The Response of Eco-theology to Climate Change

Volume 52, Issue 3 :: Richard S. Vosko

In 1962 Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring. It was one of the first scientific publications to raise awareness about the harm being done to the environment by the use of synthetic pesticides. Her research helped spark the modern environmental movement. Because of the ongoing contributions of the scientific community we know that climate change is now the paramount problem. We also realize that if something is not done, life on Earth will become increasingly impossible, especially for more vulnerable species.

Why write about this topic in this journal? Ever since Faith & Form was inaugurated in 1967 the editors have stressed the vital relationships between art, architecture, and religion. The interfaith dimension of Faith & Form has been a distinctive characteristic of this magazine from its inception. This article is about the efforts that two disciplines—architecture and theology—are making to respond to the climate change crisis.

The Issues Before Us

Solar panels on a church roof

Photo: Michael Coghlan/flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

Today, like all designers and builders, those who specialize in religious projects of one kind or another know that they must utilize methods that address environmental protection, energy efficiency, and sustainability. The underlying concern is to maintain an ecological balance and to avoid the depletion of natural resources. The 2018 toolkit of the American Institute of Architects’ Committee on the Environment (COTE) lists reasons why this is an urgent matter. Forty percent of the buildings in the US are constructed using raw materials. The structures cause 45 percent of the greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere. They consume 75 percent of electricity and 80 percent of municipal water supplies. Clearly buildings contribute to the climate change crisis. However, according to COTE, the “ability to achieve deeply sustainable projects” in fact must be part of the solution. To make this happen, principles of sustainable design must be applied during the conceptual and planning phases of every project.

While the challenges of climate change are critical to the work of all of us who work in the design and building professions, at its root climate change is an anthropogenic problem. Responsibility for caring for the environment ultimately belongs to every human being. One solution is to address municipal power demands without resorting to fossil fuels. Today, the primary sources—crude oil, coal, and natural gas—produce the chemical energy that meets more than 85 percent of the world’s energy demands. Electricity, a secondary source, is generated from the primary ones. A smart alternative is to use renewable, carbon neutral, and clean energy sources quickly enough to halt the global catastrophic concern. Wind and solar power utilities are already in use in many regions of the world.

But the real solution begins with a transformation of societal and personal behavioral patterns. We are extremely dependent on products made from petroleum. Many of us know that our continued use of gasoline, plastic water bottles, and shopping bags is harmful to the planet, but it is hard to change our habitual dependence on these products. Other detrimental commodities are less known to most of us. The United States Energy Information Administration (EIA) has a long list that includes (among other things) tires, footballs, golf balls, aspirin, candles, vitamin capsules, nail polish, crayons, and the ink in our printers.

How many of us are negligent about recycling products? Who are the chief executives and board members of corporations who favor profit margins over the common good? What of the collusion between lawmakers and lobbyists, so much so that big business is writing legislation that harms the environment?

Damage to the environment and dangerous changes in the climate have stirred up religious responses worldwide. In the past, the main concern was the outmoded interpretation of various ancient texts about humanity’s dominion over nature. We still worry about how we can survive nature’s often-unpredictable fury. But now we realize as religious communities there are more systemic problems around the globe. They include population growth, affordable housing, land degradation, deforestation, and food and water insecurity.

There is only so much land on this planet that can be used to meet human needs. Some estimates suggest that the world’s population will reach about nine billion by 2050 and that, today, only 10.5 million square miles is farmable. Most of this land is in Africa and Central and South America, where dictatorial regimes and corrupt land owners only exacerbates the problem. Consequently, people are risking their lives to escape insufferable living conditions in their homelands. The migrations can be traced in large part to climate change, the lack of jobs, and the paucity of government programs and regulations designed to alleviate the problems. The current polarizations over immigration policies in many nations stem from these predicaments. Predictably, many people who are wealthy, who foolishly believe their lives are beyond the reach of the climate crisis, lack empathy for those who live in poverty and struggle to survive.

The Response of Faith Communities

Religious groups are responding by uniting with an ever-growing coalition of social environmental activists. Some faith traditions have been involved for decades. They continue to be advocates of what is now described as a matter of social justice. Members of the clergy who were present at the G20 Interfaith Forum in Argentina in 2018, called upon people of faith to be “a moral compass to the world.” The reason for the involvement of religion in global affairs is deeply linked to the traditional concern for the dignity and worth of all facets of creation. Activist Erica Evans noted that “religious values shape people’s actions and give purpose to their lives in a way secular incentives often cannot.” All faiths, in some way, adhere to codes of behavior that sustain the age-old agenda to protect and sustain the welfare of human beings, plant life, and animals.

Although there are people of faith who doubt the scientific facts regarding climate change, most religions across the globe have issued formal statements concerning care for the planet. Many religious leaders and their congregations also are developing strategies to become more active in environmental issues. The discipline at the root of this faith-driven responsibility is known as “eco-theology.” This branch of religious studies concerns the relationships between religion and nature especially with regard to environmental concerns. The word “eco” is taken from “oikos” the Greek word for household. This theology began toward the end of the 20th century when it became clearer that there was an environmental crisis that would affect the future of human life on earth. For many people a more holistic spirituality is replacing a dualistic perspective. It calls attention to the undeniable interdependent bond between nature, animal life, plant life, and human beings.

One needs only to search the Internet to view countless sites that deal with climate change and the religious responses to the dilemma. Here is a brief summary of just some of the statements compiled from different sources. All declarations address the troubles caused by climate change. Although they are similar in their rationales and resolutions, there are some subtle differences. I have gathered this review into groups based on their strongest assertions: 1) integral ecology, 2) moral responsibility, 3) a challenge to governments and corporations and 4) caution.

Integral Ecology: In 2014, the bishops of the Anglican Church of Canada, The Episcopal Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada wrote A Pastoral Message on Climate Change. Building on a concern for the well being of “our neighbors and of God’s good creation” the bishops wrote “we need not surrender to political ideologies and other modern mythologies that would divide us into partisan factions—deserving and undeserving, powerless victims and godless oppressors. In Christ we have the promise of a life where God has reconciled the human community.” In the concluding remarks the authors expressed “hope for an agreement in 2015 that will move toward reduction of carbon emissions, development of low carbon technologies, and assistance to populations most vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate.”

In his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si’ (Praise Be to You) Pope Francis urged the world’s 1.2 billion Roman Catholics to join others in the fight against climate change. The pope used the phrase “integral ecology” to address every aspect of the environmental crisis by including the human and social dimensions of the problem (#137). He wrote: “… a sober look at our world shows that the degree of human intervention, often in the service of business interests and consumerism, is actually making our earth less rich and beautiful, ever more limited and grey, even as technological advances and consumer goods continue to abound limitlessly (#37).”

In a display of concordance in 2017, Pope Francis and the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew acknowledged that human and natural environments are deteriorating, affecting the most vulnerable of human beings. They named the dominant problem: “We no longer respect nature as a shared gift; instead, we regard it as a private possession.” They urged those in power to support and respond to the “consensus of the world for the healing of our wounded creation.”

Genezareth Church Solar Panels

Photo: Denis Apel/WIiimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 2.0

Moral Responsibility: The problem of climate change as an ethical issue was clearly addressed in one way or another by every religious group. Some examples include the following. The Unitarian Universalist 2006 Statement of Conscience regarding the threat of global warming/climate change starts with the claim that the “earth is our home … we are part of this world and its destiny is our own…. Unless we embrace new practices, ethics and values to guide our lives….” the planet will be forever harmed. The document cites the scientific consensus that earth’s climate is changing because of fossil fuels. The Unitarian Seventh Principle calls its members to “affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” This Statement, like others, closes with a call to action to ground their missions and ministries “in reverence for this earth and responsibility to it.”

The Buddhist Declaration on Climate Change, The Time to Act is Now, was issued in 2015. “We have reached a critical juncture in our biological and social evolution. There has never been a more important time in history to bring the resources of Buddhism to bear on behalf of all living beings.” The Declaration used strong language to emphasize that the disasters “stem from the human mind, and therefore require profound changes within our minds … we suffer from a sense of self that feels disconnected not only from other people but from the Earth itself.” The statement reminded Buddhists that the three poisons–greed, ill will, and delusion–that affect personal suffering also “afflicts us on a collective scale.”

At the 2015 International Islamic Climate Change Symposium held in Istanbul, Islamic leaders called on 1.6 billion Muslims to take action in halting climate change. In the Islamic Declaration of Climate Change several points were outlined. There is scientific consensus on climate change, there is a need to set clear targets with monitoring systems, otherwise there will be dire consequences if we do nothing. The responsibility of Muslims to act is on behalf of humanity “leading the rest of us to a new way of relating to God’s earth.”

Also in 2015, Quakers recognized the link between environmental issues and humanity in terms of a moral duty. A Shared Quaker Statement: Facing the Challenge of Climate Change is a call to all Quaker leaders to “make the radical decisions needed to create a fair, sufficient and effective international climate change agreement.” In words also used by other faith groups, it referred to the collective and personal responsibility to make sure that the “poorest and most vulnerable peoples now, and all our future generations, do not suffer as a consequence of our actions… It is a moral duty to cherish Creation for future generations.” In the conclusion the Statement identifies the earth as our only home, and a gift that supports life.

And just this past July, at its General Assembly, the United Church of Christ (UCC) overwhelmingly passed a resolution called Let Justice Roll Down—Declaring Support for the Green New Deal and Affirming the Intersectionality of Climate Justice with all Justice Issues. The UCC said Christian communities have an opportunity to “bear witness to the sacredness of God’s creation and the urgent call to preserve it.”

Challenge to Governments and Corporations: Several Jewish organizations, regardless of movements (Reconstructionist, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform) have emerged to counter the climate change problem. One branch, the Union for Reform Judaism, adopted its resolution on Climate Change and Energy in 2009. The authors called attention to a “need for comprehensive and progressive energy policies that protect all people and increase our national security and that of our allies.” In a practical way it explains that a cap-and-trade system and a carbon tax are two ways to approach the greenhouse gas emission crisis. In addition, the statement calls climate change a fundamental social justice issue that “marries our mandate to be good stewards of the earth with our call to care for the least among us.” This resolution ended with support for US and Canadian policies that address the greenhouse gas crisis. It concludes by offering ways for congregations and individuals to take action. (The Orthodox and Conservative denominations have issued their own statements.)

In 2009 the Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted the resolution, The Power to Change: U.S. Energy Policy and Global Warming. The document states: “the truth of our need to change our energy ‘footprint’ has become increasingly, even grievously apparent.” Urging stronger witness from its membership, the document “supports comprehensive, mandatory, and aggressive emission reductions that aim to limit the increase in Earth’s temperature to 2 degrees Celsius or less from pre-industrial levels.” The resolution includes ethical principles and suggestions for church members. It calls for “taxation, cap-and-trade, and ‘polluter pays’ approaches to shift subsidies and incentives toward renewable energy sources.”

The United Methodist Book of Discipline (2016) states: “The adverse impacts of global climate change disproportionately affect individuals and nations least responsible for the emissions. We therefore support efforts of all governments to require mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and call on individuals, congregations, businesses, industries, and communities to reduce their emissions.”

Caution: The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the US, took a more circumspect stand. In 2007 it passed a resolution that urged discretion about the climate change debate due to “conflicting research.” It referred to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions as a costly measure, ineffective and dangerous, especially if [emphasis added] “humans are not the principal cause of global warming.” Nevertheless, the statement urged governments to take steps to protect vulnerable communities and regions from the effects of “inevitable continued cycles of warming and cooling that have occurred throughout geologic history.” In the end, the resolution affirmed a God-given responsibility “to care for the earth by remaining environmentally conscious and making an individual and collective effort to reduce pollution, decrease waste, and improve the environment in tangible and effective ways.”

Conclusions for a Green Future

These examples offer a sampling of the widespread commitments made by faith groups to urge their members to take action on personal and congregational levels. Other than the cautious statement from the Southern Baptist Convention, the declarations and resolutions from these religions concur that climate change is a reality and a grave danger to the planet and people. They agree not only so their memberships would challenge governments and corporations to take action, but because responding to climate change is a moral responsibility. The common theme is the principle of “integral ecology”—caring for the planet and its resources is inextricably linked to caring for human beings.

It is reassuring to know that, in different ways, planners, designers, architects, engineers, and diverse faith traditions are responding to climate change with constructive statements and strategies. Perhaps these varied groups have become aware of each other’s commitments and resolutions. As individuals we must support this interdisciplinary and organizational tour de force. To be effective in the long term, each of us must use sustainable products and materials in our everyday lives. We should also convey our concerns to elected officials as well as those campaigning for office. All human beings everywhere, wealthy and poor, have a right to live with dignity and without fear far into the future. It is a matter of justice.

The writer is a member of the Faith & Form editorial advisory committee. He has worked as a liturgical design consultant since 1970 and is a priest in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany.