Responding to Climate Change: Scientific Realities, Spiritual Imperatives
Heather Eaton, Ph.D.
St. Paul University, Ottawa, Canada
Paper presented at the 11th Conference of the International Environment Forum, Ottawa, Canada, 12 October 2007
Role of religion / spirituality
- three caveats
- three reflections for conversation
Two: Religions are in
- magnitude of the challenges
- reality maps are obsolete
- Euro-western worldviews: habits of mind
- assess our religious and spiritual maps
- reclaim Earth spirituality
Three: Spiritual Awakening; New
- spiritual vision adequate for our ecological era
- Earth’s climate systems
- contemplate the elegance of the Earth
- spiritual and moral awakening, radical political actions.
- religions need to become self aware and ecologically literate.
Climate Change: Introduction
Thank you for this time together and thank you to those who worked hard to organize such important conversations about the concerns of our times.
No need to reiterate how challenging and difficult this era on Earth is
Predictions range from very worrisome to catastrophic.
The indicators vary - temperature changes, weather changes, glacial melting, confused migratory patterns, and species extinctions.
I heard yesterday that the permafrost is melting much sooner than ‘predicted’.
Causes of climate change - more complex when we move beyond the scientific conversations.
For example, last week eight groups of evangelical Christians downplayed the potential problems of global climate change, including six organizations that received a total of $2.32 million in donations from Exxon Mobil over the last three years.
Climate Change is Political
If, as suggests Ursula Franklin, we are in a state of occupation by an army of marketeers, and our governments are puppets in the hands of corporations, then democracy is at great risk. Many predict that without functional democracies around the world, effective action against or adaptation to climate change will be impossible.
Quote: (William Ruckelshaus and Henry
Kendall, 1990 Nobel Prize for physics)
“long before the systems of the planet buckle, democracy will disintegrate under the stress of ecological disasters and their social consequences.”
Climate change is cultural
We live in a sea of cultural ideologies that nurture notions of social well being in terms of progress, economic growth, unlimited materialism, industrialization and technology, all contributing to climate disruptions.
Climate change is also an ethical and religious issue
What can religions offer to ethical frameworks on climate change? Lots to discuss and I will offer a few reflections.
Two: There is no pure religion outside of historical forms, and they have constructive and destructive legacies. The best of religions are rarely embodied, and are fraught with bias, contradictions and ambiguities.
Three: We cannot just apply religions to climate change the way we apply cream.
I offer three reflections for our conversation on religion / spirituality and climate change.
The first is about ethics.
First Point: The Role of Ethics in Religions
- three aspects of ethics
a) Transformation of the Self
Religious teachings are concerned about interior human dynamics, such as
- of how to educate and discipline our desires for power and success, greed, the need to accumulation of wealth, our appetite for more
- religions teach of how to be aware of arrogance and ignorance,
- to attend to the power of our will, thoughts, fears, and even the insatiable quest for happiness.
Religions teach about kindness, mindfulness. Buddhism teaches how to discipline the mind and emotions such that we ‘doing no harm’ and develop compassion - the ethical core of peace.
Religions talk about regret, repentance, forgiveness,
about solidarity with others.
The Bahá’i tradition has much wisdom on this self transformation
Confucians consider this cultivating interiority.
Religions can become engaged in this cultivation of the self, this education of the whole person - all of which is needed in how we act as we intervene on climate change.
Some traditions teach of cultivating courage to oppose oppression, a second aspect of ethics.
b) Social ethics
Complex problems such as those enmeshed with climate change cannot be solved at the personal level. We need social analysis, and tools to perceive the ideological, political and economic aspects,
We need a deeper understanding of the inequities – which are often
Here there is a vast array of religious teachings on equity, justice, the common good, of attending to the marginalized,
- on the need to assess public policy in terms of the impact on those who will benefit least,
- to consider the implications for seven generations, as do some North American Indigenous traditions
Historically religions have joined movements for progressive social change, and can be prophetic.
The liberation from oppression is a religious task, as is confronting
oppressive systems, people and ideologies.
Teachings and tools for non-violent resistance, working for peace,
Even putting one’s life on the line
These liberation themes are in Jewish, Christian Buddhism and certainly others traditions)
And these efforts support justice and democracy
Religions speak of sacrifice - not popular... but what are we willing to sacrifice to mitigate climate change, and to lessen the effects on those most affected? What about other species?
3rd aspect of ethics.
c) Ecological Ethics
Religions have not developed insights for ecological concerns. They are ill equipped to respond to this magnitude of crisis. However, there are some ecological ethics that can be retrieved. For example, most religions have ethics to live within the limits and rhythms of the natural world, and that recognize that our existence depends on right relations with the natural world.
Religions have teachings about learning from the Earth, and awakening to a sacred presence in the natural world.
Climate change is not just about humans, or even predominantly about humans. It is affecting countless species, many of whom will become extinct as a result. Ethical questions arise about how religions view the greater than human world? - this vast community of other animals. Do we have ethics equipped to address extensive habitat loss? The suffering of other sentient beings? Of species extinction?
What if one cause of climate change is our inability to have an I-thou relationship with the natural world?
Unless we can sense the sacred within the natural world, I fear that the ethics we revive will be insufficient. We need more than ethics from religion.
Second Point : Religions are in Transition
Extraordinary work is being done in the field of religion and ecology. There are all kinds of initiatives, reinterpretations, and innovations. Religions are bringing teachings, texts, symbols, rituals and ethics to bear on ecological issues. It is also clear that other questions are emerging.
One of the tasks of religion is to read the signs of the times. We are in a sea change of a magnitude that is difficult even to describe. Fast changes, radical pluralities, multi-religious encounters, inadequate theories of understanding truths:
- Post-colonial subjectivities confronting hegemonic globalization,
- Cultural diversifies intermingling with a global consciousness.
- Inter-religious exchanges, blending, and conflict - daily reality
And we are entering an era of an ecological crisis unprecedented in 65
million years, of which climate change is only one part:
- Sixth extinction period, amidst desertification, loss of biodiversity, pollution and toxins everywhere, water concerns, restructuring genetic codes...
And the list goes on and on...
Those who ‘work’ in religion are struggling to respond to these realities. But are religions adequate to the task?
It is evident that religions are in transition - in their self understanding, and within a new global context.
Rabbi Schachter states: “Many religious structures have become ossified remnants of another time. All traditional systems - Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and Buddha - were embedded in the social and economic systems in which they arose. Their reality maps are obsolete.”
Some call for spirituality not religion (Dalai Lama), or wisdom and ethics rather than dogma.
Some say we are entering a second axial age - a new phase of religious consciousness in which original insights and energies are possible
In response to the uncertainties surrounding religion we see a rise of fundamentalism as well as bold inter-religious collaboration:
- where religions are both a weapon and a tool of peace and
- where religious claims compete for supremacy, or search for deeper notions of truth and reality
Signs of our times....
Thomas Berry says
Religion as we know it is over. Religions in their current forms cannot respond to this level of crisis, but we cannot respond without them.
What does this mean?
Albert Einstein: Problems cannot be solved at the level of consciousness in which they were created. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if human kind is to survive.
There is a great need to examine the worldviews out of which we consider religion. We need to re-examine religious worldviews, and assumption about reality,
For example, Western worldviews are filled with dualistic thinking: such as
matter is in opposition to spirit,
thought / emotion,
culture / nature,
humans / animals,
humans / nature ( humans... the environment)
These are habits of mind, how we think about the world, but they do not
represent reality. Within this thought pattern we cannot see our
inter-relatedness, our dependence, or that matter and spirit in intimately
Or that we are in a continuum with Earth, and Earth processes, Earth Life..
Or that we are animals, one primate among others.
Because we separate humans from the natural world, we think of the ecological crisis as one of resources,
We need to confront the anthropocentrism – our notions of human supremacy within Christian, Jewish, Islam, Bahá’í traditions.
and the emphasis on humanity’s spiritual transcendence over the natural world.
As a result of how we understand ourselves in the scheme of things, we have a diminished awareness of a sacred indwelling presence in the natural world.
This may be why we have few ethical restraints on destroying the natural world.
To respond to climate change, we need to assess our religious and spiritual maps.
As well, it is urgent for religions to reclaim that the beauty and
elegance of the natural world have been inspirational and revelatory of
the divine since time immemorial.
To sense a sacred presence within the very life-processes of the earth was common throughout human history. It is only in recent times that this has not been so.
The natural world is a primary place of revelation and religious
experience - the sky, clouds, winds, water, deserts, trees, animals, speak
the ways of the divine, sacred, mystery holy. They reveal. They
evoke wonder and awe.
Wonder and awe educate our spiritual sensibilities, our mind and ethics.
These are a spontaneous response to anyone who spends time in the natural world
Wonder and awe lead to reverence, and reverence leads to responsibility and ethics.
But even this is not enough to respond to climate change.
Problems cannot be solved at the level of consciousness in which they were created. More is required of religion.
We need a new vision. The Jewish and Christian traditions say, “without a vision, the people perish.”
We need a vision that inspires and guides us, shapes our values, assists our decision making. We need a spiritual awakening.
Third Point: Spiritual Awakening
We need a spiritual vision that teaches us how to be present to the Earth, on Earth’s terms.
Spiritualities come from the realm of insights rather than data. Spiritualities are teachers of consciousness:
Spirituality is like breathing, as intimate and as vital as breath. It is about desire, a zest for life. The ability to feel awe and wonder. To experience reverence in the face of the immensity and elegance of existence.
Developing a spiritual consciousness is often described as moving from death to life, from sleep to awake, from illusion to enlightenment, from confinement to liberation, from confusion to clarity.
Why is it legitimate to view life as a commodity and to discuss ecological ruin in credit and debit terms? Why is life a market, not an intrinsic value?
The governing hyper-rational, pragmatic economic worldview needs to be countered with a more powerful and alluring vision of life.
A spiritual vision adequate for our ecological era requires an awakening to the Earth. Analysis of climate change is not enough.
As says Rabbi Heschel “What we cannot comprehend by analysis, we become aware of in awe.”
Briefly let’s look at climate change from a new angle.
Earths climate systems, dynamic, of staggering complexity, ingenuity, and sustaining powers.
The earth’s climate is a highly sophisticated multi-leveled system integrated with an ingenious hydrologic cycle, and inter-related with all life forms.
Earth’s climate - gone through extensive development.
Initially unstable...4.4 billion years ago. It was gaseous, no earth crust, no oceans.
The crust formed slowly, amidst huge volcanic activity
But early Earth’s atmosphere could not support oxygen based life..
Over millions of years - the formation of the great oceans.
The beginnings of life - single cells existed for a billion years... then a change - 3 billion years ago...eukaryote cells - photosynthesis...
Climate systems restabilized the carbon dioxide levels with higher levels of oxygen.
This era – the Cenozoic era -.. 65 million years ago
Most complex, diverse, inter-dependent flourishing of life.
Earth’s climate system is delicately poised and can support an elaborate array of life forms that took millions of years of experimentation, refining, and balancing
Climate - part of an elaborate Earth dynamic.
What little we know of Earth’s intricacies dazzles the human imagination
Even the fragment we know puts all our technologies to shame.
Earth’s climate processes, command some respect, if not reverence.
If we could stand back and contemplate the elegance of the Earth - that
we are emergent from these great processes - this inspires and energizes
This informs and sustains a vision - a place from which to think and act.
Human superiority fades in the face of a deeper appreciation for the wondrous, reality of life-systems on earth.
Such awareness leads to a profound spiritual and moral awakening, and radical political actions. We need a deep ecological awakening - I don’t know if less will be enough.
To see and know the earth as such requires a new way of perceiving,
and a confidence that to experience the Earth as sacred is not quaint, irrelevant, heretical or idealistic.
To understand, even minimally, the immense and elaborate planetary
climate systems is stunning and breath-taking. To contemplate the Earth -
from the microbiotic and genetic levels to the dinosaurs, the processes
and life-forms is a fantasy beyond human imagination. If we attend, even
momentarily, to the dynamics of water, the inventiveness of birds, the
ingenuity of insect communication, and the emotions of mammals, how is it
possible not to be overwhelmed by the creativity, diversity, power and
Religions are about awakening to these deeper dimensions of reality. It is a spiritual imperative for our time.
Religions have a crucial role to play in our era. Further, we cannot leave the public debates about religion and the ecological crisis in the hands of the right wing religious agenda. But not all religion is good religion. Superficial notions of religion or the reiteration of religious dogma will not suffice. Protectionist and imperialist stances prevent common efforts. Religions need to become self aware, and ecologically literate.
We need a vision that teaches us how to be present to the Earth, on
If we can cultivate awareness of this magnificent Earth, and see ourselves as members of this Earth community, then we will find spiritual resources that we have not yet imagined.
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Last updated 17 October 2007