The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy and resignation. We need spiritual and cultural transformation
From Rev. Peter Sawtell
“We can’t say that we didn’t know.” That was my Earth Day text for 2019, and it still is appropriate 3 years later. In 2019, we — individually and collectively — can no longer claim ignorance or innocence about the state of the planet we call home. The knowledge is too deep and too pervasive. The evidence is too strong. The options are too viable, and they are taking hold all around us. To claim that we’re not in a crisis, or to claim that we can’t make the changes we need in a timely way requires willful denial in this day and age.
The first Earth Day was billed primarily as a “teach-in,” an educational opportunity. Public rallies and community gatherings explained the problems of pollution, lifted up the possibilities for change, suggested personal behavior changes, and began to organize for political action. That first Earth Day was needed because so many people didn’t know where the pollution was coming from, that it presented a very real health danger, or that things could be different. The mobilization of April 22, 1970, has brought important laws, new attitudes, and some very real environmental improvements — especially in “point source” pollution where factories and sewers dumped vast quantities of untreated waste at a single location. We have a debt of gratitude for the accomplishments of those days.
But, by many measures, we now are in a much deeper environmental crisis than the one of 1970. Readers can name many aspects of our current distress, global and systemic distortions that were incomprehensible a half-century ago. To name a few, because we must admit to what is true:
- There is, at the top of most of our lists, the relentless progression of “global warming” which is distorting climate patterns, melting ancient ice around the planet, raising sea levels, and making the oceans dangerously acidic. This week, the atmospheric level of CO2, measured at Mauna Loa, is 414.06 parts per million, far above the 350 ppm cap that is our goal this century, eclipsing the roughly 325 ppm of 1970 and the 280 ppm that was the upper end for all of human civilization and that leading ice scientists such as Eric Rignot say we need to get back to, to stabilize the polar ice sheets.
- The rate of species extinction continues to accelerate, diminishing Earth’s biodiversity and weakening the web of life which sustains us all. Countless causes contribute — destruction of habitat, toxic chemicals, invasive species which displace less adaptable kinds, and intentional slaughter. In the 1970s, oceans were considered to be the inexhaustible “bread basket of the world”, and today global fisheries are dangerously depleted.
- Topsoil loss — through wind and water erosion, and from soil degradation of over-irrigation and chemical overload — reduces the amount of land that is available for agriculture. Shortages of fresh water — with rivers depleted and aquifers sucked dry — threaten human communities and devastate ecosystems.
- Human population continues its explosive growth — estimated today at 7.7 billion — and large segments of that population seek more affluent and more consumptive ways of life. The human numbers and growing impact stress every aspect of Earth’s systems.
We can’t say that we don’t know what is going on and the scope and timescale of the changes needed.
The cheerful green-tinged graphics that I see today, and the email subject lines proclaiming “Happy Earth Day!” seem jarring in the face of this reality. The basic admonitions to “Reduce, reuse, recycle” — which are themselves reused and recycled from previous decades — strike me as both tragically necessary and painfully simplistic.
We do know what is going on. More than incremental change clearly is needed. The proposals for a Green New Deal, while controversial, are stimulating debate about rapid and dramatic reductions in carbon emissions, and sweeping social programs to make a more just transition. States and local communities are working a bold initiatives to cut carbon emissions.
A growing number of informed and thoughtful folk are naming the need for transformation that goes beyond stricter federal regulations and more whiz-bang technologies. Naomi Klein recognizes that “This Changes Everything“. David Korten calls on us to “Change The Story, Change the Future.” Joanna Macy invites us to the possibilities of “Active Hope” to address “the mess we’re in.” Gus Speth confesses,
I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address those problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy … and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation — and we scientists don’t know how to do that.
Bill McKibben, responding to the question, “What can one person do to stop climate change?” said, “Stop being an individual.” Pope Francis, in his 2015 Encyclical, wrote, “Many things have to change course, but it is we human beings above all who need to change.”
Hawaiian interfaith minister Bodhi Be describes the crisis of identity.
The dominant culture of the world today, transcending nationalities and borders, is a culture out of balance, which has led to a people out of balance. A people out of balance with our place in the web of all life, thinking we are, somehow, above and exempt from the laws of the natural world. Out of balance with our soul’s purpose and the voice of God speaking within us, we are out of touch with who we truly are and why we’re here.
Sallie McFague, in “A New Climate for Theology” names the necessity of repentance:
The first step in behaving differently is admitting that we have not really and truly been asking God for a better world, not asking with our whole heart. Do we have the willingness to turn around, to change, to see ourselves and our world differently?
Barry Lopez suggests something of this turning. “We cannot, of course, save the world, because we do not have authority over its parts. We can serve the world, though. That is everyone’s calling, to lead a life that helps.”
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As is probably clear by now, I am not an enthusiastic booster of Earth Day. In too many contexts, a one-day observance on April 22 (or on the nearest Sunday in many churches) comes across too much like 1970, with the notion that a bit of education and a few personal behavior changes will make everything OK.
Back in the spring of 2010, I reflected that “I have seen the spirit of the first Earth Day expressed most clearly and powerfully in last October’s international day of climate action. Coordinated by 350.org, we once again saw a strong grassroots movement engaging in creative and focused action.” In the years since then, I’ve seen forceful and ongoing environmental activism on many occasions, while Earth Day itself often has been expressed in low-level and low-expectation local gatherings.
If Earth Day is an opportunity to re-commit to year-round transformation, great. If it urges us toward radical political activism, or bold public witness, or ongoing spiritual discernment, then the day is a good affirmation of necessary change. But if Earth Day is just a time to feel good about having LED light bulbs, and so having done my share, then it is part of the problem that we need to solve.
In 2019, “We can’t say that we didn’t know.” Personally, politically, and in our churches, the truth of our crisis is obvious, and the need for transformational change is clear.
This Earth Day, how will you respond to the fact of Earth’s distress? What transformation will you seek that is in keeping with what we know?
|Shalom!Rev. Peter Sawtell
Executive Director, Eco-Justice Ministries
Supported by the Sisters of Loretto