10/11/2012 09:01 am ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

Suicidal Silence: What the 'Debaters' Did Not Say

Three debates by candidates for president and vice-president, and not once has the word "climate" crossed their lips. Nor has "the poor" or "poverty."

On the missing "climate": Only a scathing remark from one candidate about investments in renewable energy being far too large, and from the other, a commitment to more U.S. coal, more U.S. oil, more U.S. unnatural (fracking) gas, more U.S. nukes and, oh yes, more U.S. solar and wind.

And even those remarks did not mention "climate change" or "global warming," let alone "climate catastrophe" and "global scorching."

"Energy independence" has been the shibboleth of both, as if the Earth or the Sacred Breathing-Spirit of the world cares which country's most potent gases decree death for thousands of species and misery for the rest. (We're not yet sure whether the human race is doomed to death or misery.) So long as the Tombstone for Humanity says proudly, "Made in USA," who cares that it is heating the planet beyond livability?

Already we see, taste, feel: Unprecedented droughts and spontaneous fires in Texas. Massive droughts in U.S. corn country and in Russian wheatlands, pushing up the cost of the simplest foods beyond what the poor can afford. Drought-driven famine in Africa. Unheard-of floods in Pakistan and Vermont. A full-page article in the New York Times on the unbearable costs of preventing unbearable damage to the subway and other underground systems as the waters rise. ("New York Is Lagging as Seas and Risks Rise, Critics Warn," Sept. 10)

Is this all utterly new? Only in scale, for now the whole planet is endangered. Indeed, some of our ancient wisdom understands and warns us. The stories encoded in the Bible of greed and self-indulgence leading to disaster are seeds of wisdom, growing from real-life experience, that generations have recognized as mythic truth.

The very first biblical story of human history points toward our own lives: In Eden, God, speaking for Reality, points toward extraordinary abundance in the planetary Garden. "Eat of it in joy -- but show a little self-restraint. Just a little! -- Of one tree, don't eat." But they refuse to restrain themselves, and the abundance vanishes. "The earth will give only thorns and thistles, and to eat you will have to toil every day of your lives with the sweat pouring down your faces."

This is the story of the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, of Iowa in 2012. No self-restraint from the corporations that penetrate the sea and scorch the air. So what had been the glorious outpouring of abundance takes on the bitter taste of waters fouled, fish dying, corn plants withering in the cracked and baking earth.

Is it surprising that candidates for president will not face these facts? Again, the Bible is a prescient warning: Pharaoh oppresses human beings. When he refuses to ease their burdens, his arrogance oppresses earth as well. He brings on the Plagues: undrinkable water, mad cow disease, swarms of frogs and locusts, a climate crisis of hailstorms never known before.

Today, the Pharaohs are Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Banking and the powerful politicians who support them or are silent when their Plagues bestride the narrowed earth like a colossus run amok.

And that wisdom from our traditions suggests why the poor are also never mentioned by our presidential candidates. For there is a deep relationship between the behavior of Pharaohs toward the poor and their behavior toward the Earth. Subjugate one, dominate the other. The mode is the same.

Today the Pharaohs are the drug lords of fossil fuel and the overseers of degrading disemployment:
  • Profiting from the addictions they have created in the disempowered folk who smoke their comfortable and suicidal products, oil and coal.
  • Profiting from using computers to abolish jobs, rather than increasing workers' free time for families, neighbors and the Spirit.
  • Profiting by refusing succor for those expelled from their homes by foreclosures, after being tricked into mortgages they can't afford.
  • Profiting from the multitude of private prisons set up for the jobless who distract their hopeless hearts with marijuana, alcohol, heroin and guns.
The climatologists and the economic statisticians have given us the facts: Many more poor. Many fewer species. The moral decisions remain. Saving the web of life within human societies and among all life-forms is a spiritual, religious, moral, ethical, political question. It requires a profound transformation of our culture as well as our politics. Politicians will not address the danger unless the people demand it. For that to happen, churches, synagogues, mosques should be the first to lift up the ancient wisdom and the modern truths.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow is director of the Shalom Center, the author of "Down-to-Earth Judaism" and other books on public policy and religious practice and a member of the steering committee of Interfaith Moral Action on climate. Sister Joan Chittister is director of Benetvision and former president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Both are members of the U.S. National Council of Elders.