Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Faith and the Ethics of Climate Change

Academic journal article Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought

Faith and the Ethics of Climate Change

Article excerpt

We can only be ethical in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in. -Aldo Leopold1

The reach of environmental problems today urges us to consider more carefully how interdependent we are with one another and with the entirety of ecological processes across the globe. Environmental degradation has reached a scale that the otherwise forward- thinking conservationist Aldo Leopold had not yet imagined in 1949, making his call for a land ethic even more urgent to heed. However, we can only see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in those things that our experiences, culture, and values have taught us are real-or at least that help stimulate our minds to imagine.

History shows that human communities often fail to think in global terms because it brings unwanted complexity, uncertainty, and responsibility. In religious communities, such attitudes end up comising religion's universal and cosmological reach because believers forego the needed expansion of their imagined sphere of responsibility. Climate change tests our culture's capacity to imagine the remote and often unseen threads of inter-connectivity that knit all human communities together and that make social and environmental concerns inseparable. This requirement, of course, means we need deep environmental awareness stimulated by direct experience as well as by a truly planetary imagination that acknowledges realities that lie beyond our lives. Moreover, climate change requires faith in our unique human capacity to live morally in the context of uncertainty that a newly expanded sense of community has created.What is needed, then, to cultivate an ethics adequate to the problems we face is a restored sense of what it means to be a human being in the broadest of biological contexts and concomitant reinvigorated faith to consider the well-being of the entire human family and of the planet itself.

Learning to See the Unseen

As a complex phenomenon that implicates all human communities and that has begun to drive the climate globally, anthropogenic climate change is unprecedented in human history and unprecedented in the demand it makes of us to be answerable to unseen, complex, and global processes of degradation.2 Although all religions attempt to imagine and explain the correlation between human behavior and climate conditions, earlier assumptions about the environmental manifestations of this relationship were often understood as local, not global. Moreover, climate changes that resulted from human behavior were traditionally directly attributed to God, not humankind.

And culturally speaking, human populations were not aware until relatively recently in human history of the reach of the planet and its diversity of cultures and geographies. Even today in the age of satellites, aerompronautical travel, and world geography, the human mind's capacity to assimilate the diversity of the world's peoples and climates remains a major obstacle to global ethics. For example, it is not uncommon for people to gauge their reaction to climate change politics merely on the basis of their own local experience, even though this is scientifically absurd. Consider, for example, that the IntermountainWest in 2010 experienced an unseasonably cool summer in the midst of the most scorching summer recorded globally since records have been kept.3 While the bumper sticker adage adjures us to "Think globally. Act locally," our capacity to imagine the global often derives from and rarely extends beyond the conditions of local experience.

Thus, it is not surprising that climate change has been relatively easy to deny or ignore altogether as a problem. Even the kind of heightened environmental awareness of one's home and region that Leopold hoped would stimulate a land ethic might not provide sufficient evidence or impetus to respond to the problems that climate change is causing. Modern life over the last 150 years has provided the means for a fortunate fraction of the world's population to enjoy an unprecedented level of comfort, with increased mobility, larger shelters of controlled climates, and an extraordinary diversity of foodstuffs available at the modern grocery store. …

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