The Greatest Environmental Pollutant Is Our Politics | Sojourners

The Greatest Environmental Pollutant Is Our Politics

People of faith sometimes look to the heavens to solve the problems that plague the earth; when it comes to reversing our course on climate change, it really is beginning to feel like a Hail Mary moment.

The Green New Deal is the latest heave to the end zone — audacious, comprehensive, well-intentioned, and going nowhere. After all, it is being proposed in the sole country on the sidelines of the Paris Agreement.

This realization creates a feeling of helplessness, bordering on fatalism, that leads us down a path of despair. We see the coastal waters rising and heat records consistently falling. We read report after report of the catastrophic changes to our environment happening in real time, and yet no hurricane is severe enough, no temperature high enough, no data track persuasive enough to build a national consensus. Intractable positions in Washington don’t even reflect an American population that, surveys show, is gradually, if glacially, coming to accept that climate change is a real problem.

The greatest environmental pollutant today, it seems, is our politics.

So where can we find hope, and how can we actually move the needle on climate change? By doing three things: One, Americans should follow a moral compass, not a political one. Two, we must focus on bringing change locally. And three, religious leaders should lead the charge by imploring followers — in churches, synagogues, mosques, or temples — to see the moral and theological imperative of protecting all of God’s creation.

A moral compass 

The politics of environmentalism hasn’t always been poisoned by tribalism. President Jimmy Carter is often credited with raising the American conscience on environmental issues — notably installing solar panels at the White House — but it was his Republican predecessor, the ignominious Richard Nixon, who established both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in 1970. On Nixon’s watch, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act followed. Americans saw both sides of the political aisle take meaningful action.

But that sort of issue-before-politics governance seems only to surface in “Do you remember when?” storylines. As is the case with many hot-button issues today, Americans can’t agree on scientific truths, let alone how to address them. But we might find common ground if we examine the issue through a moral lens.

The biblical basis for environmental conservation and care is well-established. You wouldn’t know that in hearing the argument of some Christians — or their critics ­— today, who view humanity as the apex of creation and, as such, licensed to treat creation with impunity. This line of reasoning — or critique — is politically convenient, morally repugnant, and theologically bankrupt. The biblical imperative — laid out first in Genesis — is that humans are part of creation, and God holds us responsible for how we treat this planet. We are stewards, not dictators. The Bible, in fact, is steeped in moral language around this issue, from the creation account to the apocalyptic vision of redeemed creation.

The moral argument for change was employed as a pillar of the civil rights movement in America, brought to life in Martin Luther King Jr.’s exhortations from the pulpit and in the streets. The institutional and structural barriers of racism have taken time to disassemble. But King knew — and it’s surely the case today with climate change — that hearts needed to be changed before systemic change could take root. In a 1963 sermon titled, “On Being a Good Neighbor,” King said, “Morality cannot be legislated.” Those four words ring true today as the United States wrestles over climate change. The faithful know their morality comes from something higher and, as such, should demonstrate it.

The power of small actions 

To be sure, we need the leadership of good people and the influence, resources, and reach of our greatest institutions to solve this crisis. But this need arrives at a moment in history when our trust in institutions has waned, and in the U.S., our trust in government has sunk to historic lows.

However, people of faith who recognize their responsibility to the environment need not obsess about the inability of our governing class to address this global concern adequately, or even whether they consider themselves members of America’s red or blue tribes. If we focus inward, as individuals operating within our own communities, we can begin to have a collective impact that our current leaders cannot achieve. If we do our part, as one in five Americans already do — from recycling to participating in more aggressive efforts to minimize our carbon footprints — it will not be enough to save the planet, but it will feed and inspire progress toward broader efforts. Local actions will help us feel more empowered than we do today and allow us to proactively live out the virtues of stewardship, selflessness, and sacrifice.

We can feel encouraged by individual efforts that are trying to make a difference; we can find solace in a neighborhood or community solving what most directly impacts them as steps toward progress. It might require alarmists to recognize the elementary efforts of others less devoted as sufficient in the present, and it might ask skeptics to look beyond their personal comfort for the sake of a greater cause. But by creating goodwill and shared buy-in rather than castigation or dismissal, we can build the foundation for a universal solution. 

The role of faith leaders 

There is an important role here for the world’s faith community in advocating for creation and God’s world and exploring the morality of action to the flock. Pope Francis has been an unabashed leader here, planting the Catholic Church’s flag on the issue with the 2015 encyclical Laudato si’, which, among other things, placed a moral frame around climate change and the degradation of the environment. Francis implored the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics to see this as a moral issue rooted in their faith.

Sacred texts, starting with Genesis, suggest that all of creation is affected by the morality of human beings, and nature suffers because of human actions. From the prophetic vision of a new heaven and new earth in Isaiah 65:17-25, to the suffering of the land along with the inhabitants in Jeremiah 4:19-26, to the apocalyptic vision incorporated in Acts 3:21, to Paul’s hope for the redemption of all creation in Romans 8:19-23, the Word is unequivocal on humankind’s role and responsibilities.

Our ministers, rabbis, and imams should speak from their own religious texts to challenge those before them, just as they might on other issues of morality. About 6 billion people, or about four out of every five on the planet, belong to some faith tradition. Though many inputs influence and drive our beliefs, morality, and ultimately our actions, few have the authority and moral underpinnings of the world’s great religions. I’m confident that Americans would be better off as a country if we looked to our own faith traditions for guidance on this issue, rather than the false demigods inhabiting our nation’s capital.

Whether your final judgment will come before your Creator or your conscience, we must look inward and tap our own faith to do the right things to protect our earth, and ultimately to restore our humanity.