Thou Shalt Not Abdicate
In Denver last month, an association of interfaith clergy became advocates for action in the climate change debate. “Our thirst to consume the earth’s natural resources, and our reliance on old energy sources which emit greenhouse gases, has led us to a crisis both spiritual and environmental,” read the statement published in the Denver Post. “In view of this, for us as spiritual leaders to remain silent would be an abdication of our responsibilities.”
Statements from churches, kind of like statements from any organized entity or elected official, often tend to weigh heavy on the verbiage and grand statements and come in a little short on substance and action. But the Colorado men and women of the cloth are just one small manifestation of religious groups around the world that are becoming more engaged, through words and action both, in promoting ways to minimize the impact on a rapidly-changing atmosphere. They’re standing behind scientists, pressuring their lawmakers, making changes in their own lives and congregations, and connecting with those outside of their denominations in this new challenge that defies boundaries of any kind. The godly and the godless are all now in the same boat, and the waters are rising.
The fact that religious groups are standing up and speaking out about the climate shouldn’t be such a stretch, really. The questions that the prospect of climate change raise—from the percentage of impact that hinges on human behavior to what we should do about it—are fundamentally questions of responsibility. What, ultimately, falls within our job descriptions as inhabitants of the earth? Survival? Pursuit of happiness? Something in between? Answering these questions by drawing the lines (or erasing them) between self, community and God has long been the realm of religion. I, for one, am encouraged by the shift, the involvement that alters the focus to this life and our surroundings, that moves away from the short timer’s syndrome demonstrated by an all-to-recent administration.
One little group with great big ideas is helping to bring many of these ecologically aware religious groups together, from the Evangelical Environmental Network to the World Council of Churches to the Dalai Lama himself. All these groups and more are signing on with the newly-formed organization 350.org, started by Bill McKibben, a long-time environmental author and activist and energized by a determined and impossibly optimistic group of recent Middlebury College graduates who are traveling the world in an organizing ambush. The editors of Killing the Buddha were honored to share a mountain retreat space with McKibben and his 350.org crew during the summer as they sketched out and strategized ways to get the whole world involved in fighting for the protection of something as vital yet amorphous as our atmosphere, that thin shell of inhabitability that surrounds us.
To spread awareness and garner commitment from the global community about climate change, 350.org has organized an International Day of Climate Action taking place a week from today on October 24th. The goal is to set the stage for Copenhagen in December, when the United Nations will be meeting to hammer out a new global climate treaty. The hope is that grassroots pressure will result in an agreement that has teeth and legitimate support from the big players, including the recalcitrant US, while also encouraging sustainable development for the Southern Hemisphere countries that are still working on the survival end of the job description spectrum. Reaching out to communities of faith worldwide has been an integral part of the 350 campaign, which is doing everything from rousing swamis to plant trees in Nepal to inspiring Jews to read the story of Noah in a new light in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. And that endorsement from the World Council of Churches, which represents 560 million Christians across 349 denominations and church fellowships in more than 110 countries and territories…dare we mention the word movement?
Why 350? Scientists, including leading climatologist Jim Hansen, determined that the atmosphere can handle 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide before undergoing major changes that, while not ending all life on earth (although some of it), will alter it in incredibly troublesome ways. Hansen put it this way, presenting us with a choice: “If humanity wishes to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted,” we need to bring the number down to 350. We’re just shy of 386 at the moment. Because there is a delayed reaction within the atmosphere to the carbon dioxide that we’ve been pumping out ever since we cleverly discovered how to transform ancient buried life forms into fuel for an industrial age, bringing the number down requires a decisive and rapid response. Like, yesterday
So dear senators, pleaded our Colorado reverends, pass the legislation that will support alternative energies so that someday soon they won’t seem so alternative. Help lead us wayward sheep—with grace and economy—away from our fossil-fuel dependent lifestyles that we think we can’t live without. Legislation is powerful. It can, in a moment, act out some higher aspect of our collective selves in a way that can last for generations. Global legislation even more so. It is changing your light bulbs times seven billion, and counting.
Let the statements keep coming, with their grandiose proclamations. “Right now our greatest responsibility is to undo the damage done by the introduction of fossil carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and climate system during the rise of human civilization…,” writes the Dalai Lama. “Buddhists, concerned people of the world and all people of good heart should be aware of this and act upon it.” We need grandiosity. And good hearts.
Let us draw from the old texts, reading them anew. Allah loveth not wasters, says the Qur’an, Let there be no change in the work wrought by Allah.
I think Allah wills it! And what about the Pope? Caritas in veritate, love in truth, says Pope Benedict XVI, when he reminds his followers that the Church has a responsibility towards creation, that to pollute is to sin
Like the statements, words can be weak, breathed to life only through belief and action. So act. Find your faith. Believe in something. Make a difference. Enact change. Don’t do anything, in the words of poet Wendell Berry’s Mad Farmer, that would disturb the sleep of a woman near to giving birth. Find your faith in the mustard seed, the acorn, the buffalo of the plain or the eagle of the sky, the singular God you love or the one who fears you into acts of goodness, the multiple gods that take the form of elephant or monkey or ten-headed deity. Find it in science and rationalism, in the void between the spinning atoms, the space between the double helix, the heliotropic reaching of the tendril towards the sun. Find it in the holy words written in the flowing script of Arabic or the staccato lines of Hebrew or the good King James English. Just find it, believe in something, and act on the belief. Every day, do something that takes you outside of your skin. Make do with less. Give of yourself. Maybe you go to 350.org and find an action near you to join next week, standing should-to-shoulder with someone else who is fumbling through this world and wants to make a difference, too. But whatever you do, abdicate not.
Meera Subramanian is an editor of Killing the Buddha and writes about the environment and culture for Nature, InsideClimate News, Virginia Quarterly Review, Orion, and others. Her first book is A River Runs Again: A Natural History of India from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka (PublicAffairs, 2015). Visit her at meerasub.org.