Religion and Climate Change A Conversation with Karenna Gore

My name is Shaun Casey, I’m the director
of the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs here at Georgetown. I’d like to welcome all of
you to Georgetown, I think, looking at the RSVP list,
most everyone here has pretty clear ties to the university,
so thank you for coming out. I would say I know it’s in
the middle of finals week, but that means more to certain
people and less to others. So as I look around the audience,
some of our staffers are actually taking finals tonight,
so this is why I’m particularly aware. It’s my distinct pleasure to introduce
our guest today, Karenna Gore to you. She has a long bio, I’m
gonna try to keep it short, part’s the conversation,
not so much the reading of the accomplishments. But Karenna is director of
the Center for Earth Ethics in Union Theological Seminary. And previously, she
worked in the legal center of Sanctuary for Families,
and is director of community affairs for the Association to Benefit Children. She also has worked as a
writer, and she’s the author of Lighting the Way: Nine Women
Who Changed Modern America. She’s a graduate of Harvard
College, Columbia Law School, and most recently, Union
Theological Seminary. She lives in New York
City with her children and serves on the boards
of the Association to Benefit Children and River Keeper. So welcome, Karenna,
it’s great to have you. You’ve had an action-packed day today. Maybe perhaps we’ll have a
chance to talk more about that. But it’s lovely, it’s great to have you. I know there are many,
many academic centers around the world that address
various aspects of combating global climate change. But I’m pretty sure that your mission,
the Center for Earth Ethics, is pretty unique in that space. So I’d like to begin,
just tell us a little bit about what you do at the
center, what’s your mission, who are the kinds of
people you engage with? thank you so much, Don. It is really a pleasure to be here. And I have always enjoyed
crossing paths with you and working together and
learning about your work and your vision and deep understanding
of the way in which religion and all of the other
inadequate words like faith, spirituality, value systems,
belief systems, the way that these things shape our world,
and the need to think very deeply and seriously about that
at the highest levels of government and society. So I really respect your work,
and am just delighted to be here. And the Center for Earth Ethics
at Union Theological Seminary really seeks to,
to make changes in public consciousness in order to create a new value system
based on long-term wellbeing of all people and the planet. And that really grows out of a sense that
this ecological crisis that we’re facing has a root cause
in a value system that is very focused on short-term monetary gain,
no matter how inequitable, no matter the cost to future generations,
the depletion of resources, the pollution. And so we really are
looking at that root cause, and we work in several ways. We work through education,
public discourse, and movement building. And all those connect, so in education,
we’re in the classroom at Union, also creating
some workshop models that we take out into the field. In public discourse, we
convene, big Programs, big conferences in order
to hopefully influence public discourse at
large, and Union does have a convening power in that
regard, and is New York City with a great legacy of
leadership and social ethics, social justice, moral philosophy. And so we take advantage of that. And then movement building,
we really acknowledge that there are so many
people outside of academia, outside of government, outside
of even the conventional definition of faith leaders
who are already doing this work and already living in their
communities that are fighting for the changes and bringing
about the changes that we need. And so with movement building, we go out
to the front lines and grassroots and then bring
those leaders back into the classroom. And then bring the classroom
out to the front lines so that those inform each other and then
hopefully also Inform the public discourse. So that’s the way that we work. And we afford program areas
I can tell you about later. But essentially, the other
thing I would say about it, and you may want to get
another question first, but– No. Is that it really grew out of a conference
called Religions for the Earth in September 2014. And this conference, I had
a kind of patchwork career and I had gone to Union as a student. Actually one of my classmates,
Ted Dijon is here, Hi, Ted. (laughs)
we were at Union at the same time, and I got a master’s. And I didn’t intend to
start working at Union. And I didn’t intend to go into any work
on climate change or environmental issues, actually. But what happened was after
this wonderful transformaive education that I was
able to receive there, I was offered this public programming job. And I thought we should,
along the same lines, part of why I’m so fascinated by your work
is that I was thinking we should, since the U.N. is here
in New York City, we should convene a gathering here
of religious leaders every time the U.N. meets. And talk about whatever
issue they’re dealing with that has religious dimensions
that we could explore. And that year, Secretary
General Ban Ki Moon called the Climate Summit
to engage civil society in solutions to climate change,
obviously facing the reality of the fast-escalating crisis
in governments, not having been able to solve this,
Paris coming up on the horizon, and really seeing
that we needed to do that within religious communities. So we at Union had the
chance to convene over 200 religious and spiritual
leaders from around the world, and the goal was to reframe
climate change as a moral issue and galvanize faith-based
activism to address it. And that became my job,
planning that conference, and in the course of
planning that conference, I learned a lot about interfaith dialog,
a lot about how the root causes of climate change
are so connected to deeper values, to a crisis of deeper values
and how they are mismatched with the system that we
have in the world today. So that actually does
lead to my second question. One of the problems with
national governments and international alliances of political
people and they wanna do religion. They tend to get what one of my staffers
semi-irreverently called big-headed leaders. And they tend to be male, they
tend to be of a certain age, and they’re often not deeply
connected to lived communities, even their own tradition,
much less other traditions. One of your four programming
areas, which I find really compelling, is what you
call original caretakers. And that’s now a term of
ours, I’m going to use, I’m gonna steal that, I’ll give you
credit when I have opportunity to. me, it comes from them. I love the language you
use on your website. You support the work of faith keepers
in indigenous communities, and you seek their guidance. Now let me also just add the caveat,
when academics engage communities, it’s often,
we will help guide you in your work. So I like the fact that you
recognize that you’re not just interested in the
big-hat leaders, although certainly they’re part of
your inter-religious work. But you’re also concerned
about what wisdom can help you be smarter and
help other people be smarter. Can you give us maybe
some specific examples of the kind of engagements you do with
this sector of folk you call original caretaker? Certainly, first let
me just say that I really appreciate that insight about,
you know, the difficulty working with faith leaders
and the pitfalls of the, as you say, big-headed ones. And I wanna compliment the
Berkley Center on a wonderful conference that was done
with the Faith Department, Office of Religion and Diplomacy
when you were there, which I attended. And it left space for
this point to be made, which is a difficult point
to make in that crowd. And Azza Karam, who is the head
of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Religion and Development,
which is a U.N. deal, spoke so eloquently that afterwards I really sought her out
to work with her and we’re working together more,
so I just wanna note that. And in terms of original
caretakers, basically, in the process of
planning this conference, Religions for the Earth, and looking at,
and I called and met with people who had much more
experience in this type of work than I do, for instance Mary Evelyn
Tucker at Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology, who had a series,
along with her husband John Grim, a series of conferences
at Harvard over the years, and she talked, she was very generous with
her time and eventually gave her blessing for the
conference and consultation. They put me in touch with
people who really taught me. And so in the conventional
interfaith dialog world, as we know, it’s often emphasis
on Abrahamic traditions, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and then,
Indic and East Asian, Buddhist, Hindu, and others, who are hopefully represented. But indigenous traditions
have not often been included in interfaith dialog in that academic way. And the reasons for that are complex,
including self-identification of some indigenous peoples and serious suspicion
of the category of religion, obviously. But even that itself takes
us to a much deeper place about what it is we’re talking about
when we’re talking about religion. And so, there was a
realization that this needed to be a priority because of
that and because of the issue of ecology and connection
to place, to land, to sensing the sacred in
the watersheds that we’re in and the air that we’re
breathing and the history of the colonial encounters that
disrupted so much of that. So we had in the process
of planning the conference, built some relationships
and did a lot of learning and one of the people who
came to that conference as an Indigenous spiritual leader,
well I’ll mention Chief Arvol Looking Horse came,
because he later came to your office with me,
from the Lakota. And another person was Mindahi Bastida,
who came from the Otomi people of Mesoamerica, and,
when we started the Center for Earth Ethics,
in the wake of this Religions for the Earth conference,
we decided that making indigenous traditions a cornerstone
was something we had to do. And this makes a lot
of sense at Union also, because Union is very much
animated by liberation theologies and very, very clear, bright,
sharp critique of Christianities that are blind to oppression. And so it made sense for that reason,
it made sense for climate and ecology, and so we built the
original caretakers program first by inviting Mindahi
and his wife, Geraldine, who are both, he’s a ceremonial
leader from Mesoamerica, and they both also have
studied extensively the other indigenous cultures and what
they call biocultural heritage. And this idea that people and nature
being separate is the problem here, and that biocultural heritage
is what we need to understand, connecting people again to
their river and their landscape in the spiritual and moral dimensions
of all of that as well. So the original caretakers program,
we have an advisory board, so we work, and it’s not all,
I mean even within indigenous peoples, of course,
there are obviously issues of ceremonial leaders,
and if you don’t look hard enough, they might seem mainly male,
you might have some similar problems. But actually, it’s such
a, the part of the work of understanding the
real work in community, changing community and
community leadership, is encountering the
leadership among others. And so there are many, many
wonderful indigenous leaders who come into the classroom,
and we go and visit, and we also, for instance
we have an annual minister’s training at
Center for Earth Ethics, and so it’s always incorporated
in everything we do, so we will have sacred text and teachings. We have the science and the
policy of climate change offered, and so we do this in conjunction
with Climate Reality Project, they cover most of that. We do sacred texts and
teachings, ceremony and ritual, and so that will always
include an indigenous peoples giving their offering and instruction,
and it is very deeply valuable guidance. Yeah. When our office got involved
in the State Department and some of the Paris
climate work, I had a sort of drive-by conversation
with Todd Stern, who was the chief negotiator at Paris
for the U.S. Government. And he said, Shaun, there’re
three very powerful communities that are crucial for
Americans to support Paris. And I was like, well,
please tell me, and he said, the security community,
and thought, yeah, always, that’s always the role in right. Then business community, and thought,
this list is sounding very familiar to me, and then he said, religious communities. And I, you know, my jaw drops. Now their understanding what that meant,
I think, was fairly traditional. But that empowered us then
to reach out beyond sort of the usual largest Christian
denominations, for instance, we included them, but there
were other opportunities. And that, I won’t say that
transformed the State Department, but at least there was this notion then
through your work and through the, I think particularly the
conference you held ending in the fall of 2015 in New
York City, where again, the religious diversity there
was really quite striking and there were several of us
there in the State Department. So it helped widen the
aperture at least a half-inch or so in the State Department
by the work you did. Can you say some more about Standing Rock
and your work there and maybe talk about the D.C. visit
you planned there at the end of ’16? Which I thought was brilliantly
conceived and pulled off. Well, certainly. And I have to say, I really appreciate
the opportunity to talk about this. I often am not the one to talk about it,
because I’m very cautious not to overstep. And it’s certainly not my story. It’s, as many of you all are familiar,
there was this conflict between the Standing Rock
Sioux Tribe and the Dakota Access Pipeline and oil pipeline going through their land. And the pipeline had
originally been located close to the city, largely White
population, and people complained that there might
be a spill, there often are, pipelines break and spill
all the time, explode. And so they moved it, just to go right
in the reservation right through these sacred sites. And so, there was, and
this is also of course an issue of environmental
justice which happens so often in communities of
color and low-income communities all over the country and world. And so there was a, they
started a prayer camp. And people came, mostly from
other indigenous peoples came from around the
world, and that was itself this remarkable, extraordinary
moment of solidarity. And then people also came
from other communities, and there was, they came
out with some incredible, very short statements from
there that I felt like did all the work of a lot of these
long academic conferences that we talk about how to reframe
climate change as a moral issue by saying, water is life. language) Water is life. Over and over, you know. You can’t drink oil. And so (speaking in foreign
language) water is life, but the other thing that
was really important was, we are not protestors, we are protectors. We are water protectors. And prayer was part of
that entire gathering, that camp that movement, and
it was also deeply grounded in the principles of
nonviolence, which you could feel the legacy of the American Civil
Rights Movement in whether, you know, without tracing
that lineage directly. It was really an
extraordinary gathering, and, I’ll just say that it seemed very clear,
and after we’d had this conference, it seemed,
Religions for the Earth, and we’re working on regional caretakers, and
I think I forgot to mention that that Mindahi Bastida man,
I mentioned he and his wife came to be the head of the
original caretakers program. So we were part of an effort
to help get ministers, all people of faith, but a lot of them
were Christian ministers, to go out to Standing Rock
to stand in solidarity with them. We didn’t lead that, but
we helped facilitate that. I went out for a week
and I actually stayed with a family in the
Four Gates Reservation and was able to witness
some of what occurred. But it was very frustrating,
was during the Obama years. So it was also not as if we
didn’t have a friendly president who seemed to understand climate change. But the truth is, the way
that the fossil fuel companies have taken power in the system
is so deep and so entrenched. And this is part of what
we have to contend with when we’re dealing with religion,
and part of what we wanted to bring in the moral
spiritual religious dimension to the conversation about Standing Rock,
into the D.C. conversation. Because it was always
framed as protestors, but we have to have economic growth,
and this is another not in my backyard. But it was, which is exactly wrong. It’s that all of us need to
be, need to be doing everything we can right now to hasten
our transition to renewable energy, to stop this
build out of fossil fuels. What we know is that it’s
truly insane to be doing that. And yet not everybody
has had the same amount of courage and fortitude and clarity to do
what these indigenous people were doing. And so, thank you for
receiving the delegation that came to your office,
because we were bringing that message, and we really appreciate,
I was very moved by you taking that time. And then of course Obama
made a wonderful decision, which got reversed when Trump came in. But that was a great moment. Talk about your visit
to the National Archives. We went to see the
original treaty of 1868, the Treaty of Fort Laramie, so,
we were very, one of the dimensions of this
extraordinary conflict was the violation of treaty rights. And so there,
among all the arguments to make, that was certainly
one of them, and one of them that actually felt like
a very interesting one to come to the State Department with. Because of course this is, on some level,
this is a sovereign nation. And they had a conflict
in military conflict with the United States in
which the United States lost, and made a treaty, the
treaty of Fort Laramie. And you know, there were several battles,
and it’s complicated, but that treaty came out of stopping that violence. And the violations of those
treaties are well-documented, in fact, President Obama has
engaged in that discussion. Other, there have been
leaders, Senator Bill Bradley was a great leader on this
one, he was in the senate. There have been people who have
pointed this out over the years. But in any event, we went to
see the original treaties. And so Chief Arvol Looking
Horse, who’s the 19th-generation keeper of the White Buffalo
Calf Pipe Bundle for the Lakota, Nakota, and Dakota people,
so he’s the keeper of a very, very sacred object, but it’s
more than just the object, it’s the teachings, and he has
an important ceremonial role. He was among those that went,
and it was very meaningful to see the signatures on the
treaty, including Sitting Bull and some marked just with
X, with the name after it. And it was an extraordinary visit. think our meeting was probably
the first one that day at the State Department, and it was
very, very powerful to hear their stories and testimonies. As you can imagine, navigating
the wickets internally of the State Department
was a little complicated for that maybe, but ultimately
you were able to come. But then it was a few
hours later when I saw you posted photos of your delegation
looking at these original treaties in the National Archives where
our government perseveres them. And I just thought, game,
set, match, you know, this was, it was so powerful to see that. And the power and the emotion
frankly of our earlier meeting really had a transformative impact on me. But that was private, right, I mean,
that was a behind-closed-doors sort of diplomatic meeting,
but that wider public meeting with the original documents
and then the photo that you tweeted out from that I thought
was just this amazing melding of their narrative,
but also sort of contemporary social media power. So that, of course, that was between
the election and the inauguration, so we were, the mood in
my office was, (laughs) so that really was one of
the most remarkable days, and I think very powerful testimony
of the work you’re doing, so thank you for that. And thank you. Thanks for telling that story. One of the many hats you wear is preacher. You recently preached an Earth Day sermon
at Memorial Church at Harvard. And there was one line you
used I’ll ask you about, which again, I think it was
very interesting, where, in this sermon of a
month or so ago, you said that connecting people and
the landscape is medicine for the Earth, and you said
it’s also medicine for humanity. So I think that’s very powerfully put. What does that medicine look like,
what does that do for people? Well thank you So
much, first let me say, that line is not mine, it’s Robin Kimmer,
who wrote Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom,
Science, and the Teachings of Plants. I did add myself that it’s
also medicine for humanity, which I think is implicit
in her book and her writing. But the quote, the
first quote is from her. This was the first sermon I ever preached. So thank you for–
for acknowledging it. I was very honored to
have that opportunity. And I do really believe that
that connection is important. We are, if we think about how
different our lives are today in 2018 than they would
have been in 1918 or 1818, one of the things that this
connection from the food that we eat, where our waste goes,
where our food comes from, what our local waterways
are, and the like, and of course when you
add, most of us here within our own lifetimes,
it’s like this dizzying thing with these electronic devices as well. So I think the disconnection is profound,
and has a lot of impact on our ability to look away
from this crisis, to not really think about climate change,
to not really even, maybe we notice the weather changing,
you know, we see the things on TV and the mudslides
and the fires and the strong storms, but there’s not the same level
of connection to the Earth, and so we are able to
ignore it most of the time. And I do believe that part
of the, part of the way out is to reconnect in that
visceral, local way. And there are many ways to do that,
whether it’s with your food, whether it’s like standing
barefoot in the lawn, taking, looking at the sky more often,
there are very simple things that can actually
become spiritual practices under the circumstances. And I think that those are important. And I also think that it’s,
what Robin Kimmer is talking about with the teachings
of plants is important, and this is something that is,
it’s actually a somewhat theological point. Because when we talk
about Christian theology, and of course there’s been a lot of debate
as to whether or not there are problematic aspects
of only man is made in the image of God. The Imago Dei concept. And when you have this
woman, who’s a scholar, an indigenous woman, and a
botanist and a scientist, writing about plants and
their incredible amount of knowledge and perhaps even described
as consciousness that they have. And this is part of, whether
you say it’s God’s creation, or this world that we inhabit together,
I do believe that connecting to that and seeing that as our
family more than we might see artificial intelligence,
for example, as our family, would be good medicine
for both humanity and the Earth, I do believe that. let me, if I can, ask you
an autobiographical question. I mean people know about
your D.C., your Cambridge, your New York City experience,
but I hear some Tennessee woven in in the sense
that you and your family had a connectivity. Can you say more about what was that like,
having as part of your growing up, that it wasn’t just D.C.,
it wasn’t just Harvard, it wasn’t just New York City,
but you’ve lived some of this yourself, right? Yes, I, implicit in your
question is that Tennessee is more connected to nature and the Earth,
implicit in my experience, too. But which is interesting
in itself, but– Yeah, So you, Yeah. Yeah, Yeah. I was born in 1973 in
Nashville, and my family has a farm which is an hour from Nashville,
and I grew up a lot on that farm, but my father
was elected to Congress when I was three, in 1976,
so then we were up in D.C. for most of the year and we would
go back to Tennessee for summers and Easter and Christmas. Because my father’s father
had also been a senator from Tennessee, and a
Congressman before that, and because his political
opponents would sometime taunt him by saying he’s not really
from Tennessee because he grew up in D.C., it became extra
important to him to tell us that we were really from
Tennessee, and that this was the real place, and that
we should always know that. And so it was very much, you
know, drilled into me that this was what was real, and this was
my identity, other was just, you know, it was Washington,
but it’s really, you know, when we’re here doing something,
but this is the real thing. And so I sort of knew that
wasn’t, after a while, I spent most of my time,
you know, really like by the day in the D.C.
area, so I just always knew that wasn’t quite right,
and that I should look, but in any event, I did spend
these summers on the farm, and my grandfather in his
retirement actually raised cattle. And I did, I was sort
of shaped by the sense of that dichotomy between
living in the city and being in this rural environment. And I thinK that, you know,
there’s a wonderful, I know you probably have talked about
Laudato si’ a fair amount here, is my guess, but there’s,
one of my favorite parts of Laudato si’ is
paragraph 84, which says, about a place that, a
special place can nurture your connection to God, and can be like,
and the wind on your face, I believe it says,
or the way that, I might be, you know, sort of remembering
it with a little imaginative flair, but I always think
of the caress of God is the phrase in there,
that there’s a caress of God from these special places,
and that really makes me think of the farm in Tennessee. And this particular smell,
and the feeling with the river and the trees,
and sharing that space with animals in that way. So thank you for asking, I’m sorry
it was a bit indulgent reply, but– No, No, not at all. I think that is, and certainly,
I think that’s becoming less common in the
American experience, right? That a lot of folks who
live permanently in D.C. or New York or even
Boston, that connectivity, that experience, it is getting
thinner and thinner, I think. And I think it accounts for
some of the anti-climate change mitigation impulses in a lot
of American households today, that we’re disconnected
from that medicine in there. And It really is such
an issue of justice, which goes to the
environmental justice too, and what we now know about
mental and emotional health. And so for more people
to have access to that, and for us to stop, you know,
the absolute destruction, the appetite to take those
places away from people. I live in Fairfax
County, and I have a friend who says that the County
Motto is No Tree Left Behind. It’s like, they just cut trees, cut trees,
and put up parking lots, right? And even in the 18 years
I’ve lived in Washington, you’ve seen the shrinking of green space,
and this otherwise beautiful area. As you look at the landscape
here in the country, and really around the
world, and among people who are working to mitigate
or combat climate change, it really is, I mean I struggle to find
the right adjective, it’s a complicated space. You know, there are
different kind of activists, there’re people who focus on government,
other about local practices, and it can be,
it can be disorienting, frankly. A lot of information, a lot
of different approaches. And at times, it sometimes
almost takes a sectarian view. Sometimes you talk to
Organization A, it’s like, their way is the only
way, or Organization B, and their way, no, is the only way. So you’re in an interesting position
where you interact across a lot if not all of these sectors in the
environmental movement. How does the search for
sustainable policies in a new development and
agenda not fall victim to internecine warfare between
the sort of competing agendas? How do you view that from where you sit? I, well first of all, I
think the internecine warfare is very, it’s very, it’s
tricky, it creeps up on people, particularly when you have
all of these organizations and you’re competing for funding
and you’re supposed to have your impacts and say what you
did and take credit for it. And I really think there’s
probably a better way than the way that model currently
is, because you have a lot of nonprofits that are
facing that pressure in order to get their funding, and being,
and so it kind of hinders collegiality and it sort of,
space in which you can just let things happen
a little bit more in an, I don’t know if organic
is the right word, but in a way that is, honors a kind of
egoless requirement for this work to be done really well. So I think that, I don’t
know what the solution is, but I definitely acknowledge that problem. Where we sit, we have,
we have sort of the world of academia, and then
the kind of green world, climate, environmental
organizations, and then religious, like faith-based activist organizations. And those are some of the circles that
we come into contact with. And I think the way that
I have, I have found it, and I, you correct me if I’m not hitting
your question straight on, but I have found in terms
of running the Center for Earth Ethics that it’s,
first I felt like we should collaborate with everyone all the time,
and that that was the best way, and we should have lots
of partners on everything, and then that became
sort of stressful, and seemingly unnecessary, and now,
I just sort of think that it’s best just to kind of,
if you can, keep your head down in your own work
and not worry about because there’s so much static there with those things. So that’s just a personal
answer in terms of how I felt it on an organization level as
the head of an organization. But you may also be asking
in the broader sense of sustainable development
with bigger forces than that. I don’t know. Yeah. getting a unique vantage point
kind of in the macro, but also the sort of day-to-day. I mean I’ll say one
thing which is related. And it’s something you and I
have talked about, which is that there’s a lot of, in
the climate space right now, there are a lot of people,
and I would sometimes include myself in this, who’re
so angry at the influence of corporations, and,
you know, private sector and green washing, and
they’ve way too much say in sustainable development goals,
in Paris Climate Treaty, in all of these forums. And then, there’s a kind of
denegration of some of the work that’s being done, including
the Paris agreement, in a sense that the Divestment Movement,
the Grassroots ground-up work that’s really
community-based that has none of that motive
behind it is where the real work is happening,
and where the real voices need to be heard. And I sorta lean towards
that interpretation myself, I think that’s true. But I must say that there’re lots
of dimensions to this problem. And people have different callings. And when you have the traction
in the Divestment Movement that has, we’ve been
seen in a wonderful way and a lot of religious
organizations have divested, that is in part because
the Paris Agreement, as maybe imperfect as
it was, sent the signal to global markets that the future is
in renewable energy, it’s just a matter of when. And that helps the divestment movement. So these things are working
together, and I think that one of the keys right
now is to just receive, people have different
callings in this work, there’re many dimensions,
and it can come together in a good way if you have that,
particularly if you have it in your head and heart
to imagine that it will. there were both government,
but also some big, big NGOs look at religious communities
in a purely instrumental fashion. The trade craft throwaway
line is Collars for Cameras. Like if you got a photo
op and you have a cardinal standing next to the
politician, like that, that’s like the gold
standard of cynicism, right? And so we were trying to say
to some of our policy folks, you know, these religious
NGOs in communities, they actually understand the science. You might learn something by
talking to some of these folks, and that was part of the
connectivity we tried to build behind the scenes, that
it’s not that they’ve got large email lists, which
they do, but their talent is bigger than their
email distribution list. And sometimes that’s a tough
sell to the global players, whether they’re government,
or whether they’re NGOs themselves lobbying for policy,
and I think there’s a lot more wisdom sharing that
needs to flow up, and we need to sort of try to convert or
transform the ears of a lot of the sort of global thought
leaders and politicians to see if there’s more than just, hey,
you’ve got a great email list, can we borrow that or
rent it or something? Well, we’re gonna pivot
to audience questions in just a moment. So let me, maybe this is a good segue. What role can universities play
in this historic pursuit? There’re multiple doors
you can walk through, and in your own experience,
you know, with Harvard, with Union, you know, with Georgetown,
we’re doing interesting things. But I’m just curious,
universities are not neutral observers in this. So I’m just curious, what
advice do you have to colleges and universities in this
space looking down the road? I mean I do think that
we have to look seriously at whether we’re educating
people into a disconnection from the natural world,
whether we’re educating people to a system that thinks
everything is externalities, that term from economics of externalities. I mean, if we have every,
if people in classrooms and the measures of success
are all still, and I know that, you know, for instance,
Georgetown’s one of the place that makes a point of saying that
we’re really service-oriented and this is not all about
people having high-earning jobs when they get out of here. But nonetheless, we have
to really look carefully at what’s going on on campuses
with signals and messages. What is the definition of
wealth and worth and success? Because we have a very perverse use
of those words right now. And you know, you say,
oh, he did really well, well that means he made, you
know, millions of dollars from cutting corners on, you know,
taking people’s indigenous land, sacred land for oil and
gas, is that doing well? Just because you made a lot of money,
but yet people talk that way really casually. And so I would say that it’s not a matter
of political correctness or anything like that. It’s just a matter of being
rigorous in defining your own value system and your own
measures of success and lifting up people and examples and
stories based on that. So, I mean, that comes
into play, it’s difficult for any organization,
because you depend on donors, and that’s who, you know,
buildings are named after, and that’s who, you know,
who is going to be lifted up. But there’s a way to do that well. This is something I’ve also, you know,
feel like with traditional indigenous peoples and societies. There’s a sense of honor
and acknowledgement and right relations that
I feel like our society is so out of wack right now about. And so I would just say in
terms of looking at the internal culture’s definitions of
wealth, success, and value, and trying to really interrogate
that and understand it also in terms of how you’re
presenting your space, you know? And what you’re expecting students to do. I think divestment is
important, I think it’s a very important tool for any movement building
to be able to convince institutions and communities
to no longer put their money behind this destructive system. So that’s another thing. And then the other thing I
wanted to say about educating into separation is that
if there’s a way to get, and I know Georgetown
gdoes this with service, and their opportunities for
it, but if there’s a way to learn more from the natural world,
for instance we’re doing this class at the Center
for Earth Ethics at Union is doing, a plant wisdom class,
where we’re having students, and mostly these are students
studying for ministry, going out into the woods
with a more traditional knowledge keeper about plants,
who has indigenous knowledge and has lived by himself out
in a forest for months at a time, and really spending time
interacting in the forest in that way. And we’ve done things like
assign the Robin Kimmer book that I mentioned before, so
we have some textual ground, and we’re catching up in
this way in our cultures, that we do have a text like that. But I think that looking
to really prioritize that kind of education
to get people connected, and also not just to the
beauty of the natural world around you, but also the
environmental injustice spots. Do we know where our sewage goes? Do we know where our toxic
trash and waste goes, you know? Do we know where our water comes from? I mean, these are like basic,
do we know where north, south, east, and west is? There are basic sort of Earth literacy
like ecological citizenship, you know, or something like that should
be something that we’re teaching our kids and our
young people and ourselves. So I could keep this conversation going,
but I’m being remiss as a moderator. We’re gonna pivot to audience,
and I ask sort of three things from you, raise your
hand, I will call on you, tell us who you are, where you’re from,
and please please please, this is very hard in Washington,
disguise your comment as a real question. And keep it brief. The briefer you are, the more
answers Karenna can give us. So I reserve the right to edit
your sermon described as a question. So we have a microphone, I
believe, so let’s start here. Marjorie Mandelstam Balzer,
anthropology in Berkley Center. Thank you so much for your sensitivity
to indigenous peoples. As somebody who’s trying to
start an indigenous studies program here, I wanted to ask
about where do we go from here after Standing Rock, after the
failure, should we be going in the direction and focus on
sacred lands, what should be going on the national parks,
Bears Ears directions, what do you think of what
to do for what is basically a pretty demoralized
community at this point? Well thank you for that question. Because I’m at a seminary, I’ll
answer first with this topic of sacred sites, which is
a very interesting one. This has come up in a lot of ways,
and Chief Arvol Looking Horse talks a lot about sacred sites,
and if you look him up, you’ll find him promoting
a certain sacred site today and asking people to actually have a sense
of where their sacred site would be. So this is in the natural world. And part of the reason why I
think this is so interesting is that it brings up this, it unmasks it,
unveils our assumption that it’s a manmade structure,
a cathedral or a church or a mosque that is a sacred space. And a conventional mainstream society
would never destroy something like that. And yet, or you know, well,
we need to put something real here, like a coal mine, and we’re not
even using this land, tear down that church. That wouldn’t happen, ’cause
the cathedral or the church would be honored, and yet
if it is a place that has, I mean, for instance, have you ever seen
Mt. Rushmore before it was carved? Like the president, it was
a beautiful, beautiful piece of rock that they saw the
grand, they had named it I think the seven grandfathers
or something, but they saw the faces of grandfathers
in this beautiful rock. So, you can have these
places that have really deep spiritual meaning that are natural. And so this sacred sites,
the idea that UNESCO, which does protect some
sacred sites that are natural, as well as some cultural
ones, but there’s, there are people who are interested
in having more biocultural sacred sites. And I think that there are
a lot of indigenous peoples that are very much,
for them to be able to, for the rest of the
world to be acknowledge, that these places deserve
our respect whatever respect is accorded to any other
religion’s sacred places. So that’s one topic I
find very interesting. And of course, the whole Earth is sacred,
which is where that goes, if we follow the thinking,
and I think that helps us too. But the other thing is certainly,
and this question of other, of religious leaders
standing in solidarity with indigenous people in these
fights I think can make a big difference in that regard.
and now that we have, and this would be an interesting question for
you, ’cause you know a lot more about the lay of the land
here, but in the current, in the current administration,
and their talk of religious freedom and making exception
for religious youth, could that be also used for indigenous
peoples to protect their lands? I don’t know, do you have any–
Well I think that argument actually failed
in federal court with respect to Standing Rock. So I think it was a clear case where like
the court system said, we’re not gonna hear and appeal
to religious freedom, even though these are sacred sites. Part of it has to get back into
the definition of religion, right? But, and I was part of a
group that tried to early on, you know, last January I guess
of ’17, make an argument, or if religious freedom is
breaking out everywhere, why not in this patch in North Dakota? Asnd that literally did not get legal,
I’m not an attorney, so let me just say any
legal interpretations I offer are amateurish at best. But it is, it’s a fascinating
question, it really is. It did not seem to have
critical bite or applicability by the reading of the
federal court system. And yet, Lakota Sioux certainly saw that
as in some sense sacred land, but it, there is actually a piece of legislation,
there was a sense of the Congress, it was like the Native
American Religious Freedom Act, which named sacred sites as protected,
and that had no legal efficacy in their effort, so. thank you, I just want to
mention a couple other things, I didn’t wanna not answer
your question fully, that I, you know, the prominent forum
on indigenous issues meets at the U.N. every year. Yeah. And one of the things that
I think is really important in this time of the extinction
of species and depletion of resources, of course there are efforts
to catalog the indigenous knowledge about ecosystems. But I really feel that it has
to be done with utmost respect for their own sovereignty
of that knowledge. And so there are different
protocols that are put forward to have free
prior informed consent. And of course we all
know, biotech companies go in and take advantage
of this, you know, all the time and extract that knowledge. So I think for us to, as,
you know, in the world of academia, in the world of religion,
to really pay attention and just start to support
the traditional leaders that want to protect that knowledge. And not have become,
everything commodified, you know, and commercialized,
and then extract the wealth, and to try to protect that
I think is important to. We’ll come up here, come to you next. from Falls Church, Virginia. Earlier, near the
beginning, if I heard right, you used the term Christianities, plural. And which struck me as very
apt, but there’s several different ways that you
could interpret Christianity, and what a lot of people see as
the predominant one these days is very much on the
right-wing side of things, and I know there’s an effort
to sort of reclaim Christianity and I wondered from your
perspective, is that debate something that your center
gets involved in at all? Because it seems like some
interpretations of Christianity are far more conducive to
the notion that the Earth is sacred and that we have
an obligation to engage in creation care, or
whatever you wanna call it. So I’d just be interested
in your thoughts. Yeah. Well,
I was just today at the funeral of Dr. James Cone,
who was a professor at Union for the past 50 years, and died
at age 79, so he comes to mind as you asked that question. And he was the father of
Black liberation theology, and made a very
passionate case in brilliant books
over the years that Christianity, Jesus is Black,
God is Black, this is not a neutral God in Christianity. This is a God of the oppressed. And that is the reading of the Gospel,
and that is the reading of the Old Testament, and that,
and a critique of Whiteness as the problem and the sin,
rather than, oh, we have to worry about this side,
no problem, of how to work this racial thing out. But otherwise we’ll go ahead
with this White Christianity, and really shook the foundations
of the theological world with that. And so, I think that,
there’s so much truth in that and so much power in that
that I really feel like a robust conversation
about Christianity between different, and you know,
another example of somebody who’s talking a lot right now
in the public way is Reverend William Barber
of the Moral Mondays Movement. And in offering that, I mean
I’ve heard him many times say, Franklin Graham, you know, let’s
get, I’ll meet you anywhere and talk about this, and
let’s have a public debate, and calling out others like that too. And I actually think
that would be great is to have a more healthy and
robust discussion of faith and Christianity, and also I think that
it’s a mistake to see our world as secular. This so-called secular
society is so deeply informed by the twisted version of
Judeo-Christian heritage that has to do with not only,
I mean anthropocentrism is one thing, but also, a hierarchy beyond
that, the White supremacist notion that came out of
the Vatican Papal Bulls in the 15th century that were
telling people from the Vatican, Pope Alexander VI, saying
that these European explorers had a right to conquer, vanquish,
and subdue all non-Christian peoples, heathens,
pagans, Saracens, in the Americas and in Africa. And I remember when I
first learned about that, I was like, oh, no
wonder, (laughs) you know? It’s so, the world looks
and is shaped this way for a reason, and we have
this kind of license, or this country has had this
license to kind of tell this mythical story of manifest
destiny, of this promised land, that these are the people
meant to be here doing exactly this as the last
best hope of mankind, I don’t mean to bring Abraham
Lincoln’s beautiful phrase into that, but. But you know what I mean. So I think we need to
interrogate it deeply. I think that we are a
people that are capable of so much more than
this 24-hour news cycle garbage that is just our mental diet. We need to be having this conversation,
we need to be talking about our history in this kind of way,
and to create the spaces for that discourse I
think is very important, is supposed to work. So I don’t know if that’s a full answer,
but I think it’s a very important question. And I think the secular world
is very much informed by the kind of Christianity which,
but the other Christianities, including the, obviously
the African-American Church, and also so many other varieties,
have this wonderful rich legacy and so much to teach all of us. evening, my name’s Alora,
I’m from Washington, D.C., I work for an organization called Sojourners. So I get to sit in a lot
of interesting discussions like this, or get to listen in
from the doorway, whatever works. And I like that you have mentioned a lot
of points about environmental justice. I think, as everyone’s hopping
on the climate bandwagon, we forget that environmental
justice has been a problem way before climate
change, and that a lot of the communities that are
living through climate change issues or about to really
start feeling the effects are already environmental
justice communities. And you’re one of the only few people
who actually mention it and talk about how communities go through
these problems, you know, in different parts of the
world as well as the U.S. So I guess I’m getting into
why is it that more people are willing to come and
talk about climate change, give all their solutions
and their answers, and everything we should
do, we’re not doing, but we’re not first addressing
environmental justice, because a lot of the communities that are
going to be climate discourse communities are already
communities who don’t have clean water, clean air,
and a climate problem only is going to exacerbate it. So why aren’t people using
their platforms to bring this to the air, and I guess
how could encourage people, me being one person, but
someone who has the stature of you to encourage people
to say, you know, you have to talk about this first, you
can’t sit here and wanna reach people and don’t kinda
meet them where they’re at, especially people of color,
who understand climate, but know firsthand they
don’t have clean water. Mm-hm. Well thank you for that. I think that
it is, I think there’s been some
progress, first of all, I totally acknowledge
your main point about environmental justice communities,
people have been going through the environmental injustice,
feeling this ecological crisis in their entire health
and being and breakdown of the community, and fighting back against it,
and yet there’s been a disconnect between sort of the perceived climate
movement or climate discussion and that reality on the ground. I think that there’s
some progress in that, and I’ll just say that
they’re, it feels like, there’re many leaders,
Standing Rock is one example, but there’re so many
leaders, I mean UPROSE is an organization in Brooklyn,
so I’ll just mention them, environmental climate
justice organization, led mostly by people of color. And there’s something,
it’s very interesting to see the difference
between a locally-rooted community-based group
and like the big greens. And so some of this question
also is, I don’t think it’s just about having the
big green organizations have their own environmental
justice, you know, programs, or even about them being
more with diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is
obviously very, very important. But I also think that there’s
something about the leadership from community groups and
reconnecting to place in that way and realizing, you know,
there are no externalities. If you produce toxic
waste, it goes somewhere. And so,
there’s I think a lot of
the moral authority of the voices of people
that have been living near coal ash, for instance in Alabama,
so I went on one trip, actually it was in North
Carolina, the one that I went on, meeting with people who had, and this was
with Jackie Patterson, who works for the NAACP
Environmental and Climate Justice Program, who has been
doing this work in such an amazing way for many years. But meeting with people who also had very,
had lost a lot of members of their family to cancer,
and had been told cancer runs in your family. figure out it’s because
their family lives next to the coal ash. And that’s what the soot is on
the windowsills and the car, and the fact that the local
hospitals sometimes are not, they’re not necessarily gonna
be running to make that point and go and shut down the local polluters.
and that’s not their job, but that’s political. But it is, we have to break
down, and that’s another thing, that when you asked about
academics and universities, we have to break down the barriers
between these categories and things. Like what is health, a
health issue, and what is an environmental issue, is
a ridiculous categorization. So I think that there’s
been a lot of progress, but there needs to be
more, and I think that most people are ready to
make those connections and to recognize that
leadership and to move forward and to also stand in
solidarity with people. So it used to be like
the Not in My Backyard, the NIMBY thing was used
a lot against people, like if you were
complaining about something in your neighborhood, with
the full, I mean reality that of course the people that have
the money and the power and the connections to fight it
out of the neighborhood could. But NIMBY is actually a
good thing if we stand in solidarity with each other. And we shouldn’t be having these toxic
fracking operations and coal ash pits anywhere. So the new thing that I heard
was NOPE, Not on Planet Earth. And we have an alternative is the thing. I mean, there was the
Onion headline that said, Scientists Politely
Remind World that Clean Renewable Energy Technology
Ready to Go Whenever. You know, it’s ready, we just
have to have the will, so. thank you, back here. from the Islamic Society of North America. I just wanna thank you for hosting this
and for your comments. Really insightful and moving
and inspiring conversation for me personally. I wanna ask about stories. I think that that is at the
essence of what we’re talking about here in terms of how
especially indigenous peoples and people of color have
been shaped by the actions of many communities
globally, and how we’re documenting and responding to this moment. My question is, how do we tell stories
in a way that resonate with larger audiences? We’re just starting the first ever survey
on climate changes in the Muslim-American community,
and our results were supposed to come out later
this summer, so we’re very excited about that. We’re trying to understand
how to better tell our stories within our own communities,
to activate and really to shift hearts back to our tradition. But my question is, how
do we tell these stories, these prophetic stories, of,
you know, for example in Islam, ablution before prayer,
conservation of water and eating meat less than once a month
in the prophetic tradition of Prophet Muhammad,
how do we tell these stories in a way where
larger groups of people are resonating with them? And it’s not like, oh, the
Muslims do that, or the Jews do that, or the Buddhists do
that, or the Hindus do that. How do we tell those stories in a way
that’s inclusive and feels relatable to everybody? Mm-hm. That’s a really good question. So, first of all, I wish you were coming
to our minister’s training that we’re having
May 31st through June 2nd, ’cause we are gonna
have a session on narratives and stories. And actually our theme this year is water. And so, thinking about
water in various ways, in terms of, you know,
depletion of groundwater, stronger storms, water,
disruption of water cycles, but also going back to
ritual and ceremony. And can that help us in this
time to really focus on that? And,
so I think that the Muslim perspective is interesting
and most welcome in all of these discussions, and I always,
I mean, I always think everyone is gonna be so interested
in that story, how did that come to be, how do different
families practice it, what do you experience personally,
do you remember when you were taught that ritual,
who taught it to you, and how did you do, is it hard
to do it when you’re on a trip, is it hard to do, you know,
all of that I find fascinating, but I’m not that good
at thinking about sort of focus group PR-type stuff,
that what is most people gonna be interested in? But there are people who do that. (laughs)
And actually, you know, and I don’t mean to denigrate it,
there’s been, I think it’s Eco America has done
a lot of good work, okay, on this, and talking about
those narratives and stories, and have some guidelines. And Green Faith and
Interfaith Power and Light, and some others work on that. So I would say Eco America’s. But I love the premise of the question,
and I look forward to hearing the stories. we’ll give you the last question. Well first, thank you very much
for very interesting stimulating session. I wanted to get to something
related to values again, although most of what you’ve been
talking about has been values. But I’m wondering if you’re
noticing in your work at the Union Theological
Seminary and among those whom you come into contact with,
any emerging trends in the discourse on climate change? Let me give an example, maybe
to clarify a little bit. If we were talking about
climate change 15 years ago, I think, you know, the
discourse would have been, this is a moral issue because
we’re going to destroy the planet and nobody’s gonna
be able to live here for too much longer, or into more than
a couple of hundred years. Then about 10 years ago,
we noticed, and this took about three years to happen,
that the discourse changed to not only that, but also, not
only are we doing things bad to the planet and for future generations,
but in the shorter term, it’s really bad from a moral perspective
because the people who are going to be least able to adapt
to the changes are the ones who are going to be most affected by it? And that is that these are going to be
the ones who didn’t cause the changes, rather. In other words, those
who caused the changes, they’re wealthy, they’re gonna be able
to adapt in one way or another. But people whose grazing
areas become deserts, or whose riverbeds dry
up in the Himalayas, or you know, who are
dependent on water systems around the world, these people are not
gonna be in a position to handle it. And it’s a tremendous moral issue
that they did very little to cause the problem,
but they’re gonna be the ones who are most affected. So that was the, you know, emerging trend
that took place maybe roughly 10 years ago. Are you noticing something
emerging today in terms of the discourse on climate change,
something that, you know, might be the, begin to
dominate, or at least be a much larger part of the discourse
than it has been in the past? Mm. Well, I think that, first of all,
I hear a lot of people struggling with optimism,
pessimism, hope, are we being told the truth,
you know, we need people who will tell us the truth,
but we don’t wanna terrify everyone. And dealing with that kind of issue. I don’t know if that’s a trend,
but I find I come up against, I hear that a lot. I think that migration, the
acknowledgement that there are gonna be so many refugees
coming in the coming years, is a big topic, and also, for
people who have been saying, oh, well, you know,
climate change, maybe then, but I’m really focused on
important stuff, like war and where people are actually
dying, you know, I think it’s starting to I think connect
where people are understanding, of course that doesn’t include
a lot of people in power at the highest level of
our government right now, there’s still a lot of blind spots there,
but I think that acknowledgement of the migration problem,
the refugee problem, and of course it’s not just
humans that are migrating, it’s also plants and
animals, because of going for warmer climates, there’s
moving at an average rate of 15 feet per day to the poles. And, or is it per week? I have to look that up. Elizabeth Kolbert writes a
lot about this, so if you’re interested in sort of
more of the facts on that. But those are some of the
things that I hear talked about. And then also, still I think
people are interested in the question of how do we engage
people on the religious level? What’s going on with evangelical America? Why do they not care about this? How do we deal with that? And on that front, I would
recommend, if you all don’t know her already, Katherine
Hayhoe, who’s an evangelical climate scientist who’s very
articulate on this topic. So does answer your question a little bit? Okay.
let me first remind you, we do have refreshments
here at the back, but please join me in thanking Karenna
for an amazing conversation.


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