Earlier this month, His All Holiness Bartholomew, the Patriarch of 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, convened a two-day conversation on “environment, ethics, and innovation.” We gathered on the tiny, ancient island of Heybeliada off Istanbul, the city that was once the Patriarch’s Constantinople and before that New Rome.
There were scientists there, and activists, and religious thinkers. Greenpeace was represented, and so was Dow Chemical. We did not solve any problem or draft a white paper or conceive a plan of action. There were no expectations of these things, and so it was not, like the recent Rio conference, roundly condemned as a failure. But our discussion did yield some fresh examination of the often-unnamed obstacle to all the good solutions and plans already out there: the human condition.
It was poignant, in this space, to hear James Hansen — the NASA scientist who seminally defined the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide and civilization as we know it — profess that scientists need the help of the religious in an urgent struggle for public understanding.
But really, the problem is something different from understanding. Facts are out there, knowledge is out there, and there are fewer and fewer people alive on any continent who do not have a direct experience of environmental volatility — whatever their doubt or faith in “climate change.” The problem, as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr famously diagnosed, is that “man is his own most vexing problem.” Or, as Patriarch Bartholomew more poetically invoked, “there is a long journey from the head to the heart, and an even longer journey from the heart to the hands.”
We circled back to this insight over and over again, with different words and from disparate directions. Jane Goodall spoke of the intelligence that distinguishes humans among species — our ability to teach our young about things that are not directly tangible, to recall the past, to think and organize into the future. But intelligence alone does not get us where we need to go or even necessarily where we want to go. For that, the human creature must exercise harder-won capacities of wisdom, and wise action.
I went to this conference ready to challenge theologians to more robustly articulate their vision of the relationship between humanity and the natural world. There has been an explosion of new theological thinking and scriptural scholarship across religions and denominations in recent decades, paralleling the explosion in scientific understanding of how the world is changing.
Now I suspect that the most urgent religious contribution to our environmental present may be in the knowledge it holds — at its best — about engaging hearts and organizing hands. Before neuroscience and brain imaging, our great religious and spiritual traditions knew that fear and anxiety are sources of suffering, but that we are prone to create more suffering rather than face these. They understood that knowing what is right is not the same as living it. They developed contemplative practices, rituals, and communities in which human beings become safe and supported to aspire to their best, for the good of the whole.
The evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson has studied religions precisely in this way — as remarkably successful examples of adaptive groups, practicing for thousands of years what evolutionary biologists are figuring out about the link between environment, values, and behavior. There is altogether a fascinating convergence right now between ancient religious teachings and new science on altruism, forgiveness, and empathy. We’re understanding how such qualities are triggered physiologically, and how they can be made more likely.
The path Jane Goodall is now following reflects a kindred line of questioning and discernment. As she became aware of the destructive force of human beings on chimpanzee habitats, she simultaneously attended to the human suffering behind it. New conservation initiatives have been realized for the chimpanzees of Gombe, which began with meeting human fear and need. And her program, Roots and Shoots, is yielding practical projects all over the world; it is, in essence, about emboldening hope and courage in young people paralyzed by the deluge of environmental bad news.
Stonyfield Farms founder Gary Hirshberg is another voice for both profitability and what he calls “restorative commerce.” He pays organic farmers generously to put carbon back into their soil and has far poorer gross margins than his commercial competitors — including Groupe Danone, the global food giant that bought a majority stake in Stonyfield Farms a decade ago. But Hirshberg has higher net margins, a confounding equation that led Danone to leave the business model in his control. He’s achieved this in part by eschewing traditional advertising budgets but reaching out directly to consumers, one might say, at the head-heart-hands nexus. His paradigm, he said on Heybeliada, is peace of mind. His customers’ motivation — and his own — is having children.
This is language that reframes behavior, taking our sense of necessary actions out of the realm of guilt and into the realm of deeply desired good. And this is another thing religions have always understood: the power of words, specifically of naming, to make new realities possible. The word “environmentalism” itself segregates the importance of what happens in places like Rio. It makes the work of nurturing and restoring the environment seem the domain of experts and activists. It points away from near universal, life-giving experiences like having children, loving the place one comes from, and discovering courage in the presence of dignity and beauty.
The great question — beyond Heybeliada and Rio and all the conferences to come — is how to open up environmental and scientific discourse and passions to the human and civilizational discourse and passions they rightly are. Another scientist who came to Heybeliada, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, evokes spiritual traditions along with scientific innovation in a virtue he calls “applied hope.” How interesting and fitting that the natural world might be the ground that brings science and religion back to a shared sense of purpose after a few hundred years of estrangement. What a relief that this could be the story history will tell in the next century, if we survive to see it, rather than the distracting narrative of discord that we privilege at our peril.