The history and legacy of Union Theological Seminary is to speak to truth, through the lenses of deep theological wisdom and courageous convictions of justice, which is often left unspoken in the timeless struggle between those taking dignity and those seeking dignity We are called here at Union, each in our own way, to confront the existential limitations of our individual and collective being, and to find meaning and transcendence beyond those limitations, towards a better world.
After three months at Union, I am coming to understand that to seek a better world means to be deeply concerned with the very health of the planet that we live on, and to be deeply concerned with the shape and burden of the civilization we have placed on the ground we walk, the air we breathe, and the water that we drink.
My calling as a seminarian, seeker, and spiritualist in service begins to take shape towards the realm of ecological ethics and justice. Our current existential ecological crisis underlies every other struggle for justice. The struggles against poverty, and for peace, civil rights, and human dignity and quality of life, while each vitally important in their own right, cannot be seen in a separate light from the concern over how our collective human experiment on this planet is changing and will change as the climate changes.
As Union has been vital in shaping new strands of thought and action in the realms of liberation theologies across lines of color, gender, and sexuality, we must now take on the reins of spiritual leadership to address the urgency of our ecological crisis. We have no choice. We have many differences in how we think and how we act, in what we specifically fight for, but we all share the same foundation, the same ground, the same air, the same water, the same planet. The justice we fight for is inherent to the ecology that surrounds us.
Recently the Institute for Religion, Culture, and Public Life at Columbia University invited renowned environmental scientist Wallace Broecker, the “grandfather of climate science”, to speak as part of their Apocalypse Now: End Time and the Contemporary Imaginary series of conversations “that explores our current fascination with apocalyptic visions.” Broecker was blunt, as he said that he has very little hope that we will be able to prevent many of the drastic changes that climate scientists are predicting will happen to our civilizational structure due to climate change.
Recently as well, in the Huffington Post, Tom Zeller Jr. reported that the United Nations Environment Program has stated that ”greenhouse gas emissions levels are currently around 14 percent above where they need to be by the end of the decade in order to avoid what many analysts believe could be a risky level of planetary warming.” The report quotes Leo Johnson, a leading partner in PricewaterhouseCooper’s Sustainability and Climate Change unit, who says that ”even doubling our current rate of decarbonization would still lead to emissions consistent with 6 degrees of warming by the end of the century. To give ourselves a more than 50 percent chance of avoiding 2 degrees will require a six-fold improvement in our rate of decarbonization.”
This figure of two degrees of warming is considered the general benchmark beyond which the potential changes in the atmosphere would be catastrophic for millions of people across the globe, and largely people already in socially and economically marginalized positions. Leading climate activist Bill McKibben, currently on his “Do The Math” tour with 350.org, writes in Rolling Stone magazine that “so far, we’ve raised the average temperature of the planet just under 0.8 degrees Celsius, and that has caused far more damage than most scientists expected. (A third of summer sea ice in the Arctic is gone, the oceans are 30 percent more acidic, and since warm air holds more water vapor than cold, the atmosphere over the oceans is a shocking five percent wetter, loading the dice for devastating floods.) Given those impacts, in fact, many scientists have come to think that two degrees is far too lenient a target.”
He adds an anecdote from the failed efforts at the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, in which a “spokesman for small island nations warned that many would not survive a two-degree rise: ‘Some countries will flat-out disappear.’ When delegates from developing nations were warned that two degrees would represent a “suicide pact” for drought-stricken Africa, many of them started chanting, ‘One degree, one Africa.’”
In the same article, McKibben relates that there are 2795 gigatons of potential carbon dioxide waiting to be burned, used, and emitted by the major petrochemical and fossil-fuel industries. This supply is already figured into the economic balast, the share-prices, of the major energy companies on the planet, and science be damned, they will burn this supply for their profit in any way that they can. The problem with that number, according to McKibben, is that it is well above the number of 565 gigatons that could be emitted by the middle of the 21st Century in which there would still be some “reasonable hope” that the two-degree limit would not be breached.
Despite the math, despite the science, despite the recent images of destruction in our own seemingly indestructible metropolis from Sandy (with the consideration that it is very difficult to directly blame climate change for her unique and specific ferocity), this crisis of conscience, of the reality of our very future, still remains disturbingly on the fringes of mainstream social, political, and religious/spiritual discourse.
The effect can be easily explained in one sense. The very worst of the predicted effects of climate change seem to be way off in the distance from our present lives. Human nature is stuck with, as described by psychologist Robert Gifford, “dragons of inaction”. Beth Gardiner, writing for the New York Times in an article titled “We’re All Climate Change Idiots”, says that “we have trouble imagining a future drastically different from the present. We block out complex problems that lack simple solutions. We dislike delayed benefits and so are reluctant to sacrifice today for future gains. And we find it harder to confront problems that creep up on us than emergencies that hit quickly.” She quotes Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, who says that “you almost couldn’t design a problem that is a worse fit with our underlying psychology.”
My personal confrontation with these facts leaves me with a very clear but very complicated question: What is the spiritual response to the urgency of our ecological crisis? This is not solely a response meant to encourage prevention of the crisis, but it is a response meant to help us adapt and accept the changes that cannot be prevented. The very structure of how we live together, of our conceptions of ourselves as human beings on this planet, and of our activism for justice, equality, and dignity, is changing and will change. As theologians, ministers, priests, nuns, monks, swamis, llamas, rabbis, imams, women and men of the Divine, how do we respond to this? It is literally something we cannot ignore.
In the contemporary bhakti-yoga tradition of the Hindu/Vedic paradigm, of which I am a practitioner, esteemed teacher A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada laid out a vision of sustainable communities centered around essential dharmic ideals of loving service to God, of centering agriculture and community around the idea that all that is harvested, grown, and produced is not meant for capitalistic profit, but for the pleasure of God and his dearest devotees. His motto was “Simple Living and High Thinking” and his vision was and is a true alternative cultural model which is my deepest pragmatic and spiritual inspiration. In the decades since his worldwide mission was established, communities in Hungary, Brazil, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, among a few others, have devoted themselves to creating the kinds of communities he envisioned, communities which represent ideals of traditional Indian spiritual village culture, where sustainability is inherent, and which speaks as a certain kind of definite response to the crumbling precipice of our current civilization, towards something more natural, harmonious, and enlightened.
This response is not perfect. For as many examples of communities of bhakti devotees who are committed to this, there are many times more who have tried and failed, their sincerity unable to overcome the inertia of the most difficult parts of human nature, and there are some communities and practitioners who are completely oblivious to their inherent ecological responsibility as human beings. Their temples and their homes are devoid even of the simplest mechanisms of recycling, or consideration as to where there food comes from and what exactly might be in it. This is something I find very troubling and embarrassing, and which I know is a common hypocrisy to be found in many other religious cultures.
I refuse to let these various imperfections in our nature and our response, in my own nature and response, to leave me hopeless. There is something very specific in the nature of transcendent grace, in the love and mercy of God, which allows us to overcome our limitations. As I continue to explore this question of the urgent spiritual response to our ecological crisis (and I beg and pray for your feedback and support and guidance), I keep a faith that, if we can be very determined to reach into the depth of our spiritual traditions to respond directly to our abilities to prevent, adapt, and accept the changes ahead, we may yet come to a place in our collective humanity and spirituality that could actually be harmonious with Mother Earth’s desire as to how she wants us to live on her ground.
Union, along with all other spiritual communities, can no longer afford to hesitate in any way in seriously shaping this response. It is our call to create a sense of urgency infused with compassion and wisdom that can take us beyond the obvious fear we face when encountering this truth.