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Is the environment a moral dilemma?
Martha Shaw

October, 2010

This season, religion is playing an important role in the discussions around issues like pollution, water depletion, resource hoarding, and emission-driven atmospheric and oceanic changes.

Where does science end and morality begin? The separation of church and state in discussions about the environment is breaking down. As Michael Nelson, co-author of Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril puts it, "All big, BIG, changes in our culture were ethical shifts - we didn't abandon slavery for economic reasons, it was about human dignity, about ethics. Women's suffrage, civil rights, etc., are all the same - they are about morality at the end of the day."

Recently there have been a record number of gatherings and publications putting the moral dimension of climate change and other environmental hazards on the table for dialogue, including the Northeast Environmental Studies Group (NEES) conference this past weekend.

The NEES conference is a yearly gathering of professors from dozens of colleges and universities in the Northeast. This year's keynote session was moderated by Scott Brophy, Professor and Chair of the Philosophy Department at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and supported by a grant from the Betsy and Jesse Fink Foundation. Brophy is also member of interdisciplinary programs in Environmental Studies, Public Policy, and Law and Society and the Climate Literacy Network. "I was struck by the depth at which participants delved into the topic of morality, a topic often not addressed in the world of environmental science. It is dangerous to think that with enough scientific data, another IPCC report or a cataclysmic event, that a monumental cultural change will occur. I may be wrong, but it seems unlikely," says Dr. Brophy.

So what is the magic bullet that will create the shift needed to leave a healthy world to future generations? Many are relying on the growth of a new ethical dimension, an inescapable part of the debate.

Writes The Dalai Lama, "The key I think is the sense of universal responsibility, that is the real source of strength, the real source of happiness. If our generation exploits everything available--the trees, the water and the minerals--without any care for the coming generations in the future, then we are at fault, aren't we?"

NEES keynote speaker, Andrew Revkin, renowned author who spent 15 years as an environmental journalist at the New York Times, is now a senior fellow at Pace University's Academy for Applied Environmental Studies. "In confronting the climate challenge, all of the questions that matter most are only framed by science," says Revkin. "Not answered by it."

He also warns that clean energy, for all its virtues, will not solve everything. "Fossil fuels were a big part of the growth spurt, from one billion people to nearly seven billion people, in two short centuries. On a finite planet, where would limitless energy, combined with humanity's infinite aspirations, take us? This leads to a question that's been touched on here periodically. Does a shift in values and aspirations have to accompany the technological leaps that will assuredly be made in the coming decades?"

Revkin referred to the late Geologian Thomas Berry who thought that humanity was poised to shift from an anthropocentric to a biocentric view. He called the effort to make this transition "The Great Work."

Mary Evelyn Tucker, who with her husband John Grim runs the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, says, "Darwin gave us the broad sweep of evolution as we are beginning to understand it. Thomas has given us a sense of our role in that process as almost no other thinker has done. We are birthed from the universe and the Earth. Through us, these processes that have created life in all its immense complexity have also given rise to a conscious form of the universe. It's not just a poetic vision. It's not just a spiritual connection to Earth systems and the Earth community but it's an absolutely vital urgent moment. We now have to earn our name--Homo sapiens."

So, what sort of people are we? The Temple of Understanding (TOU), which has led the way in interfaith education and advocacy since 1960, will explore this at the upcoming 50th Anniversary Awards Gala on October 19th in New York City. The organization was founded by visionary, Juliet Hollister, with the support of a distinguished group of "Founding Friends," which included Eleanor Roosevelt, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Sir Zafrula Khan, H.H. Pope John XXIII, Anwar al-Sadat and H.H. the XIVth Dalai Lama, among others.

Recipients of the Award this year are Royal Highness Prince El Hassan bin Tala; The Most Reverend Desmond M. Tutu, Anglican Archbishop Emeritus; author Karen Armstrong; and His All Holiness Bartholomew Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, known as the "Green Pope."

The TOU also recently organized "Art, Spirituality & the Transformation of Consciousness in the Ecological Age: To Promote a Moral Force for Environmental Action." Featured panelists were Irene Hardwicke Olivieri, Artist and Naturalist; Robert Bell, Chairman Department of Economics Brooklyn College and Author of The Green Bubble; Dr. Kurt Johnson, Ecologist and Professor of Comparative Religion; Rabbi Lawerence Troster, GreenFaith.

A growing movement is recognizing that the industrial age has led us to the brink of disaster. Perhaps it is the artists, authors and spiritual teachers who will inspire us to step up our responsibilities as citizens of the Earth.

Sister Joan Kirby, UN Representative of the TOU spoke about how, together, Homo sapiens have the ability to create a new geologic period following the Paleozoic Era (543 to 248 million years ago) and the Cenozoic Era (65.5 million years ago to the present). The Ecozoic Era.

This is in sharp contrast to what filmmaker James Cameron coined at the American Renewable Energy Day (AREDAY) conference in August. The Idiocene. This purportedly follows our present sliver of time, the age of man, within the Cenozoic: the Holocene (12,000 years ago to present).

"We spend more money on potato chips than we do on clean energy research and development in this country," says Dr. Arun Majumdar, U.S. Department of Energy, at the Cleantech Forum on October 12.

So what's it going to be? "This a much bigger question than stopping particular sources of pollution or protecting particular natural parks, but goes straight to the heart of how we understand ourselves, and our traditions would have to bend to reflect these new understandings," says Revkin.

Either way, relying on science to inspire humans to build a new relationship with nature seems unlikely. It rustles the feathers of the Christian Right, and sidetracks the topic to scientific methodology, giving us an excuse to sit back and wait for the next Progress Report from research institutions.

This next 20 years will separate the men from the boys, as the expression goes. Will we, as men and women of the 21st Century rise to a greater calling that could define us as a truly remarkable species? In a balanced eco-system, flora and fauna reproduce and live in such way that makes the world livable for the survival of their offspring. What about us?

Will we enter into the Ecozoic Era or the Idiocene Period? Some say we will get what we deserve.

Article written by Martha Shaw. Martha is a frequent writer on clean technology, environment and climate literacy. She is the founder and CEO of Earth Advertising, which promotes products and services that help to protect the planet, through social media, public relations, and 360º communications.



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