05/13/2013 12:22 pm ET Updated Jul 13, 2013

Wilderness Politics: Meeting the Challenge of Climate Change

Getty Images

By Harry C. Boyte and Marie Strӧm

The recent announcement that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have passed the long-feared milestone of 400 parts per million creates a new sense of urgency about what is to be done.

In the face of the climate crisis, many express panic. "It feels like the inevitable march toward disaster," Columbia University scientist Maureen Raymo told the New York Times. The crisis threatens a barren wilderness.

We need a way of acting sufficient to the challenge. Here, the biblical story of the years in the Wilderness, in which the fractious and "stiff-necked" people of Israel agreed to a covenant with God and created a new way of life, offers resources. It is a story shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

The usual response to the climate challenge is, instead, a polarizing politics which pits a victimized people against evil, oppressive power. Thus, Wendell Berry, environmental activist and farmer as well as prolific author of novels, stories, poems, essays and recipient of the National Humanities Medal, argued in his 2012 Jefferson Lecture at the National Endowment for the Humanities that "we Americans have been divided into two kinds: 'boomers' and 'stickers.'"

"Boomers," in his view, "motivated by greed, the desire for money, property, and power," are driving us toward ecological disaster. Under their rule, "our country has been pillaged for the enrichment of those who have claimed the right to own or exploit it without limit." In contrast, "stickers" are "those who settle and love the life they have made and the place they have made it in." They are the only hope for Berry.

Berry's Jefferson Lecture, as well as his other writings, hold insight. But its politics, dividing society into evil doers vs. innocents, leads to acrimony, not a way through the climate crisis.

It is crucial to develop a politics which can enlist the large majority in making change. Otherwise change on the scale required simply will not occur. Such politics has cultural roots.

Today's polarizing politics on the environment, like on many other issues, draws implicitly or explicitly on the Exodus narrative, the epic struggle of the Jews against their bondage in Egypt. In this story, "the Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter" (Exodus 1:13-14). The Pharaoh embodies evil. Again and again his "heart is hardened."

The escalating plagues visited upon the Egyptians, from water turned into blood through death of their firstborn and their drowning in the Red Sea, are justifiable acts of a righteous God. "Terror and dread fell upon them," sings Moses and the Israelites. "By the might of your arm, they became still as a stone" (Exodus 15: 16). This story of deliverance from oppression has become a central model of freedom struggles over centuries.

But in the first five books of the Bible, what Christians call the Pentateuch and what Jews and Muslims call the Torah, the struggle against oppression is paired with the years in the Wilderness which prepare Israel for the promised land.

The Wilderness narrative recounts many other aspects of forming a people and creating a common life, beyond battles against oppression.

For instance, it includes the Golden Rule, "love your neighbor as yourself." It has stories of creating governance structures which decentralize power from Moses, whose commands, channeling God's, were once unquestioned. Decentralization begins with Jethro, Moses' father in law, not himself an Israelite, who advises Moses not to make all the decisions (Exodus 18: 13-26).

The Wilderness story includes Israel's agreement to a new covenant, based on observing the Ten Commandments and associated laws. These create foundations for "the way of the lord." It has vivid passages of energetic creation, such as building the Tabernacle. "So they came, both men and women ... the people of Israel whose heart moved them to bring anything for the work" (Exodus 36:22, 29).

The years included backsliding, rebellion and regret. "The people complained in the hearing of the Lord about their misfortunes ... 'O that we had meat to eat!'" (Numbers 11: 1, 4). Moses in turn complains to God: "Where am I to get meat to give to all this people ... the burden is too heavy" (Numbers 11:13-14).

An important generational shift occurs. The Moses Generation, shaped by Egypt, gives way to the "Joshua Generation," which grew up in the Wilderness. Only Caleb and Joshua of the Moses Generation make it to the Promised Land.

The narrative makes the point that the work of revitalizing the way of the Lord will never end. Jubilee, declared by God, is to occur every 50 years. It involves forgiveness of debts, liberty to captives, and lands returned to the common tribal pools. "The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine," declared the Lord (Leviticus 25:23).

On the threshold of the Promised Land, Moses calls for remembering, in ways relevant today.

"God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks of water, of fountains and springs ... a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees ... a land in which you will eat bread without scarcity, a land whose stones are iron and out of whose hills you can dig copper ... Take heed lest you forget ... the great and terrible wilderness" (Deuteronomy 8:7-9).

The current environmental crisis also demands that we remember. It grows from long-developing patterns of consumerism, energy production, decision-making structures and today's American Dream.

There is no way to avoid major disruptions in the face of climate changes, in a "good land" of material abundance and deeply entrenched consumer life styles.

But there are memories of more cooperative and egalitarian and less materialistic moments in history. And there are contemporary examples of the kind of politics we need to revitalize them.

For instance, Minnesota United for All Families organized advocates of gay marriage last year to defeat a constitutional amendment that would prohibit gay marriage, after 30 defeats in other states. The campaign used a relational citizen politics which refused to demonize opponents and involved more than a million conversations. "We learned that a politics of empowerment beats a politics of vilification," said Richard Carlbom, campaign director.

This politics also was championed by the great civil rights leader Thelma Craig. She insisted that radical culture change requires "80% of the people," not a mere majority.

A 21st century Wilderness Politics needs to remember, in the tradition of Moses. To address the challenge of climate change, we need to replace the current politics of polarization with a constructive politics that can galvanize energies across the political spectrum.

Harry C. Boyte Director of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship at Augsburg College and a Senior Fellow at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Marie Strӧm is a graduate student in systematic theology at Luther Seminar, and a former democracy educator in Africa.