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A Cruel and Foolish Dominion

Phew! It’s been hot! The brutal heat wave and violent storms afflicting much of the country this summer may not provide useful scientific evidence of global warming, but they do make it easier to begin imagining what we may be in for unless we grow far more serious about addressing carbon emissions. A week without air conditioning in early-July heat will be the least of our worries.

The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, organized to address the dangers of nuclear arms following the Second World War, now assesses a variety of catastrophic threats to the earth, including climate change (see www.thebulletin.org). A number of informative articles published by The Bulletin recently tell an alarming tale. Here are some highlights: First, climate change is real, threatening the planet with eroding coastlines, drought, armed conflicts, failing states, food insecurity, and humanitarian disasters, to name just a few of the horrors we face. This assessment is not “crying wolf” by environmental sentimentalists. U.S. military planners, for example – not your average tree huggers – are actively planning for an enhanced disaster-response capacity in the future as they expect the military to increasingly be called upon to respond to floods, fires, droughts and other disasters brought on by climate change.

Second, the United States, responsible for about a fifth of all current global carbon emissions, is the main driver of climate change and therefore must be the main global actor to reduce them. That means over the next four decades reducing emissions by an order of 80%, and we must be joined by other major emitting nations making deep reductions. Achieving this faces serious obstacles. Chief among them is the growing dismissal of global warming by those whose point of reference is not science, but ideology. When our nation’s response to climate change is driven by partisan political battles rather than science, the future isn’t bright. This situation is exacerbated by the fossil fuel industry and its allies in Congress who have thus far successfully opposed meaningful action to reduce emissions and resisted policies that support promising innovation in alternative energy sources, sources that might threaten the lucrative oil, gas, and coal status quo.

A third issue, not addressed by The Bulletin, is a theological one. Given how influential conservative Christian theology is in U.S. politics and policy-making, it’s not surprising that global warming deniers are often Christians inspired by the Biblical mandate to “subdue the earth” and “have dominion over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” With humankind dominating creation, human restraint or humility in relation to the planet is hardly encouraged. For those most vulnerable to the effects of global warming this constitutes a particularly cruel dominion. But what if we read Genesis in a different way? Twenty-five years ago Douglas John Hall argued in his book, Imagining God: Dominion as Stewardship, for a move away from the notion that we are permitted, even encouraged to “lord” over all that God has given us since we bear the image of the Lord God. Hall argued instead that if “lordship” is seen most clearly in the servant Christ – “I am among you as one who serves” – then bearing God’s image implies something quite different from anthropocentric domination:

The “lordship of the Crucified, if seriously grasped, radically transforms our preconception of dominion, exchanging for the concept of a superior form of being one of exceptional and deliberate solidarity (being-with), and for the notion of mastery a vocation of self-negating and responsible stewardship.

Seen in this light, science, technology, and faith ought to find common cause as allies in the struggle in the short term to save the earth’s most vulnerable citizens and over the long term to save the planet itself.

Meanwhile, as we huddle in our air conditioned homes, global warming is already an existential threat for others on the planet. Imagine living in a country whose official national website contains these sentences: “The science is clear – climate change threatens the long-term survival of our nation. As such, the Government acknowledges that relocation of our people may be inevitable.” This is not science fiction, but the island nation of Kiribati in the Pacific where elevations above sea level are only a few feet and whose near term strategy includes encouraging emigration either to Australia or New Zealand in order to create welcoming expatriate communities for the mass relocation that will most likely need to occur.

It is probably too late to save Kiribati. But will meaningful action elsewhere require some equally dire disaster to wake us from our slumber? Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer Dixon suggests this may be the case. “Human history evolves through what I call ‘moments of contingency’ – when there’s a crisis or shock that induces a certain flexibility in institutions, in politics, in people’s psychology that allows for new pathways to be chosen,” (“Exploring the Climate ‘Mindscape,” The Bulletin, 2012). He suspects the shock required for us to meaningfully address climate change may be a major disruption in global grain production. “I think we’re quite likely, within the next 10 to 15 years, to see a couple of the major grain-producing regions suffer various serious, simultaneous climate impacts. That’s not great in the short term for large portions of the human population, but the zeitgeist could change quickly. . . The climate change issue could move front and center.” Not great indeed. Is this really what it will take? The coalition of pseudo-scientists, partisan ideologues, fossil fuel interests and certain right wing Christians who block urgent response constitute a cruel and foolish dominion over public policy and, as a result, the earth. Cruel because it victimizes the poor and the weak today. Foolish because tomorrow it may consume us all.

John H. Thomas July 12, 2012

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