From the Dean’s Desk

Gregory E. Sterling

Among the many challenges we face, one of them threatens every human on our planet: the unsustainability of our current ecological course. Some think this is a scientific and technological problem. It is true that it cannot be addressed without science and technology, yet science alone will not solve the crisis. Gus Speth, former dean of the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies at Yale, has been widely attributed to say: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy.” Speth went on to say that “to deal with those issues we need a spiritual and cultural transformation – and we scientists do not know how to do that.” Speth was right.

Others view these challenges as a political issue: red versus blue. In a national study based on 1,278 respondents that the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication released in March 2018, 73 percent of registered voters agreed that climate change is occurring. But the extent to which they believed this was split along party lines: 95 percent of liberal Democrats and 88 percent of moderate/ conservative Democrats believed that it is taking place, while only 68 percent of liberal/moderate Republicans and 40 percent of conservative Republicans thought so. The numbers were lower when voters were asked if they believed that climate change is primarily caused by human activity: 59 percent believed it is. These again break down along party lines. While most US voters may believe that humans are the principal cause of global warming, I do not think that a political solution is possible at present since we are the only major power to have pulled out of the Paris accord.

If we are not going to solve the issue of the environment solely by science and do not have the political will to address it as a country, what can be done? There is another dimension to address: the ethical view. Pope Francis made this point in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si’. At least three factors suggest that climate change must be faced as an ethical issue.

First, for those of us who accept the Bible as an authoritative document, we must realize that we are part of creation and are charged with the stewardship of it. While humanity is presented as the apex of creation (Gen 1:26-30), we are charged with its care (Gen 2:4-10). We are not given carte blanche to treat creation with impunity, but are responsible for the care of it.

Second, we cannot misuse creation and leave our mess to subsequent generations: Intergenerational equity demands that we act in the present. Finally, the people who are most affected by climate change are the poor who lack the resources to respond. There are 55,000 homes along the Connecticut coastline that are now subject to flooding – especially in tidal surges – as a result of the rising waters of the Sound (it is rising by one-and-one-half inches every decade). A yacht club in Greenwich recently raised its building by six feet; the poor in Bridgeport and New Haven can do nothing. Social justice demands that we act on their behalf.

It is time that every minister challenge her or his congregation to act. Just as religion played an important role in the civil rights movement, so it must in the environmental crisis. We need to urge local action, action within our power despite the odds. I was in Lyon, France, last December and visited the Institut des Sources Chrétiennes that publishes Greek and Latin texts with French translations on facing pages. The Institut was founded in early 1940s by a group of French scholars living under Nazi occupation. The first volume they published was Philo of Alexandria’s De opificio mundi. The selection of a Jewish author was no accident. These French scholars were saying to their Nazi overlords: You may occupy us, but you do not own us. Like these courageous scholars, we must take up the ethical issue of sustainability and act as we can.

This issue of Reflections is one way that Yale Divinity School is doing just that.