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2. THE ECOLOGICAL CRISIS
Chapter Summary
This chapter starts with the assumption that religion and science should go hand-in-hand.
That question alone takes up numerous bookshelves, but within liberal religious communities, the
matter is broadly settled. With regard to religious environmental concerns, understanding their
scientific basis – via the hard sciences like biology, atmospheric chemistry and environmental
epidemiology, as well as social sciences such as politics, economics, sociology and psychology – is
vital. We offer just a cursory look at the science and policy sides of today’s environmental situation,
to better appreciate the urgency of a religious response.
What We Know, and Who “We” Are
I write this chapter within days of Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, and the attendant
“evolution weekend” being held in a thousand or more congregations spread out across the world.
That strikes me as a fitting double reminder of where we are today – first, at least across moreeducated slices of modern America, the scientific ‘myth’ (in the literal sense of an organizing
principle by which we make sense of reality, not in its colloquial usage as an antonym of ‘fact’) has
ascended, and has become the dominant cosmology. And second, many people of faith, including
those for whom the religious myth/s are still profoundly operative, have brought the two in line with
each other, as best as possible. I am one of nearly 500 rabbis, and well over 10,000 clergy-people in
total, to have signed onto letters which proclaim:
The Bible is the primary source of spiritual inspiration and of values for us and for many others,
though not everyone, in our society. It is, however, open to interpretation, with some taking the
creation account and other content literally and some preferring a figurative understanding. It is
possible to be inspired by the religious teachings of the Bible while not taking a literalist
approach and while accepting the validity of science including the foundational concept of
evolution.1
http://www.butler.edu/clergyproject/Jewish_Clergy/JewishClergyLtr.html. Accessed 2/8/09. For Darwin’s
200 Birthday and the international “Evolution Shabbat” I brought Larry Rasmussen’s teaching (215) to my
synagogue, highlighting Darwin’s own analogy of the ‘evolutionary tree’ to the Tree of Life (caps in original).
1
th
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Openness by theologians to the scientific evidence is hardly new – medieval monks who built
better breweries and astronomical devices and who kept scientific manuscripts and traditions alive in
Christendom are famous examples,2 as are the mutakalimun, the intelligentsia of ancient Islam who
had little difficulty reconciling shariyah (Muslim religion law, or more broadly life-path) with the
science being nurtured in their civilizations. And the Jewish tradition is awash with examples, from
the careful observation of the natural world seen in biblical wisdom literature (Proverbs, Job,
Qohelet, etc), through the rabbis who were agronomists and researches as well as Talmudists. The
great Spanish and near Eastern Rabbis of the middle ages like Maimonides (a doctor) and Gersonides
(an astronomer) embodied this tradition completely, and others ever since have followed – if not
without internal controversy, as is to be expected – in their footsteps. Avraham Yitzhak HaCohen
Kook, the first Chief Ashkenezic Rabbi of pre-state Israel (1865-1935), without ever leaving
Orthodoxy, made nods in Darwin’s direction in his neo-kabbalistic reflections that “everything
aspires to ascend,” and his musings on existence. And when key Jewish philosopher Mordecai
Kaplan (1881-1983) first outlined a Reconstructionist approach to Judaism (which treats it as “the
evolving religious civilization of the Jewish people”), his ‘evolution’ reference too was an
endorsement of the Darwinian approach – and more importantly, a rejection of those who would seek
to reject the scientific evidence in name of dogmatic ‘belief.’
Those issues are still very much with us. The percentage of Americans who wish to see
creationism taught in the public schools along with (or even instead of) evolution continues to shock
many of us, for whom the matter feels essentially settled. I would be altogether delighted if some
readers of this project thesis were themselves biblical literalists who diverge from Darwin, and would
be interested to be in dialogue with them around ecological concerns in our congregations. My goal
here is not, however, to convince anyone of the validity of the scientific approach. It is what it is,
and we who accept it at face value have our own ways of reconciling the spiritual and moral truths of
Scripture with the empirical and cosmological truths of science.
Jurgen Moltmann brings this into modernity, emphasizing Darwin’s anti-anthropomorphism (197): “To put it
without the images of biblical language: the human being is not the meaning and purpose of the world. The human
being is not the meaning and purpose of evolution. The cosmogenesis is not bound to the destiny of human beings.”
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With that noted, here is a short summary of the science behind our current ecological crisis,
with a few short observations on the interface of science and religion vis-à-vis ecology in its train.
Reality
A project thesis on religious responses to and views of today’s ecological challenges requires
that first, a few scientific facts about our present reality must be named, to help guide the encounter
between tradition and modernity regarding environmental issues. Many aspects of the environmental
crisis are pressing indeed: safe drinking water and the ecological health of our rivers and lakes and
oceans; environmental health in light of the ubiquitous pollution which affects humans and other
species alike, with untold adverse impacts; biodiversity, and the horrific extirpation of entire species
(itself an affront to the Creator, we must imagine) due to humans destroying their habitat among
other avoidable causes; and many more. As with much of the religious community’s environmental
work, we focus here primarily on climate change – which at its anthropocentric (human-caused) basis
is to say, energy use – as (a) the single greatest ecological challenge of our day or of any time in
human history, and (b) as the issue which incorporates and subsumes into itself many other areas of
concern, and which stands to exacerbate the rest. The scientific consensus on climate change, which
drives the urgency of our theological and communal efforts, includes the following:
1. Fossil fuels, when burned, emit various pollutants and gases (including nitrous and sulfur oxides)
which have numerous adverse effects on humans, other animals, and whole ecosystems. These
pollutants, generated mostly by power plants burning coal for electricity, are the leading cause of
the acid deposition (acid rain), turning entire lakes into dead zones. Here, as suggested above,
we see the complex interplay of climate change (driven by fossil fuel use) with these other
related issues such as freshwater health, biodiversity, and human environmental health impacts.
2. Another major set of pollutants (from vehicle exhaust, electric generation, and other industrial
and private uses) are particulates, which can cause severe respiratory damage in humans and in
other species. Such pollution disproportionately affects those least able to protect themselves
and their families: in inner cities, breathing many tailpipe emissions; in poorer developing cities
whose dense populations inefficiently burn whatever they can obtain in order to heat their homes
and cook their food; people living near power plants or factories; and other disadvantaged folk.
3. A major concern is methane, a terribly potent greenhouse gas, over a third of which comes from
livestock waste. That, plus conversion of forest and other land to pasture, and the preponderance
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of crops grown as animal feed, all make the cattle industry responsible for fully 18% of
anthropogenic climate change emissions – more than the entire transportation sector).3 As a
result, eating lower on the food chain is actually one of the most effective changes we can make
in our individual consumption patterns to appreciably lower our carbon footprint.
4. Perhaps the most fearsome pollutant is carbon dioxide, or CO2, which comprises the majority of
smokestack and tailpipe emissions by weight. While atmospheric levels of CO2 do fluctuate
naturally,4 they have risen steadily from 280 parts per million at the dawn of industrialization to
some 390 ppm today – an increase greater than that from the last ice age to 1800, and
unprecedented in nearly a million years of air as analyzed by bubbles trapped in ice cores. The
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s two thousand scientists now estimate that the
globe will warm between 2.5 and 10.4 degrees Fahrenheit over the next century,5 with untold
consequences for species, societies, and ecosystems.
5. Coal and oil, which produce the aforementioned effects when burned, are our primary sources of
energy today. Nuclear energy causes no air pollution when produced normally, leading some to
brand it a “clean” way to obtain electricity; aside from the real if small possibility of a
catastrophic accident, however, the average 40-year lifespan of a nuclear plant leaves millions of
tons and many acres’ worth of highly radioactive material for literally tens of thousands of years.
So if intergenerational equity is indeed a religious or even a human concern, then nuclear power
as currently conceived should not be part of the ‘answer.’
6. Some “renewable” energy sources still exact a high ecological cost. Hydropower (dams) are a
major generator of electricity, but they radically alter rivers’ temperature, flow, depth, and even
course, changing what can and cannot live in or near them. Though trees regenerate as coal or
oil do not, burning wood not only releases CO2 and other air pollutants, but it is a major cause of
deforestation and the environmental devastation that goes with it. Biomass, burning agricultural
or urban waste as fuel, shows some promise, but again both CO2 and particulates are of concern.
7. All this suggests that we simply must use less electricity. Conservation must become a matter of
public policy, not of ‘private virtue.’ Incrementally, in a hard-to-measure but very real way, each
unused watt of electricity helps prevent another lump of coal from being burned, another power
plant from being built, another life from being lost, another ecosystem from being destroyed.
3
This was from a 2006 UN study; see summary at http://www.fao.org/ag/magazine/0612sp1.htm.
4
These fluctuations are not as great as obfuscators would hold. Recent ice core samples take the time frame
back 800,000 years, and prove that despite wild gyrations in global climate during that time, natural cycles explain
all these fluctuations except for our present, unprecedented spike. From Nature, May 15th, 2008, at
http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v453/n7193/full/453291a.html (accessed 2/9/09) : “The fundamental
conclusion that today's concentrations of these greenhouse gases have no past analogue in the ice-core record
remains firm. The general long-term behaviour of methane and carbon dioxide, following patterns driven ultimately
by slow changes in Earth's orbit, continues throughout the older sections of the records. The remarkably strong
correlations of methane and carbon dioxide with temperature reconstructions also stand. The data further reinforce
the tight link between greenhouse gases and climate.”
The IPCC’s November 2007 summary, which will be in force with only minor edits through 2014, is at
http://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar4/syr/ar4_syr_spm.pdf. It highlights, in just a few frightening and vital
pages, the scientific consensus estimates. Note that the most recent figure for atmospheric carbon dioxide then
available was for 2005, at 379 ppm, but clearly increasing steadily at about 3 ppm per year – meaning that as of
2009 the figure is near 390, and rising. Accessed 9 February 2009.
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8. Despite its impact, we will continue to use electricity, often for ‘sacred’ purposes. Real, safe,
renewable energy sources are difficult but not impossible to find, at only a small cost premium
(typically 0.5 to 2 cents per kilowatt-hour). Landfills can be tapped for methane, emitted
whether it powers a turbine en route or not. Solar panels can be installed to harness the power of
the light of the sun, with no impact greater than that of producing the panels themselves. And
perhaps most promising is wind power, provided by huge new windmills which, though
imperfect, stand to displace a huge amount of fossil fuel usage in the years ahead.
The aforementioned points are matters of science. There may be some debate about certain
details, though (as with the “global warming skeptics”) often we find a robust scientific consensus on
one side against mostly industry-funded voices on the other. Still, what we do with that science is an
ethical and a religious question. Just as there is no monolithic scientific voice, so can we expect a
wide array of religious voices, within faith communities as well as between them. 6 The thrust of
these faith voices, however, has long centered on the need to protect and honor God’s children, even
as we delight in the glory of creation; the time has now come to permanently link the two. Theology
has always been “concerned with ‘right relations,’ relations with God, neighbor, and self, but now the
context has broadened to include what has sometimes dropped out of the picture, especially in the
last few hundred years – the oppressed neighbor, the other creatures, and the earth that supports us
all.”7 And that describes much of what lies ahead in the literature review of Chapter 3, and in the
theological concerns of Chapters 4-6.
Before we move on, four observations about the intersection of religion and ecology.
The first flows directly from the observations about Darwin above, on which a fine point must be
put: much as the matter of evolution (and science writ large) seems to be settled within the
provinces of contemporary liberal religion, questions remain. As John Polkinghorne nicely
summarizes, there is an increasingly clear ethical and theological “duty of care due to the life-
6
Ideological differences may in fact be greater within than between faiths -- the fault line, common to most
faith communities, lies between an insular fundamentalism and a self-critical pluralism. The status of women is
among the bell-weathers of this divide; though efforts have been made to include here many women’s and explicitly
feminist voices, quotations preserve the language and pronoun choices of the original text, however problematic.
Sallie McFague, “A Square in the Quilt,” in Steven Rockefeller and John Elder, Spirit and Nature (Boston:
Beacon Press, 1992), p. 46. Even where religions seem to contribute to the problems rather than the solutions, that
may reflect the absence of traditional theology rather its influence: “it is only when the transcendent God of biblical
religion is no longer thought to intervene in the world either as creator or as redeemer that the full force of claims for
human dominion nature becomes evident.” (George Rupp, “Religion, Modern Secular Culture, and Ecology,” in
Tucker-Grim, Daedalus, p. 25.)
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sustaining systems of Earth,” on which the existence of the rest of biotic Creation (and ultimately our
own lives) depends – yet “subtlety is involved, however, in understanding what constitutes the
integrity of nature.” A key example is the “haemorrhage [sic] of biodiversity” that human action is
causing, at which “we cannot feel complacent… but the preservation of every species cannot be
made an absolute requirement either. We also have natural enemies. Who can lament the
elimination of the smallpox virus?”8 No simple answers are to be found in any one realm – not
Scripture, not science, not logic, not personal perspective – all are needed to address such thorny but
vital questions as defining “the integrity of nature.”
Second, the science does change, quickly. Many religious-ecological works provide
detailed (and quickly dated) ‘secular’ scientific summaries, followed by textual/theological
analysis; the two are proximate to one another, but often without an effort to weave them
together throughout. Of late a shift is observable, due perhaps to the increasing volume and
sophistication of the literature, and due as well to the utility of global aspirational standards (in
particular the Earth Charter, see below) which obviate a perceived need to reinvent these
particular wheels. I single out Larry Rasmussen’s Earth Community Earth Ethics for praise in
this regard; he models a continual interplay of the secular and the religious material,
demonstrating a mastery of both, providing thereby a template as well as content worthy of
consideration, and emulation (even if his opening section, “Earth Scan,” does draw heavily on
then-current mid-‘90s realities).
And as surely as science changes, so too do theology and religion change with new
‘discoveries,’ with responses to new external and internal stimuli. Though in this project thesis I
outline some attempts within the Jewish world to expand what Judaism stands for by amplifying
certain authentic voices latent in its past, ours is not the only community witnessing such change.
For instance, over the centuries, “classic Buddhist texts have depicted the universe as one
interdependent whole, and elegant doctrines have laid the conceptual foundation for a 'cosmic
ecology.' Contemporary Buddhist environmentalists are seeking to actualize that vision with a
8
Polkinghorne, John; Science & Theology: An Introduction (NY: Routeledge, 1998, p. 132).
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concreteness that seems unprecedented in the history of Buddhism.”9 Likewise, if less radically
framed, James A. Nash offers a wonderful one-line summation of what he hopes to discover by reexamining the texts and values of his faith, one which well describes my own view of doing the same
vis-à-vis Judaism: “There probably is no ‘hidden tradition of ecological sensitivity’ in Christian
history, but there is much in the known traditions that has been bypassed and could be highlighted as
a boon to a generation yearning for ecologically sensitive precedents.”10
Third, a core challenge to the entire environmental movement, felt most acutely by people of
faith within it, is the limited diversity of those who consider ecology a central concern. A 2006 study
by Earthjustice (formerly Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund) found that the “ecological base” is
“nearly ninety percent white, mostly college-educated, higher-income, and over thirty-five.”11
Broadening the movement’s reach within racial minority and lower-income communities is both a
practical and a moral necessity; it was the United Church of Christ which in 1985 did much to bring
“environmental justice” to the fore. Yet much work remains to be done, as Theodore Walker, Jr.
reminds us: “many calls by white persons for an extension of the range of moral concern so as to
include regard for the well-being of plants and animals are morally suspect on account of failure to
include adequate regard for the well-being of black and colored humans.” He chronicles the obvious
moral myopia of a 1991 National Geographic piece on endangered African elephants and those who
would poach them – “When those who value the lives of black humans less than they value the lives
of elephants, and less than they value the lives of white humans, ask us to join them in expressing
their newfound concern for the well-being and rights and animals, we are not overly eager.”12
Communities of faith – who emphasize the inherent dignity and worth of each individual
human created in the Divine Image alongside the (more limited) rights of all Creation – must remain
in the vanguard of efforts to bring love and respect for all humans back into the center of
9
Kenneth Kraft, "The Greening of Buddhist Practice," in Roger Gottleib, ed., This Sacred Earth (NY:
Routledge, 1996), p. 495.
10
James A. Nash, Loving Nature (Nashville/Washington, Abingdon/CCTPP, 1991), p. 80.
11
Kolbert, Kathryn; “Greening the Ghetto” (The New Yorker, January 12, 2009), p. 23.
Theodore Walker, Jr., “African-American Resources for a More Inclusive Liberation Theology,” in Gottleib,
pp. 310-11. He also poignantly writes that the “black liberation flag and colors are conceptual resources” which
“remind us to be attentive to the plight of our farmers. Green is for the land. Gold is for the wealth and resources
stolen from the land, most especially from the land of Africa. We Africans in the Americas [whose red blood and
black skin round out the flag] are part of that stolen wealth…” (313).
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environmental discourse. “The green economy should not be just about reclaiming thrown-away
stuff,” writes Van Jones, today’s most dynamic voice in this arena – “It should be about reclaiming
thrown-away communities.” Jones, like many of us, sees a new dawn of hope in 2009 as a result of
Barack Obama’s election: “It’s not that we have a President who’s black; it’s that for the first time
we have a President who’s green.”13 This hope, of course, must be nurtured -- we are its stewards, so
to speak. And hope aplenty will be needed to sustain our sacred work of Creation care in the
challenging years and decades ahead.
And finally, a word about the Earth Charter – “a declaration of fundamental principles for
building a just, sustainable, and peaceful global society for the 21st century.” This Charter
(whose language was fixed around 2000 and which continues to gain steam in numerous
religious, governmental, and other circles) “is a widely recognized, global consensus statement
on ethics and values for a sustainable future. Developed over a period of ten years, in what has
been called the most extensive global consultation process ever associated with an international
declaration, the Earth Charter has been formally endorsed by over 2,500 organizations, including
global institutions such as UNESCO and the World Conservation Union (IUCN).”14 One of their
central program areas is “religion,” which recently put out a faith guide to the Earth Charter and
climate change (part of the literature review in Chapter 3), which has some very useful resources
for pulpit pastors and others interested in this work.15
The Earth Charter bears special mention here because so many people in the religiousenvironmental world have come to embrace it, for numerous reasons. Most simply, it was born
and refined through wide-ranging consultation with many individuals and groups, including
people of faith.16 It is quickly comprehensible, and seeming comprehensive, thus avoiding both
the techno-speak and the narrowness often associated with sweeping ‘global’ statements.
13
Kolbert, page 25 and 29.
14
http://earthcharterinaction.org/about_charter.html. Accessed 2/9/09. Main site is www.earthcharter.org.
Michael C. Slaby, editor: “Generating the Renewable Energy of Hope - The Earth Charter Guide to Religion
and Climate Change”; Earth Charter International’s Programme on Religion and Sustainability, 11 November 2008,
http://www.earthcharterinaction.org/religion/ECGuideRelClimate.pdf.
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Steven Rockefeller convened many groups in the early stages going back to 1994; Dieter Hessel has been
quite involved, among other well-known faith leaders; and the Harvard ‘religion and ecology’ conferences in the late
1990s all featured extensive discussion of the Charter in its late draft phases. See Slaby, page 16.
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Despite embodying high aspirations, the Earth Charter seems to be realistic enough to have a
chance of becoming ‘official’ in the eyes of world decision-making bodies; its core was under
discussion at Kyoto in 1992, and it came close to formal recognition a decade later at the World
Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 1992.17 Above all, it’s the content,
itself – starting with how its very “first four over-arching principles can be read as a holistic
summary of the relational responsibilities of solidarity that comprehend the full dimensions of
human-earth relations and interhuman obligations.”18
Specifically, these opening principles are: (1) “Respect Earth and life in all its diversity,”
under which comes the welcome language of Principle 1a that we “Recognize that all beings are
interdependent and every form of life has value regardless of its worth to human beings,” as well
as 1b upholding the dignity and worth of all human life; (2) “Care for the community of life with
understanding, compassion, and love,” including Principle 2b that we “Affirm that with
increased freedom, knowledge, and power comes increased responsibility to promote the
common good”; (3) “Build democratic societies that are just, participatory, sustainable and
peaceful”, which bids us in Principle 3b to enable all “to achieve a secure and meaningful
livelihood that is ecologically responsible”; and (4) “Secure Earth's bounty and beauty for
present and future generations,” under which comes Principle 4a, “Recognize that the freedom of
action of each generation is qualified by the needs of future generations.”
Much of the older religious-environmental literature went out of its way to seek language
from various attempted or extant international agreements, as if to root our efforts in something
simultaneously larger than secular law, yet more grounded than the Divine words and values
under discussion.19 The Earth Charter has become the new gold standard, and seems likely to
remain so for quite some time; as such it bears serious consideration by all people of faith.
With that said, we turn to religious approaches to our environmental crisis – for as Dieter T.
Hessel notes, “the tipping point of environmental awareness and opinion among the religions has
been crossed, so now the question is not whether religions should get involved, but how they should
17
http://earthcharterinaction.org/about_charter.html, accessed 2/9/09.
18
Slaby, 21-22.
19
For instance Sean McDonogh, 193-197, on the UN’s earlier “World Charter for Nature.”
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get involved and how seriously they are taking their (environmental) mission.”20 Our voice is
unique, and well-poised to make a difference, and desperately needed.21 And as Van Jones reminds
people of faith, “you have knowledge. You have the wisdom to take the biggest bite out of carbon
and to fuel the job creation that we need.”22 May we use that knowledge, wisdom, and power for the
good of all Creation.
20
Slaby, 8.
“As arbiters of life’s deepest moral values, religious communities, leaders and adherents are ideally
positioned to speak out forcefully for the voiceless, for the poor and for future generations. They should be at the
forefront of reminding individuals, organizations, businesses and governments of what is at stake if we fail to act on
global warming.” (Slaby, p.7)
21
22
Kolbert, 28.
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