If Climate Change Is Such a Crisis, Why Isn’t Humanity Doing More? Part Seven – Expanding Religious Visions of God, Neighbor and Self – Independent Thinkers -Igniting the Fire

Concluding Biviano’s research on common characteristics of effective faith-based environmental workers, we are left with these three.

Expanding Religious Visions of God, Neighbor and Self
Expanding social, political, and scientific horizons require a “bigger God.” The divine story takes on a larger timeline when it includes a thirteen-billion-year-old cosmos. As previously mentioned, moral relationships and ethical imperatives expand. Interpretations of beloved scriptures change.

Consider 2 Chronicles 14 wherein God says, “if my people will hear my voice and turn from their wicked ways and call upon the lord, I will heal their land.” What does that mean long after the exodus, long after the exile, long after the industrial revolution and its degradation of planet Earth? Could this be a promise of renewal.? How is the salvation story about the redemption of the land, not merely the people?

Perhaps the faith walk is bigger than confessing sin, being good enough and being redeemed. Perhaps redemption is more about becoming whole – as individuals, peoples, and creatures.

A Navajo reclaimed his tradition this way: In some sense, we all have to be ready to rearm ourselves with the prayers and chants and the stories and the strength of the hero twins. So in this case, the young people today have the legacy of rearming themselves to fight the latter -day Ye’is, the monsters, in the form of drag-lines and things eating the earth. (p.34)

Independent Thinkers
Free inquiry is a common value and a common practice among these participants.

“We’re not given a dogma or set of beliefs, we’re not told what to believe but invited to believe what we find to be true and try to work that out with other people who want to engage on that journey.” (p.35)

“The energy of freedom is the power to break the bond of inaction, to transcend the action gap.” (p. 36)
The demands of the environmental crisis require the capacity to ask new questions, seek new answers imagine unexplored possibilities. This takes risk. To admit the unknown, to challenge the long established, and to fail, perhaps many times, before finding success.

Igniting the Fire
“The awareness of the need is not enough to meet the need.” As tradition says, those with eyes to see will see. And those with a vision shape the perceptions of others. Passion becomes contagious. Changed lifestyles become exemplary. Those in positions of authority are absolutely necessary. But the example of informal leadership is more powerful. Friends and role models illuminate possible and preferred practices. And the influence of the group assures that change is possible. Leadership models and inspires. Hope and realism live in dynamic tension.

It’s a long distance from head to heart to hands…. We look in the weeks ahead to obstacles and distractions, inhibitors and barriers – reasons why action is deferred, delayed and discouraged……


If Climate Change Is Such a Crisis, Why Isn’t Humanity Doing More? Part Six – Interfaith Connections

Continuing the discussion of work by Erin Lothar Biviano, Inspired Sustainability: Planting Seeds for Action (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, 2016)
Biviano has studied faith-based environmental agencies representing traditions of Jains, Sikhs, Christians, Jews, and Indigenous peoples. She describes common characteristics that contribute to their effectiveness, as well as describing obstacles that inhibit action. This blog series continues to explore these common characteristics for effectiveness and will follow with discussion of barriers to effective action. The goal is to understand what can be claimed and developed to increase effective responses to the environmental crisis, especially among faith groups, as well as to identify and address inhibitors that prevent effective action.

Biviano describes common characteristics that seem to build upon one another. Persons initially become aware of the environmental crisis as they are exposed to the facts and gain some “scientific literacy.” The facts develop a perspective that all of nature, all of civilization are interconnected. Interconnection demands responsibility for protection and restoration, for environmental justice. And this mandate to get involved requires that individuals connect with communities; communities connect with agencies and governments; governments are responsible to and for other nations as well as their own. And religious organizations become more effective as they improve their relationships with one another, understand and respect their common values and draw energy from unique skills and perspectives.

Biviano illustrates such interfaith cooperation with examples like the following: Green Faith; Interfaith Power and Light; The Alliance for Religion and Conservation; Religious Witness for the Earth; Interfaith moral Action for Climate Change; The Interfaith Environmental Programme of the United Nations; and The Forum on Religion and Ecology. Any and all of these alliances and associations may be researched for resources and simulating ideas.

Theologian Elizabeth Johnson wrote: The incomprehensible mystery of the living God shines ever brighter as the God of Abraham and Sarah, the God of Jesus Christ, meets Allah, Brahman, Krishna, Kali, Sunyata, Kwan yin, the Buddha, the Tao (quoted p. 31)

Satya quoted a saying from a swami of his Hindu tradition that “no religion is wrong, but it’s how far away that they are from the sun.”

And a Muslim said, “If there is a teaching from another tradition that brings clarity or inspiration, use it!”

If Climate Change Is Such a Crisis, Why Isn’t Humanity Doing More? Part Five Commitment to Social Justice

Continuing the discussion of work by Erin Lothar Biviano, Inspired Sustainability: Planting Seeds for Action (Orbis Books, Maryknoll, 2016)

Effective faith-based environmental groups demonstrate common characteristics: scientific literacy; global interdependence; and this third one, Commitment to Social Justice.

It’s not enough to be aware. The newspaper is full of the facts. Television documentaries report the impacts of toxins. Articles report the disagreements between forces, agencies, parties and industry about the veracity of the facts; about the pace of destruction; about blame and responsibility; and about options and the effectiveness of such options…. But nothing gets done!

Unless there is a commitment to social justice. Effective faith-based environmental organizations express moral responsibility in a variety of doctrines: stewardship; mission; care for the poor; honoring creation; simplicity… inherent in all is the expressed responsibility to love one’s neighbor.

And the neighbor includes Earth.

But it is not enough to reverence Earth and its creatures. It’s not enough to be concerned. Not enough to be passionate. Not enough to have a consciousness of the global realities. It is necessary to move from consciousness to action, from head or heart to hands.

But responsibility and involvement are more than the opportunity to join the Wildlife Federation or Sierra Club. Something of the faith tradition is required to promote this action and sustain this action.

Faith issues a mandate, a call to justice. This is not a romanticized vision of cute and cuddly creatures, nor nostalgic images of pristine waters. Environmental justice calls attention to inequities. Something is destroying ecologies…. And people! It’s more than the extinction of species, deforestation, glacial retreat. These are ecological problems. But they include the community of Life!

That being said, there are those – a majority? – less interested in preserving the wilderness than meeting the demands of daily life. These people focus on personal risk, personal survival. Conflict over oil extraction, transportation and combustion hits home when jobs are lost, wells are capped, and prices
are fixed, reducing profits. The problem is not global warming; the problem is keeping my family fed and my home warm.

The call to global justice refutes such individualism, such parochialism. It’s not about me… it’s about us!

The facts (literacy) plus a sense of interconnectedness demand responsibility to act.

And for persons of faith, that responsibility is inspired by a sense of reverence. This is God’s creation, not my own. This creation belongs to all, not just a few. Not merely the oil industry but to all forms of life. Not only to my generation but to my children and my grandchildren, and the grandchildren of other nations and cultures as well. What is threatened, what is vulnerable, what is suffering requires protection!

That takes work. But these faith-based participants find renewal in this work. Interconnection not only exhausts but energizes, celebrates, strengthens as well.

Environmental diminishment means the loss of green space, but it also involves the loss of spiritual space. This loss is described as a broken heart, a scar on faith, a loss of trust, a betrayal of safety.

The exploitation of creation for its commercial value costs something in the soul. To remove a mountain in order to remove the minerals also removes a sense of place, tradition, history, and identity. To lose the river means more than a waterway; it is the loss of a course through time as well as space.

There’s more to this environmental crisis than facts, measurements, and projections. Facts are molded into meaning. Meaning describes relationships, relationships among ideas, among values, among creatures, among peoples. And meaning brings imperatives, moral responsibility, and the call to action

Next time… the characteristic of Interfaith Connections.

If Climate Change Is Such a Crisis, Why Isn’t Humanity Doing More? Part Four

If we were to study faith-based environmentalists across denominational and inter-faith lines, would we find similar patterns of spirituality and action focused on this planet in peril? Absolutely! Erin Lothes Biviano has studied this phenomenon, together with those patterns and obstacles that inhibit communities from taking action. This blog series will survey her work.

We begin with those patterns that are common to successful faith-based environmental activists. The first was described in the most recent blog: Scientific Literacy. We continue with the second: Awareness of Global Interdependence.

We live in networks: social, economic, ecological and spiritual.

The dollar you make and the dollar you spend are one and the same. The same dollar serves you at the coffee shop, the grocery store, the gas bar and the tax office. That same dollar will work for you outside of your community, across your state or province, between regions, and subject to exchange) between countries.

Multiply those dollars and you can make investments locally, regionally and internationally. You can purchase goods, hire workers, transport your goods, and market your goods in a web of trade. But as these decisions are made, matters of justice begin to emerge. What is “fair’ trade? What is a living wage? Do the prices goods receive reach the workers who produce them? Are there decisions that open trade – and decisions that close trade, pressuring other social and economic decisions up and down the line? And what about the quality of goods? Are safety requirements observed equally? What about the quality of foods and pharmaceuticals? What about the handling of waste products, the disposal of toxic substances, the maintenance or restoration of the air, the water and the soil? Is there equitable access to energy and natural resources? What about the education required for development, application and social change?

Faith-based environmentalists share a common sense of interconnectedness – and the responsibility for social accountability and protection. Social and economic interdependence requires social and economic responsibility.

And it’s not just relationships people to people. There is an ecological interdependence, emerging in the questions above but expanding ever more. We live in ecosystems, reflecting enormous biodiversity and delicate balance between plants and animals, water and air. Disregard and neglect, accidentally or intentionally, have extinguished entire species of plants and animals. Genetic manipulation, even while intended to support stronger, healthier life forms, bears significant risk of breaking links in interdependence. There are also the ethical decisions whether something should be done, just because it could be done. (Consider the recent experiments to introduce human brain cells into cloned monkeys (https://nypost.com/2019/04/11/chinese-scientists-put-human-brain-genes-into-monkeys/)

Knowing there is an interconnection does not mean we value it. There is sill the pervasive attitude that “this is my business, my purchase, my property, my pesticides.” The accountability to shareholders at the next annual meeting sometimes neglects the accountability to international neighbors or next generations… because there is no required meeting!

Biviano cites a bit of humor, but it is dark humor, indeed. “Air pollution tracked how molecules moved around in a physical system, regulative legislation moved incentives around in an economic system, jobs moved around in the globalized industrial system – and the final health impacts moved: nowhere.” (p.19)

Is there a spiritual interdependence? Indeed. Participants in Biviano’s research sense moral rightness in respecting the order of creation. Belonging to God’s creation is an important part of spirituality. God is not “apart from” creation but God is “a part of” creation.

God’s activity to provide for, maintain, restore and save has more to do with the nature of the cosmos than mere thoughts, words and deeds of individuals in “private” broken relationships. The Creator has formed human bonds that reach beyond borders and even beyond time.

In the beginning, we are told, the first “man” undertook to name all the creatures. To name is to make real. Jacob wanted to know the name of the God with whom he wrestled. God changed Jacob’s name from Jacob to Israel, in order to reflect a change in relationship. God gave Moses the name “I Am Who I Am” or “I Will Be Who I will Be.” Jesus renamed Peter… and Paul. Reflecting changes in relationships, role and purpose. To name is to make real. And the countless biblical stories of unnamed women reveal our failure to name and keep real those who are real!

As we discover new plants and animals very serious care is taken to name these new creatures and to distinguish them from those even most similarly related. To educate our children, our church members, about the names of the trees and grasses and flowers and animals in the neighborhood is to elevate some obscure creature to a more particular form of life, a form of life now in relationship -acknowledged relationship. And with acknowledged relationship comes assumed responsibility.

Ecological identity is an embodied identity. And our individual and communal interactions preserve, heal, or destroy that embodiment. Biaviano, quoting Mitchell Thomashow, puts it this way, “people perceive themselves in reference to nature, as living, breathing beings connected to the rhythms of the earth, the biochemical cycles, the grand and complex diversity of ecological systems.” (Ecological Identity: Becoming a Reflective Environmentalist, MIT Press, 1996)

There is a unity in creation, a unity expressive even in all its diversity. That unity requires solidarity!

To be continued…. The next pattern for spirited environmentalists: Commitment to Social Justice.

If Climate Change Is Such a Crisis, Why Isn’t Humanity Doing More? Part Three

Let’s begin with a few questions:
Does your theology work?
How does your theology move from good ideas to good work?
What impedes it?

Erin Biviano has researched why society has been aware of a global environmental crisis for decades; the church has sponsored countless gatherings, conferences and conventions; sponsored well attended forums and discussions; produced many theological journals, videos, books, and position statements… and yet the matter is not well placed in congregations and faith communities; little is being done.

Inspired Sustainability: Planting Seeds for Action ( Orbis, Maryknoll, 2016) is a thorough discussion of her research, procedures and finding. This blog is the third in a series of reflections, addressing now “patterns in green spirituality.”

Drawing from more than twenty-five focus groups, between 2007 and 2009, Biviano gives voice to spiritual leaders representing the following groups: Baptists, Buddhists, Catholics, Episcopalians, megachurch evangelicals, Hindus, Jains, Jews (Reconstructionist, Reform, and conservative), Muslims, Native Americans (Navajo and Gwich’in), Reformed Christians, Presbyterians, Unitarian-Universalists, migrant workers, and urban environmental justice advocates. She reports these people represent a rich diversity of religious values but share a spirituality with perceptible patterns. These people are taking action in their communities. They have found sources of certainty in scientific literacy and religious teaching about their neighbor. “They draw energy from their faith, reverent love of nature, and hope for justice. They feel free to act on their green inspiration and have a gift for building roads and bridges over thee ‘gaps.’”(p.1)

And yet there remains a strong capacity in society for “ecocide,” a dangerous form of self-contradiction and self-betrayal.

Here are “features of green spirituality” as described by Biviano.

Scientific literacy. All of the focus groups identified scientific literacy as a shared concern for religious environmentalists. Literacy included awareness of the diversity of life, the complexities of ecosystems, familiarity with ecological interrelationships. One group sought to make the congregation a “green sanctuary”, encouraging members to strive for a carbon neutral footprint at home. One congregation replaced the familiar, simple crucifix with a cross made of two beams circled by two golden rings. This symbol embraced the suffering of Christ with the representation of the atom, the intersection of scientific reality and religious conviction.

Participants identified the knowledge gap to be a major obstacle in motivating others to take climate change seriously and act accordingly. The gap embraces both scientific illiteracy and deliberate denial. Without scientific literacy moral connections about climate change and ethical responsibility were harder to make. The willful blindness to the consequences of personal and social actions complicates the necessity for basic information. It is essential then for the congregation to create opportunities not only for sharing information but trusting opportunities for listening, questioning, learning and reworking beliefs.

A body of evangelicals recognized that there sometimes are conflicting sources of scientific data. Nevertheless, the biblical mandate to care for God’s creation was “deeper and more enduring than the need to fix immediate problems.” Scripture outweighed the crisis of the day. It doesn’t matter whether the earth is in pristine condition or horrible condition. We have an obligation out of obedience and out of stewardship to do these things” (Raymond,p.7) Biviano reported a distinction that evangelicals “took the gospel side of the message” and liberals “took the social side of the message” (p. 9). This reinforces a difficult position among evangelicals to publicly embrace scientific authority. Publicly, scripture is the first authority. Nevertheless, on a personal basis, high scientific literacy adds a second authority.

Scientific literacy influences environmental justice. It could be argued that minority communities directly and disproportionately affected by pollution and environmental degradation were protesting out of selfpreservation. The focus on the care of the wilderness “out there” somewhere, has been criticized as a privileged concern of the affluent or elite. Conversely, it is argued that the urban poor can’t identify with the destruction of nature beyond their experience. Increased awareness through exposure to the rural outdoors has been a crucial approach among some environmentalists. At the same time, many have seen that they too are victims of toxic waste and have been led to realize the threats to their own health.

Here is Biviano’s definition of environmental justice. “Environmental justice is the name given to the movement within environmental advocacy that demonstrates and protests the disproportionate burden of ecological degradation borne by vulnerable human communities.” (p.10)

Race has been discovered to be the key determinant in where toxic waste facilities are placed in the United States ( p. 11, quoting the National Resources Defence Council in “The Environmental Justice Movement” [2013], http://www.nrdc.org). “Given these findings, the justice implications of the link between the destruction of the environment and the vulnerability of the poor cannot be understated” (p. 11).

Biviano cites personal research into a Navajo reservation near Flagstaff, Arizona, close to coal and uranium mining operations. The indigenous community was at risk for lung cancer from inhaling radioactive particles. Radionuclides in drinking water caused bone cancer and impaired kidney function. Similarly, Episcopalians living near Newark’s giant power stations faced risks of increased asthma. Rural Washington migrant workers connected exposure to toxic wastes to experiences of headaches, increased school absenteeism, and increased cancer. Children in low-income neighborhoods are more exposed to toxic waste than other communities. Exposure to mercury begins to affect learning disabilities from the womb according to the American Association of Pediatrics (p.13).

Such examples of communities at risk reinforce the necessity to educate and empower those most affected. “Environmental action is self-defence in a situation where the attacker will not stop” (p.12). Knowledge is a motivator, a source of action and power to protect the environment and those persons most threatened.

It’s one thing to approach the industries that are behind toxic waste and environmental degradation. It is equally necessary to approach the workers themselves, those in the mines and the fields, so they may protect themselves.

It can no longer be said that environmentalism is” a hobby of the rich whose basic needs are met” (p.14). Continuing, “the wealthy can afford to worry about polar bears.’ Those who have rent to pay, and grocery bills cannot.

(Keep this in mind, and the resistance to environmentalists in Alberta, as we discuss obstacles to action in later blogs.)

One last thought before moving to other patterns for faithful environmental action: “Toxins in the air, water, and soil, and climate are borne by all in an interdependent world.” (p.15)

Next, Awareness of Global Interdependence….. To be continued…

If Climate Change Is Such a Crisis, Why Isn’t Humanity Doing More? Part Two

“I truly believe in the Incarnation. It’s God in us, but us means us…as part of nature. So if God is going to work through us, it’s not just people to people. It’s also people to where we are and its this gift… (L)oving our neighbor also includes loving where we live because that’s part of life too” (Madeline, a participant in a focus group and faith leading to action. Introduction xix)

There have been decades of very concerned and sincere church clerics and lay people who have met many times, in many places, and participated in countless discussions and presentations, and prepared hundreds of official statements. But Biviano notes “religious teachings do not necessarily translate into action.” (Introduction xx)

Biviano coined the phrase the “green blues” to capture the blend of ambiguity, conviction, discouragement and persistence as the faithful seek just, sustainable living.

Some might argue this is a technological problem. But technology isn’t making things better, at least not fast enough. The environmental crises since the Clean Air Act have not declined; they have increased.

Is this a political problem? The development of sustainable policies leading to systemic action is slow and hotly debated. Standards for emission control may be set but are not being realized. Political power must be exercised individually. But if individuals feel their efforts are insignificant, they may feel “unworthy” to advocate for wider societal change.

Noted ecumenical theologian Langdon Gilkey poses two questions as part of the theological task. Theology addresses questions of justice, liberation and, peace. The ecological crisis includes matters of poverty, inequality and violence, requiring our thoughtful response. The second theological question has to do with hermeneutics: “how traditional words, concepts and symbols are to be interpreted intelligibly in our cultural present.” (quoted from a Christian Century article, here as xxii)

Biviano used interfaith gatherings to discuss the words, concepts and symbols of faith but with a view to “conversion”, movement from discourse to action. Her book is a compilation of her findings.

“At the heart of this book is he question of how love and concern for the earth overflow into action, despite all the forces that make it so easy to do…nothing.”

Biviano isn’t the first to inquire about the disconnect between what we intend and what we do.

The apostle Paul recognized the potential for moral failure. He wrote, “that which I would do I do not; and that which I would not do, that I do. (Romans 7:15)

Augustine agonized over the nature of free will that is not free. Will is caught up by the influences of habits, pressures and cravings.

“Knowing the good does not equate with doing the good.” (xxv)

Sometimes suffering continues, not because practical solutions remain unknown but because of the willful pursuit of selfish aims.

Biviano is writing to understand and support the motivation to act differently. She cites a frightening Gallop poll (2014) that reveals “Americans don’t care about climate change any more than they did in 1989!

We cannot assume human behavior is rational. So, what else is going on? What else is necessary? Is it enough to modify our doctrines of “dominion” over the earth? Redefine what it means to be a good neighbor? How do we articulate our traditions and our common vision for the care of the earth? What are the unconscious values and emotions that drive our environmental decisions as much as our intellectual ideas? What does our religion contribute in terms of recognizing the power of denial, delusion, and sheer selfishness? And what does conversion look like? How does conversion transform not knowing – not caring and not acting?

Looking ahead, Biviano will describe patterns of spirituality common to faith-based environmentalists. She will then consider obstacles to “going green,” gaps in knowledge, concern and action, and the different processes of providing information and shaping determination.

To be continued……

If Climate Change Is Such a Crisis, Why Isn’t Humanity Doing More? Part One

This is the first in a series of blogs considering why it is so difficult to move from conversation to action, from intention to commitment, from head to heart to hands. This series will draw heavily upon the research of Erin Lothes Biviano and her book Inspired Sustainability: Planting Seeds for Action, Orbis Books, 2017.

So, how long have we been aware of climate change, human culpability and human responsibility? Andrew Revkin wrote an article for National Geographic, July, 2018, entitled, “Climate Change First Became News Thirty Years Ago. Why Haven’t We Fixed It?”

The world has known about climate change for a long, long time. Revkin cites the Swedish scientist Svente Arrhenius who observed in 1896 the warming of the atmosphere as an effect of wide spread coal burning. But Arrhenius presumed this would have a beneficial effect on agriculture proving “more equable and better climates,” especially in the north.

Revkin then cites the New York Times 1956 reporting on accumulating greenhouse gases and predicted even then large environmental change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was established in 1988. The following year, devastating fires ravaged the Amazon rain forest and Yellowstone Park. Representatives of many nations proposed an early solution, known as the Montreal Protocol, focusing on the elimination of certain synthetic compounds and their effect on the protective ozone layer.

Concern for the environment, its stewardship and its justice, did not go unnoticed by Christians. Kevin Irwin, in his background to commentary on the writing of Pope Francis, Laudato Si, points to a foundation laid by previous popes. John the XXIII, Pacem in Terris, 1961. And this encyclical, like Pope Francis’s, was written for a broader audience than exclusively church leaders. It was intended for “people of good will.” Pope John XXIII considered the environmental threat to be as serious as the nuclear crisis.

Each pope to follow wrote with a similar passion, addressing a global physical, spiritual and moral crisis but addressing slightly different elements, given the context. Paul VI, 1967; John Paul II, 1979 and 1981 and 1987 – 1990-1991-1993- 1996; Benedict XVI (“the green pope”) 2005-2011; and then Francis, especially Laudato Si, 2016.

The question must be asked, If the Church has been thinking about the environmental crisis for decades, why is the local congregation so silent? As congregations change to more efficient light bulbs and install low flow toilets, why do they not address the larger questions of poverty, homelessness, and violence, as related to climate change? Is there more for the local faith community to do, besides the building of a compost box for lawn waste? Once again there is a disconnect between the efforts of the greater church and the local church, between the behaviors of the congregation and the behaviors of individual members.

Returning to Erin Biviano, her story begins in 1990 as she “began to see that the cause of the poor championed by my church and all religious traditions was gravely threatened by global warming” (Introduction, xv). Her understandings were rooted in meetings with the United nations Environmental Programme Interfaith Partnership; the National Religious Partnership for the Environment; the Forum on Religion and Ecology. “Everyone agreed – across all faith – and issued official statements – that caring for the earth is a moral and religious obligation (Introduction, xvi).

“In all these countries people were revisioning their faiths to put a verdant planet at the center, and all the while scientific evidence for the earth’s degradation mounted…. So why wasn’t more action evident?

That question led to the research behind Inspired Sustainability and stimulates the necessity of the next series of blogs. To be continued….