportionate use of energy is the major cause of climate change.  The sad effect of this disproportionate use is that people around the world, in precarious ecological communities, refugees, those living on coasts or island nations already experience the dangers of global warming as lived phenomena. They're suffering the most from it, and they're usually the least responsible for it. It's a new form of colonialism, eco-imperialism, and environmental racism.

2) Who is responsible?  The second major challenge is the way human beings relate in the nonhuman world. Climate change, biodiversity loss, water scarcity are all major issues stemming from a sense of unconscious and conscious human arrogance—I call it anthropo-privilege—over the world.  We’re living in the midst of a crisis of imagination. Westerners tend to think that the world was created for them, that human beings are special--and sometimes the Christian language of "created in the image of God to have dominion and subdue the earth" (from Genesis) is used as license to ravage the planet. I find that an incredibly problematic reading of biblical texts in the first place and bad theology in the second. Many biblical scholars and theologians would contest that interpretation.  What "dominion" has meant practically, however, is a sanction to think about animals, plants, and earth as a resource to be exploited, used, and discarded. Folks live as if human beings are the only center of meaning and importance, and yet we know so very little about animal cognition, the delicate balances of ecosystems, and how terrible it actually will get in the wake of global warming.  Human beings are on one hand, just a little part in a big universe.  We're just animals who happen to do science and theology in the ways we do. And yet, we're shaping the world in ways no species has and we never could have imagined.  You may have seen this report in The Guardian that the world's on track to lose two-thirds of its wildlife by 2020. We're in what many call "the sixth great extinction" or the "Anthropocene"—the time of human power over the planet. It's human-caused. It's devastating. 

3) What are the major threats imposed as a result of climate change?  In some ways, the major threats are obvious: The staggering loss of animal life on the planet. The atmosphere spiraling out of control. The ocean becoming acidic. Communities of humans and plants and animals rendered more vulnerable to extreme weather. There might be tension over food or water or difficult political disagreement in our future. The major threat for us, though, is that we're suffering the fear that we're without an ethical imagination in and for a world falling apart, where birds and bees are dying and we don't know what love means.  I mean that, in some sense, ordinary people who talk about and care about climate change in everyday conversation, ordinary people who love the planet, feel overwhelmed and uncertain where to start.  Some academics in environmental studies are calling this "environmental despair."  We feel deeply sad for the losses we see around us, and yet feel so small as to not to do something.  And so we live our lives in a kind of denial, knowing what's going on, but not really changing our patterns of life.  Pope Francis calls this "practical relativism" in his encyclical letter Laudato si'. The cheap example is throwaway culture. We buy a new phone, throw it away to get the new model. We use a paper cup for our morning coffee, even though we know we should be bringing our resuable mugs.

It is true that the planet is changing because of human disregard and ecological injustice.  And it's too late to stop some of the worst effects from happening.  But, we often forget there is so much amazing creativity happening, too.  Communities are banding together, creating art, protesting, and working for political change.  In Paris, at the United Nations Conference of Parties, an agreement was reached on how nations could move forward.  The "Paris Agreement" is imperfect, but that agreement is an example of what happens when people really set their mind on addressing global warming.  Religious communities are reimagining themselves:  Women religious in New Jersey are praying and working an organic farm.  Evangelical Christians in the United States and elsewhere, believe it or not, are working for climate justice and careful Christ-like stewardship of the planet.  Muslims are reimagining the earth as a mosque, a place of prayer.  Buddhist monks in Thailand are ordaining trees so that loggers won't cut them down.  Indigenous peoples in Cannon Ball, North Dakota, are protesting against an oil pipeline for water justice.  "Defend the Sacred," they say.  I think these are all signs of just how hard the work of caring for the planet is, but also amazingly beautiful examples of what happens when people think about themselves as part of the earth.

4)  What steps can be taken to lessen the impact?  I think we have to learn from each other, human and nonhuman. I think we have to listen to what people who are experiencing ecological devastation have to say. I think we need to listen to the groanings of our creaturely kin before we lose another species. I think we need to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, oil economies, and forms of capitalist consumer culture.  It's not enough to individually just reduce, reuse, and recycle or change our everyday habits.  Those are good practices of care, but we need to think about broader societal changes about how we imagine human beings living in this planet.

In that, I think we need to "green" our religious traditions, in a deep and rich way.  Christianity needs to find resources in itself that promote justice for our fellow creatures and creation.  Recovering ideas of "stewardship" or "ecojustice" or "ecospirituality" might begin doing that work.  Passionately thinking about and trying to participate in God's love for the dust of this planet might begin doing that work.  I think Christians also need to repent and reform where ideas, like dominion, have led to ecological devastation, denials of science, or human-self-centeredness.

I think we need to honor the creativity of religious communities to imagine the world as alive with glory.  To imagine, like Saint Francis did, other creatures as "brothers" and "sisters."  We need to pray hard for discernment and moral encouragement that we do in fact have something to contribute for the flourishing of what environmentalist Bill McKibben calls this "tough new planet."  We have creativity-with each other. Some answers will come from scientific development, but just as many answers will come from the creativity of communities coming together, from the creativity of art to provoke new imaginations, from the joy of lived faith and love and honest wonder.

5) Do you think faith influences us when taking care of our environment? I truly believe that the calling of lived faith is to work for love, justice, and mercy on a planet rending apart by climate change.  Climate change, global warming, for me is a theological issue and imperative. Religious worldviews shape and are shaped by the planet. And we have to pay attention to those subtle interactions.

At the very heart, if God loves the world, if the finite is capable of such infinite wonders, why do Christians specifically and human beings treat that world with such disregard?  I think that faith lures Christians out of sanctuaries and seduces us into loving the world.  I think faith provokes justice, liberation, and hope for all creatures.  I think faith might help people cope with the chaos and ruins of our lives, ecological and not.

Faith calls us to work for justice for those living in the ruins of these losses.

Faith can teach to mourn loss and celebrate connection well.

And I think such a pervasive reality like climate change needs everyone.  People who identify with faith and the world’s religious traditions, people who identify as humanist, atheist, or agnostic all have a part to play together in making our planet habitable, a habitat for all creatures.  If there's one thing that global warming demands, it's that people remain in constant dialogue and solidarity with people very different from themselves.  It's the only way we're going to navigate the sadness. And it's the only way we're going to build joy forward in the midst of our ruins. 

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