A Grandfather’s Lament
By: Larry J. Schweiger
The Tragedy of the Commons revisited
Standing on a heavily polluted Lake Erie Beach watching what was to be the end of the famed blue pike, I made a childhood promise to God that if given the opportunities, I would spend my life fighting pollution and the destruction of creation. This vow has led me to a series of life choices with progressive responsibility in the environmental field. My early decision also opened opportunities to work with, and be mentored by some of America’s greatest contemporary conservation leaders. Together we fought hard and long to make a difference.
When I was a senior in high school in 1968, I read a provocative article entitled: The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin in the journal “Science” that greatly influenced my thinking. Hardin described a number of herdsmen who were sharing a public grazing land called the commons. Each sought to get the most grass for their animals without limits and collectively they destroyed the commons. One line in Hardin’s writing has long haunted me,
“Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”
One hundred years ago this month, the last passenger pigeon passed from earth. This once impressive bird occupied our lands by the billions. At night they would congregate in roosts by the millions in various places. Often, their combined weight was so great that branches would break. It seems the natural world unencumbered by human exploitation was a land overflowing in extravagant abundance. Like the bison, the passenger pigeons were simply extirpated from the land-victims of the tragedy of the commons. The land of milk and honey will soon become a land of locusts and thorns.
There should be no doubt that a broad consensus exists within the scientific community regarding the seriousness of the impending threats to humanity and to the global environment. On November 18, 1992 nearly sixteen hundred of the world’s leading scientists issued an urgent warning to humanity This extraordinary statement on the health of the environment was signed by 1,582 of the world s leading scientists including a large number of senior officials from National and International Science Academies, a majority from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and top scientists from 69 nations. Signers included most (101 in all) of the then living noble laureates It stated in part:
“Our massive tampering with the world’s interdependent web of life ‑‑ coupled with the environmental damage inflicted by deforestation, species loss, and climate change ‑‑ could trigger widespread adverse effects, including unpredictable collapses of critical biological systems whose interactions and dynamics we only imperfectly understand… We the undersigned, senior members of the world’s scientific community, hereby warn all humanity of what lies ahead. A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it, is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”
In an unorthodox move, the scientists framed their warning in a spiritual and moral realm suggesting a new ethic…
“a new attitude towards discharging our responsibility for caring for ourselves and for the earth. We must recognize the earth’s limited capacity to provide for us. We must recognize its fragility. We must no longer allow it to be ravaged. This ethic must motivate a great movement, convincing reluctant leaders and reluctant governments and reluctant peoples themselves to effect the needed changes… We need the help of the world’s religious leaders. We call on all to join us in this task…”
I have long understood that unchecked, global warming will be the penultimate tragedy of the commons. If more than seven billion people on the planet are free to continue dumping billions upon billions of tons of carbon dioxide, methane, soot and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we will surely destroy the atmospheric commons that gives and protects all life. The planetary-wide prospect of failing water supplies, drought-stricken croplands, depleted fish stocks and unraveling ecosystems must give rise to personal and societal questions about fundamental choices being made. It is irresponsible to ignore the impending disaster when we have the ability to tackle it with tools that are currently available and cost effective.
Seek the Truth
We have been warned long ago yet we don’t hear and accept the truth. “Truth seeking” is an ancient virtue rooted in various faith traditions and philosophies that needs to be dusted off in light of the ongoing struggle to address global warming. In my faith-tradition, the Bible records Jesus as putting a high-value on truth and saying, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” In a moral and just society, truth should be our common goal. As this verse makes clear, truth unburdens us from doubt, confusion and indecision and frees us to do the right things.
A business leader by the name of Brent Hansen sums it this way, “Seek the truth or hide your head in the sand have this in common. Both require some digging.” Its also been suggested that If you hide your head in the sand, you put your butt in a remarkably vulnerable position. By hiding our heads, we put the entire world in a remarkably vulnerable position.
Many in our world including most of our political leaders have allowed themselves to be misled by greedy people who have a destructive agenda. Stated simply, the greedy obfuscate the truth and reap the rewards, while the entire planet groans under the weight of pollution and exploitation.
Our generation faces a spiritual crisis… an ethical and moral challenge that is unprecedented in human experience yet so many in America’s churches and faith communities ignore or deny it on partisan grounds. Our deep-seated political ideology overrides our theology. In America today, politics trumps faith. Rush Limbaugh trumps Rick Warren. The Tea Party and their wealthy benefactors trump scientists and responsible actors… There is no justice in the land.
Mark 8:18 speaks of spiritual blindness. “Though you have eyes, don’t you see? And though you have ears, can’t you hear? Don’t you remember?”
Many biological limitations prevent us from seeing or hearing … even smelling things. Some years ago, I visited Tyrone, a town in a valley that hung heavy with the foulest-smelling paper mill. Asking around town, I soon discovered that the people living there could not even smell the rotten cabbage like pungent air. It turns out that constant exposure to chemical pollutants acts as an olfactory anesthetic inducing a loss of awareness. This was a sobering, poignant and instructive lesson for me as I sought to engage them in cleaning up the air pollution.
Like the people living in that mill town, we cannot see, smell or taste climate altering pollution. Humans, by our makeup actually receive a very limited amount of input that we can detect through our senses. We are generally unaware of much going on around us. Our sight, hearing and other sensory inputs are filtered. We can only detect a very limited range of sensory inputs that are potentially available. For example, we cannot see or feel electromagnetic waves that exist with an enormous range of frequencies known as the electromagnetic spectrum. Nor can we see the trapped infrared rays held back by excess carbon because these light forms exist outside of the visible light spectrum.
Early humans learned of their limitations by observing that wolves had a much fuller range of hearing and sense of smell. To solve their limitations, humans domesticated wolves as dogs for community protection. Today, we have developed many sophisticated devices that can monitor and exploit forces outside of our range of perceptions. With modern research and technology, truth about the earth’s climate system is no longer beyond our reach.
Beyond our biological limits, spiritual blindness, brought on by a hardening of the heart, is the single most important reason for inaction. People who walk by faith should understand that we must seek truth beyond the boundaries of our sensory perceptions and we must challenge our most deeply held beliefs.
Once again for the fifth time over recent decades, reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change make it clear that humankind is causing the bulk of global warming. By all reasonable accounts, the core climate science is in with more than 10,000 published studies. However, this truth can be hard for moneyed interests to accept and even harder for the victims to live with. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence of global warming, it is vehemently challenged because it forces change upon our thinking and into our daily behavior in fundamental ways. Media and policy debates rage on because so many ignore or deny the mountains of scientific findings.
Any policymaker who has not discovered the truth about climate change simply has not sought the truth. Willful blindness is a spiritual matter as it places political expediency over ethical leadership. What often passes for reasoning based on talk radio myths is nothing more than political rationalization based on moneyed interests. Truth must be a cornerstone of any ethical system. In all matters of significance—material, relational, spiritual, or otherwise—we must seek to discover and embrace truth, regardless of where it may lead. As we witness to the impacts of climate change, these consequences obligate us to seek and speak truth.
The Courage to Act upon Truth
Some years ago, psychologist Rollo May wrote in his book “The Courage to Create”: “Every profession requires people with creative and moral courage to envision, appreciate, and direct change. The need for courage is in direct proportion to the degree of change the profession is undergoing.” In ministry, as in nearly every other profession, the enormous growth of knowledge and its accompanying tendency toward narrower and narrower specialization has caused us to learn more and more about less and less and to disregard the rest. Sometimes we can get so focused on narrow disciplinary boundaries and responsibilities that we miss the bigger picture. While faith leaders have focused on important ministries, largely unforeseen climatic changes triggered by humankind’s activities have been building. Fast approaching environmental and ecological ruin call upon all to step back and take a broader look.
It must not divide us along religious lines or political “liberal” and “conservative” lines as too many issues and causes do. It’s simply about right and wrong. A growing climate storm should force us to face deeper ethical questions about the flaws that may exist in our theological or philosophical underpinnings causing our inaction. Do we have the right to continue polluting at the certainty of creating complete havoc with the earth’s fragile atmosphere? We each need to examine our ethical understandings to do our part to secure and protect future generations from climatic violations caused by cumulative actions of literally billions of individuals around the globe.
Leaving a Legacy
In my Christian faith tradition, I understand our lives on earth will be measured by what we leave behind. Proverbs 13:22 defines a good person in terms of their legacy. “A good person leaves an inheritance to his children’s children… (ISV)
It is not hyperbole to say that there has never been a generation in human existence that has caused greater ecological damage then the generation that ironically launched the first Earthday. As a society, we know that climate change is real but we are largely clueless about the urgency, scope and scale of the climate threat. Poll after poll has shown that while most Americans acknowledge that the earth is being affected by global warming, they do not fully understand the gravity or the urgency. The voting patterns tell us that many church-going people don’t seem to understand what if anything, they can or should do about it.
During the same time that I read The Tragedy of the Commons, I was privileged to have a very wise mentor and scout leader, Ralph W. Abele who was a conservation leader in my home state of Pennsylvania. Ralph was a clear thinker and a leader with integrity. When facing tough choices in my career, I often ask myself, what would Ralph do at this moment? I find my answer in his writings or in words spoken to me long ago,
“Mankind is not an island… in respect to other men or to other living things, nor even in respect to the non-living or inorganic creations. Without an appreciation of our relationship to nature, without the idea of living with nature, not merely upon nature; we must sooner or later live (or perhaps die) in a world where man will have paid the penalty for doing what he cannot do successfully…that is, think only of himself.”
Ralph died many years ago but his wisdom transcends the grave. Are we thinking only of ourselves? Does climate change have to become the ultimate tragedy of the commons? As rational beings all dependent on the same shared air, can we commit to doing our part by demanding that Congress find a way to phase out carbon dioxide pollution?
As a grandfather I must now ask, can each of us be dedicated to giving our offspring this last chance?
We must each repent of our carbon pollution, and strive to leave a planet inhabitable for the next generation to live upon. This is our moment and perhaps our last chance to right a stupendous wrong. Regardless of your faith tradition or worldview, we must all agree that wrecking the climate system is a deeply moral, profoundly spiritual and intensely ethical issue. There has never been an environmental threat in the history of humankind as profound and far-reaching as global warming.
Global warming as the defining ecological issue of the 21st century, is an ethical issue is best expressed in a widely read essay “The Land Ethic,” by Aldo Leopold who explained,
“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community, it is wrong as it tends otherwise.”
Climate change is an ecosystem-disrupting agent unlike any other single force in human history. It threatens up to seventy percent of the species on the planet and virtually no ecosystem will survive unscathed. Appropriate for this weekend, Leopold also warned:
“No important change in ethics was ever accomplished without an internal change of our intellectual emphasis, loyalties, affections, and convictions. The proof that conservation has not yet touched the foundations of conduct lies in the fact that philosophy and religion have not yet heard of it.”
One of the most hopeful signs in recent years is the emergence of groups like Faith, Power and Light, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment and the recent clarion warnings from the Pope to stop climate change. While the Pope’s stern warnings were historic, they have yet to filter down through most priests and to lay Catholics. In the same vein, the messages from other faith groups advancing stewardship, despite enormous efforts, have failed to make a sufficient dent in the behavior and beliefs of local churches, synagogues and temples.
Putting aside any theological differences that may divide, gatherings like this one give hope by enlarging the circle of people of faith concerned about climate change, and by encouraging and assisting people of faith to get involved in public policy solutions. I suspect that Aldo Leopold would be pleased with this important turn of events with scientists, regardless of their own world views, willing to work with the faith community to foster a better understanding of the moral and science understandings of climate and ecological stewardship.
My courageous Boy Scout leader, Ralph W. Abele, survived the beaches of Normandy and fought across Europe to liberate holocaust survivors, inspired me to think and act boldly. Ralph came away from his experience with a soft heart yet case-hardened to opposition and believing in the virtue and power of stubbornness. Ralph never saw being stubborn as a vice but a virtue if properly channeled. In his last writings, Ralph warned:
“Beware of the cause that you chose for this kind of stubbornness because you will surely prevail.”
I have been haunted by Ralph’s call for stubbornness because I see the same steadfastness in a visionary leader and dear friend former Vice President Al Gore. Al has forced us to turn the corner and see the “Inconvenient Truth” for what it is. Since writing, “Earth in the Balance” many years ago, Al has been vocal, persistent, and unrelenting in his efforts to bring light to this threat. Undaunted by vicious personal attacks from polluters and their surrogates, Al has always stayed focused and makes his points on the facts, ignoring those would shoot the messenger. He understands that on matters of moral importance like climate change, an environmental ethic requires action in the face of enormous resistance—doing what is right with humility, moral duty and obligation regardless of short-term personal consequences—to protect the ecological integrity of the earth for future generations.
Ethics in Action
We must each look within ourselves and ask, “Will I find the moral courage to fight climate change and be a voice for future generations and for the nature of tomorrow while there is still time?” By acknowledging the growing insecurity of a destabilized natural world as the Pope recently did, faith leaders must help society overcome spiritual blindness and find a safer and saner path to follow.
While environmental challenges facing the world are obviously complex and arduous, solving global warming is not so much a technical or a financial problem. We must transition towards secure, efficient, and clean energy solutions that are now available at reasonably costs that create durable American jobs and keep energy dollars and our soldiers at home while protecting the nature of tomorrow. We must call the world to abandon the profligate consumption of fossil fuels while there is still hope. We must unite to give voice to this great healing opportunity while there may still be time.
On the 9th of September five years ago, I witnessed the birth of one of my grandsons–Sutton. My daughter Carolyn gave me the honor of cutting the umbilical cord. I watched as Sutton left the safety of his mother’s womb and entered a new world that human’s are profoundly altering. The doctor clamped the umbilical cord and handed me the scissors. I confess that it was a tearful and bittersweet moment. Sweet because I witnessed the arrival of an awaited grandson that I hope to spend a lot of time outdoors with in the days that we might have together. Sweet also because I know Carolyn will be a great mom.
It was bitter moment because I was about to sever this newborn from the final vestige of security. He was leaving his mother’s womb and entering a world that is increasingly warming and more uncertain with intensifying storms, deepening droughts, massive forest fires, acidifying oceans and threatened cities. He deserves a safer world and I renewed my vow in that moment that I would do everything possible to stop this insanity. I must have been taking too long with my vow because the doctor, with some frustration in his voice asked, “Are you going to do this or what?”
Sutton’s recent fifth birthday reminds me once again that I can not think only of myself, rather I must be drawn to a higher duty to “leave an inheritance to our children’s children.” What are we doing to Sutton and his generation? I know no parent or grandparent who would knowingly harm his or her offspring. Yet, we are collectively failing to heed strong scientific warnings from the world’s top climate scientists. We are failing to enact carbon pollution controls and we fail to respect and respond to firm deadlines established by nature itself. Let us demand more of international leaders who seek a shared solution to this greatest global threat that will affect us all. It is not enough to lament our failures and thoughtless acts; we must find a new way forward.
You see, in the end it’s about the common property that is above each of us and that is all around us–our air. The air belongs to everyone on earth–and no one–all at the same time. It certainly does not belong to the polluters even though they continue to act like it does. We each must assert our interest in this matter and end global warming pollution now.
The planetary-wide prospect of failing ecosystems gives rise to fundamental questions about personal choices being made and it should force us to face deeper ethical questions:
Do we have the right to continue polluting the air with carbon at the risk of creating havoc with the earth’s fragile atmosphere?
Can we really be excessive fossil fuel consumers and responsible earthkeeper all at the same time?
Should miners or oil and gas drillers be allowed to trample over nature to exploit fossil fuels for our excess consumption?
How about the interests of those living in flooding deltas, coastal and island communities?
Should our addiction to fossil fuels crush our children’s future? Can we continue to advance our bad energy habits over their needs?
It really doesn’t matter what our faith or worldview may be, wrecking the planet and harming our children’s future is an ethical abomination. It must become a universal religious imperative to seek justice and to protect and heal the earth for the whole community of life from the diatoms to our children and their children.
(Note: This will be the basis of my presentation to 200 faith leaders from across the globe coming together to mobilize communities on #climatechange September 19-21 @UnionSeminary @TheUnionForum. This forum will wrap around the Climate March. http://www.cvent.com/events/religions-for-the-earth/event-summary-acce9de322684b8db91a98466c4f6da9.aspx)