In a world of highly charged political rhetoric, the essay provides language and a framework for a community discussion on environmental ethics that takes a step back from immediate policy debate. This work doesn’t diminish the importance of these other discussions; rather it provides a context in which that work might be more readily possible.
Our ability to make meaningful collective moral decision requires us to be able to first have enough common moral language to have a conversation. This might be a good place to start.
Top officials from the Vatican, the head of the United Nations, and leading scientists came together at a summit April 28 in Vatican City to label the fight against man-made climate change as a “moral issue.”
“Mitigating climate change and adapting to its effects are necessary to eradicate extreme poverty, reduce inequality, and secure equitable, sustainable economic development,” said Ban Ki Moon, U.N. secretary-general, in the keynote speech.
“It is a moral issue. It is an issue of social justice, human rights, and fundamental ethics,” the secretary-general said, adding that “climate change is the defining issue of our time.”
Novelist Jonathan Franzen was getting hammered earlier this month. He recently wrote a piece delving into his ornithological passion in The New Yorker entitled “Carbon Capture: Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?”
The Audubon Society has accused him of “extreme intellectual dishonesty,”Grist has labeled him “confused,” and Think Progress held nothing back and called his recent article “bird brained.” (My favorite so far might be the Washington Post saying that the Audubon has “flipped Franzen the bird.”)
Some of this criticism, in my opinion, is justified. Franzen set up an option between treating the planet with “disfiguring aggression” to try and mitigate climate change related emissions or “with palliation and sympathy” since the battle has already been lost. This choice, as the pieces above point out, is a false one.
Unfortunately, those controversial statements have covered over what I found to be the core argument of the article, and his most compelling case.
Several weeks ago at the Minnesota State Capitol building, I and a host of others met with senators and representatives to lobby them on environmental issues. When I met with one senator he said he understood the issues and was on my side. It was a love fest. But when asked about working with the Republicans, the love fest ended.
He started rattling off how the other side will not listen, how there is no communication with them, how they are funded by the Koch brothers and will not compromise or even consider any proposals but their own, and so on and so forth. I do not doubt that he was speaking from personal experience, but if he only sees the other as bull-headed then that is exactly what he will get.
As he spoke I kept saying to myself, "There has to be another way of doing this…"
Last week I discovered "a more excellent way" when I re-read The Journal of John Woolman, the spiritual autobiography of the colonial Quaker who I describe as America’s first social mystic. It my seem odd to look to a colonial Quaker as the model for amending climate change — I say amend because we have already changed the climate; the best goal now is to stop further change and amend our way of live — but his model/witness may be the exact model/witness we need.
In my work on environmental causes I have acted primarily from a place of loss, sorrow, and anger, centering on the loss of my family farm in northern West Virginia. In the mid-1980s, the farm was sold to a coal company who stripmined the farms and destroyed the community. I had had dreams of farming that land.
But if I dig deeper through the loss, through the sorrow, and through the anger, I arrive at a place of love. I love creation, I feel I am a part of it, and I want it to flourish because if creation flourishes, all flourishes.
Here is where Woolman’s witness comes in. His social conscience was formed because Love was the first motion. He was simply responding to that Love.
How did he respond? Eighty years before the modern abolition movement of the 1830s, John Woolman began his personal mission to end slavery amongst Quakers in the American colonies.
Today, many of you will remember to celebrate me, learning or teaching your children about the importance of reducing waste and recycling, conserving energy, or keeping my land, air, and water clean. I truly appreciate the efforts you make for a struggling old lady for whom such acts of consideration bring rays of hope. As you know, my health has been deteriorating rapidly of late, and I struggle to care for all 7 billion of you as I would like. I long to give you sweet, fresh air to breathe, clean water for drinking and bathing, fertile soil for growing food, majestic mountains to revitalize your souls, and much, much more. But I am not the girl I used to be, and much of what I had to give in my youth has been spent faster than I ever could have imagined. So please accept this letter as an expression of my affection; I wish I had more to give.
I am reaching out to you, my children, because I know you love me and I know you need me. Some of you try hard to care for me and nurse me back to health. I value all of your efforts. But there is something I need from all of you that is far too often overlooked when it comes to the care I need to survive. For the truth is, I am dying. Your Father cares for me but has also entrusted me to your care, and thus my hope for a future lies in you. So I am pleading with you, my children, to remember me and remember our need for each other. And I have an urgent request of all of you that could perhaps do more to revitalize my health than anything else you could do, though I rarely hear it mentioned:
Stop killing each other!
Years ago as a child growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I was befriended by a wonderful family around the corner from my home. The patriarch of the family, Edward Blunt Sr., was a hard-working executive for a telecommunication company; the matriarch, Roma Blunt, lovingly called Aunt Roma, was a consultant for several local educational institutions; and their son, Ed Jr., became one of my best friends and adopted brother.
Ed and I played sports, shared the same birthday, and graduated from high school and college together. Ed's family provided a unique gift for the young men in our neighborhood. As a result of their southern roots and deep-rooted village values, they believed adults — especially adults of African descent — had a responsibility to aid and assist in the development of young men in the community.
At least weekly, a gang of musty, sweaty, boisterous young men crowded into the Blunt household to take part in a ritual of culinary excellence provided by Aunt Roma. In this house we did not own, pay for, or live in, we witnessed the southern artistry and gastric creativity produced with a palette of collard greens, gumbo, cornbread, sweet potatoes, macaroni and cheese, fried okra, and fish on the canvas of our senses. The white house on Green Road became our hangout, respite, and my second home. Since I lived geographically closest to the Blunts’ home, I found myself at their address more frequently than other "brothers" in our network.
Upon one of my routine visits after finishing another amazing meal, Aunt Roma passed on a special gift. She handed me a key to the home. She stated with matter-of-fact ease, "Otis, you're over here enough, you might as well have a key."
After I said thank you, she began to reemphasize the rules of the house.
"You are always welcome here … you are welcome to eat, rest, and relax ... I trust you, and as long as you abide by the rules of the house and your parents are aware of where you are, this door is always open to you."
I was given access to the Blunts’ home because of my relationship with their son. I was given access to a home I did not create, build, or purchase. Because of my relationship with their son, I was given access to an environment I did not create.
Even as the clock ticks down to COP 21 in Paris this coming December, agreement has yet to be reached about exactly what the conference could or should accomplish. There is little consensus concerning outcomes that might actually bring about change. Not unlike other issues where binary thinking has predominated, we are presented with an either/or scenario: economic collapse and damaging human impact, or economic prosperity and destructive impact on climate.
What is different now, however, is that the economic axis has shifted. Crucial to the Paris discussions is the fact that Western-driven economic theory and practice, rooted in the competitive polarities of prosperity versus paucity, now dominate the globe, while Western economies themselves do not. And it is this largely binary economic way of framing the issues of the environment that militates against significant accomplishment in Paris. Not unlike Copenhagen in 2009, or Kyoto in 1997, governments are posturing so as not to give away economic advantage. National prosperity continues to trump the environment.
The prophets’ preoccupation with justice and righteousness has its roots in a powerful awareness of injustice. That justice is a good thing, a fine goal, even a supreme ideal, is commonly accepted. What is lacking is a sense of the monstrosity of injustice. Moralists of all ages have been eloquent in singing the praises of virtue. The distinction of the prophets was in their remorseless unveiling of injustice and oppression, in their comprehension of social, political, and religious evils. —Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. —Martin Luther King, Jr.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, environmental justice is defined as:
The fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.
As we consider this definition, and look around our communities, do we find this fair treatment taking place? Are we aware of how economic and environmental decisions are made? Many times it can become so overwhelming that we think it best to leave it to the experts. Unfortunately, this can lead to exploitation, as discrimination typically takes place in poor and underserved communities where people may not understand their rights, or they choose not to fight back out of fear. As we dig deeper and the shackles are removed, we begin to see how economic and environmental justice are connected and how this exploitation is directly related to incentives like government funding, tax breaks, and land grabs that favor corporations over human beings and the environment. Does the end result benefit all God’s creation or just a wealthy few?
The Vatican is set to host a major conference on climate change this month that will feature leading researchers on global warming and an opening address by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
The meeting, which the Vatican detailed on its website late on April 14, is another sign of Pope Francis’ “green agenda” and another potential red flag for conservatives who are already alarmed over an expected papal teaching document on the environment that is scheduled for release this summer.
The one-day summit on April 28 will also include participants from major world religions and aims to “elevate the debate on the moral dimensions of protecting the environment in advance of the papal encyclical,” as the papal document is known.
Another goal, says a statement on a Vatican website, is to highlight “the intrinsic connection between respect for the environment and respect for people — especially the poor, the excluded, victims of human trafficking and modern slavery, children, and future generations.”
Canadians are supposed to be the good guys in the story. Well, not anymore.
OUR FRIENDLY NEIGHBOR to the north has a well-deserved reputation for civility and hospitality, not to mention great health care available to all. But a dirty secret has emerged: Some of the worst mining companies in the world are Canadian. In this issue of Sojourners, Canadian writer and Anglican priest Emilie Teresa Smith investigates the extensive harm Canadian mining firms have brought upon Indigenous people and the environment.
Fifty years ago, the sleeping giant of America’s religious communities shook off their sleep and rose to change the country in a crisis over whether democracy would grow or falter.
Today we face a crisis over the very fabric of life – human and more-than-human – on our planet. Is there anything the religious communities, now yawning their way just beginning to awake, can bring to dealing with that crisis?
There is. Much of it comes from the Hebrew Scriptures, what Christians call “the Old Testament.” It reaches a climax in the Exodus story, recalled each year in the Jewish festival of Passover and to some extent in the Holy Week that in Christian tradition is rooted in Passover. But it pervades the Hebrew Bible.
For that is the record of the spiritual struggles of an indigenous people of shepherds and farmers in their relationship with YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Holy One Who breathes all life. They centered their God connection in sacred relationship with their land, especially through the foods they grew and then offered on the altar.
Our own generation, facing a catastrophic crisis in the Earth-earthling relationship, must go back to the Bible for guidance on how to apply indigenous wisdom to the planet as a whole.
On Tuesday, the White House revealed President Obama’s blueprint for cutting U.S. greenhouse gas pollution by 26-28 percent before 2025. The Intended Nationally Determined Contribution (INDC) is in accordance with the United Nations formal effort to come to forge an international climate agreement in Paris in December.
In November, the United States released a historic joint agreement with China that both countries would work toward limiting greenhouse gas emissions but until this morning no further details of this agreement had been seen.
The release of INDC has generally been supported by the environmental community because the pollution cuts in the Administration’s plan can be achieved without new action from Congress. As Greenpeace representative Kyle Ash said, “By announcing its plan ahead of Paris as agreed, the U.S. has at least shown it is committed to the negotiation process and willing to push the other nearly 200 countries to deliver.”
Ash continues that there is still much room for improvement in the outline:
“We welcome the US submission as a first step, but it would not do enough to avert global catastrophe…The Obama Administration’s [plan] begins to treat the wound, but does not stop the bleeding. As the world’s second largest emitter, the US must strengthen its commitment to climate solutions before Paris to ensure an agreement that immediately spurs the necessary transition away from fossil fuels and towards 100 percent renewable energy.”
In preparation for the Paris 2015 Climate Negotiations, all countries were asked to by the United Nations to submit individual outlines for greenhouse gas reduction by April 2015. So far only the European Union, Mexico, Norway, Switzerland and now the United State have submitted their national plans to the U.N. It is hoped that the announcement of the United States’ reduction plan will spur other countries to announce their own contributions to the U.N. negotiations.
Pope Francis is a straight shooter who does not mince words: "If we destroy creation, creation will destroy us,” the pontiff said last year. “Never forget this!”
The pope’s warning and calls for action have galvanized many religious leaders from across Maryland to step up our efforts to protect God’s creation from climate change disruptions. We understand that it is the poor and most vulnerable among us who are bearing the brunt of human-induced climate change. Unless we act now, the impacts of devastating super-storms, massive floods, droughts, and crop failures will only accelerate. Refusing to bury one’s head in the sand and facing squarely the reality of climate change is a fundamental issue of justice and respect for life.
This is why I, a Franciscan friar priest, have joined more than 230 Maryland religious leaders, including Bishop Dennis Madden of the Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore and six other leaders of Christian denominations across Maryland, in issuing an urgent, moral challenge. We are calling on Marylanders — including our elected officials — to take action on climate change by helping to shift our state’s energy policy towards renewable, clean energy sources.
In one scene in the new documentary Merchants of Doubt, Michael Shermer, the publisher of Skeptic magazine, explains what he thinks is the underlying factor behind climate change skepticism.
“It isn’t about the science,” Shermer, a libertarian and former skeptic who came around on the issue in 2006, tells director Robert Kenner.
“It’s about me being a consistent team member; showing the members of my tribe that you can count on me.”
Tribalism is an important part of the equation. But Kenner, whose previous film was the well-regarded Food, Inc., believes corporate spin is just as much to blame.
Merchants of Doubt aims to show viewers how the same PR tactics that kept the tobacco industry thriving for decades are now being used to encourage climate change skepticism and denial. While the film does important work in helping audiences understand how paid representatives spread misinformation, it doesn’t do enough to address the tribalism that may keep the film’s most necessary audiences from seeing it.
READ Sojourners' interview with Merchants of Doubt Director Robert Kenner here.
To his credit, Kenner does an excellent job at making the subject matter appealing. He uses the framework of close-up magic as a metaphor for the way PR representatives work to cover up industry-damaging facts, first for tobacco, and then for coal, oil, and other clients. He interviews journalists, scientists, and lobbyists whose stories are at once fascinating and infuriating. There are even some sources, like conservative former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis, who manage to help the film build bridges with audiences whose tribal identity might require them to skew towards climate skepticism.
Robert Kenner is the director of the new corporate spin documentary Merchants of Doubt, now in theaters. The film explores how representatives of large industries create doubt on contentious issues like climate change by presenting themselves to the media as independent researchers. Kenner’s previous film, Food Inc., examined similarly sticky issues of truth and transparency in the food industry. Sojourners sat down with Robert Kenner after Doubt's Washington, D.C., premiere to discuss the nature of doubt and the rise of corporate involvement in media narrative-making.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Abby: Why did you want to use the tobacco industry to introduce audiences to the world of corporate spin? And why go from there to climate change?
Kenner: I see this as a film about this class of doubters, how there are these very talented people who are very successful at what they do. We just had a screening at the Columbia Journalism School, and someone there said that for every journalist, there’s 4.5 PR reps.
There used to be more journalists than PR reps — and some of these reps are now being paid by the people they used to investigate. So in effect, we’re looking at multiple industries. We could have spent as much time on pharmaceuticals or the food industry.
I was also certainly interested in the notion of how you can have these things like tobacco, like certain pharmaceutical issues, or like climate, where the science is clear yet the doubt persists. How do you maintain doubt when the science is clear that it’s about something else? What are the factors? And it turns out there multiple, of which money is one of the biggest.
Part of it is tribal, but that was true with gay rights, too, and all of a sudden six years later things have changed. I’m feeling kind of optimistic that it can change around the issue of climate from that perspective.
But the thing that interested me most was how media could represent issues as if they were debates when they weren’t debates.
READ Sojourners' review of Merchants of Doubt here.