Gus Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies: "I'm especially hopeful for the preachers."
The religious community played crucial roles in the civil rights movement, the fight against apartheid in South Africa, and in many other decisive social dramas. Now the time has come for people of faith to mount a campaign on behalf of planet earth.
That was the position taken by Gus Speth, dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, at a March 1 banquet that was a highlight of the four-day interdisciplinary conference Renewing Hope: Pathways of Religious Environmentalism hosted by Yale Divinity School.
“Religions played key roles in ending slavery, in the civil rights movement, in overcoming apartheid in South Africa, and now the call must come to be saving God’s green earth before it’s too late,” declared Speth in a banquet hall full of clerics, professional environmentalists, academics and grassroots organizers.
In a comment directed at the religious leaders, Speth said, “You can help us see that the challenges we face are moral and spiritual, that sin is not strictly individual, but is also societal and institutional. You can call us to reflection and repentance and resistance. So your leadership is essential to this spiritual awakening.”
The Feb. 28-March 2 conference, aimed at exploring the opportunities for religiously engaged environmentalism, was jointly sponsored the Divinity School; the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies; the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale; the Food, Farming, and Faith Project of the Humane Society of the United States; the Yale University Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics; the Yale Department of Religious Studies; and the Office of the Provost at Yale.
Earlier in his keynote address, delivered at the Omni Hotel in downtown New Haven, Speth had enumerated some of the disappointments that persist despite decades of trench warfare by environmental activists: 90 percent of large predator fish in the oceans are gone; one-half of the world’s wetlands and one-third of mangroves have vanished; 20 percent of the earth’s coral has disappeared; earth’s species are going extinct at 1,000 times the historic rate; toxic chemicals are in virtually every human being and in the bark of every tree.
A large part of the reason for the current state of affairs, Speth suggested, is that sufficient ethical and spiritual grounding has been lacking in the environmental movement: “Many of our deepest thinkers... many of those most committed with the scale of these challenges, have concluded that the changes needed to sustain human communities and to sustain natural communities can only be achieved through the rise of a new consciousness.
“For many a new consciousness is a spiritual awakening, a transformation of the human heart; for others it’s a more intellectual process of coming to see the world anew and deeply embracing the emerging ethic of the environment and the whole ethic of what it means to love thy neighbor as thyself.”
Either way, Speth argued, a “rapid evolution to a new consciousness” is necessary. “And that being the case, what can be said about the forces in our society that could drive the cultural and consciousness change of the type and on the scale needed? In the past, leadership for environmental change has usually come from scientists, and economists, and lawyers like myself – perhaps that’s why it’s been so shallow. Today...we need the preachers and the philosophers and the psychologists and the poets.”
“I’m especially hopeful for the preachers,” said Speth. “What you are doing, and what we are doing here, is so fundamentally important, and I’m abundantly thankful to you for it...No other group of institutions can wield the particular moral authority of the religions...The potential of the faith communities is simply enormous.
He concluded his talk on an “up” note: “We are carried forward by hope, by a radical hope, that a better world is possible, and that we can build it. Another world is not only possible; she is on her way.”
Speth’s remarks were adapted from his most recent book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability (Yale Press, 2008).
Speth was a cofounder of the Natural Resources Defense Council and was founder and president of the World Resources Institute. He has also served as administrator of the United Nations Development Programme and as chairman of the U.S. Council on Environmental Quality. He was advisor on environmental issues to Presidents Carter and Clinton. His other books include Red Sky at Morning: America and the Crisis of the Global Environment and Worlds Apart: Globalization and the Environment.