A Higher Calling Resides in Each of Us

Thomas Lovejoy ’63 B.S., ’71 Ph.D.

It is abundantly clear that the environmental crisis is ecumenical in the sense that it is relevant to the quality of life for everyone alive today – rich and poor. Yet it is dwarfed by the implications for future generations: Our rapidly degrading environment – if unchecked – will be the greatest environmental injustice issue of all time.

So how can we lift our eyes from our handheld devices, and the tyranny of instant response expected in our cyber-dominated world, to understand, confront, and properly address the environmental challenge with collective benefit for all? How might we embrace the wonders of nature – the creation – in the spirit of Pope Francis’s Laudato si’? How might we regain a sense of frugality, a sense of community with all people and the rest of life on Earth?

We should not think about the story of Noah in the Abrahamic faiths as some quaint or improbable tale. Rather we should recall that when the flood was abated, and Noah and the animals were able to leave the Ark, God promised Noah and the animals that he would never inflict such an action again. He sent a rainbow – which in modern terms might be thought of as representing the diversity of life on Earth – as evidence of his Covenant.

Sir David Attenborough said memorably at Davos in January: “The Garden of Eden is no more.” But he also held out hope with a menu of positive actions we can all pursue for a better future for all of life on the planet.

This is a complex challenge. The choice before us is not whether we affect the environment or not. Just by drawing a breath we do. The problem, of course, is that no organism, human or otherwise, can exist without affecting its environment. Rather, we face a more sophisticated and highly intricate challenge of how we affect it, in what ways, and to what extent. It is an illusion to think of ourselves as apart.

Our challenge is laid out with great clarity by the “Planetary Boundaries” (proposed by a group of earth scientists in 2009) that show how we are exceeding the conditions that nurtured the rise of human civilization – in climate change, the use of nitrogen, and soaring rates of extinction, among others. The only sensible conclusion is to withdraw – while we still can – to the “safe operating space” for humanity.

The 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals – whatever their inadequacies – are an attempt to guide humanity in that direction. On one level they have been a success because following on the heels of the Millennium Development Goals, huge numbers of people have been lifted above the poverty level. At the same time we need to recognize the increasing pressures on the environment and the living natural resource base (the planet’s vast genetic, species, and ecosystem diversity) in particular.

If anything, our increasingly crowded planet should make us value it more. Whatever our adventures in space, it is impossible for more than a few humans to escape to another planetary body. And why should we even want to when we have a planet that is inhabited and modulated by a vast number of other life forms all wondrous and each capable of making more of themselves and giving rise to new ones? In that sense we still are on a Garden Planet and should care for it appropriately.

Much as environmental destruction is partly a consequence of our cleverness and fixation on one another as social primates (to the exclusion of the larger environment), so too is our ability to rise above that commonplace and produce works of great art, science, and the human spirit. I believe the key to that “better side” resides within each one of us, awaiting to be awakened to a higher calling. This is all more likely to emerge to the extent we engage with the magic of other living things and the world of nature.

The years since the triumph of the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement – as a key first concrete global step toward sustainability – have been difficult, hindered by selfish politics and deliberate strategies of denial. Some of that may be partly self-inflicted by progressive governments having taken the rest of human society for granted – an important lesson for all.

Yet as the environmental drumbeat gets louder and more insistent, and overcomes skepticism and denial, I believe we are edging closer to a tectonic shift toward sustainability. For that to succeed, we will need to embrace all sectors of society, to listen and learn extensively, and form solutions that bring benefit to all. Institutions of faith should have a central role and provide strong and caring leadership.

Thomas Lovejoy is a professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Policy at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation. He was Yale’s annual Dwight H. Terry Lecturer in 2018.