The Intersection of Poverty and the Environment

Last Saturday I had the privilege of participating in a panel discussion about the intersection of poverty and the environment sponsored by the Episcopal Church. Before our panel discussion, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, The Most Rev. Dr. Katherine Jefferts Schori, gave a stirring sermon on the need for us to give our attention to those who are the most vulnerable to the effects of global environmental degradation. This topic was motivated by one of the five “Marks of Mission” in the Episcopal Church: “To strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.” I was asked to speak from my experience as a Mormon. I spent many weeks wondering: What could I add to the conversation? Because the conversation was brief, I have a surfeit of thoughts that I suppose find their outlet here. You can read about the panel discussion at http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/intersection-environment-and-poverty-forum. You can view the video of the panel here: http://www.episcopalchurch.org/page/intersection-poverty-and-environment-forum

The people who are already suffering disproportionately the effects of climate change, industrial and nuclear waste, and pollution live in the poorest areas of the world, especially along the Pacific coasts of Asia and South America, in Sub-Saharan African, and along the Indian Ocean coasts. Environmentally related diseases are on the rise. Over a billion people do not have access to clean drinking water. Political instability grows as people struggle over ever more precarious and scarce natural resources, as was evident in Darfur. As climate patterns cause more weather extremes, these problems will only get worse. It is for this reason that climate change is recognized by our own Defense Department as one of the most serious threats to our national security.

To begin a conversation about this intersection in a Christian context makes perfect sense, if you take seriously the Christian mandate to worry ourselves first about the weak. Such a conversation is motivated by an understanding that we need to broaden our definition of community so that we include costs downwind and downstream to those less fortunate. No one likes to hear that well-intended and otherwise relatively benign behavior, such as driving a car, can negatively impact unseen people and places on the planet. The truth is that a culture of individualism like ours cannot provide an adequate ethics to address problems of such complexity and magnitude as climate change or even air pollution. I cannot adequately measure how, for example, driving my son to his soccer game might impact a small village in Guatemala, let alone my neighbors in Provo. But neither can I afford to pretend there is no relationship or that loving only my son is enough love for the world. As Christian ethicist Michael Northcott argues, love is most meaningful when we allow the “needs of the weak [to] set the standard for the requirements of love and not the capacities of the strong.”

When I think about what it means to love where I live, as I do in this blog, I must also ask what the definition of my community is. Is it my town? My state? My nation? What of the planet? My religious faith has something to say about this. Proper stewardship of the earth’s resources is defined scripturally as honoring God by sharing wealth equitably so as to “clothe the naked, and to feed the hungry, and to liberate the captive and administer relief to the sick and afflicted” (Book of Mormon). My faith teaches that “it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin. Woe unto him that sheddeth blood or wasteth flesh and hath no need.” (Doctrine and Covenants). In short, my religion teaches that all of my freedoms, privileges, and means are given so that I might seek the wellbeing of all humankind, the very family of God, and that this broad definition of community is the context in which to assess the meaning of what I do and how I live.

As was evident in the interfaith panel discussion on Saturday, every religion has similar principles that teach moderation, reverence, and relief of human and natural suffering.  The current climate crisis presents a unique opportunity for believers of all faiths and non-believers alike to put aside religious and political differences and work together for solutions. We should start by committing to reduce our individual and collective impact on the earth’s fragile climate and its ecosystems because the climate crisis threatens the wellbeing of the world’s poor.

Every major national and international scientific organization in the world has affirmed the evidence that the miraculous processes that support life on this planet—the ocean’s capacity to regulate climate, the atmosphere’s capacity to trap heat, life’s capacity to flourish in diversity, and photosynthesis that trades carbon for oxygen—are being compromised by our use of fossil fuels. We are #1 in the world in per capita consumption of many of the world’s natural resources, including fossil fuels. So it makes reason stare to imagine that somehow we are doing right by the world to defend our wasteful consumption habits as our American “right.” It is heartbreaking as a citizen of this state to watch the willingness of elected officials to twist or cherry pick empirical evidence or ignore it altogether just to uphold a political ideology that pretends that we can sate ourselves on the bounties of the earth without harming the planet’s health or the lives of the poor.

Environmental ruin has a human face. We make God-given freedom a shallow and selfish value if we fail to live up to our God-given responsibility to our fellow man. Freedom is never diminished when we live with greater self-restraint and willingly take collective action on behalf of those less fortunate. That isn’t socialism. It is basic Christian morality.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14137543206317761243 Mark Bailey, Publisher

    Thanks, George. I'm glad you are writing this both because I always enjoy reading your thoughts and because I like to imagine the book it is leading to.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11208767528455284466 GSH

    I loved this post because it addresses time tested tenets of faith. While reading your post I thought of the question posed to Christ, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus replied with the parable of the Good Samaritan and then asked, "Which of these three, do you think, proved neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?" He said, "The one who showed mercy on him." And Jesus said to him, "Go and do likewise." It is so important for our faith to go beyond our own little world. Can we solve everything? No, but we try because it is the right thing to do. I often wonder what I would do if I lived in abject poverty in a third world country and know I would pray for a wealthy nation to care. To whom much has been given, much is expected.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16177430413712732611 Robert Couch

    Thanks for this, George.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/17724824719177661279 Jon

    Thanks for the excellent post, George. Your post reminds me of a comment thread I read today where many people were advocating for population control, an argument I find simply displaces responsibility, planting it largely on the populations of impoverished countries with high birth rates. Wasteful consumption seems the greater problem, and nowhere is that problem more dire than here in America. Love your blog.


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