The missing link in the global warming debate
is not a lack of scientific knowledge, it's a deficit of soul.
long ago, when President Bush announced a decision to curb new efforts to control
carbon dioxide emissions, he warned that it was wrong to act hastily because "the
science is uncertain" about a cause and effect relationship between increased
burning of fossil fuels and global warming. To be sure the body of scientific
evidence making such a connection is incomplete, but that is not actually the
problem. There is overwhelming evidence of massive damage being done to the health
of this planet by the relentless advance of human civilization.
warming is only one small piece of a far larger puzzle and a far greater problem:
the very health and vitality of our planet.
The real problem
is not a lack of scientific evidence of environmental degradation; the problem
is that that people do not seem to feel a particular need to protect and defend
the planet, but rather seem to believe that the earth is an inexhaustible resource
that humans should be free to use and even abuse if such use has an immediate
economic payoff. Hence, increasing the "energy supply" and promoting "economic
growth" take precedence over other considerations.
Jesus once told a
parable that speaks to this situation.
It is one of the most familiar
narratives in the entire Bible. In it, a man, traveling along a lonely road somewhere
in the wilderness is attacked by a band of thieves. They rob him, strip him, beat
him and leave him lying by the side of the road, half dead. In the now familiar
sequence, a series of travelers come passing by, but they appear not to notice
or care about the victim lying there dying at the side of the road, and so they
callously pass by, hurrying along their way. Finally, a Samaritan, a foreigner,
a person much despised by the sorts of people that would have been in Christ's
audience that day, comes passing by. Sure enough, this stranger has compassion
for the wounded man. This foreigner stoops down to bind up the robbery victim's
wounds, puts him upon his own donkey, and brings him to the safety of an inn somewhere
along that road. He then gives the inn keeper instructions to keep him there
until the man is fully recovered. He will cover the cost. Jesus uses this story
when asked to illustrate what neighborly love is all about.
is a good starting point for any discussion about what neighborly love requires
with respect to the environment. Altering the story somewhat will serve to bring
its relevance home. Suppose, that instead of discovering the robbery victim
at some time after the crime was committed, that the Samaritan comes along in
time to catch the robbers in the act. And suppose this is not just an ordinary
robbery, but also a rape. All the more powerful reason for the Samaritan to take
action -- intervene to drive away the rapist before real harm is done.
I submit, is exactly our own situation with respect to the plight of our planet.
Today the earth is being plundered and raped! And none of us can consider ourselves
strangers or foreigners who have only a passing interest in the assault underway.
After all, this is our "mother earth" being attacked. Enlightened self-interest
alone should compel action. Bring a degree of compassion into the situation,
and there is an overwhelming motivation to become proactively involved in protecting
the one who nourishes our very lives.
Who would not take action to
defend one's own mother, if her life were threatened. But she is. And most of
us do not act. Why?
The problem is that we do not seem to see the crime
that is going on before our very eyes. We drive by in our SUVs, ride along in
our subways, or fly high above the surface of the earth in our aircraft with only
a dim awareness of what is happening all around us. We see the earth as
something we have a right to drill and devour to our heart's content, as though
it were an expendable commodity. Stripping the mountainsides, polluting the seas,
filling the air with noxious fumes to keep us warmer in the winter or cooler in
summer seems to be an unquestioned privilege.
At the heart of
the debate over the environment is the sorry reality that we do not feel connected
to the world around us. It is a mere thing, a dull, material object, rather than
something we relate to with neighborly love or even enlightened self interest.
and ecologist Thomas Berry has spent a lifetime trying to awaken our sense of
kinship with the planet. He writes:
As humans we are
born of the Earth, nourished by the Earth, healed by the Earth. The natural world
tells us: I will feed you, I will clothe you, I will shelter you, I will heal
you. Only do not so devour me or use me that you destroy my capacity to mediate
the divine and the human. For I offer you a communion with the divine. I offer
you gifts that you can exchange with each other. I offer you flowers whereby you
may express your reverence for the divine and your love for each other. In the
vastness of the sea, in the snow-covered mountains, in the rivers flowing through
the valleys, in the serenity of the landscape and in the foreboding of the great
storms that sweep over the land, in all these experiences I offer you inspiration.
is clear what the earth offers us. But what do we offer the earth in return?
Seeing it suffer, we callously pass by in our SUVs, with tinted
glass windows rolled shut, with soothing stereophonic sound sating our sensitivities
to what is actually happening along the roads, rivers, and seacoasts that we pass
by so quickly. The air conditioners and filtering systems are running full tilt,
and we do not even hear the cries, let alone feel the pain of the planet and its
thousands of species struggling for survival. To be sure, more scientific knowledge
is desperately needed about the actual effects of things like the burning of fossil
fuel. But as we gather more data, what is most urgently needed is an improved
relationship with the world around us.
Our religions have
an important role to play in all of this. As Thomas Berry pointed out in
a presentation he gave recently to a group I belong to here in New York City,
there are three sorts of relationships that matter most: first, our relationship
with God; second, our relationship with each other; third, our relationship with
the world and indeed the cosmos in which we live. In ancient times, our religions
have focused attention upon the divine human relationship. And this is important.
In more recent times, our religions have focused upon human relationships, and
this too, is important. But in the future, increasing attention must be given
to our relationship to the world around us, for this is the one that we have neglected.
And it, too, is crucial, not only to our survival, but perhaps even to our salvation.
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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and
Executive Director of CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here. God and Science (Hypertext Edition,
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion: Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).
Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.