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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Only a Symptom
distributed 2/22/08 - ©2008

"I'm concerned that we're paying too much attention to global warming."

I spoke those almost-heretical words at a public gathering a few weeks ago. They are words that need some interpretation. I hope that you'll find truth, or at least some moral stimulation, in my musings on this topic.

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I do give deep thanks that we -- especially in the church, and in the US -- finally are accepting the reality of human-induced climate change. Anyone who reads these Notes on a regular basis knows how often I raise global warming concerns, both in terms of faith and ethics, and in relation to public policy and personal actions. My own passionate, vocational involvement in "caring for creation" dates to a week in the summer of 1994 when the true scope of global warming and its implications took root in my heart and soul, instead of being a matter of intellectual awareness. I am, in the most literal sense of the word, passionate about global warming.

I give thanks that there has been a remarkable change, here in the US, in the shape and seriousness of global warming discussions. Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote about Climate Questions, suggesting four ways of addressing the topic of climate change within churches which might move our conversations into new territory. As I look back, those ideas now seem very dated. They deal with roadblocks that have largely disappeared. We've moved a very long way in a short time.

Within the last two years, the film An Inconvenient Truth has provided a scientific grounding, and a shared point of conversation, which has helped us talk about this escalating crisis. The wide-spread showing of that film within religious communities -- along with others like The Great Warming -- has stimulated heightened awareness and new programming in many churches.

The release of the four sections of the 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has pretty well nailed down the scientific consensus, and has highlighted the urgency of our global situation. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC and Al Gore, and the UN Climate Conference held last December in Bali add to the credibility and the resolve for international action. It now appears that whoever is the President of the United States a year from now will be informed about the science and the public policy issues related to global warming, and be committed to some form of action.

Individuals, governments, businesses, educational and religious institutions are all paying attention to global warming. For the first time, there seems to be the possibility of a broad-based consensus that will move our society into long-term, focused action on climate change. I do rejoice in that amazingly sudden shift.

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But I also stand by my comment at the meeting two weeks ago. I'm concerned that our attention on global warming -- without a comparable attention to other aspects of Earth's deep distress -- may not take us into the sort of transformation that we so urgently need.

I'm concerned that we will see the buildup of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere as the only problem to be solved, and that we won't see the real problems that exist in our values, and in the foundations of our economic system. I'm concerned that we will seek only technological solutions to a problem of pollution, and that we won't look at the moral, spiritual and ethical problems of our consumer society. I'm concerned that we will devote great attention to one symptom of the problem, and that we won't face up to the core problems at all.

Recently, I found another person giving voice to those concerns (which is always a reassuring experience for those of us who put forth uncommon ideas). Eileen Crist has an insightful article, Beyond the Climate Crisis: A Critique of Climate Change Discourse, in the Winter 2007 issue of Telos. She wrote:

While the dangers of climate change are real, I argue that there are even greater dangers in representing it as the most urgent problem we face. Framing climate change in such a manner deserves to be challenged for two reasons: it encourages the restriction of proposed solutions to the technical realm ... and it detracts attention from planet's ecological predicament as a whole.

Crist is informed in her thinking and writing by the crisis of species extinction, the "unraveling of biodiversity." She acknowledges that climate change is a powerful factor in that crisis, but she reminds us that it is on "an already profoundly wounded world that global warming is delivering its blow" to biodiversity. She looks past the single factor of greenhouse gasses and says that the real problem is "the industrial-consumer complex that is overhauling the world in an orgy of exploitation, overproduction, and waste". That essential problem, that system which is at the heart of our culture, she fears is "regarded as beyond the reaches of effective challenge."

If we pay too much attention to global warming, if we say that climate change is a problem above and beyond all others, then we won't see how ecological disruption is inherent in our entire way of life. "The problem is a sprawling civilization that is destroying the biosphere, and will continue to do so even after it (somehow or other) deals with a major glitch in the machine -- the consequences of accumulating greenhouse gasses."

As I admitted in the meeting a few weeks ago, it is difficult to say that we're not dealing with enough when we grapple with the changing climate. The scope and complexity of global warming feels overwhelming to most of us already. It isn't popular to name a whole host of other crises that also need our urgent attention. But I fear that, if we don't see climate change in the context of the larger cultural problem, then our response will not be adequate. I fear that our response will not be faithful if we only address global warming.

On practical and political levels, there are times when it is appropriate to focus on climate, instead of looking at the whole big tangle of issues that are symptoms of our cultural and economic distortions. For many people, it will be enough to look at personal changes and some political issues. But there are also times and settings in which we -- as religious and community leaders -- must insist that global warming be seen as a symptom, and only as a symptom, of the greater sickness. There are times when, as Ms. Crist says, we must "look through climate change, rather than at it", so that we can see the deeper problems.

When I say that "we're paying too much attention to global warming," I'm not suggesting that we do anything less about the crisis of climate change. Indeed, my hope is that an ecological and moral perspective which sees the deep-seated distortions in values and institutions will call us into even more profound action, and even deeper change.

May we have the courage to address the core problems that face us, and not only the global warming symptom.

Shalom!

Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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