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).