Author: Karenna Gore

Karenna Gore: “Faiths Respond to Stockholm+50”

I was grateful for the opportunity to speak at a dialogue, “Faiths Respond to Stockholm+50,” organized by Faith for Earth Initiative of the United Nations Environment Program on March 4, 2022. Below is an extended version of my remarks. 

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Thank you for the opportunity to speak. If I may, I would like to begin by describing my personal perspective on this topic. I was born close to the time of the 1972 Stockholm conference, into a family of Americans descended from Europeans, including Swedes on my mother’s side. I was told that some of my ancestors, particularly those from France and Great Britain, came to escape the heavy hand of religious authorities who would deny them their religious freedom. My country, the United States, has always spoken of this ideal of religious freedom. It was only in recent decades that I came to realize that that principle was not extended to the Native peoples of this land whose traditions were marked by reverence for the natural world. I speak to you now from ancestral lands of the Lenape people here in New York City, where the United Nations is based.

I also grew up in a family that had a particular regard for the United Nations because one person who was central to its founding in 1945, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, was from the same rural place in Tennessee that my father’s family is from. Most everything near the small town of Carthage, Tennessee, is named for Cordell Hull, who won the Nobel Peace Prize of 1945 as “father of the United Nations.” Hull, like my own grandparents on my father’s side, grew up without electricity and lived through the period of unprecedented change and economic growth that marked the post-World War II period in this part of the world. I recall my grandparents remembering the advent of the things that I took for granted—refrigerators, toasters, washer/driers, air conditioning, television, highways. I mention this because it seems notable how recent this way of life is, even in the most developed industrial nations. In Cordell Hull’s memoir he writes of his childhood: “with what we grew and what we hunted and trapped, we had no great need for money.” [1]

Of course, the development that I am pointing to is seen as progress for some good reasons, related to quality of life. But it also seems that development has become untethered from quality of life, and that social norms and values took a turn for the worse somewhere along the way. Ever-increasing production and consumption cycles fueling trade was mistaken for peace-building. High numbers of gross domestic product masqueraded as common good. Inequity was held as necessary for competition. Money confused with virtue. Hoarding material possessions associated with success. And of course, development has come at the expense of nature.

The way of thinking that discounts religion and spirituality has often been blind to how deep this shift in values has been, at least within the dominant culture. The American Transcendentalist writer Ralph Waldo Emerson expressed it this way: “A person will worship something, have no doubt about that . . . . That which dominates our imaginations and our thoughts will determine our lives, and our character. Therefore, it behooves us to be careful what we worship, for what we are worshipping, we are becoming.” If we worship money and the idea that humankind is special because we dominate nature, we become aliens on the Earth. Of course we must make every effort to eradicate poverty, but if in the process, a way of life that is intimately tied with nature is seen and described as poverty, to be eradicated, we are on our way to eradicating nature too. Once we have shifted values away from reverence for those biocultural ties, we lose our sense of belonging in the natural world.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy (the matriarchal Indigenous society that is more commonly known as the Iroquois) pointed this out in the position papers they delivered to the NGOs of the United Nations in September of 1977 that included a document called “A Basic Call to Consciousness.” It argued against the imposition of the way of life of the rest of the world that had been imposed on them here in the United States. “The majority of the world does not find its roots in Western Culture or traditions. The majority of the world finds its roots in the Natural World and it is the Natural World and the traditions of the Natural World that must prevail if we are to develop truly free and egalitarian societies.” [2]

In my lifetime, the population of wild animals has decreased by about 60 percent, over half the rainforests have been chopped down, human population has doubled, the wealth gap has widened, many communities are inundated with toxic waste and pollution that harms their health through what has been called “slow violence”; in my country it is especially Black, Indigenous and communities of color that have already experienced racism in so many other ways. There are epidemics of obesity, addiction, anxiety and depression. In many places local cultures have been replaced by giant box stores and fast food places (including in Carthage, Tennessee), and we have loaded the atmosphere so full of climate-changing pollution that the weather has already begun to change, as the Haudenosaunee also warned in those papers I mentioned earlier. These changes—the stronger storms, droughts, wildfires, heat waves, rising sea levels and chaotic patterns—all hurt those people who live in poverty first and worst.

We are now in a climate emergency, on the brink of unspeakable loss. This loss is not only economic, it is cultural, spiritual and moral. The biggest loss is the mass suffering and death among the most vulnerable people around the world. In a report issued several years ago, U.N. Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston stated: “Climate change threatens to undo the last 50 years of progress in development, global health and poverty reduction” and will drive many millions more into extreme poverty. Of course, many will also be driven from their homes (estimates vary from 25 million to one billion environmental migrants by 2050). [3]

We know the cause of climate change. It is the value system described that propels the two modern megatrends of pollution (particularly carbon pollution from the burning of fossil fuels) and depletion (particularly depletion of carbon sinks like forests and soil). If we are to confront this compound ecological crisis, we must look clearly at the level of cause, not just the level of effects. We must return to the best of the spirit of inquiry that existed in Stockholm in 1972.

When Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme spoke at that conference, he referenced that post War period in the dominant parts of the world, that unprecedented technical and economic progress. He referenced the way of thinking . He explained that any moral uneasiness about poverty in the rest of the world was tempered by the prospect that with rigorous development efforts, they would catch up. The wake-up call at Stockholm in 1972 centered around the realization that the Earth’s resources were finite and the central issue at the conference was the need to address the potential conflict between economic development and environmental protection. As Palme stated, “the decisive question is in which direction we will develop, by what means we will grow, which qualities we want to achieve, and what values we wish to guide our future.”

The Stockholm Conference was important for many reasons. It marked a more inclusive world in some ways. For example, the People’ Republic of China had just become a part of the United Nations, and sent a delegation. East and West Germany were not yet members, and the Soviet Union and the Warsaw pact countries did not attend in part because of the exclusion of East Germany. The Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi, spoke, expressing some misgivings about an ecological agenda that would distract from the imperative for development and arguing “we have to prove to the disinherited majority of the world that ecology and conservation will not work against their interest but will bring improvement in their lives.” [4] We should note that it is climate justice activists from the Global South (like Vanessa Nakate of Uganda) that make that case loud and clear today. All in all, Stockholm 1972 also marked a wiser world, thinking about long-term problems beyond the daily distractions of the ordinary course of multilateral business.  Specifically, it revealed a United Nations that was taking responsibility for the global environmental questions that no one else would or could address. The UN has never abdicated this responsibility, as we saw this week with the release of the latest IPCC report and the agreement to launch negotiations to curtail the global scourge of plastics pollution.

I commend those who have worked so hard in recent decades to bring nature to the center of the work of the UN, including through the Sustainable Development Goals. But let us be honest: we have lost our way. It is not only that we are off target for the 17 goals and we have to push harder. Something is missing and something is wrong. What is missing? The most vital aspects of the human experience: the meaning and belonging that come from culture, including elements of culture that bond people to the ecosystems they live within. What is wrong? The forces behind those two modern megatrends of pollution and depletion have found their footing within these goals and within the extensive scaffolding and rhetoric of sustainable development. Profit-seeking industries have a lot of power in this world—let us not be naïve about this or dismiss it as too indelicate a thing to say aloud. These forces rely on a notion of progress that has gone unchallenged, a notion that includes the kind of top-down consumerism that sustains their markets and that still routinely sacrifices nature. We cannot slip into a critique that blames people for lacking moral fiber to stand up to this—the vast majority are living in systems in which the commons are being devoured, and they often do not have real choices. To correct course, we need to ask some different questions—not only “Is no one left behind?” but also “Are we sure we are going in the right direction?” and “Who and what is development actually for?”

The world’s faith and wisdom traditions have been asking these deeper questions for some time. Reading texts like “A Basic Call to Consciousness: The Haudenosaunee Address to the Western World,”  “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home” and “Al-Mizan: A Covenant for the Earth” is like water for a thirsty person. It is within this scholarship from faith communities that the most vital work on the relationship between development and environments is being done because these scholars see the deeper issues. They are not naïve about the dimensions of belief and worship that Emerson described. They are not naïve about the nature of power either. They also carry intimate knowledge of the relationship between colonization, belief systems, and environmental devastation, even-—or perhaps sometimes especially–from within those religious traditions that were bound up in it. And finally, they are connected to ancient traditions that have stood the test of time and offer powerful teaching and practices on living life to the fullest, which of course means living in harmony with nature and with each other.

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You can watch the dialogue session in its entirely and hear from these speakers directly HERE. It includes a framing and response from Ambassador for Stockholm+50 from the Swedish government, Johanna Lissenger Peitz, some words from Haruko Okusu, principal coordination officer of Stockholm+50 at the United Nations Environment Program, and remarks from Stockholm+50 Youth Task Force member Shantanu Mandal.

I will name just a few of the points from the faith leaders that stood out to me. Islamic scholar Dr. Fazlun Khalid called attention the need for focus on educational systems and also to the harm done by assuming a drive for unlimited growth and called for us to take de-growth seriously in those places where we can. Father Joshua Kureethadam spoke from the Vatican, expressing the wisdom of some particular concepts from within faith traditions such as when jubilee and sabbath was grounded in allowing the land to rest. He called out the way that faith leaders can gather communities, especially that critical mass that is needed to make change, as we saw with leaders like Mandela and Gandhi. And he shared the Laudato Si Action platform as a resource for all. Bishop Mark MacDonald, National Indigenous Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Canada, spoke some words in Native language and lifted up Indigenous voices as prophetic in our time. He also pointed out that our societies have been fundamentally changed by economic and technological forces, with many getting their values from them rather than from religious and spiritual traditions, and that we must instead recognize that we are not fully human without nature. Bishop Andreas Holmberg of the Church of Sweden emphasized that faith communities must be recognized as key partners, especially in changing the short-sighted thinking that dominates today, instead opening a pathway to long-term decision making. He also proposed that adding ecocide as an international crime under the Rome Statute be taken up seriously at Stockholm+50. Gopal Patel of Bhumi Global spoke from the Hindu tradition, lifting the wisdom that change is the only thing that is constant and argued for consideration to be given to a version of common but differentiated responsibilities in how peoples restore and protect nature, with rights of nature appropriate in some cultures.

As we move towards the convening in Stockholm in June, in the context of an urgent and perilous ecological crisis, let us keep in mind the potential contributions of faith communities in helping humanity to correct course. Their power is not only practical—which pertains to owning land, controlling funds and reaching vast networks of people—it is also in the quality of the analysis and vision that comes from traditions that have stood the test of time and speak to humanity’s most deeply held values.

 

1. “The Memoirs of Cordell Hull” (1948), p. 13.

2. “A Basic Call to Consciousness,” edited by Akwesasne Notes (1978).

3. https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/06/1041261

4. “What Happened in Stockholm.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Sept 1972).

The Metaphysics of COP26: A Brief Reflection

“Power must be challenged by power,” wrote Reinhold Niebuhr in “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” and so it felt during the COP26 gathering in Glasgow. There were the representatives of the world’s most powerful governments and the lobbyists who do so much to maintain business as usual (a data analysis identified 503 from the fossil fuel industry). On the other hand there were agents of transformative change lifting up science and ethics. One question at COP26 was whether the growing cohesion and resolve in the second group is becoming an adequate source of power to change the equation. It seems that the answer is not yet, but almost.

I was grateful to be in Glasgow as a representative of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and the Milstein Center for Interreligious Dialogue at Jewish Theological Seminary. I am also grateful to the Buddhist Tzu Chi Foundation for accreditation and support. There has been a lot written about the COP already, and I am still processing it, so this short reflection is merely to lift up a few highlights and express my gratitude for the opportunity to do this work. There is more to come from the Center for Earth Ethics.

The world’s religions are often cited for the “moral and social pedagogy” that Niebuhr warned was inadequate to effect real political change. They also have land, schools, finances, and are deeply intertwined in cultures around the world in ways that influence collective behavior. One of the most interesting aspects of this moment is to witness the work being done within faith traditions, and the connections being made across them.

Talanoa Dialogue, Garnethill Synagogue (Photo Credit: Brahma Kumaris)

A highlight for me was the Talanoa Dialogue in the historic Garnethill Synagogue, which, with a Jewish Heritage Center housed within, was itself a source of grounding gravitas for the moment. The chief rabbi of the UK and Commonwealth, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, gave opening remarks, and speakers across a wide range of traditions followed.

One of them, Rev. James Bhagwan of the Pacific Council of Churches, spoke from the perspective of small island nations and invoked the meaning of the seashell cross he wore. “People with a deep spiritual relationship with land and sea were told that was backwards and ignorant,” he said. “That is what colonization did to us.” Clearly these faith communities are focused eradicating that effect of colonization and reclaiming that relationship. Rev. Bhagwon also expressed the fight for climate justice (including loss and damage) in terms of the Biblical story of Cain and Abel, not only asking “Am I my brother’s keeper?,” but connecting it to the question on the minds of many with a stake in this COP: “Who will pay?”

I was delighted to be on a panel hosted in the World Wildlife Fund Pavilion that was focused on the role of faith-based organizations in both climate and biodiversity work. My remarks focused on three concepts that were being manipulated at the COP in ways that the world’s faith and wisdom traditions have something to say about: time, place and being. Although my framework barely scratches the surface, the metaphysics of COP are worth reflecting on, especially when “offsets,” distant timelines and top-down development models play such a big role in national commitments. My co-panelists—Gopal Patel, Debra Boudreaux, Sister Jayant Kirpalani and Daniel Perrel—each offered moving insights, and I was honored to be included.

 

Executive Director Karenna Gore with Telma Taurepang of the Union of Indigenous Women of the Amazon

The most interesting encounters I had were with people who were most vocal on the outside of the COP, even if they also appeared within the “Blue Zone” as official observers. I was fortunate to have a chance to speak with Telma Taurepang of the Union of Indigenous Women of the Amazon, who expressed the importance of women claiming power in this time because they are especially called to speak for “Mother Earth” and restore the balance that has been disrupted by predatory and extractionist systems that hide behind the category of “development.” Taurepang also made public comments about one of COP26’s most heralded announcements: the pledge to halt and reverse deforestation by the end of the decade, which was backed by public and private financing of $19 billion. She was skeptical based on experience: “The resource, when it arrives, doesn’t reach Indigenous peoples” she said. Instead, it “goes to those who deforest,” and the deforestation continues.

 

 

An interfaith gathering at COP26 Glasgow, Scotland

This brings us back to moral philosophy. Theologian Cynthia Moe-Lobeda has written about the concept of “structural evil,” explaining that one of its key characteristics is that it easily masquerades as good. This is one way to explain the tidal wave of greenwashing that accompanies the business-as-usual group at the COP. But a worthy counterforce is building, drawing not only from the science, but also from the transformative work being done within communities who are ready to claim their power.

Remarks by Karenna Gore on the Global Biodiversity Framework

International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) World Conservation Congress

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

 

Faith communities are calling on governments to strengthen the Global Biodiversity Framework. For too long, economic development has come at the expense of Nature. It is driven by a mindset that measures value according to short term monetary gain, no matter how much pollution, depletion or inequity results.

The scale and pace of this pattern has brought us to the brink of unimaginable loss. This loss is indeed economic, in part; all wealth is derived from the biosphere. But it is more than that too. It is cultural, moral, and spiritual. To be effective, the Framework must reflect the totality and urgency of what is at stake.

Faith traditions are diverse but they share a sense that values run deeper than politics or price-tags, that life (including nonhuman life) has meaning, and that there is some form of higher power to which our actions are ultimately accountable.

From this viewpoint — which has corollaries in secular thought — we did not create other species and we have no right to destroy them. They have a right to exist. The Framework should reflect those rights of nature and the rights of future generations. It must also secure the rights of the Indigenous peoples and local communities who are courageous guardians of so much of what remains. Indigenous peoples must give free prior and informed consent for any project (including any conservation project) in their territories.

I am honored to be with you and convey my strong support for this call. The Center for Earth Ethics draws from the world’s faith and wisdom traditions to pursue the changes in policy and culture necessary to create a world that values the long term health of the whole community of life.

We must look at the level of cause, not just the level of effect. That means regulation of the most serious drivers of biodiversity loss — such as the current industrialized food systems and the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. It means investment in positive solutions such as ecosystem restoration, which can bolster carbon sinks to fight climate change and provide good work for people who need it. It also means changing social norms that encourage gross overconsumption and waste by some while tolerating deprivation for others. Life on Earth is interrelated and we need reciprocity and balance to sustain it.

In closing I note that diverse faith groups have been carefully reviewing the First Draft of the Post-2020 Global Biodiversity Framework and will put forward their response soon. Please stay tuned for that.

Thank you.

Some Thoughts on Inauguration Day 2021

Like so many others, I have deep and mixed emotions on this Inauguration Day. This awful chapter is coming to a close and there is a lot to celebrate about the incoming administration, but there is also wreckage upon wreckage to examine, and it goes all the way back to the foundations of our nation. In a moving ceremony at the Reflecting Pool last night, with 400 lights shining to represent the 400,000 lives lost to Covid-19, President-Elect Joe Biden said “to heal, we must remember.” This wisdom is itself a guiding light forward.

Rev Dr. William Barber II is among those who have explained that the kind of mob violence we saw at the Capitol on January 6 has a long history of terrorizing communities in this country. The symbols on display on January 6th reflected the white supremacist ideology behind the breathtaking sense of entitlement to desecrate whatever sanctuary it claims. While not all of us can ever fully grasp it, we must acknowledge the trauma that this touches and exploits.

There was also a religious element to the insurrection. As many have noted, there were prayers and signs and shouts that invoked God, the Bible and Jesus. This too must be examined. To say that White Christian nationalism has always been a force in this country is an understatement. As many have documented (and I touched on in a blog last spring), the presence of people of European heritage on this land was launched in large part by proclamations from the Vatican in the mid-15th century that invoked the Bible for authority to “conquer, vanquish and subdue.” The way that American history has been taught (the revanchist 1776 project is a reminder) tends to downplay the extent to which dehumanization (and even demonization) of Black and Indigenous peoples worked in tandem with the narrative that God ordained the presence and reign of people of European descent (who came to be known as “white”) in this land.  

Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas calls it “racial-religious synchronicity.” In Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, she brings plenty of “receipts,” as they say, painful and important to read. For the field of earth ethics, it is important to note the construction of whiteness included language exalting ecological domination as part of the proof of racial superiority. For example, in 1775 in Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, Peopling of Countries, Benjamin Franklin wrote approvingly of “scouring our planet, by clearing woods, and so making our side of the globe reflect a brighter light” in making his argument that America should not “darken its people.” 

Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton, speaking in 1846, at the height of the myth of Manifest Destiny: “It would seem that the White race alone received the divine command, to subdue and replenish the earth! For it is the only race that has obeyed it, the only one that hunts out new and distant lands, and even a New World, to subdue and replenish.” There are unmistakable echoes of this sentiment among the MAGA crowds today. At the Republican National Convention this past August, Rep. Matt Gaetz proclaimed: “The frontier, the horizon, even the stars belong to us.” On January 6th, a current Senator from Missouri,  Josh Hawley gave a salute to the stirring mob as he entered the Capitol to dispute the clear outcome of a free and fair election in which  the candidates who stood for an end to systemic racism (and the assault on our climate) prevailed.

On a personal note, I feel reverberations from family experience during every Presidential election cycle, but this one has been especially so. I did not take the time to consider it in depth until idle chatter at the beginning of a zoom meeting a last week prompted me. Someone said, “oh I remember when this whole thing was happening with your father,” and someone else said something like “when this was all happening in 2000 . . . ” It was not the time to articulate it, but the details came rushing back to mind. There was a stark contrast between that occasion and recent events. In 2000, the candidate who won the popular vote and only lost the electoral college by a razor thin margin in just one state made a gracious concession and gave a heartfelt blessing to his rival. And let’s not forget that the circumstances in Florida in 2000 left plenty of room to stoke ongoing controversy and fan flames of division, if he so chose. My father attended that Inauguration, of course, and though he was not onstage today, I feel moved to honor him for his role in upholding American democracy.

Now that Trump is leaving office in disgrace, we must have the courage to look at what he has revealed about us as a nation. We can remember that racism and ecological destruction were joined in a mistaken belief system that was present at the founding, but need not define us any longer. This administration is off to an excellent start with these executive orders that restore the U.S. to global leadership on climate, respect Indigenous people and address environmental justice. There are several other urgent actions they should take, including stopping Line 3, the Mountain Valley Pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the mining of Oak Flat, a sacred site for the Apache. All economic development decisions must be made with an ethical lens that includes long term vision. There is also a need for a major revitalization of civics education, not only to enrich our collective knowledge of how a healthy democracy functions, but also to help us remember and heal the wounds that almost caused us to lose it.

As National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman spoke today in The Hill We Climb: 

And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it
Somehow we do it.
Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed
A nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished.

p.s.
I also want to share Amanda Gorman’s “EarthRise” which she performed for Climate Reality Project’s 24 Hours of Reality in 2018.

The UN Secretary-General —  Remarks for the ONE PLANET SUMMIT 

THE UN SECRETARY-GENERAL 
 
REMARKS FOR THE ONE PLANET SUMMIT 
 
11 January 2021 
 
[All English version] 
 
Dear friends, 
 
2021 must be the year to reconcile humanity with nature. 
 
Until now, we have been destroying our planet.  
 
We have been abusing it as if we had a spare one.  
 
Our current resource use requires almost two planets but we only have one.   
 
If we compare Earth’s history to a calendar year, we have used one third of its natural resources in the last 0.2 seconds. 
 
We have been poisoning air, land and water – and filling oceans with plastics.  
 
Now, nature is striking back. 
 
Temperatures are reaching record highs. 
 
Biodiversity is collapsing. 
 
Deserts are spreading.  
 
Fires, floods and hurricanes are more frequent and extreme. 
 
And we are extremely fragile. 
 
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has taken more than 1.8 million lives and devastated economies. 
 
For the first time in this century, poverty is increasing.  
 
Inequalities are deepening. 
 
As we rebuild, we cannot revert to the old normal.  
 
Pandemic recovery is our chance to change course. 
 
With smart policies and the right investments, we can chart a path that brings health to all, revives economies and builds resilience and rescues biodiversity. 
 
Innovations in energy and transport can steer a sustainable recovery and an economic and social transformation.  
 
Nature-based solutions – such as Africa’s Great Green Wall – are especially promising. 
 
Preserving the world’s biodiversity also yields jobs: according to the World Economic Forum, emerging business opportunities across nature could create 191 million jobs by 2030. 
 
But the world has not met any of the global biodiversity targets set for 2020, and biodiversity is facing a financing gap of $711 billion per year until 2030.  
 
Sustainable financing is essential if we are to transition away from polluting sectors. 
 
Our meeting in Kunming, the COP in China, this year is a vital step in establishing a post-2020 global framework for biodiversity and stopping the extinction crisis. 
 
Dear friends, 
 
A new momentum is emerging. 
 
Many large emitters have committed to achieving zero net emissions by 2050. 
 
The main goal of the United Nations in 2021 is to build a truly global coalition for carbon neutrality. 
 
Every country, city and business must adopt an ambitious roadmap to achieve net zero emissions by 2050. 
 
The time has come to: 
 
Put a price on carbon. 
Stop building new coal plants. 
 
End fossil fuel subsidies. 
 
Shift the fiscal burden from taxpayers to polluters. 
 
Align public and private financial flows with the Paris Agreement commitments and the Sustainable Development Goals. 
 
And integrate the goal of carbon neutrality into all economic and fiscal decisions. 
 
We must also help the most vulnerable, who are already suffering from the effects of climate change. 
 
Today, adaptation efforts account for only 20 per cent of climate finance. 
 
Only 14 per cent of climate finance is dedicated to the least developed countries. 
 
This is far from enough, especially to protect small island States, which face an existential threat. 
 
Everyone must do much more. 
 
COP26 cannot be another missed opportunity. 
 
For three years, the One Planet Summit has been bringing together private, public and civil society actors around concrete initiatives at the country level. 
 
The High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People, which will be formally launched today, is a perfect example. 
 
Dear friends, 
 
We begin a new year under the sign of hope. 
 
Together, let us seize the opportunity to build a safer, fairer and more sustainable world. 
 
Thank you.  
 
 

‘Forging an Earth Ethic’ – Video: Karenna Gore hosted by Charlemont Forum

Karenna Gore
Director, Center for Earth Ethics Union Theological Seminary
Forging an Earth Ethic in a Time of Crisis

Hosted by Charlemont Forum of the Charlemont Federated Church – Affiliated with the United Church of Christ

Watch the Complete Video HERE

“The coronavirus pandemic has revealed injustices in the fabric of our society and demonstrated the strong relationship between science and ethics and the potential for systemic change. As we meet the challenge of this pandemic, we must also reckon with the looming climate crisis and forge a new earth ethic together.”

The themes of climate change and the corona virus merge in the Charlemont Forum’s second summer program event with Karenna Gore speaking to the challenge of “Forging an Earth Ethic in a Time of Crisis”. The Forum will once again utilize the Zoom technology platform that has proved effective in reaching audience members in Western Massachusetts as well as nation wide. The program originally aired July 9, 2020 at 7 p.m.

Ethical Call to Action on Climate Policy by Karenna Gore

Ethics is simply about right and wrong and as a field of thought, it is most powerful when a widely held, deep sense of right and wrong is out of step with both laws and social norms. That is the case with the climate crisis today and we need to point it out clearly. The stunning truth of our situation is that the main drivers of global ecological destruction are perfectly legal—and even socially encouraged. We know that half of the global warming emissions in the atmosphere now have been put up there in the past 20 years, the time we have known the most about this and had the most viable alternatives. Data and science and technology and common sense are not enough. The urgent work to be done is changing the laws and the way to do so is to appeal to our deepest shared values. We need an ethical call to legislative advocacy.

Most Americans sense and express that it is wrong to turn a blind eye to this trajectory that we are on, passing on the burdens of climate impacts to the poor and vulnerable and to all future generations, allowing the mass extinctions and extreme weather events to unfold, with the consequence of certain and massive suffering and death. To confront the truth of it naturally causes moral indignation. And this is a force we need to be very mindful of. We cannot count on it doing the work on its own. It causes such discomfort, particularly in a situation in which most of us feel implicated in the systems that are a part and parcel of all this, that it can be easily inverted into denial, despair, grief, inaction, and projection. We also live in a time that is so saturated with outrage that an effort to convey it is sometimes put into a funhouse mirror and turned back on itself. So this is all reason to take the discourse of ethics and morals very seriously in legislative advocacy— it is essential, and it is most powerful if used with intention and care.

Religion can and does play an important role, as it has in other major movements for change around the world throughout history. One is to call people to a sense of belonging that is deeper than political or partisan affiliations. Bishop Desmond Tutu said that the scriptural teaching that all human beings are made in the image of God was key to ending apartheid in South Africa. Spiritual teachings and practices can also galvanize, inspire, and bring people together to act with courage and conviction. Mahatma Gandhi’s notions of satyagraha (truth-force) and ahimsa (nonviolence) helped bring down British imperial rule in India. And finally, there is organizational reach and power in faith communities. In the United States, we saw all of this in the Civil Rights movement, whose most powerful leader was a Baptist preacher who invoked scripture and practiced nonviolence and packed churches throughout the South with people who were ready to march, vote, speak out and fight for legislation.

We have seen this some of this in the climate movement already and there is much more potential. In fact, I would argue that some of what is causing the current excitement and traction around climate legislation—the emphasis on justice—has been voiced by faith-based climate leaders for some time.

In August of 2013, Rev Gerald Durley, currently the chairman of Interfaith Power and Light, wrote a piece titled Climate Change is Civil Rights Issue in which he laid it out. And there are many other examples, one place to find them is in the many faith based statement on climate change that are online.

We just had the 5 year anniversary of Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home and it is important to acknowledge that this great effort was one of the driving forces behind the agreement in Paris. I was in Paris as a representative of the Climate Task Force of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. Pope Francis’ message was powerful in the international community and it was also part of the leading edge of thought that has gotten us to widespread realization that social and ecological issues are intertwined.  

In the wake of the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Paris treaty (not in effect officially until the day after the next election), the We are Still In movement has kept it alive. There are 100s of Faith signatories and there have been eloquent statements from faith leaders on this matter.

There has also been a tremendous push on divestment in faith communities, internationally and nationally, and I want to acknowledge the work of GreenFaith and 350 and others on this front. This can influence legislative advocacy because it pulls together political force and will and crystallizes values.

I have had the honor of witnessing and supporting some of the faith-based organizing work that has gone on in the US around climate, including by some people who are on this call, and I want to say that this is going on as we speak, with some the bills being presented today, and merits respect, support and expansion. In addition to the specific interfaith climate organizations I have already mentioned, there are faith-based groups from distinct religious traditions. (I won’t name them now due to time and my worry I will get in trouble for leaving some out). The work of Indigenous peoples and organizations and First Nations themselves is also important in this sphere—it has spiritual power and it is important for many deep reasons that coalitions of faith groups act in solidarity with Indigenous peoples in legislative advocacy.

There are also some Green groups that have staffers designated to work on faith outreach. And perhaps most interesting in terms of immediate potential for legislative advocacy, there is a lot of energy and expertise in faith-based organizations and groups that had been focused on other advocacy efforts but can laser focus their attention on climate in the sessions ahead, drawing the connections to the issues of race, poverty, refugees that they already know so well. Coalitions such as the Washington Interfaith Service Coalition, Church World Service, and others are doing this and also there is tremendous work being done in specific denominations. And of course, there is the power of activating the grassroots network of congregations and communities throughout the land.

This work is powerful not just to reach across the ideological spectrum but also to bring people off the sidelines and breathe life into our body politic. Now is the time to step up that ethical call to Legislative Advocacy, thank you to those who already are.

 

Watch the complete webinar – Karenna Gore’s remarks begin at 38:46.

World Environment Day 2020 – Karenna Gore

Today is World Environment Day. Our nation is going through a painful reckoning with systemic racism and worsening economic inequity, so the “environment” can seem to be a lesser concern. But as many Native American and Black voices have pointed out, ecological, racial and economic issues have always been intertwined.

Consider Donald Trump’s current favorite word: domination. The presence of “white” people in this land began with a theological claim, based on an interpretation of the concept of “dominion” in the book of Genesis. In the mid 15th century, the Vatican issued papal bulls (declarations) that stated that European explorers were on a mission for Christianity to “conquer,” “vanquish” and “subdue” the regions we now know as the Americas and Africa. These bulls explicitly stated that the people in those lands were part of the flora and fauna. This dehumanizing thought system later became enshrined in law as the “Doctrine of Discovery” which was used to justify the taking of land from Native American peoples. You can learn more about this in the book Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery by Steven Newcomb and through the Indigenous Values Initiative.

Donald Trump’s call for domination was paired with a photo op visit to a church to hold up a Bible. This is not just a superficial dog whistle to a racist white evangelical base. It is a desperate grasp at an entrenched and deranged theological tradition that was foundational to our nation.

The marriage of Christianity and empire began with the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century. This was the driving force in stamping out indigenous Earth-based spirituality (“paganism”) in Europe. The famous essay by Lynn White, Jr.—The Historic Roots of our Ecologic Crisis, argued that this was the defining moment for the trajectory of ecological devastation that he identified as perilous even back in 1967. One thing White does not mention, but many other scholars have (particular in the fields of eco-feminism and eco-womanism), is that this also involved the persecution of the the women who kept the Earth-based spiritual traditions of Europe, and the characterization of the female body as profane and the female mind as inferior. Needless to say, there is plenty of that spirit in Trumpism too.

Our American civil religion, including the notion of “manifest destiny” and the concept of “American exceptionalism” is so secularized and commonplace that many do not see how deeply theological it is. As the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas has brilliantly documented, whiteness is a theo-political construct that was honed over centuries to be an inherently oppositional force against black and brown bodies. You can learn more about this in her book Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.

In this moment, we must make the connections to theology to understand the deep historic and psycho-social forces that Donald Trump is drawing on. As he blatantly invokes Christianity to dominate people he deems dangerous and unworthy, his administration has also ordered a suspension of enforcement of environmental regulations. What is the number one indicator of the placement of a toxic facility in this country? The race of the people who live nearby. Black children are ten times more likely to die of asthma in this country than white children. There are many current struggles around racial discrimination in the sitings of petrochemical factories, fracking wells, compressor stations, pipelines, incinerators and so on. The toxins from these sites cause respiratory, cardiac and other underlying health problems that also make people more vulnerable to coronavirus. You can learn more about the role of structural racism in health disparities on this Earth Institute blog and also from the work of the NAACP environmental and climate justice program.

The United Nations established World Environment Day in 1972, part of the same wave of consciousness that led to the first Earth Day in 1970, the establishment of the EPA, and the passing of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act, all of which are under assault by the Trump administration today.

That consciousness was quickly stymied by the Reagan Revolution. The Reagan Administration’s statement on World Environment Day in 1986* claimed that “Americans turned a nearly unpopulated continent into a prosperous, peaceful, and protective home for 240 million persons” and dismisses the concept of sustainability, not to mention the intrinsic value of nature. It is actually worth reading in its entirety, as a record of the deeply mistaken thinking that got us into the mess we are in. Here is one of many places you can learn more about the diverse and vibrant Native American cultures that were here before Europeans arrived: Nation Museum of the American Indian.

Now is the time to change on the level of cause rather than react on the level of effect. As we mark this World Environment Day, let us examine the thought systems that have been so prevalent they have become invisible. Let us honor those Black and Indigenous voices that have led the way in the environmental movement. And let us continue to sit with the profound meaning and implications of the words spoken by both Eric Garner and George Floyd: “I can’t breathe.” That is the charge of World Environment Day 2020.

Faith in Climate

A few weeks ago I went to Recife at the invitation of Brazilian environmentalist, Alfredo Sirkis, on the occasion of the Brazilian Climate Change Conference. Named for the stone reefs in the Atlantic ocean off its shores, Recife is the largest city in the Northeastern state of Pernambuco. 

Brazil was set to host the upcoming COP 25 Climate meeting until newly elected President Jair Bolsonaro pulled out last year. 

Alfredo Sirkis, Mayor of Recife, Geraldo Júlio and Karenna Gore.

As in the United States, there is denialism at the top of the government, but real movement to address the climate crisis on a subnational level. The Mayor of Recife, Geraldo Júlio who serves as regional chairman of a consortium of local governments for sustainability (ICLEI) and was the first mayor in South America to declare a climate emergency and is working on a transition to 100 percent renewable energy. Sirkis has been working on emissions reductions commitment from Brazil’s governors. He recently spoke alongside some of them (as well as some governors from the Peruvian Amazon) at the Vatican, one day after the Amazonian Synod. This is all happening during a surge in deforestation (and the related phenomenon of forest fires) which Philip Fearnside, a scientist at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research in Manaus says “results both from the constant anti-environment rhetoric and from concrete actions in dismantling the country’s environmental agencies and effectively halting fines for illegal clearing.”

Sirkis is formerly chair of the Brazil Climate Change Forum (Bolsonaro fired him) and currently head of the Brazilian Climate Center. My role was to participate in an interfaith ceremony and panel discussion on November 8th that was held at the oldest synagogue in the Americas, Kahal Zur Israel. Sirkis also invited his friend, the extraordinary Rabbi Nilton Bonder of Rio, and he worked with other organizers to invite Catholic, Evangelical, Muslim, Candomblé and Indigenous faith leaders (in the end the Muslim representative was unable to attend unfortunately).  Thanks to a friendship with his daughter, Anna, who lives in New York City, I know something about the family history. Alfredo has recently made a documentary about his mother Liliana’s journey fleeing her native Poland in the 1930s in the context of the genocide of Jewish people to which his family was subjected. 

Photo: CEE Director Karenna Gore speaks at Kahal Zur Israel, the oldest synagogue in the Americas in Recife, Brazil.

Kahal Zur Israel synogogue, which now functions as an intimate museum with original artifacts, was established in around 1636 by Sephardic Jews who had fled from Spain and Portugal to the Netherlands during the Inquisition and then came over with the Dutch.  The Dutch ruled Northeast Brazil from 1630-1654 and the Dutch West India Company made its headquarters in Recife. When the Portuguese took over again and expelled Jews from Recife in 1654, the Kahal Zur community fled to, among other places, “New Amsterdam,” my hometown. Over the next centuries, some returned, along with Jewish immigrants and refugees from around the world.

The Interfaith ceremony became highly charged, provoking a stark awareness about the connection between religious persecution and climate disruption. But it began gently. Rabbi Bonder spoke of heeding signs and listening and sang beautifully. Later that evening he would return to Kahal-Zur Israel to lead a service. Pastor Paul César, a Baptist pastor, spoke from the heart about the need for stronger voices from the Protestant community, advised that we ask forgiveness from Creator and Creation, and told the story of bringing his wife and four daughters back to the remote area of Brazil where he was born on order to show them the river he used to cherish, only to find it degraded and depleted: “we are destroying our own home,” he said. He spoke of the misinterpretation of Genesis and the problematic reality that when the mission of the church is to save souls for the afterlife, we ignore our home here. He also invoked Dorothy Stang, a Catholic sister originally from Dayton Ohio whose advocacy for the rural poor and the rainforest caused her to receive death threats from land owners and loggers, and who was murdered in the Brazilian Amazon in 2005. “We need to develop new leaders,” he said in closing.

Mother Beth de Oxum, Rabbi Nilton Bonder, Jaqueline Xukuru, Pastor Paulo César Pereira and Father Fabio Santos

It was then that Mãe Beth de Oxum of the Candomblé community heightened the volume and shifted the energy. She said that it was the first time she had been invited to a synagogue and she took it as a good sign. She said that her ancestors came from Africa and brought oral traditions and that they always knew the sacred dimensions of nature. She spoke of the Orishas, especially Yemanja and Oxum. She said the Earth womb is the first uterus. She said they sing to the leaves and the ocean and more and raising her voice, she said “we don’t get respect for our sacred traditions.” She spoke passionately and at length about the demonization of her community and implored those present to stand in alliance with them. She received standing ovation. Father Fábio Santos, who spoke next, invoking Pope Francis’ Laudato Si, gave her a clear statement of support.

The Xukuru are an Indigenous first nation of Brazil who have been fighting for the right to their ancestral land in Pernambuco; Jacqueline Xukuru spoke with jarring clarity about the clash of belief systems that is still playing out from time of conquest: “We do not see the Earth as a subject of financial speculation,” she said, “it is our body, our spirit.” She referenced the incendiary and outrageously disrespectful things that the current Brazilian President has said about Indigenous peoples, as well as his moves to dismantle the official department for Indigenous affairs (FUNAI). 

“Progress for who? Development for who?” These questions seem to be at the heart of our global ecological crisis.

The most striking part about her talk was the omnipresent and imminent violence against Indigenous peoples. Just days before our gathering, there was another murder—Paulo Paulino Guajajara, a member of the Guararaja tribe and the organization Guardians of the Forest.We will keep up the resistance until the last Indigenous people are here,” Xukuru said, and referred to a global campaign: Indigenous Blood: Not One Drop More. She questioned all the actors who make moves on land and water without consulting Indigenous peoples: “Progress for who? Development for who?” These questions seem to be at the heart of our global ecological crisis. 

Guarani representative Mirin Juyan joins Youth & Climate side event at SinsPire wearing traditional feathers.

Listening to these speakers in this synagogue, it was poignant to recall that it was the same powers who ordered the Inquisition to purge the Jews and Moors from Spain and Portugal who worked with the Vatican to craft the papal bulls that divided the world for Spanish and Portuguese explorers. When the Portuguese established Recife in 1573, it soon became the first slave port in the Americas. These bulls proclaimed that the original peoples of Africa and the Americas were merely part of the flora and fauna to be “conquered vanquished and subdued.” Many see this same mentality present in both the climate denial and bigotry of today. At one of the conference side events I attended at the SinsPire Center, a young Guarani man named Mirin Juyan noted that some current Brazilian leaders have called Indigenous peoples “animals.” He explained that this is especially odd because in his traditional way, animals are our relatives rather than hallmarks of a lesser category of being, adding “I would rather be an animal than a destroyer of life.” 

“I would rather be an animal than a destroyer of life.”

The prophetic voice of Pope Francis (the first pontiff from Latin America) in the climate conversation also calls to mind some echoes of Recife’s past. Dom Hélder Câmara, the Archbishop of Olinda and Recife from 1964-1985, is now officially on the path to canonization. He endured increasing resistance to his work with and for the marginalized people of Brazil and famously said “when I give food to the poor, they call me a saint, when I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” He attended all four sessions of Vatican II and was instrumental in the drafting of Gaudium et Spes, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Pope Paul VI, 1965), which is quite worth reading. One passage points out: Our era needs such wisdom more than bygone ages if the discoveries made by man are to be further humanized. For the future of the world stands in peril unless wiser men are forthcoming. It should also be pointed out that many nations, poorer in economic goods, are quite rich in wisdom and can offer noteworthy advantages to others. Câmara also founded a Theological Institute where he taught alongside feminist theologian Ivone Gebara for 17 years. 

Crane colony in the mangroves.

My trip also included the opportunity to encounter the mangroves, the fragile ecosystem that nurtures life and sequesters carbon, eat Brazilian food, enjoy music and truly warm and gracious hospitality across the board. Many Brazilians expressed concern over the recent oil spill of the Northeastern Coast not too far from Recife, still apparently mysterious in origin, but most everyone seemed to be continuing to enjoy the fruits of the sea. Finally, right before I left, I was able to visit an extraordinary collection at the Ricardo Brennand Institute featuring European art and artifacts, some of which the collector brought from Europe, others which were created by Europeans in Brazil. This includes illustrations of the land and people of Brazil done centuries ago, infused with all the “Old World” preconceptions and raw wonder one might imagine.

One gallery is focused on the period of Dutch occupation of the Northeast and includes the largest collection of the work of Frans Post, who is acknowledged as the first European landscape painter in the Americas. He was from Haarlam, in the Netherlands. Union Theological Seminary is in Harlem—or rather on the border of “Morningside Heights” and Harlem, where gentrification is a major issue— and I took this occasion to learn the roots of the word in Dutch. Apparently it is traceable to haarlo-heim, meaning a home in a forested elevated place. The Lenape people lived in Harlem – and all of “Manahatta” – when the Dutch West India Company arrived there in 1624. One benefit of our time is the incredible surge in awareness of the layers of history that we live in.

Painting: ‘Village of Olinda after the fire on November 25, 1631’, by Frans Post

One benefit of our time is the incredible surge in awareness of the layers of history that we live in.

We are far behind the goals of the Paris Agreement and, seen through that lens, we appear set on a trajectory to ecological collapse. For all of us, we must face the feeling of doom that visits the climate conversation at least as often as the feelings of rage, grief, disbelief and inspiration do. But we must also realize that there is more going on than meets the eye. The force of history can feel as indominable as the many tons of carbon pollution that scientists tell us is now stuck up in the atmosphere for centuries, no matter what we do now. But that cannot be the only way to look at it. There are physics at work, but there are also metaphysics, and one can feel them palpably in Brazil. As another native of Recife, Pedagogy of the Oppressed author and legendary movement-builder Paolo Friere wrote: “It is necessary that the weakness of the powerless is transformed into a force capable of announcing justice. For this to happen, a total denouncement of fatalism is necessary. We are transformative beings and not beings for accommodation.” I am grateful for my time in Brazil in which I felt that force gathering, inviting all of us into transformation together.

Sources:

https://www.survivalinternational.org/tribes/brazilian

https://www.climatehotmap.org/global-warming-locations/recife-brazil.html

http://agenciabrasil.ebc.com.br/en/direitos-humanos/noticia/2018-03/inter-american-court-condemns-brazil-violating-indigenous-rights

https://www.survivalinternational.org/articles/3540-Bolsonaro

https://www.nytimes.com/2003/12/07/books/chapters/over-the-edge-of-the-world.html

http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents/vat-ii_cons_19651207_gaudium-et-spes_en.html

https://www.nytimes.com/1971/05/23/archives/the-little-priest-who-stands-up-to-brazils-generals-the-little.html

https://www.americamagazine.org/issue/call-him-saint

http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar_en/index.php?option=com_content&id=1118:indios-em-pernambuco-indians-in-pernambuco

https://iclei.org/en/media/recife-takes-on-the-leadership-of-icleis-network-in-south-america

https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2019/11/brazil-s-deforestation-exploding-and-2020-will-be-worse

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-brazil-environment/brazils-bolsonaro-fires-militant-head-of-climate-change-action-group-idUSKCN1SG2BT

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/27/jair-bolsonaro-demands-emmanuel-macron-withdraw-insults-over-fires

https://www.cnbc.com/2019/08/23/brazils-bolsonaro-hits-back-at-frances-macron-over-amazon-fires.html

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-climate-change-brazil/no-longer-the-host-brazil-still-aims-for-key-role-at-u-n-climate-talks-idUSKBN1WU2YF

Ivone Gebara essay in Planetary Solidarity 

CEE Director Karenna Gore Delivers Earth Day Sermon at Harvard Memorial Church

CEE Director Karenna Gore celebrated Earth Day by offering a sermon at Harvard Memorial Church.  She was introduced by Harvard Professor Jonathon L. Walton.

Listen to the audio here

Full text of Karenna’s Earth Day sermon April 22, 2018:

The Wisdom of the Earth

Thank you friends; thank you Reverend Walton.

Thank you all for inviting me back to my alma mater this morning.  “Alma
Mater” means “nurturing mother” which is the way that many of the
world’s religious and spiritual traditions refer to the Earth.

On this Earth Day, I would like to offer a reflection on the Wisdom of the
Earth, starting with the words of Howard Thurman, the longtime dean of
Marsh Chapel at Boston University. He recalled the feeling he had as a
child on the Atlantic coast of Florida: “I had the sense that all things, the
sand, the sea, the stars, the night, and I were one lung through which all life
breathed. Not only was I aware of the vast rhythm enveloping all, but I was
a part of it and it was a part of me” . . . He goes on to say “the resulting
synthesis was to me religious rather than metaphysical.”

We are created of the Earth, of course. The water in our bodies, the iron in
our blood, the calcium in our bones, the air in our lungs, the soil and
sunshine in the food that sustains us. The thoughts in our minds and the
feelings in our hearts are also elemental—they are connected to what it is
we choose to perceive and ponder. In this time of information revolution–
and revolting information— how do we find wisdom?

In the book of Proverbs, “Wisdom” is not merely an abstraction. In
Chapter 3, verse 18, “She is a tree of life to all those who lay hold of her
and those who hold her fast are called happy.” In Proverbs 8, she speaks:
“When he established the heavens, I was there.” “And now, my children,
listen to me: happy are those who keep my ways.”

In the Book of Luke, there is a striking quotation from Jesus. He is speaking to a crowd of people. “You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time? And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right?” (Luke 12:56-57)

Today we as a people look down to our handheld devices more than up at the sky at all. We may not even know how to read the weather itself anymore, much less the deeper truths of our time.

But the signs abound. Stronger storms and floods, heat waves, droughts,
wildfires. For the third year in a row, in the middle of winter, temperatures
at the North Pole climbed above freezing for significant time periods. The
ice in the Arctic, including the massive ice cap on top of Greenland, has
begun to melt faster and faster, even as many Antarctic glaciers are moving
towards the sea more quickly. So sea levels are rising fast, and climate
refugees have begun to stream from small island nations and low lying
coastal areas.

And it is not just humans that are migrating. Both animals and plants are
moving towards the poles at an average rate of 15 ft per day. Some are
climbing slopes in search of cooler air. Many species face extinction, not
only because of the changing climate but also because their habitats are
being devoured by human societies.

We could also interpret the proliferation of plastic waste as a sign, one that
is more visible than the gaseous heat-trapping waste we are constantly
spewing into the thin shell of atmosphere—the sky. And yet, political
leaders still call for more drilling, fracking and burning of fossil fuels, as if
there is nothing wrong. The signs are clear: something is very wrong
indeed. As Pope Francis famously said “if we destroy Creation, Creation
will destroy us.”

This reminds me of a joke: What’s the difference between an optimist and a pessimist? The pessimist says I just can’t imagine how things could get much worse and the optimist says “oh I think I can!”

Perhaps this moment in time is not best understood as a choice between optimism and pessimism, but rather as a call to wisdom.

In the book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, Robin Kimmerer writes, “Restoring land without restoring our relationship is an empty exercise. It is relationship that will endure and relationship that will sustain the restored land. Therefore connecting people and the landscape is as essential as reestablishing proper hydrology or cleaning up contaminants. It is medicine for the earth.” It is also medicine for humanity.

Like the crowd Jesus spoke to, we as a whole are paying attention to the
values of a system that we know to be untethered to the truth of who we
really are. The gospel of our time is economic growth and the way we
measure it encourages what is known as “the externalization of costs”—
pollution, exploitation, breakdown of communities, the depletion of
groundwater, forests, wetlands, and the web of biodiversity. The term
“externalities” comes from the language of economists. What it means is, it
is ok to ignore it. In our political sphere, this is held in place in the name of
prosperity and freedom. We forget that the source of all wealth and life is
the biosphere itself. As the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore wrote
“Emancipation from the bondage of the soil is no freedom for the tree.”

One reason we are stuck in this perverse trajectory, trapped in a society
that is designed to be at war with the natural cycles of life, is because of
bad theology. The papal bulls from the Vatican in the 15 th century invoked
the Book of Genesis when they asserted that that the Bible gave European
explorers the right to “conquer, vanquish and subdue” the peoples of
Africa and the Americas. They labeled them “part of the flora and fauna”
of the land to be claimed by Christendom. [This led to the Doctrine of
Discovery, still cited in American jurisprudence.]

And for millennia many leaders have claimed Biblical authority for male to
dominate female. Eco-womanist theologian Melanie Harris points out that
“the powerful connections that can be observed between human life-givers

(mothers/creators) and creation as Mother Earth” are still “often deemed
heretical, pagan, and sacrilegious.” (245). So when the politicians working
remove protections against pollution and to open our public lands and
oceans to fracking and drilling eagerly pronounce themselves “good
stewards of the Earth,” when the catch phrase of the day is “Energy
Dominance,” they are operating within a theological tradition we know all
too well.

Domination does not mean that the real power of the dominated
disappears. As Jesus said, in the beginning of Luke 12, “Nothing is covered
up that will not be uncovered and nothing is secret that will not become
known.” The humanity that was denied by the version of Christianity that
justified oppression of Native peoples and slavery is powerfully before us.
Black Lives Matter. And whether you believe in it as an expression of the
divine feminine or not, the Earth is speaking, with Wisdom, saying . . . Me
Too.

The people suffering most from extraction economy are those who are also
dealing with racism and marginalization. Who can forget one of the most
stunning signs of our times, just a few years ago in Standing Rock. The
Standing Rock Sioux opposed an oil pipeline through their sacred land that
threatened the underground aquifer of water they had drawn from for time
immemorial. They established a peaceful prayer camp with allies from all
over the world and they spoke their truth: “we are protectors not
protestors” and “water is life.” They spoke of Mother Earth with
reverence. They stood unarmed in the land of their ancestors- in front of a
wall of militarized police who were there protecting the rights of a private
corporation. This pipeline was built. More such pipelines are being built.
They are financed by investors and banks who seek monetary profits.
Why do we not judge for ourselves what is right?

This University is in a time of judging for itself about its financial
relationship to the fossil fuel industry and I join with those who are saying:
it is time to divest.

Proverbs 3:14 teaches that the “income [of Wisdom] is better than silver
and her revenue is better than gold.”

Jesus said, “You hypocrites!” Perhaps some of us are afraid to judge what
is right because we fear the specter of our own hypocrisy. We feel so
implicated in the systems that we know are causing ecological harm (as
consumers if nothing else) that we are afraid to judge for ourselves what is
right, lest the judgment of others rain down upon us. And so by default we
choose an even greater hypocrisy — silent complicity in the absurd
assumption that nothing is wrong.

Even among the hypocrisies and absurdities of our time, there is a
powerful common human desire for community and connection. In
Laudato Si, Pope Frances writes that “An authentic humanity, calling for a
new synthesis, seems to dwell in the midst of our technological culture,
almost unnoticed, like a mist seeping gently beneath a closed door” (§112).
Of course, there is also hope from the new capacity for generating and
storing energy from the sun and wind. A recent headline from the Onion
reads, “Scientists Politely Remind World That Clean Energy Technology
Ready To Go . . . Whenever.” But it is authentic humanity that will truly
heal and relationship that will sustain and endure.

The Earth, all of our alma mater, is ending the illusion of separation. There
are no externalities. We must respect this living planet and live within her
bounds. The non-canonical Gospel of Thomas says: “If you bring forth
what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring
forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”

The wisdom of the Earth is within us. In our present time, with all its signs
and wonders, let us bring it forth.

***