“When we bring together reason with our values a vision will evolve for the good of the whole.” – Karenna Gore
Dean Kelly Brown Douglas of Episcopal Divinity School speaks with Karenna Gore, Director of Union’s Center for Earth Ethics. They discuss the moral dimensions of our ecological crisis, how environmental issues are playing out in the presidential primary, and Karenna’s recent New York Times op-ed. Full video and excerpted transcript below.
KBD: “What we have to appreciate is that this is not a crisis that just emerged overnight for no reason. The roots of this are deep. And when we talk about the oppressions of people, the subjugations of people, the subjugations of the earth this is all the fruit of the same poisonous tree, right? Or the same poisonous root. That goes deeply back into our traditions, into our religious traditions and into Christianity.
We are living in a time and a culture where people refuse to recognize that there is a problem, and that there’s a crisis. And I’ve heard you speak about that before as an addiction.”
On Addiction to Fossil Fuels
KG: “Many people have experienced addiction or are close to people who have experienced addiction and it is instructive about the limits of human nature or the ways in which – how – the idea that we would self-destruct as a species – because that is what is happening in slow motion – ”
KBD: “That’s right.”
KG: “- is not logical. But nor is it logical that someone would be so hooked on something that is causing them so much damage but they can’t quite see it. Until, or in many cases it comes to hitting rock bottom, in many cases people say it comes to turning to a higher power. Those are instructive stories I think in a way of understanding what we’re seeing now because a lot of people are looking and watching because the see climate impacts now. The amazon is on fire, polar ice caps are melting, we’re losing species…”
KBD: “60% of, I understand, the animal species has been degraded?”
KG: “Yes. So the question is, how much, is a similar question as an addict might face. How much more damage do you want to do?
I think most of us have the feeling we will turn away from fossil fuels – or we’ll die. And it’s not just a feeling, it’s what the body of scientists in the IPCC tell us.”
“We’re on track for about 7-9 degree Fahrenheit warming by the year 2100. What that means, of course, are tipping points that we don’t totally understand. Many people criticize them (scientists) for being overly conservative it their estimates because they can’t exactly what happens when all the ice melts. The Gulf Stream is changing. We know that there are many things in place that would start to make large portions of this earth uninhabitable and the strife involved in that, the widespread suffering involved in that – is unimaginable. So if we’re on the road that kind of destruction, at what point can we decide – we’d like to stop now – let’s just try to stop now as opposed to doing more and more damage. And I think the analogy to addiction is very important.”
On the role of Faith in the Climate Crisis: Prophetic and Pastoral
“There are three concepts to think about Place, Time, and Being in which, you know, we as individuals, we are asked to think about in our discourse, we as individuals we are asked to be consumers, we are asked to think about consumer choices. We are asked to think about our belonging to different races, or genders, or denominations but to belong to a place and a time is also part of understanding what’s happening now. And that –
When you look at the scale and the pace of the ecological destruction we are living right now – it’s overwhelming.
And our own sense of what our agency is – it’s overwhelming.
And I believe it is going to come from leaders, faith leaders – and I say that in a broad way. If you are a counselor in a community center, if you’re an indigenous keeper of traditions, these are all forms of ministry. But this is what is called for, those types of skills to help people through this time.” – Karenna Gore
Values of Faith, Examining Social and Ecological Injustice
KBD: “Part of the work that you do at the Center for Earth Ethics is in fact to lift up faith values, religious values and how they inform, how we indeed should engage with the rest of creation and the kind of relationship we should have to the earth, and all that there is therein. The Center for Earth Ethics in many ways focuses on this as a moral issue, as a faith issue. I’ve attended a couple of the programs with the Center for Earth Ethics and I’ve always walked away more informed. And I’ve walked away inspired by the many faith traditions and the ways in which those traditions compel us into a caring relationship with our environment and with the earth. I also walk away wondering, and I want to ask you, what are the ways in which our faith traditions and religious traditions have been an impediment to our care for the earth?
KG: “Very important question. I think we have to look clearly and honestly at that. And I know in your work you have done that with regard to white supremacy, the ties of colonization, genocide and slavery to the form of Christianity that was really about Empire and expansion and extraction. So I believe a lot of what is seen as secular including the economic growth construct as it is currently presented is actually highly charge, with almost and actually Rev Barber talks about the ‘culted commitment to greed’.
It’s only a kind of fanaticism that would’ve gotten us to this point. It is not reason. It is not logic. And so I believe that we can look clearly at a couple of specific examples in this conversation. One is the idea of separation of humanity and the rest of the natural world. So you have the concept of dominion from Genesis. You have the concept of imago dei, we are made in the image of God. These two things together are quite easily distorted to mean that we are God, and we get to dominate everything and in fact God says we should and given us all of this to dominate. So of course there’s a fair amount of work done on this and I won’t go into it too much except to say that there’s great theology there’s eco-feminism, there’s eco-womanism, there are many people who have worked on this.
When you have a concept like ‘stewardship’ used by people like Scott Pruitt the former head of the EPA who professes, evangelical Christian faith, and says stewardship means continuing to dig and burn fossil fuels – where does that come from? And it comes, it actually, I think we have to be quite honest there has been a tradition laid, and it is the same one that laid white supremacy. So the separation of humanity and nature and of course, you’ve written so beautifully about this in your book Stand Your Ground, about how this unfolded doctrinally and of course, you know, there were the doctrine of discovery and this was the whole premise for Europeans to come to this land was a set of religious documents, that claimed authority from the Bible to conquer vanquish and subdue all non-Christian peoples. And non-Christian people at the time in the Americas and Africa was any people of, indigenous peoples and so that has been played out and is very much alive and with us today.
So this is work of unraveling and detoxifying what has been done to lay that foundation is critically important in the leadership from within people of faith from within Episcopal Divinity School, from yourself, from the many people of faith who are actively claiming the best of those traditions, the scripture in its sacred meaning and explaining where it has been distorted and how we can move on I think is absolutely essential.
KBD: “You’re precisely right and the insight and bringing together the way in which systems dominate and exploit people, it’s the same construct that allows for the domination and exploitation of our environment and the rest of creation. And so, there is this intrinsic and inextricable link between white supremacist narratives and the narratives that have placed us in this position of destroying the environment and the earth. As we’ve destroyed people, we destroy the earth. And these are all to be seen as sacred creations of God and to look at the ways in which faith traditions have been complicit in that.”
KG: “One other thing I want to add, because I think it is interesting to look back even before the colonization of the Americas and introduction of the slave trade at what happened in Europe with the Roman Empire. There is this thesis from 1967 from a medieval historian named Lynn White called ‘The Roots of our Ecological Crisis’, it’s controversial, but what he said is that the victory of Christianity over paganism in Europe in the middle ages is what led to the mindset of commodification and objectification of nature in how it played out.
It’s worth noting because there were indigenous traditions in Europe, as well. There were sacred rivers, there were prayers to sacred places and many women were keepers of those ceremonies and so all of that had to be obliterated in order for there to be an empire put into place. And because of the marriage of the Roman Empire and Christianity which we know from the conversion of Constantine – I think there’s a lot to that. An extraordinary turn of events to have someone take these symbols and turn it into its opposite and it’s the kind of thing that’s being done to us today in our politics in a very sinister way, as well.
From the conversion of Constantine… This rings true to me when I read that Lynne White thesis ‘The Roots of our Ecological Crisis’ and when I also read and actually what he doesn’t talk about is the burning of witches in Europe, the specific targeting of women spiritual leadership in that way… so it’s also an important thing to include when we are talking about the doctrine of discovery and the papal bulls because I think it’s a part of the same story.”
The Center for Earth Ethics is an institute at Union Theological Seminary that envisions a world where value is measured according to the sustained well-being of all people and our planet. Learn more at their website www.centerforearthethics.org