He said his true name was “Uncle,” that he was a medicine man from the Inuit people of the Great North. There, he said, the ice was melting. The hunting, and the ancient village sites were being destroyed. Even the great polar bears were struggling for survival. Now he had been sent to the South as a messenger and healer—as our uncle—“to melt the ice in the heart of man”. Uncle, a.k.a. Angaang Lyberth, was addressinga religious gathering at the United Nations Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002.
His simple words sum up the prophetic task of the communities of faith during this critical moment of human and planetary history. Not only are the polar ice caps melting; so are the Siberian permafrost and all the planet’s glaciers, from those in the Himalayas, which feed the great rivers of China and the mystical Ganges, to the Alps, to the Andes. Even the magnificent and hallowed snows of Mt. Kilimanjaro are disappearing. The warming North Sea no longer teems with sandeel; and the kittiwakes, puffins and other sea birds are unable to feed their young. As if in tragic silent protest, they are not reproducing and are abandoning their nesting sites for the first time in recorded history.
Hurricanes are fiercer, oceans are rising, new diseases are spreading. Only once in the last five years has the world’s grain production exceeded consumption, which is an unprecedented development, according to the Worldwatch Institute. CO2 levels in the atmosphere are rising so fast that a high-level government and scientific commission in Great Britain predicted that they are likely to reach the point of irreversibility in ten to fifteen years.
Another spiritual teacher, the “geologian” Father Thomas Berry says:
“The issue is of a much greater order of magnitude [than previous historical crises] for we have changed in a deleterious manner not simply the structure and functioning of human society: we have changed the very chemistry of the planet, we have altered the biosystems, we have changed the topography and even the geological structures of the planet, structures and functions that have taken hundreds of millions and even billions of years to bring into existence. Such an order of change in its nature and in its order of magnitude has never before entered into earth history or into human consciousness” (Dream of the Earth: Introduction)
Uncle and Father Berry and other spiritual leaders may help us find the words of prophecy, comfort, transformation or wisdom that the peoples of the world surely need to hear at this unprecedented moment in human history. This is not just another “social” issue to be addressed by one more committee, one more web site, one more pastoral letter, one more
It is rapidly becoming apparent that the issue of climate change overshadows all the other great problems facing humanity: war and peace, poverty, hunger, disease. In fact, it is inextricably intertwined with all of these, as can be seen in the vicious military scrambling for the diminishing oil supplies of the Middle East. The killer hurricanes fueled by global warming are not only devastating cities, tropical islands and whole sub-continental areas; in New Orleans they revealed as rarely before the blatant neglect of the poor and of communities of color in particular.
In fact, the impact of global climate change is especially cruel to God’s poor. The earth’s most vulnerable humans are already suffering disproportionally from the scarcity of potable drinking water, from hunger caused by crop disruption and by new diseases, all being spawned or exacerbated by global warming. The predicted worldwide phenomenon of the creation of environmental refugees was seen in microcosm in the impact of Katrina on the New Orleans population just one of many similar disasters around the world. There it was the poor who were most affected and lacked even the most minimal resources to respond to the crisis.
Most political leaders and all too many environmentalists presume global warming to be a technological problem. Technology is certainly critical but it is imperative that the political, ethical and moral dimensions be recognized.
Many of the great spiritual traditions teach that the Earth and all its beings are sacred as reflections, or even as bearers, of the Divine Creator Spirit. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.” wrote the British Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins as the Industrial Revolution was gearing up. The Psalmist sings that “The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness.” (Psalm 24). Since the ecological crisis in general and global warming in particular are inherently spiritual issues, the religious and spiritual community is being called on at this historic juncture to take a leadership role.
This vision of the sacred is communicated most powerfully in the understanding of the earth as a living organism rather than as an inanimate piece of real estate to be exploited, bartered, even killed for. This idea is no longer based merely on mythological insight but also increasingly on scientific understanding. It leads to a sense of the delicate interrelationship of all living beings and ecosystems, experienced as various modes of the divine presence. Many indigenous people describe this as the sacred web of life.
Because of this inherent sacredness of the earth reality and also of the earth crisis, faith communities are able—and indeed obligated in a new way—to address the larger community of humankind from this perspective. It is a sacred perspective that can and must be understood and implemented by believers and nonbelievers alike.
Western biblical tradition bears some responsibility for the present crisis of the earth. This remains so no matter how one interprets Genesis 1 and its permission—perhaps even command—to “subdue” the earth and make all creatures “subject” to ourselves. In at least some implicit manner this biblical worldview has been integral to the Western scientific, industrial, and corporate assault on the natural world. Therefore, biblically rooted faith communities would seem to be called on to play a key role in healing the earth’s wounds.
How can the human family best be reminded of its distinct role as those beings in whom the earth—and even the universe—becomes conscious of itself? The self-consciousness of our species gives humans both the ability and responsibility to find the way out of the extreme crisis in which we find ourselves today and which we humans have ourselves created.
The severity of this crisis, which many knowledgeable people deem to be drawing ever closer to the brink of irreversibility, requires a religious response of extraordinary wisdom and audacity. The God of history is calling on us to launch a mobilization of the communities of faith, of the human conscience, and of the moral imagination—with unprecedented seriousness.
Perhaps the time has come for a Global Interfaith Convocation for the Earth, called by the leaders of the world’s great religious traditions. Such a gathering might issue an inspired prophetic appeal to the planet announcing the extremity of the crisis of global warming and a call for a worldwide mobilization to reverse this danger while there is still time. It could include a concrete plan of action conceived with the help and consultation of other constituencies (for example, scientists, environmentalists, labor unions, as well as sympathetic corporate and governmental representatives, and representatives of those groups already suffering grievously from the impact of climate change).
Such a call, and, in fact, our general daily teaching stance, must lay out the crisis candidly, avoiding all Pollyannaish false optimism and yet offering resources of hope to humanity. This vision of hope must be based in large part on the clean energy path, including solar and wind power, environmentally benign vehicles, an intensive campaign of conservation, and a plan for necessary environmental restoration. Such a vision would have a major impact on creating jobs for the growing unemployed masses and would jump-start the troubled economies of both the developed and developing world. Such a strategy must be incorporated into both governmental and corporate policy, into the work of all-important interest groups, and into our personal lives.
This prophetic message of the communities of the Spirit should be especially clear and courageous in calling for a radical transformation in life style, especially in the Western world and particularly in the United States, where five percent of the world’s population uses twenty percent of the world’s energy resources. Inherent in this message is confronting a societal addiction to the fossil fuel economy. Such a change in life style needs to include, but goes far beyond the issue of, a transformation in the choice of vehicles people drive. It would declare from a profoundly spiritual perspective that the consumer society is based, consciously or unconsciously, on waste, greed and selfishness. The sacred call for the earth would lay out concrete steps on how individuals, families and communities can implement such a transformation.
Here the communities of faith and their leaders will face the greatest opposition, often from within their own ranks. Many good people, believers and other people of good will, are deeply attached not only to their automobiles but also to their life style. A radical call for change in the name of the earth, humanity and all life must be proclaimed to individuals as well as to governments and decision makers. No doubt many will respond as in the biblical passage: “This is a hard saying and who can hear it?” (John 6:60)
Sooner or later under the present escalating crisis, however, our consumer life style will be forcibly taken from us or at least severely diminished. Here the most profound teachings of our respective traditions can teach us, as did St. Francis of Assisi and Mahatma Gandhi, that a simple life can lead to greater freedom and even to joy.
Can we collectively, through deep prayer and meditation, through community consultation, and through our love for the earth, for each other, for our children and for all beings, rise to this challenge, perhaps one of the greatest in human history? Can we hear the teaching of our Inuit Uncle saying that there may still be time to melt the ice in our own hearts and in the hearts of humankind?
As we accept this challenge and do our daily work for the earth, if we sometimes experience discouragement or even feel the icy breath of despair upon us, may the fire of divine grace warm our hearts. May we never forget that our God is a God of wonders. Finally, may we take comfort in the wisdom of the holy Rabbi Hillel: “Even if I knew that I would die tomorrow, I would still plant an apple tree today.”