Few speakers appeal more eloquently on behalf of the Earth than Dr. Noel J. Brown, Director of the New York office of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). UNEP also sponsors the Environmental Sabbath/Earth Rest Day, an international, interfaith celebration that falls this year on June 3 – write to them at 2 UN Plaza, New York, NY 10017 to receive an information packet. Dr. Brown also calls for a new "covenant with the Earth" – see Earth Covenant in this issue for a version that is fast gaining ground.
This article is condensed from Dr. Brown’s remarks to the Los Angeles Interfaith Council on November 2, 1989.
I am excited that the major denominations and spiritual leaders are represented here under one roof, in order to look at our common responsibility for managing our common future. This is very much in keeping with UNEP’s commitment to reach out beyond the circle of the "environmentally converted," and to mobilize all sectors of society in the service of the Earth.
When I say "all sectors of society," I am not speaking gratuitously. We are talking about a ten-year window – some 4,000 days – to turn the tide against our environmental abuse. Consequently, we must rally all the forces of the Earth in order to save the Earth, and ourselves in it. UNEP has worked with unions, parliamentarians, youth organizations, the arts community, industry and the private sector – all those who have the capacity to accelerate solutions.
Now we need to work more closely with the religious and spiritual community. We need to create an ecumenical movement – I call it an "eco-menical" movement – in the service of the Earth. It’s time for us to think again, and to think anew.
There is a kind of psychic fatigue, if not pessimism, evident in a fashionable new philosophy: "endism." Endism is represented in two new contemporary literary works. One, "The End of History" by Francis Fukuyama, argues that Western values have now triumphed. But it may not be the end of history that we need to concern ourselves with, but the unfreezing of history and the winding down of the Cold War. Forces long congealed are now being liberated, and we may not be able to control them. We may suddenly have a world in which nobody’s in charge, and consequently a highly dangerous world – as well as a world with new opportunities for creativity and for moving forward.
Author Bill McKibben also has a book on "endism" called "The End of Nature." McKibben feels that the natural processes – which have been automatic and self-balancing for nearly four billion years – are now yielding to a system largely determined by human intervention. We have changed our status on the planet: No longer are we simply creatures of nature; we have become a force with nature, and one of the principal sources of Earth change.
What’s so devastating about this is that we are not entirely sure what will happen. Nor can we put the Earth back together, because we do not know how it works. We are operating from a position of ignorance, so we need to examine the issue very, very closely. These studies suggest that "the end is near," and to that extent one has reason to be concerned.
Perhaps the end is indeed near. But it may simply be the end of an era – an era shaped in large measure by the World Wars, which in turn shaped our attitudes, values, and world view. We may also be approaching the end of that period in which governments were the centerpiece of social organization and direction. The United Nations was premised on war/peace issues, and these issues were dominated by governments. But now we are confronted with Earth issues – issues that concern all of us.
I submit that humanity is now confronted with accelerating and explosive changes that will affect the way we live and work, how and what we eat, our modes of production and consumption and transportation, where we live, and even how we rear our children. These changes are driven into us by our numbers and by the agri-industrial revolutions, whereby our use of energy and natural resources is pushing the biosphere closer to its limits. They may have already pushed us well beyond the carrying capacity of certain ecological systems. Already scientists are telling us that there are discernible cracks in the Earth’s biogeochemical cycles – the complex of air, minerals and water that nourishes the Earth.
Anyone following the news will understand that an atmospheric crisis is upon us. There are also unprecedented stresses in the Earth’s biological production systems: we are losing species at the rate of one a day, and a virtual biological holocaust is in the making. We must come to terms with the various life forms on this planet, because without their existence our own life will not only be more impoverished – it may also be eliminated in time. We, too, may become endangered.
Humanity is faced with one fundamental question: How much longer can the natural order maintain human enterprise, and at what point will our irrepressible drive for progress propel us to transgress those limits on which the biosphere depends? I ask you in the religious community to help us think this question through.
There are two subsidiary questions that we also need to face. First, what kind of world do we want? And second, what kind of world can we get? The first is a question of values, and here I’d like to challenge those of you concerned with spiritual forces and the inner workings of the human spirit to help us build a value base for a world that will endure.
The kind of world we can get is a matter of policy, action, and management. To answer this question, we must look at what choices are open to us, and learn how to enhance our capacity for choice, as well as our capacity to choose wisely – to choose life over disaster. This will require a different kind of organization of the spiritual forces and the spiritual power of the human genius. That is why we appeal to you.
A NEW VISION
We would also like to suggest other challenges that you in the religion and faith community might help us with. The first is a new vision, and supporting institutions, to help us move through this transition. We in the United Nations cannot hope to solve the problems of the future with only the institutions and the mentality of the past. We need a vision that encompasses all human rights to freedom, equality and conditions of life; and an environment that promises life, dignity and well-being. We need also a new legitimacy, a new ethic, and new metaphors.
Thanks to the vision from space, for the first time we are able to view the planet as an interactive and dynamic whole. We have now become a self-reflecting species, and we sense that we have become a global species. It is only as a global species that we can solve these problems, which is why we must create a new vision and an institution that can help us to deal with these new realities.
One of the new metaphors that I am eager to produce and promote is that of a covenant – a new covenant with the Earth. You in the religious communities can help us do that.
We also hope you will help us to add the moral dimension to the impending crisis of the Earth, and to invent ways of letting people see and appreciate what is at issue here.
On the last Environmental Sabbath, or Earth Rest Day, we received many stories from around the world. Perhaps the most dramatic came from the Bronx, where a pastor – in trying to dramatize what she called "the desecration of our planet" – opened up a bag of garbage in the middle of her sermon and dumped it in the sanctuary. The congregation was in shock at this outrageous sacrilege, this desecration of a holy place. And she asked them, is there any less desecration in what we are doing to God’s creation? If indeed we believe that this Earth is a product of divine creation, how can we say we are serving God while we mangle and maim God’s works?
Finally, let me ask you to help us think through a more equitable relationship in our dealings with each other and with the Earth. We need to broaden our sense of right and wrong beyond the social sense – to find some sense of "right living" in dealing with the Earth. We need to begin by examining our own lives. Our garbage may be a metaphor for our moral condition – a reflection of an internal, moral waste, that has become part of us. We hope you in the religious and faith communities can help us address that problem.
In the final analysis, I believe very strongly that human beings have the mettle with which to do it. The late René Dubos once made the point that "Trend is not destiny. The future based on a logical extrapolation of existing trends is not inevitable, and neither is doomsday." He went on to say, "We cannot escape from the past. But neither can we avoid inventing the future. With our knowledge and a sense of responsibility for the welfare of humankind and the Earth, we can create new environments that are ecologically sound, aesthetically satisfying, economically rewarding, and favorable to the continued growth of civilization."
That is the challenge facing all of us, and that is the challenge to which I ask you to work with us as allies. We can create a new order, and if we are to survive, indeed we must.