For the past five years Karenna Gore, age 46, the eldest daughter of former Vice President Al Gore and Tipper Gore, has been working in the family business of climate change. While that may seem an obvious course, given her father’s prominence in the space, the path that led her there, and the methods she is employing to tackle the challenge of climate change, make up her own unique story.
After attending Harvard College, Columbia Law School and working for many years in child justice organizations, Karenna Gore went back to school in 2011, attending Union Theological Seminary.
Affiliated with Columbia University, Union is a historic-looking complex in Morningside Heights, Manhattan. Founded in 1836 by Presbyterian ministers, the vision was to respond to the growing urban social needs of the day with a mix of academics and faith. Today, Union is a training ground for progressive Christian academics, whose community embraces other faith traditions and works on inter-religious engagement and social justice.
What was your goal in starting the Center for Earth Ethics?
As we were exploring reframing climate change as a moral issue in galvanizing faith-based activism about it, we also explored deeply the root causes, as we saw them, of the crisis that we’re in and we discovered that it’s really two root causes. One is this illusion that we are separate and superior to the whole rest of nature. The other root cause is the development paradigm/ economic growth paradigm — the way that we measure successful societies.
It seems fair to say that Karenna Gore knows as well as anyone that elective politics can be arduous, gridlocked and ultimately disappointing. Also that she’s got a bit of a family connection to the issue of climate change.
So Gore’s current job, directing a nonprofit called The Center for Earth Ethics, isn’t surprising. That the Center is based at Union Theological Seminary, however, bears more reflection.
“I actually never intended to work in climate change,” Gore, who toiled for her father’s campaign in the contested 2000 presidential election, told a rapt audience during a talk she gave at Teachers College’s Spirituality Mind Body Institute Winter Intensive in January. But the year she started work at Union – initially directing its Forum conference and lecture series – the United Nations held a summit on climate at which then Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, lamenting the inability of governments to act, called on civil society to mobilize on the issue. Gore, who had earned a master’s degree at Union in 2013, realized that interfaith dialogue could tap a powerful source of motivation – particularly if it reached beyond the typical focus on just Christianity, Judaism and Islam – and convened her own “Religions for the Earth” conference at Union.
Humanity has to reorient itself toward nature, and many indigenous ceremonies occur in a natural setting. Yet these faiths are often disrespected, which says a lot about why we’re at this pass with the environment.”
— Karenna Gore
“Humanity has to reorient itself toward nature, and many indigenous ceremonies occur in a natural setting,” she said. “Yet these faiths are often disrespected, which says a lot about why we’re at this pass with the environment.”
Gore quoted the late theologian and civil rights advocate Howard Thurman’s observation that “One of the deceptive aspects of mind in man is to give him the illusion of being distinct from and over against but not a part of nature,” and that this conceit enables him not only to exploit the natural environment but “plunder it, and rape it with impunity,” becoming “more and more… alien on the earth and fouler of his own nest.”
Citing a 1967 paper by the Princeton historian Lynn Townsend White, “The Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” Gore said that the victory of Christianity over paganism was a critical turning point in humanity’s co-existence with nature.
“You value what you’re taught to notice and relate to,” she said. “People had been taught to greet the sunrise at a river. And then in the Middle Ages that’s banned and called satanic. The relationship to nature is broken, at the same time as the rise of mercantilism.”
The Vatican subsequently empowered Christian European explorers to vanquish and subdue native peoples, Gore said, reflecting the view that some human beings are subjects and everything else is an object. The slave trade reflected the same mentality, she said and so does America’s current obsession with constant economic growth and the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) as the ultimate measure of our society’s success.
“Robert F. Kennedy once said that GDP measures everything in life except everything of real value,” Gore said, including the depletion of natural resources, the comfort and happiness of most people, and work in the home, which has not been monetized and is almost exclusively performed by women.
We need to seek other measures, like Bhutan’s happiness index, to change the conversation,. If we don’t, we’ll be up against the same thing with each discussion of pipelines and the opening up of the Amazon rain forest.”
— Karenna Gore
“We need to seek other measures, like Bhutan’s happiness index, to change the conversation,” Gore said. “If we don’t, we’ll be up against the same thing with each discussion of pipelines and the opening up of the Amazon rain forest.”
Gore concluded with the assertion that “eco-ministry is the great hope of our time.” That work includes civic actions such as the 2016 Dakota Access Pipeline Protests that arose against plans to run an oil pipeline through the Standing Rock reservation.
“There is racism in the placement of toxic facilities – they often go where ‘people don’t count,’” she said. Standing Rock was “a great coming together of protectors, not protesters – an example of how environmental justice and civic engagement are calling us to the front lines.”
The Winter Intensive is part of the SMBI master’s program, which includes 10 days in the summer and four in the winter. The intensive offers a blended learning format, with students of all ages flying to TC from around the world. Click here to learn more.
“This is the first time that we have done this outside of Union Seminary,” said Center for Earth Ethics Director Karenna Gore at the opening plenary session. “We felt an incredible opportunity to come here and be at a place that is actually growing and harvesting food as part of the seminary.”
Former Vice President Al Gore, founder and chairman of The Climate Reality Project, participated in all three days of the conference, delivering a multimedia climate presentation during the Day 2 plenary session.
In introducing Al Gore, MTSO President Jay Rundell highlighted his achievements and honors, including the Nobel Peace Prize, an Oscar and a Grammy Award. “What we sense here with you in our midst,” he told Gore, “is a certain synergy between the kinds of things you’ve committed yourself to and the kinds of things we’re about on an everyday basis.”
Early in his 90-minute talk, Gore spoke dramatically of the consequences of climate change, declaring, “We are in the process of visiting destruction upon God’s creation.” Still, he said, there is much good news, including dramatic strides in renewable energy: “It’s now cheaper in most parts of the world to get energy from solar and wind than to burn fossil fuels.”
“If anyone doubts for one moment that we as human beings have the will to change, just remember that the will to change itself is a renewable resource,” Gore concluded.
Also speaking on Day 2 was Ohio State Distinguished University Professor of Soil Science Rattan Lal, recipient of the 2019 Japan Prize, one of the most prestigious honors in science and technology.
“A part of the biomass produced by soil must be returned to it,” Lal told conference participants. “Taking away everything without returning any biomass is a robbery of the soil and a banditry.”
The conference also included 18 breakout sessions – ranging from “Islam, Ramadan and Hunger” to “Standing with Farm Workers.”
The session “Grief, Climate Change and Prophetic Hope” was moderated by Tim Van Meter, associate professor in MTSO’s Alford Chair of Christian Education and Youth Ministry. Van Meter, who also serves as MTSO’s coordinator of ecological initiatives, has worked with Karenna Gore on a number of projects, and their working relationship paved the way for MTSO to host “On Food and Faith.”
Before conference participants toured MTSO’s Seminary Hill Farm on Day 1, Van Meter said, “I hope as you wander around with us, you’ll understand we have an incredible farm staff. And we have an incredible food staff. These are people we’re deeply, deeply grateful for.”
In brief remarks reflecting on the founding of the five-year-old farm, Rundell said, “Over time in our curriculum, we had a number of things happening that planted the seed, so to speak, for this work. Almost all religious traditions have some understanding of food in the center of who they are. We’re fairly deeply rooted in a number of Christian traditions here. We have sacramentalized food. We recognized that and found this was not so much doing something new but revitalizing our traditions.”
During Day 3’s final plenary session, a number of leaders and participants shared their reflections with the group. “If we can get people of faith to believe that the language we use is not geopolitical – it is spiritual language – then we can get this work done,” said MTSO Dean Valerie Bridgeman.
And 15-year-old Hadessa Henry of Indiana, who attended with her grandmother, Aster Bekele, founder of Felege Hiwot Center, inspired sustained applause with a plea: “Maybe next time we have this, we could invite more kids. We’re going to be here for a long time.”
Video and media coverage
See Karenna Gore explain why MTSO is the perfect place to talk about food and ministry and watch Al Gore discuss the opportunity to hold the conference on the MTSO campus on the MTSO website.
The Columbus Dispatch covered the conference with a newspaper story and this video:
Methodist Theological School in Ohio provides theological education and leadership in pursuit of a just, sustainable and generative world. In addition to the Master of Divinity degree, the school offers master’s degrees in counseling, social justice, theological studies and practical theology, along with a Doctor of Ministry degree.
“Last night I had the joyful opportunity to interview Robin Wall Kimmerer, author of Braiding Sweetgrass, Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. She is sweet as the sweetgrass, loving as a mother and attentive as a wise elder. She was delighted to hear that we, from the Center for Earth Ethics, are offering the course Plant Wisdom and Ecological Consciousness and wants to know all about it. Surely we will have opportunities to interact with her, as we actively engage in braiding together plant wisdom, science and traditional knowledge as a practice of being in the world. Certainly all of humanity needs to remember that communing with all sentient beings is the original purpose of living a human experience. The art of reminding about this purpose is something that Robin has become exquisitely passionate about. Last night, over two hundred people stood in ovation to express their deep gratitude for her overflow of wisdom, joy for life and caring for Mother Earth. Let us spread her word and make her dream –a shared dream– come true in her lifetime.”
~ Geraldine Ann Patrick Encina
Join us for a conversation with Robin Wall Kimmerer as she helps us rethink, reimagine and, renarrate our relationship to the sacred and the natural world. Can the objective, data-driven approach of science be enriched by non-anthropocentric spiritual worldviews? As a botanist and a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, Dr. Kimmerer draws on both indigenous wisdom and scientific knowledge to enrich and animate our understanding of the natural world. This expansive way of seeing and relating to creation privileges regeneration and reciprocity, and offers novel solutions for ecological restoration and climate change resilience.
About Robin Wall Kimmerer:
Dr. Kimmerer is a mother, plant ecologist, writer and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She serves as the founding Director of the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment whose mission is to create programs which draw on the wisdom of both indigenous and scientific knowledge for our shared goals of sustainability. Her research interests include the role of traditional ecological knowledge in ecological restoration and the ecology of mosses. In collaboration with tribal partners, she and her students have an active research program in the ecology and restoration of plants of cultural significance to Native people. Read More.
About The Insight Project:
The Insight Project is a new multi-year program series that explores modern conceptions of theology and spirituality through a diverse array of thought-provoking lectures, screenings, performances, and on-stage conversations. Click HERE to learn more.
On Monday, February 4, our Sustainability and the Future of Fashion class at LIM College shared a conversation with Founder and Director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, Karenna Gore. We spoke about climate change and its relation to ethics and social justice on a global scale.
Daughter of former Vice President Al Gore Jr., Ms. Gore had a political upbringing, but her professional expertise lies in ecological conservation, ministry, and social justice. Gore founded the Center for Earth Ethics in 2015, after the Religions for the Earth conference held at Union in 2014. At this conference, over 200 religious and spiritual leaders gathered to emphasize climate as a moral issue and apply faith-based activism to help fix it. Gore explained that the Center’s purpose is to generate dialogue around the immorality of climate change and train leaders to implement change across the world.
I found Gore’s focus on social justice and ministry to be intriguing because it is a niche perspective on our threatened ecosystem. When talking about climate change, most people think of the very tangible effects it has on the earth’s landscape and our weather system. However, listening to Gore refocused my lens toward the humanitarian crises—which include threats like floods, food shortages, and large-scale displacements of populations—that will result if change is not made now. Gore believes that the magnitude of hope and good-will that accompany followers of faith can be the catalyst society needs to spark progressive efforts toward conserving our planet and improving our society.
Being that we are taking this sustainability course at a business-focused fashion college, how can we change the fashion industry to better serve the environment? Gore had a number of solutions to this problem, one of which included measuring the success of a business beyond profit. She explained that examining a brand’s globalism and ecological footprint are very relevant measurements of a company’s effect on the people it serves internationally as well as how its business practices affect the environment. I believe if every fashion brand started to prioritize their ecological footprint, that alone would initiate visible change on our planet.
On a macro level, we talked about government and its role in climate change and conservatory efforts. Joining our lecture was Professor Gayathri Banavara, from LIM’s Marketing, Management & Finance department. Professor Banavara asked if government policy should play a role in conservatory efforts. She used, as an example, India, which has imposed a policy on incoming corporations to contribute 2% of their profits to maintaining India’s landscape and resources and improving their infrastructure. Gore implored the helpfulness of this practice and explained that government policy can play a major role in climate change. If political leaders used their power and influence to create conservatory policies and eco-friendly regulations, companies and people as a whole would be forced to take these issues seriously and implement change. She also explained that similar to business, governments measure a nation’s success with a bottom-line mentality, considering only GDP. The problem is, GDP does not measure aspects like pollution, depletion of resources or environmental harm. Nations are being held to a standard of profitability only, and it is that mentality that has led to our overuse of resources.
I found Gore’s presentation and dialogue inspiring, because it allowed my perception of climate change and the realities of it to come full circle. I came away feeling that it is important to know and share this information—we must emphasize the immorality of ignoring our changing environment and warn against the humanitarian crisis that will result should we continue this way. As future business leaders and advocates for change, we must use this knowledge to change how business is conducted. There is much more at stake than hotter summers.