WHAT CAN BE DONE?
INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE AND CLIMATE CHANGE
Paul O. Ingram
Pacific Lutheran University (Emeritus)
“Community” is an overused word. Economists and politicians on the Left and Right use it the way fast-food restaurants use salted fat to cover up the lack of healthy ingredients in their food. Religious persons are often just as ambiguous about the meaning of “community.” Are they Christian communities, as my own Lutheran congregation declares, that are “open and relational,” or are they more like “members-only clubs,” or something in between? In the prophetic literature in the Tanak, the meaning of “community” is inclusively clear. The meaning is clear too in the teachings of the historical Jesus whom Christians confess to be the Christ of faith. The meaning is clear as well in the Islamic Way, the Hindu Way, the Buddhist Way, and the Confucian and Daoist Ways. As opposed to social clubs and mere collections of human beings accidently living in the same neighborhoods, “community” names an inclusively compassionate, just social-political structure striving for the common good of all. We need to rescue this meaning of community so that “community” becomes the most clearly understood word in our thinking about religious pluralism and dangerous climate change.
So we have “been told what it good,” as Micah 6:6-8 has it, for at least 3000 years.. But here’s the hiccup in our day and time: access to enormous amounts of cheap energy for those of us lucky enough to live in an industrialized country has made us rich in comparison with the majority of the poor living in unindustrialized countries. Throughout the rhythms of economic booms and busts I have experienced as an American citizen, I have always found enough economic resources for meaningful existence. While I might experience sadness when someone living three houses from me has entered bankruptcy, I am never inconvenienced, most probably because I have not met him or her. Capitalist economic theory treats all human beings as independently separate from other human beings, the “rugged individual” going back to Déscartes. Our present economic system is designed to work without input from our neighbors next door or down the block. Because of cheap oil, our food arrives from great distances with little inconvenience to ourselves other than shopping for it at the local grocery store. Credit cards and internet connections make it possible to order much of what we desire or need, and have it left anonymously on our doorsteps. In short, we’ve adapted to a neighborless society —except for some religious communities like the Quakers, Mennonites, or Amish—or my community at Pointe of Grace Lutheran Church in Mukilteo, Washington.
It is obvious that capitalist economic theory and practice is the engine driving the corporate greed for increasing the profits of stockholders, while consumerism is the fundamentalist addiction of most human beings on this planet. The desire for more and more stuff runs amok even among those identifying themselves as Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, or Confucian. But consumerism is contrary to all the religious Ways of humanity. Based on the assumption that human beings are individuals-in-separation, the interdependent relationships foundational to the creation of just, compassionate communities working for the common good have no chance to evolve. We have been told what is good throughout human history. But we have failed to pay attention.
What can be done to reverse the ecological damage we are causing to this planet, before it’s too late? It will not be easy, given the facts of institutionalized corporate greed, corporate ownerships of many politicians globally, and our consumerist desire to own more and more stuff that we don’t really need. What is required is the conversion of our collective to understanding that human beings are persons-in-community and undertaking socially engaged action accordingly. Our collective egoism, what Christian tradition refers to as “sin,” must be overcome. The religious Ways of humanity through socially engaged dialogue across the globe are best positioned to undertake this conversion process since they, in their distinctive way, assert that human beings are persons-in-community as they call us to form communities of compassionate justice for the common good.
But my argument has a problem. While it is true that humanity’s religious Ways have encouraged protection of the environment, none have been very effective over long periods of time. The Daoist Way, for example, failed to protect China’s mountains from deforestation. Nor have Jewish, Christian, and Islamic teachings about stewardship done much to prevent human-caused environmental damage to the Earth’s land, water, and atmosphere. The hard truth is that economic concerns have determined how human beings have interacted with nature. Still, given the seriousness of the environmental dangers now facing us, a worldwide socially engaged interreligious dialogue might raise our collective consciousness enough so that current human behavior might be reformed and environmental disaster averted.
At this point, I need to make two preliminary points. First, corporate and political interests, not to mention our addiction to consumerism, are so entrenched worldwide that success might be impossible in an increasingly secularized world. Second, the religious pluralism ingredient in humanity’s religious Ways means that specific forms of community-for-the-common good will be pluralistic social structures of existence. Just as no single religious Way can claim the market on truth about the Sacred, so there can exist no single institutional form of community-for-the-common-good, but rather multiple forms existing in dialogical conversation with other forms globally.
According to the economic paradigm running amok on Planet Earth, the increase of wealth is inherently good. Wealth is the measuring rod for determining the well-being of societies of individuals. But religious communities counterculturally teach that putting the acquisition of wealth first is contrary to the ideal of compassionate, just community for the common good. The dominate economic worldview presupposes, as Adam Smith did in his Wealth of Nations, that human life is fully explainable by the force of self-interest that he called “the invisible hand.”
Consequently, “being rational” means seeking one’s own advantage in a survival-of-the-fittest world. Even human relationships are judged by what individuals-in-separation can gain for themselves. Religious communities engaged in interreligious dialogue can help people apprehend that we are more than ego-centered beings governed only by self-interest, although certainly self-interested actions are part of humanity’s evolutionary DNA. But just as we are not reducible to our DNA, neither are we reducible to economic self-interest—a reductionism that exemplifies what Alfred North Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Participation in the life of a religious community teaches us that human beings are much more than economic or political abstractions. We learn this through disciplines like prayer, meditation, liturgical practices, interreligious dialogue, and community outreach to the poor and disadvantaged—to those who for whatever reason didn’t measure up to economic success—because capitalism has no room in its worldview for the poor.
Given these two points, what can religious communities engaged in a planet-wide socially engaged interreligious dialogue hope to accomplish through resistance to the current economic order with its consumerist engine driving this order? Here are a few sporadic examples. Many consumers throughout the world have joined together in envisioning new forms of capitalism. They include progressive Jews practicing “repair of the world,” Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Daoists and Confucians (or persons practicing both Ways), as well as progressive secularists indifferent to religion but nevertheless willing to work side by side with people of faith. Numerous organizations are dedicated to informing consumers about how products are made, who produces them, and how they affect the environment. There are also millions of consumers favoring so-called green or environmentally sound products of all sorts whose production harms the environment. “Green products” are often more expensive, but nevertheless more and more people are willing to make the necessary economic sacrifices to “go green.” In the United States consumer groups are pressuring the Food and Drug Administration to label ecofriendly products. Publicity about exploitative working conditions in factories and corporately owned farms is beginning to influence purchasing habits worldwide.
But when all is said and done, local actions like “buying green” and living simply in local communities will not reverse the ecological damage confronting this planet. What must be done in the space of just a few years is to break our collective addiction to fossil fuels. Our collective addiction to fossil fuels is the driver of global warming. No individual, no community, no nation-state can escape the terrible environmental consequences global warming. Simply stated, a way must be found to return the Earth’s atmosphere to 350 parts per million carbon dioxide in order to stabilize the planet in its current state of disruption. But this may not be possible because of the way the fossil fuel industry uses the atmosphere as its private waste disposal by pumping millions of tons of carbon waste into it yearly.
This must stop. Doing so will necessitate replacing fossil fuels—oil, gas, and coal—with “clean” forms of energy such as wind power, solar power, and perhaps nuclear energy. We will need to reduce our reliance on automobiles by building public transportation systems capable of moving large numbers of people efficiently and cheaply. This will require rebuilding infrastructures and replacing gas-powered cars with battery-powered cars and perhaps solar powered cars. As anyone who has driven a car on the freeways of Los Angeles on a hot day in July during rush hour understands, smog deposited into the lower atmosphere is a major cause of respiratory diseases. Coal plants and oil refineries poison the atmosphere as well, while petroleum and coal industries add to the poisoning of the Earth and its atmosphere through fracking and strip mining.
However, none of the individual and communal acts of resistance suggested in the previous paragraphs will have much positive effect without structural changes in relations between the corporate world and the politicians controlling government bureaucracies. Corporate lust for producing an incredible variety stuff to feed consumerist desire for “the good life” has emerged as the dominate force in industrialized nations. In our time, Adam Smith’s theory of capitalism has been pushed to such extremes that those elected to political office in democratic societies are literally owned by the few billionaires controlling the economy. In many cases, they write the legislation passed into laws giving legal status to corporate greed. Corporate profits, according to the most conservative supporters of capitalist theory, will supposedly “trickle down” to the vast majority who are not wealthy. In authoritarian countries, the government literally own the economy outright. But in democratic countries powerful economic interest own the government. In the United States, we are rapidly approaching a political situation where a wealthy oligarchy composed of major corporate CEO’s control the House of Representatives and the Senate. The United States is in danger of becoming a fascist state as democratic processes are hijacked by corporate greed.
If we are to lower methane emissions flowing into the atmosphere, corporate ownership of politicians and government bureaucrats must end. But I do not mean that that economists must not be allowed to influence political decisions. What I do mean to suggest is that corporate interests should not have the power to shove aside the wider economic interests of citizens, particularly in environmental issues affecting all citizens, rich or poor. Given the need to replace monstrosities like fossil fuels with renewable energy, which means putting the breaks not only on oil abstraction through drilling, and fracking, but also the strip mining coal, “it is natural that we must, as Bill McKibben writes, “think big.” He continues:
Even for renewable energy, seize makes a certain kind of sense: though the sun shines on every human being, and wind rustles every blade of grace, it shines and rustles a good deal harder depending on your location. If you’re going to build concentrated solar power arrays, start in the desert of the Southwest (or for Europe, in North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula); the biggest wind farms need the steady gusts of the Midwest, or the reliable onshore winds on either coasts of the Atlantic [or either coasts of the Pacific]. We’ve recently begun to build some of this infrastructure, including the transmission lines necessary to connect them to places where most people live.
But there’s another hiccup. Constructing large green energy systems is like “buying organic food at the supermarket: it’s an improvement, where produce isn’t soaked in pesticides, but that produce is still traveling an enormous distance along vulnerable supply lines. That is to say, building national grids for the production of green energy will not necessarily build stronger communities. Purchasing green energy will simply build the profits of the large corporations controlling green-energy companies. But the upside of this reality is that an increasing number people worldwide are beginning to comprehend both the economic and ecological benefits of living green and green energy systems. How this is to be accomplished on an international scale is both an economic and political decision. For millions of us practicing a religious Way, it will be necessary to socially engage economic and political leaders and push them to promote living locally while not permitting green-energy corporations to control the political process as they line their corporate pockets at the expense of the majority of human beings and other sentient beings.
The reality is this: most human beings now living on this planet practice some particular religious Way. All religious Ways call faithful persons to create communal structures that exhibit justice and compassion. Here lies the foundation of a socially engaged interreligious dialogue seeking ways to protect the environment and defending the poor by building networks of faithful human beings. This interreligious dialogue must include dialogue with the natural sciences as a third partner. This is so because the science underlying climate change must be clearly understood before action can be undertaken to reverse the planet wide damage we are experiencing. The sheer gravity of the ecological crisis demands that every human being on Planet Earth begin seeking the common good founded on compassionate justice for all human beings as well as all sentient beings with whom we must share the resources of this planet.
 Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, 2011), 187.
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