COLUMBIA MAGAZINE ~ Can the World’s Religions Help Save Us from Ecological Peril? Part 2

by Duane Nichols on January 30, 2023

Back Bay and False Cape State Park adjoin Virginia Beach as the ideal locations to observe the life cycle of turtles

A spiritual connection to nature is essential for environmental recovery

From the Article “Sacred Trees, Holy Waters” in Columbia Magazine, Winter Edition 2022 – 2023

Kareena Gore, who is from Tennessee, grew up immersed in American politics. Her grandfather, Albert Gore, was a US senator, and her father, Albert Gore Jr., was a US senator (1985–1993), vice president (1993–2001), and author of the 1992 book Earth in the Balance, which warned of the global-warming catastrophe (the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth chronicled his campaign to educate people about climate change). Raised in the Baptist tradition, Gore is a remarkably selfless, compassionate advocate who calls her own spirituality “private and ever-unfolding” and whose respect for the power and insights of Indigenous spiritual beliefs is a guiding force in her faith-based environmental work.

At Columbia Law School, Gore took a course in copyright law and was absorbed by the concept of intellectual property and, ultimately, she says, of property itself. Being in Manhattan, she thought about the “sale” of the island by the Lenape people to the Dutch colonizers and how the two sides had very different notions of what that transaction meant. And she thought about how we treat the land, and how social norms have blinded us to the environmental impacts of our consumer lifestyle. “We get confused,” she says, “because much of what’s driving ecological destruction is perfectly legal and socially encouraged.”

Karenna Gore graduated from law school in 2000, which was also the year her father ran for president on a strong environmental platform, winning the popular vote but conceding the race to George W. Bush after the Supreme Court denied a manual recount in Florida. In 2002, President Bush opened previously off-limits federal lands near national parks to oil and gas development, initiating a push for energy independence that has since triggered numerous conflicts over land, water, and air as woods are cleared, roads are built, pipes are laid, and animals are driven from their homes.

“We see nature as property rather than as a commonly held or even inhabited community of life,” Gore says. “That we recognize a cathedral as a sacred site but not a rainforest reveals a lot about our thinking.”

James Hansen could not have picked a better day to make his point to Congress. It was June 23, 1988, and the temperature in Washington was ninety-eight degrees. As director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which is housed at Columbia, Hansen, now an adjunct professor at the Columbia Climate School, had come to address the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on the topic of “global warming,” a term popularized by Columbia geochemist Wallace Broecker ’53CC, ’58GSAS in his 1975 paper “Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?” “The global warming is now large enough,” Hansen told the senators, “that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause-and-effect relationship to the greenhouse effect” — the process by which carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels collects in the atmosphere, trapping heat. “The first five months of 1988 are so warm globally that we conclude that 1988 will be the warmest year on record.”

As if on cue, that summer was unlike any other in living memory. The US saw long, intense heat waves, drought, wildfires, and hundreds of human deaths, even as humans were pumping billions of tons of carbon into the atmosphere annually, with no end in sight.

That same year, Thomas Berry published The Dream of the Earth, a seminal meditation on human–earth relations. Guided by a profound reverence for the beauty and genius of nature, the book articulates a vision of a living earth whose complex life systems, developed over billions of years, are being severely altered, degraded, and extinguished through deforestation, extraction, contamination, and plunder. “If the earth does grow inhospitable toward human presence,” Berry wrote, “it is primarily because we have lost our sense of courtesy toward the earth and its inhabitants, our sense of gratitude, our willingness to recognize the sacred character of habitat, our capacity for the awesome, for the numinous quality of every earthly reality.”

Thirty-five years later, with global carbon emissions near record highs, the earth does seem to be growing inhospitable. The effects are spiritual as well as physical. Ecological anxiety is deepening, especially for children and teenagers, and faith communities have had to find new strategies to address an existential dilemma without precedent.

“The psychological breakdown and despair around climate change is so strong that young people are studying for eco-anxiety ministry,” says Tucker. “The next generation gets that climate change is real and caused by human activity. They don’t have to be convinced. Along with religious communities, they are advocating for eco-justice — a concern for the most vulnerable being affected by climate change.”

At the Center for Earth Ethics (CEE), Kareena Gore teaches that faith leaders can approach the climate crisis in three main ways: prophetic, pastoral, and practical. “Prophetic means telling the truth about real value versus GDP-measured value, and about costs that aren’t being counted. Pastoral deals with issues of grief and anxiety as climate impacts — floods, fires — increase. The practical can be things like faith communities greening their land, buildings, and schools and pressuring banks to stop financing fossil fuels.”

Polls show that most religious Americans see climate justice as a political priority, and new expressions of eco-spirituality have appeared, such as the Wild Church movement, in which congregants meet in natural settings, where a pastor might cite the book of Job (“But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you, or speak to the earth, and it will teach you”) or repeat a quote attributed to the conservationist John Muir, who fought for the creation of national parks (“I’d rather be in the mountains thinking of God than in church thinking about the mountains”).

“Churches are looking to new ways of being both relevant and in their best forms spiritually,” says Tucker. “The hope is that that ecological anxiety is going to put us back in touch with awe, wonder, and beauty.”

>>> A month after Hurricane Ian, as scientists tested the sewage-choked waters of southwest Florida and determined that waterways would be polluted for months, the Center for Earth Ethics hosted a forum at Union Theological Seminary (UTS) on religious freedom for Indigenous people.

>>> Karenna Gore, standing in James Memorial Chapel in front of the copse of tall pipes of the Holtkamp organ, opened her remarks by reading the text of a plaque that was to be installed on the seminary grounds, honoring the surroundings as “the homeland and territory of the Lenape people as well as the habitat and dwelling place of the many beings they have been in relationship with.” She then introduced Ahmed Shaheed, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, who spoke about his report to the UN General Assembly describing how the nature-based ways of life of Indigenous peoples had been violated by forced displacement, intrusion of industry, and disregard for their spiritual practices.

>>> Betty Lyons, the CEE advisory board co-chair from the Onondaga Nation, spoke of “our sacred relationships to the natural world” and argued that the Indigenous value system — a sense of responsibility, respect, and reciprocity with nature — holds the key to survival for everyone. “We see all living beings as relatives and not merely resources,” she said. “The Creator exists in all living beings.”

>>> Bernadette Demientieff of Gwich’in Nation, who calls herself a “land, water, and animal protector,” appeared via video from her home in Fort Yukon, Alaska, and expressed anguish over the vote of the US Congress, in 2017, to lease land in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil exploration to feed the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. ANWR is one of the last unspoiled areas on the planet, a critical habitat for many animal species, including caribou, waterfowl, and polar bears. Its coastal plains are so hallowed to the Gwich’in that they won’t even set foot on them.

“When we were being told we were going to be rich if we opened up our sacred land to oil and gas development,” Demientieff said, “our elders told us we are already rich: rich in our culture, rich in our way of life. And all we have to do is protect it.”

Though the Biden administration has suspended the leases, the threat of future development remains, and the pain was audible in Demientieff’s voice. “Our land that we consider extremely sacred is being turned into an oil field,” she said. “Can you imagine a church that you attend, a place that you hold very sacred, being bulldozed over? That is how we feel about this area. This is not a place we built. This is a place we were blessed with. We hold this place to the highest standard. Our connection to the land, water, and animals — it’s all interconnected. There is no one or the other. This is our survival. This is our entire way of life.”

>>> Mona Polacca, a spiritual elder of Hopi, Havasupai, and Tewa lineage, spoke of the “original instructions” — the ancient teachings of spiritual interconnectivity with creation that have sustained Indigenous people in the Americas for thousands of years — and stated her purpose: “It’s our responsibility as Indigenous people to be gentle reminders to all people about these basic original instructions,” she said. “We made a covenant with the Creator when we first came into this world to live here. We made a promise that we would take care of it. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re making every effort to now be that gentle reminder about that instruction that all people were given — that we are all related, and that our basic survival needs are not any different from each other’s. It’s all the same.”

>>> When the program ended, Gore, the speakers, and the audience members exchanged greetings and chatted. Then they made their way down the halls and went outside, where, in the night sky, a waxing crescent moon hung over the spired city, over the churches, mosques, and synagogues, the temples and shrines, and the ancestral land of the Lenape, where bears and wolves once roamed; and for a moment it was possible to believe that it was all the same, that all religions had something to contribute, and that a re-enchantment with creation was within reach, the one humanity needed in order to tackle the great work ahead. 

>>> For further resources, see: 1. Thomas Berry, The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality and Religion in the Twenty-First Century, 2. Kimberley Patton and Paul Waldau, A Communion of Subjects: Animals in Religion, Science and Ethics, 3. Online Courses in Religion and Ecology.

This article appears in the Winter 2022-23 print edition of Columbia Magazine with the title “Sacred Trees, Holy Waters.”

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