I think you have to love something before you’ll fight for it. At least that’s been my experience growing up in Minnesota. My friends and I built snow castles in the winter, chased rabbits in the spring and marveled at the sun-kissed summer leaves, years before we learned the biochemistry of photosynthesis. I yearned for the lakes, woods and prairies before I understood their ecology, scarcity or services. I remember when the lake turned slimy and eutrophic, and I recall the grief that haunts me now as I study environmental damage on a global scale.
Some might belittle these feelings of longing, awe, sadness, and hope. But these formative experiences sparked my professional curiosity and drive my passion for peacemaking between people and planet. To be clear, we need concrete solutions – technical, political and economic – but I believe that conservation also calls us to fall in love with the planet. As a joint master’s student at Yale Environment School and Yale Divinity School, I hope to cultivate an ecological ethic in my faith community, a call for stewardship that is rooted in love for creation. And while my stories orginate in the Christian tradition, their principles apply broadly to the moral wisdom found in many of the world’s religions.
People of faith know how to work like a team, engage a moral imperative and deliver results. If you gave twenty church folks groceries and two hours, you’d come back to bacon sizzling, pancakes steaming, eggs scrambling, syrup bubbling and a line of people out the door. We get stuff done because, sometimes, “there’s no one else to do it, and somebody probably should.” I heard a guy say that last week.
So imagine a church crew armed to the gills with duct tape, caulk guns, insulation, light bulbs, thermostats, bikes, thousands of trees, shovels and gunny sacks full of seeds. Imagine preachers who know that we cannot love our neighbors without also loving the planet that supports Life.
While “climate change” might be impolite dinner conversation (Note to self: do not talk climate change with Glenn Beck fans at a family wedding. Seriously.), people of faith can build bridges in the community. Folks here in New Haven are currently fixing leaky doors, growing community farms and planting 10,000 street trees. These are the actions we would wisely take even if we weren’t concerned with the environment, because they save money, build community, and serve our neighbors. Can you imagine Tea-Partiers and Occupiers working together to cut gas bills and save dollars? That’s wht I’m talking about.
For those of us concerned with Washington’s inaction, deceit, and cowardice, local climate solutions like these crack open a window of opportunity. We can work with isolated pockets of political will and model climate victories on the ground. The experience harvested from these projects may allow policy makers to replicate success and terminate failure.
Of course, none of this will suffice, and as Bill McKibben recently wrote, “The war goes badly.” Climate pollution exceeds United Nations projections, global agreements teeter on collapse and signs of climate destabilization fill the news. Yet in the face of unspeakable odds, McKibben also told me, “the only thing a morally awake person can do in the face of unspeakable odds is EVERYTHING YOU CAN, ALL THE TIME.” Local solutions provide a chance to tunnel under political barriers because, like parks, they pair local cost with local benefit.
Finally, people of faith can provide moral leadership. We often see environmental issues framed as political disputes or economic tussles. Some will oppose any agenda on partisan grounds, while others will ask whether it is cost efficient to prevent suffering and death. But these are ultimately moral concerns that bore to the core of our humanity.
People of faith are uniquely equipped to lead on these issues. As Isaiah and Jeremiah held political reality and righteous possibility in tension, we must now imagine and secure right relationship with Earth. We need leaders who connect the dots of pollution, poverty, justice and sustainability. We need clarion prophets who shout, sing and moan this truth like Mahalia Jackson would: we can only feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless when we have a stable Earth and just societies. And we need partnerships that deliver on this rhetoric. All hands on deck, I say! After all, religions are the world’s largest NGOs.
- Featured photo by Keith Cuddeback, courtesy of Flicker Creative Commons.