It’s a strange harmony. Wall Street powerhouses now chime with robed clerics in an offbeat tune: Ruining our atmosphere is not only immoral, it’s bad for the S&P 500. Asset management strategies mingle with spiritual disciplines as the questions arise: Will the executives and the clergy trade portfolio tips for oil-company divestment brochures at the People’s Climate March on September 21st in New York City?
It could happen. Just listen to the chimes.
The first rings from a study published by the bipartisan “Risky Business Project,” whose co-chairs hardly conjure images of radical vegans: former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg; former US Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, who served under President George W. Bush; and Tom Steyer, a retired hedge fund manager. Robert Rubin, President Clinton’s Treasury Secretary and a “risk team” member, explained the project’s conclusions in a Washington Post op-ed: Some frame the climate debate as “a trade-off between environmental protection and economic prosperity,” with carbon reduction poised as the spiteful job killer. “That’s precisely the wrong way to look at it,” he said. “The real question should be: What is the cost of inaction?”
Rubin’s answer: Immense. By 2050, for example, between $48 billion and $68 billion in Louisiana and Florida property will lie below sea level — which doesn’t exactly pave the path for robust real estate values and a healthy tax base.
Three cheers for Rubin and his colleagues. They’re peering beyond the latest quarterly report – and they’re finally in tune with the other orchestra, the one that plays on the field of spirituality and morality. Its chime rings: A withered spirit is even more alarming than a dropping GNP. All major monotheistic faiths say God vested the Earth into human care. We’re here to nurture Creation as divinity’s representatives, not destroy it. We sing with the psalmist: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for he has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers” (Psalm 124:1).
We’ve been singing that verse for decades. Marybeth Lorbiecki documents the environmental legacy of Pope John Paul 2 in Following Francis (the current pontiff was not the first papal fan of the 13th-century saint). He was frank in 1990: “In our day, there is a growing awareness that world peace is threatened not only by the arms race, regional conflicts and continued injustices among peoples and nations, but also by a lack of due respect for nature, by the plundering of natural resources and by a progressive decline in the quality of life. The sense of precariousness and insecurity that such a situation engenders is a seedbed for collective selfishness, disregard for others and dishonesty.” He joined Eastern Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew I in 2002 and issued a Common Declaration on Environmental Ethics: “The problem is not simply economic and technological; it is moral and spiritual.” They called for a “new approach” and a “new culture.”
In other words, Pope Francis was saying nothing new in 2013 when he pleaded to world leaders: “Safeguard Creation, because if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us! Never forget this!”
Similar clarions ring from The Central Conference of American Rabbis, who called for “strong action,” as well as dozens of Evangelical Christian leaders: “The need to act now is urgent.” The interfaith National Religious Coalition on Creation Care was especially blunt in a recent statement (full disclosure: Roman Catholic theologian Richard W. Miller and I wrote the first of its many drafts): “Our civilization now faces an unavoidable option: Will we choose the difficult path that leads to hope? Or will we cater to wistful, hear-no-evil dreams from which we’ll awaken into a bleak dystopia? The difficult but rewarding path brings us to a richer vision of ourselves, our Creator, and creation. We’ll either re-forge the bonds between spirituality, morality, and policy or our dreams for the future will abandon us on the rubble of a modern-day Tower of Babel.”
Perhaps we’ve been numbed. Perhaps the dire scientific warnings and the oft-repeated “97 percent” figure have congealed into white noise (97 percent of all climatologists agree that human-induced climate change is a scientific fact). Maybe we even skipped a recent Associated Press story: The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change sent international leaders a final draft of its “synthesis report,” which fuses three earlier, heftier documents into an easier-to-read 127-page summary. Its message: “currently observed impacts might already be considered dangerous.”
Maybe the new harmony will ring above the noise and awaken us to a long-buried reality: Humanity didn’t view itself as a mere economic creature until the so-call Enlightenment – which, as Alister McGrath argues in The Re-Enchantment of Nature, not only brought laudable scientific and technological advances. It also hammered the first planks in the philosophical platforms that eventually supported Gulags and Holocausts. Coming to grips with the environmental crisis may rekindle a deeper vision of who we are and where we live.
So I hope. Otherwise, the chimes may transform into death knells.