On Wednesday, July 14, Karenna Gore, executive director of the Center for Earth Ethics, was a panelist at a webinar, “Interfaith Initiatives to Achieve the Agenda 2030 Environmental Goals,” sponsored by the G20 Interfaith Forum. The other panelists were Arthur Dahl, president of the International Environment Forum, and Astrid Shomaker, director for global sustainable development in the European Commission’s Directorate General for Environment. Pasquale Annicchino of the Bruno Kessler Foundation moderated the discussion.
“Everyone is experiencing climate change,” Gore said. “It is important to acknowledge inequities and those who are suffering and dying right now.”
She emphasized two global megatrends in play: depletion, including the deforestation of the Amazon, and pollution, most importantly the rise in greenhouse gas emissions. “This is about more than data and science,” she said. “It’s about belief systems and values.” Even the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, Gore noted, have sometimes been used “to justify the continuation and even expansion of fossil fuels.”
“Money is often confused with virtue,” Gore said. But she sees faith communities playing three main roles in reframing the conversation. They can be prophetic, in the sense of “telling the truth” about climate and sustainability during a worldwide “crisis of fact and knowledge.” They can be pastoral, being there in communities, caring for those who are suffering, and helping “shepherd people into new ways of being in ecological balance.” And they can be practical, mobilizing their organizational and physical resources.
In his remarks, Dahl noted the history of religious groups being engaged with environmental issues going back to the 1970s. He emphasized the challenges in translating global goals to local situations and in measuring development according to values, not GDP. “How do you measure progress on values?” he asked.
Shomaker offered a policy perspective, noting that her remarks came on the same day that the EU announced its ambitious “Fit at 55” legislative agenda to cut emission of greenhouse gases by 55% and make Europe “the first climate-neutral continent.” The EU is embracing “the people’s agenda,” she said, which means acting with “a sense of urgency” about pollution. It also means embracing equity, not only equity within society (including respecting women’s knowledge and roles) but also intergenerational equity, recognizing that this generation has a responsibility to generations to come.
“We’re all in this together,” Annicchino concluded. “Nobody is saved alone.”
Wednesday’s webinar was sponsored by the G20 Interfaith Forum, a network of religiously linked institutions and initiatives that engage on global agendas, especially the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. It was the fifth session of the group’s “Ahead of the 2021 Italy G20 Summit” series.
Landmark and Transition Town Port Washington presentation with Karenna Gore, founder and director of The Center for Earth Ethics. Moderated by Hildur Palsdottir. This program is a part of a five-part Conversations from Main Street Climate Action Series with the goal of introducing community-centered climate solutions while also promoting individual action. Small changes to our daily routines can have lasting and impact on our environment and future.
March 18th tune in for CEE Advisor, Wes Gillingham of Catskill Mountain keeper!
Click the links below for more info and registration for these programs.
In a Video Recorded for FÉ NO CLIMA, Center for Earth Ethics director Karenna Gore comments on the approximation between Faith and the Climate Crisis in the Biden Administration.
The founder and director of the Center for Earth Ethics at the Union’s Theological Seminary in New York, Karenna Gore, believes that the rapprochement between “religion” and “climate crisis” will be an important aspect of Joe Biden’s policies, president elected from the USA. The inauguration of Biden and deputy Kamala Harris on Wednesday, January 20, is considered a historic day for the climate agenda.
In a statement recorded especially for the IV Fé no Clima Meeting, at the end of last year, she affirms that, during the elections, Biden “made it clear that the climate is a priority” and stressed the importance of the appointment of the former Secretary of State, John Kerry, for the role of Special Representative on Climate Change for the new government. The message to the event’s participants is now available on Fé no Clima’s YouTube channel .
“President Joe Biden will trust God and will also rely on science to guide our work on Earth to protect God’s creation,” said Kerry last November, at the event that announced part of the new presidential office.
In the opinion of Karenna Gore, the new climate representative’s speech “signals and implies that involving religion will be crucial to the approach that the Biden administration will take in climate action”.
According to her, the work at the center she runs is focused on seeking solutions to the ecological crisis of the faith and traditions of indigenous peoples. “We work through education, convening, public speaking and movement building,” he explained. Recently, Fé no Clima, an Iser project, started a dialogue to deepen relations with the Center for Earth Ethics.
Regarding the link between beliefs and discussions about the environment, the activist says that “religion can create a sense of belonging that goes beyond political or partisan alignment and guides us to be the best version of ourselves”.
And he highlighted the importance of religion in social transformations. “Archbishop Desmond Tutu said that the teaching of the scriptures had a role in ending apartheid in South Africa,” he said, also celebrating the influence of Martin Luther King Jr, pastor of the Baptist Church, in the fight for civil rights in his country.
US returns to Paris Agreement
“I am also very excited to be speaking to you at a time when my country, the United States, announced that we will again participate in the Paris Agreement, a very important 2015 treaty in which all countries in the world have come together to create a plan to really face this serious existential crisis and overcome it,” said the director.
Biden made a commitment to return to the Paris climate change agreement on the first day of governing. The measure is part of a package of actions that will revert, on the day of inauguration, several measures of the Trump administration for this and other topics.
In the video recorded for the event participants, Karenna Gore also pays homage to the environmentalist Alfredo Sirkis, who died last year. In addition to being a friend of the Gore family, Sirkis was director of Centro Brasil no Clima, a Brazilian partner of the Climate Reality Project, an organization created by former US vice president, Al Gore.
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.
On September 10th, CEE Director Karenna Gore, joined speakers Mary Evelyn Tucker and Meijun Fan along with moderator, Andrew Schwartz to begin a conversation on Ecological Civilization inspired from China’s adoption of this directive into their constitution. Please enjoy this first webinar in a 4-part series beginning with Values & Worldviews: Ecological Civilization as Mutual Flourishing.
Webinar Series: Earth Charter and Ecological Civilization
A new kind of collaboration, toward a new kind of civilization, is needed if we are to shift humanity away from the current civilization that is indifferent to the needs of the most vulnerable and that predominantly has lifestyles and production patterns that destroys the life support systems that sustain life on Earth.
Two decades ago, after years of international collaboration and with input from visionaries around the world, a document known as the Earth Charter was drafted as a vision of hope and a call to action. The 16 principles of the Earth Charter provide a framework for the long-term well-being of people and the planet.
In 2012, China adopted Ecological Civilization in its National Constitution and mandated its incorporation into “all aspects of economic, political, cultural, and social progress.” This call for civilizational change raises awareness of the need for an alternative paradigm. But, what is “ecological civilization” and how can it be achieved?
Now, as we enter the third decade of the new millennium, there is urgency in generating an intercultural and intersectoral dialogue about the meaning, principles, metrics, vision, and values that ought to drive humanity towards ecological civilization.
Toward this end, a group of global partners are coming together to organize a series of webinars to exchange views, deepen discourse, and hopeful stimulate further collaboration. This series of four webinars, to take place between September and December, is being organized as a collaborative effort between the Earth Charter International, University for Peace, Pace Center for Green Sci-Teck and Development, the Institute of Ecological Civilization, China Biodiversity Conservation and Green Development Foundation (CBCGDF), and the Center for Process Studies.
The following questions will be addressed:
What is an “Ecological Civilization?”
What values and worldviews are needed to ground a paradigm shift towards that direction?
Can the Earth Charter principles provide a framework for building an ecological civilization?
How to cultivate the consciousness needed, and how to turn this new consciousness into action?
What are the driving forces of the current civilization and what could be the drivers of “Ecological Civilization”?
What is the role of education, policies, and international collaboration to turn Ecological Civilization a reality?
“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.
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.
Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and Kent State University’s Wick Poetry Center launch “Earth Stanzas,” an interactive online Earth Day Poetry Project
April 17, 2020
New York, NY / Kent, OH
The Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary and the Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University are launching Earth Stanzas, an interactive poetry project in honor of Earth Day. Earth Stanzas draws on the inspiration of eight poets who engage the beauty, depth, and interconnectedness of the Earth, and invites readers to interact with the poems and find their own poetic voice.
Each model poem and its prompt invites participants to reflect on their relationship to the Earth and to share their voice in an online gallery. Another feature of the project invites readers to use the Wick Poetry Center’s Emerge™web-based app to create their own digital “erasure” poem from a pool of primary texts, including excerpts from an International Panel on Climate Change report, historical documents such as the Haudenosaunee Address to the Western World and Encyclical Letter of Pope Francis, Laudato Si’: On Care for Our Common Home.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, celebrated in 1970 when 20 million Americans gathered across the country to raise awareness to the growing destruction of our planet. Earth Day led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act. 50 years later as these protections are threatened we again must sound the alarm for dynamic action to be taken.
In this unprecedented time of planetary crisis, it is important to remember the beauty of the world, the wonder of nature, and the deep connection we have to it and each other. This is why on the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, we are offering this platform for the creation of “Earth Stanzas” and asking your networks to help us spread the word. Please join us along with Poets for Science, The Academy of American Poets, The Climate Museum, Earth Day Network, and many others.
The Center for Earth Ethics is a forum for education, public discourse and movement building that draws on faith and wisdom traditions to address our ecological crisis and its root causes at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
The Wick Poetry Center, in Kent State University’s College of Arts & Sciences, is home to the award-winning Traveling Stanzas project, and is one of the premier university poetry centers in the country. It is a national leader for the range, quality, and innovative outreach in the community.
The Holy Land Living Water event, organized by Unity Earth in collaboration with EcoPeace Middle East and in partnership with the United Religions Initiative, has been a historic journey of spirit, music and ecology. The event took place on February 1-7, 2020, and we visited sacred places and shared rituals and ceremonies in Jordan, Israel and Palestine.
This journey and pilgrimage forms part of Unity Earth’s Road to 2020, “a series of worldwide events designed to capture new opportunities for weaving a spirit of unity and peaceful coexistence across the Earth”. The Jordan River Valley, which is of high importance for the Abrahamic Religions, was the main focus of the journey along with visits to related sacred places. In the Middle East, water is critical for survival of many species and people and it has been under dispute for decades.
The Jordan River is a sacred river. Over the past fifty years almost all of the waters have been diverted and the remaining waters have been polluted and commodified, especially in the Lower Jordan. This means the Jordan River Valley has been under desecration and is now facing ecological crisis. This injustice is threatening the people and the environment, and it is a situation that is being addressed in a joint effort to recover peace and dignity in the Holy Land. One of the purposes of this journey has been to bring attention to the importance of cooperation around water management and about the human relationship with water for a higher standard of living in the territory. This could enhance sustainable livelihoods and generate regional political stability.
This event brought ecologists and spiritual leaders from different faith traditions to share about the importance to uphold a common conviction, not just among monotheist Abrahamic faiths. We also spoke about the importance to practice responsible stewardship for the land and specifically for water, because the sacred element of water is at the core of raising awareness about our relationship with nature and ultimately with Mother Earth. There is an urgent need to achieve peace among peoples, but most important is to be at peace with Mother Earth – our common home.
It has also been the intention of this international event to bring public awareness to the work of EcoPeace about the socio-ecological rehabilitation and sustainability of the lower Jordan Valley, shared by Jordan, Palestine and Israel. The event has used a “faith-based approach showcased in EcoPeace’s Regional NGO Master Plan for the Sustainable Development of the Jordan River Valley, as the symbolism of the Jordan River can encourage Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faithful to actively support conservation efforts of this shared natural resource”. This was affirmed during our trip and addressed at the Dead Sea Convergence: Interfaith Ecology Conference held on February 2nd.
In the trip there were more than ninety international delegates and around forty delegates from the region. Among the delegates were representatives of Indigenous Peoples from Mexico (Otomi-Toltec), United States (Dine-Navajo, Lakota), Canada (Anishinaabe), Australia (Aboriginals) and Thailand (Karen).
There were also representatives of different faith traditions, spiritual leaders of Islam, Christians, Jewish, Buddhists among others. The presence of the Green Sheik of the Arab Emirates, the Prince of Ethiopia, an Ambassador to the African Union, reggae and traditional and mystic singers, academics and scientists gave relevance to the pilgrimage.
As a representative of the Original Caretakers Program at the Center for Earth Ethics and as a spiritual representative of the Otomi-Toltec Peoples, I joined this international delegation for a historic sacred pilgrimage across the Sacred Sites of Jordan, Israel and Palestine. The Holy Land Living Water journey was dedicated principally to share worldviews, ceremonies and prayers mainly to the Jordan River Holy waters.
This event also took place in the framework of celebrating the United Nations World Interfaith Harmony Week. My participation at this event was to share and conduct the Four Directions Ceremony – Water Ceremony by the Dead Sea with all delegates, especially with the leadership of Indigenous spiritual leaders, to honor the Holy Land, the Dead Sea and the Jordan River.
We visited the most sacred places where we honored the sacred sites. During our journey we went to Al Maghtas Baptism Site, Abu-Obeida Mosque, Mount of Temptation, Church of Nativity Bethlehem, the old city of Jerusalem, Sea of Galilee, and carried out a special ceremony for Peace and Healing at Megiddo (Armageddon), led by Indigenous Spiritual Elders. At the end of the journey there was the U-NITE Harmony Week Concert and the visit to the Bahá’i Gardens in Haifa in order to close the trip and celebrate Unity.
I have been participating with Unity Earth in previous similar events in Australia, Ethiopia, the US and Canada. In all the events I have been representing my ancestral Indigenous spirituality. My work has been to share ancestral wisdom of Indigenous Peoples and to share values through indigenous ceremonies and also through speeches. This has also helped to support the work that we do at Center for Earth Ethics, called Healing and Balancing Mother Earth and Protecting Sacred Sites, which we carry out worldwide thanks to the support of Forum 21, The Fountain, and other private contributions.
In our view, the Jordan River is a biocultural sacred river that is meaningful to the region and the world, and healing and balance is needed. We want to continue to raise awareness about this situation and join efforts with the Regional NGO EcoPeace and other local initiatives.
A message from the Dead Sea
I arrived at Amman, Jordan, together with my friends, reggae singers Pato Banton and Antoinette Rootsdawtah. It was late when we got to the hotel by the shores of the Dead Sea, it was already around 2 am of February 2nd , and I went to sleep soon after, but it was just for less than an hour because a strong energy woke me up. When it was at 3 am when I began to hear a deep wailing. I didn’t get scared, but it was a hurtful cry. The crying lasted for at least ten minutes. I began to pray and concentrate so I could know where this crying was coming from. After some minutes I realized that everything was in complete silence, so I could distinguish the direction of the howling. It took me some time to understand that it was a feminine wailing and that it was coming from the heart of the Dead Sea. Then, I understood that it was the crying of Mother Earth, it was the crying of the Holy Waters that are suffering and are asking for help.
We want to take you now to NorthernIsrael to the historic site of Megiddo where a peaceproject called LIVING WATERS brought togetherspiritual and political leaders. Among them, the grandsonof Ethiopia’s Emperor. Our correspondent Emily Francestells us more.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.