Taking a Breather

“Spirit” comes from the Latin word “to breathe.” What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science . . . Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.

— Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan, from The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

What motivates us to climate activism? It is surely something utilitarian, a straightforward and decidedly rational impetus to protect ourselves and our descendants from less prosperity at best and abject misery at worst. But evolutionary psychology tells us that often the most compelling forces directing our concerns and actions are emotional, limbic, from the heart — a profound place wherein lurks both angels and demons. So when we employ science to explain and justify our work on behalf of the Earth, as we certainly should, we will be most driven to actually do that work by invoking and embracing the spiritus of which Sagan and Druyan speak. Every breath we take, each relentless pulse of atmosphere which connects us to all of humanity and countless respiring organisms, can be the air that will draw out our better angels and send them soaring.

As I find myself experiencing the Jewish High Holy Days now, I thought I might take a break from my usual narrative on becoming a climate activist and address what gets us inspired — yes, another derivation of “spirit.” (Full disclosure: I planned to write about my first lobbying event, anticipated in an earlier blog, but unfortunately the meeting time coincided with a class I teach. Damned job! I await the next opportunity, and you’ll be the first to know.) Many sages have suggested that the solution to the climate crisis requires a broad cultural refocus, a shift in the zeitgeist such that protection of nature is sacred, and carbon and consumption become unsavory and morally devalued. They can find support for the idea in pretty much all spiritual traditions.

For the record, I am not Jewish, nor part of any organized religion, but I do consider myself a spiritual person. I was raised Roman Catholic — altar boy and lector et omnia — but spent much of my adult life in the Unitarian-Universalist church, where I raised my kids. Now I identify with many tenets of Buddhism, and meditate daily. Some may dismiss my multiple religious personalities, but it really puts me in that burgeoning group of Americans who have no particular religious affiliation, the so-called “Nones” in the terminology of the Pew survey providing the data. Many of us Nones abide in the convent of Sagan’s secular spirituality. I find awe and wonder in the universe, and a fundamental motivation to honor, sanctify, and fully experience our Pale Blue Dot and everything in it. I believe this higher, transcending purpose, beyond materialism and personal gain, is the common message of most organized religions as well if one digs deep. If you’d like evidence for this, check out a book of faith-based statements on climate change compiled by Lynn and Ellie Whitney, or similar documents found here and here. In the Whitneys’ book, earnest concern and calls to action come from everyone from Methodists to Muslims to Hopis to Southern Baptists. Yes, Southern Baptists, though the internal stress in formulating the declaration is palpable when we read things like “we resolve to engage this issue without any further lingering over the basic reality of the problem…”. Most faith traditions are more convinced and less timid, such as the Buddhist 2009 Declaration on Climate Change, the first signatory being the Dalai Lama:

“. . . because the threats and disasters we face ultimately stem from the human mind, [they] therefore require profound changes within our minds. If personal suffering stems from craving and ignorance — from the three poisons of greed, ill will, and delusion — the same applies to the suffering that afflicts us on a collective scale. Our ecological emergency is a larger version of the perennial human predicament.”

The Buddhist statement particularly resonates with me, but hey, I’m a None. So I also rejoiced when Pope Francis wrote his encyclical on environmental protection in 2015, Laudato si’. I bought multiple copies and sent one to my (very Catholic) sister. In 2017 I rode to the empowering, 400,000-strong People’s Climate March in New York City on one of three buses from the Mishkan Shalom synagogue in Philadelphia, listening to Hebrew songs behind bobbing kippahs which (I trust) were about protecting God’s creation. I attended a workshop on using storytelling to convey a climate message offered by the Friends (aka Quaker) Committee on National Legislation. And I regularly attend Zoom talks these days be the organization that defines my theme today, the brilliantly named Interfaith Power and Light. Founded in 1988 by Episcopalians in San Francisco, it now includes over 20,000 congregations in many faith traditions nationwide with one mission: “inspire and mobilize people of faith and conscience to take bold and just action on climate change.”

Now you may be thinking I’m a naïve idealist who has ignored all the violence toward the Earth motivated and justified by religious organizations and adherents. (And violence generally — I’m writing this on 9/11). Why haven’t I invoked the obligatory “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth” (Genesis 1:28)? Defilement of the Earth in the West was famously laid at the feet of the Abrahamic religions by Princeton professor Lynn White, Jr. in his 1967 Science article “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis.” This has been countered aggressively since, and I believe justifiably. Remembering that the metaphorical two people alive for Genesis shared the entire planet with perhaps a few million literal people, a minuscule force in an unforgiving environment, one only has to turn the page to Genesis 2 to read about toil and sweat and submission rather than domination. The Bible is replete with lessons and rules about caring for the land and stewardship of resources. True, some religions embrace this message more readily than others, so I will complete this blog with a word on a perplexing group, the evangelical Christians. These God-fearing Americans support the climate-change-denying Donald Trump by a wide majority (over 80%). Yet this is not a homogeneous blob, and Exhibit A is a woman who has become the face of climate-conscious evangelicals.

Katherine Hayhoe is a renowned atmospheric scientist, Professor of Political Science at Texas Tech, and Chief Scientist at The Nature Conservancy. She is also the daughter of a missionary/science educator, and the wife of a pastor/Christian author/linguistics professor. Her accolades and titles would fill their own blog, but a large part of her effort is focused on communicating climate change to the public through talks, a popular video series called Global Weirding, and writing (a book called Saving Us is about to be published). As a lifelong evangelical she can add church-cred to her climate bona fides, not to mention a sincerity, charm, and well-placed humor (when asked if she’s a Democrat or Republican, she says “neither, I’m Canadian!”).

It is not an easy vocation. It took time to convince her own husband that climate change was real. Her audiences are not always sympathetic. She receives hate mail almost daily, calling her everything from “stupid” to a “whore” to the “anti-Christ’s high priestess.” But she soldiers on, drawing on her deep belief that protecting creation through science is God’s will. “Many people today who would call themselves Christians have a statement of faith that has been written first by their political ideology, rather than what the Bible says,” she said in an interview with Sojourners magazine. “We’ve been led astray. We have become so enmeshed in the world that we don’t even recognize what we’re doing and how much it contradicts what we as Christians truly believe and who we as Christians truly are.”

The Evangelical Environmental Network and Young Evangelicals for Climate Change bear witness that she and others like her are winning converts. Add these to the myriad supporters of faith-based climate action I’ve described, and you have a very big tent indeed. The Nones like myself might not show up for the same revival, but we offer testimony on behalf of the Earth through a common morality and, I would say, spirituality.

In this blog I have advocated for bold political change rather than dwelling on personal choice to get us through this climate crisis, and I’m sticking with my story. But the political will to make those changes must come from a deeper place, and we will be truly moved to climate action solely by a puff of spirit-breath that whispers a common message of care and community to all.

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Mark Boudreau

Mark Boudreau

I’m a teaching professor of biology and researcher in agroecology at Penn State Brandywine, intent on developing my inner climate activist.