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George M. AndersonMay 25, 2009

The “interconnectness of life” emerged as a popular phrase at a two-day conference in early May at Columbia University in New York City. Titled “Common Ground: Science and Religion in Dialogue for a Sustainable Future,” the gathering brought together a wide range of experts from the seemingly diverse fields of science and religion. Introducing the event on its first day, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at the university’s Center for the Study of Science and Religion, said that combining science and religion does not necessarily make for a smooth dialogue. And yet such dialogue was indeed evident as the conference got under way. The three keynote speakers and the panelists affirmed the connectedness of the two, as well as the need to see them as essential in creating an ethic of sustainability. Such an ethic, they all emphasized, is key to the future of our ever more fragile earth.

The threats, the speakers noted, are on several levels. With the 18th century Thomas Malthus in mind, several underscored the fact that the world population now stands at seven billion, and is increasing at a rate of eight million a year. That situation in itself is having a deleterious effect on the world’s ecological potential as more and more people make use of increasingly finite resources. But the more immediate threat to the earth as we know it may well be our dependence on fossil fuels, especially coal.

James Hansen, a climate scientist, who is both director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies and adjunct professor at Columbia’s Earth Institute, warned that “we have now passed the limit level of Co2.” Powerful fossil interests have helped create what he referred to as a knowledge gap between what science knows, and what the public knows. And, he added, the fossil industry uses a veneer of “greenwash” as a way of camouflaging the damage that is taking place through the heavier and heavier carbon footprint of coal and oil. He did not hesitate to criticize the previous administration’s subsidizing of this industry--so much under its thumb, he said, that some of their lobbyists’s pay exceed that of the president. We have a moral imperative, he insisted, to wake up our and other governments to work toward a “quick coal phase-out.” He acknowledged that this challenge is not easy, because coal (and oil) do remain the cheapest fuels. Nevertheless, he said, “we need to figure out ways to live without them.”

And ways are indeed emerging. Germany was cited by several speakers as exemplifying best practices with respect to the development of new forms of renewable energy, through the harnessing of wind, solar and geothermal power. Germany already provides 15 percent of its energy needs through these means. The goal by 2020 is 30 percent. The cost is relatively small, with each German household taxed a small yearly amount: an approach that has won favor with the people, according to the moderator of the best practices panel.

Thanks, Al

In her own keynote address, “The Emerging Alliance of Ethics and Ecology,” Mary Evelyn Tucker, co-director of Yale University’s Forum on Religion and Ecology, credited Al Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” with lessening the knowledge gap between what the public knows and what the fossil industry does not want it to know, aided as the industry has been by climate change skeptics funded largely by the industry itself. As Dr. Tucker put it, scientists before the release of the Gore film “were in despair because the public was not listening,” largely because the technical language of climate scientists was often beyond its grasp. She observed, moreover, that “attempts by the Bush administration to silence scientists like Jim Hansen, to dismiss the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change report, and to refuse to sign the Kyoto Protocol lost us years of important work in mitigation”--mitigation, that is, of the destructive effects of the world’s inordinate dependence on fossil fuels.

In Dr. Tucker’s address, the words “wonder” and “beauty” stood out. As she put it, in view of the sacredness of the earth, “our challenge is to be a life enhancing species,” and this includes “holding up the wonder, beauty and complexity of nature.” This circumstance, she said, constitutes the common ground between science and religion. Not just polar bears, but other species now face extinction. As a result, she emphasized that we are at a critical tipping point-- but there is hope too, as she and others noted, as efforts continue to share with the scientific community this same sense of the earth’s complexity and beauty. Even the increasingly popular St. Francis Pledge, and the 2000 Earth Charter, are indications that the gap between what the scientific community knows and what and the general public understands may be lessening. The major religious denominations are all playing a role in trying to reduce the carbon footprint. The U.S. Catholic bishops, for example, have established a Catholic Climate Covenant, with the subheading: “Care for Creation, Care for the Poor.”

The poor were also very much a part of the conference’s discussions, as island nations face the threat of more and more flooding, with oceans rising in the wake of the melting polar ice caps. There must be a greater sense of distributive justice, Dr. Tucker said, especially in view of the way in which overconsumption by the wealthier regions of the world has contributed to global warming. The destruction of the Amazon rain forests, for instance, aimed at increasing land areas for crops and cattle, could point to the need to eat less meat. As she phrased it, “We will need to consider our moral responsibilities to the poor and those most vulnerable to the effect of climate change.”

A Return to 'Sacred Meals'

The final keynoter, Peter Mann, of the Global Movements Program, also spoke of the need for a more distributive justice. He spoke positively of recent social movements here and abroad that are rebuilding food systems in poor areas, based on principles that are both ethical and spiritual. He cited networks like the Via Campesina and Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement as potentially powerful agents for change. He too brought into his remarks the religious aspect of preserving the earth, observing that “an inspiration in this work of [earth’s] renewal could be the tradition of ‘sacred meals’ in many religious traditions.” Whatever the particular form of such traditions, they could, he said, “bring us into solidarity with those still excluded from the table.” With the United Nations estimating that the number of hungry people in the world is rising toward a record one billion, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that many are excluded from the table.

Water resources, too, are shrinking, as supplies become fewer. Dr. Mann described a “communidad de base” of poor campesinos in Nicaragua. During a discussion there of a passage from the gospel of John, in which Jesus speaks to the Samaritan woman, one in the group said: “If Jesus is the living water, why does the landowner control our water?” Parts of the world are running out of water because of corporate takeovers through which “private for-profit water companies...sell us fresh water in plastic bottles.” Now, at least, resistance to the corporate takeover of water is growing worldwide through a Global Water Justice movement. The struggle taking place is between forces that see water as “a commodity to be put on the open market and sold”, and those who see water as a human right. Speakers at the conference left little doubt as to where they stood in this dichotomy.

In one of the lighter moments of the conference, a participant pointed out that on the speakers’ table not a single plastic water bottle was to be seen. Instead, there were actual glasses, with a pitcher of water. The same person observed that Columbia University was resisting calls to free itself from it dependence on plastic water bottles. That will surely be a hard fought battle. To its credit, moreover, conference organizers saw to it that at the coffee and refreshments table at the back of conference hall, not a single plastic water bottle was in evidence.

A Glenmary priest in Kentucky provided a strong example of the lack of justice wrought by powerful coal mining interests in Appalachia. Fr. John Rausch described the devastation caused by mountain-top removal. The soil and rock blasted away to provide access to seams of coal, cascade down into the streams and ponds below, creating what he termed orange water–water that has become carcinogenic and therefore a serious health hazard to those in the area, especially children in the trailers that serve as home for many. Dumping of this kind is in violation of the Clean Water Act, that forbids dumping of rock and soil from mountain top blasting within a hundred feet of streams and ponds, a ruling weakened by the Bush administration. As a sign of hope, though, Fr. Rausch said that the Obama administration has asked the Army Corps of Engineers to review the permits given for mountaintop removal.

The Simple Life

A concluding comment at the end of the conference brought back the theme of living more simply in order to conserve the earth’s resources for future generations. Robert Pollack, a professor of biological sciences at Columbia and director of its Center for the Study of Science and Religion, said that because of our high standard of living in the West, we steal decades of life from the poor countries of the world. We therefore need to be taught, he stressed,  how to benefit other peoples who have access to too few of its resources.

Outside Columbia’s Low Library, where the conference took place, workers were busy erecting aluminum stands for graduation. Observing these preparations, those attending the conference may well have wondered what lay in store for the young men and women soon to receive their various diplomas as they prepared to enter a world so full of threat caused by the carbon footprint. But as the speakers emphasized, there is still time for the kind of radical changes needed to save the earth. But not much time.

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Jim Rucquoi
10 years ago
good start alma mater; much work still ahead, these 3 yrs down the road linking deep implications w/ indisputable ones of life's survival on our planet.

~ JJR, Columbia MBA '68


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