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Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.

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Climate Change Musical Chairs

Victory in the game of musical chairs goes to the quick, the clever, the ruthless, and the lucky. The same could be said for its contemporary reality television version, “Survivor.” Lost amid the striving for victory is the ironic logic of both games where winning means being alone in a chair or alone on an island, isolated, solitary, cut off. Is that really a prize worth winning?

None of this would matter except that the same mentality behind musical chairs and Survivor is embraced by far too many when it comes to the deadly serious issue of climate change and global warming. The quick, the clever, the ruthless, and the lucky assume that by virtue of geographic location, economic privilege, political clout, and military power they can mitigate the effects of global warming on themselves, their children, and perhaps their grandchildren and never have to worry about being voted off planet earth or be left standing waist deep in rising sea water without an inflatable chair.

The real obstacle to an aggressive response to global warming is not the dwindling number of discredited climate change deniers, it is the belief that there will always be others to vote off the island first, that there will always be a chair for me and that as a result neither I nor my country need to change the way we live or consume. Food prices will go up due to increased drought, some low lying coastal areas will become more vulnerable to flooding, weather will become less predictable, energy prices and insurance costs will rise. But we can manage, we’ll have a chair and our place on the island will be secure for as long as it matters to us.

Not so for others, of course. Drought, lack of access to clean water, massive coastal flooding and the like will have a drastic impact on their lives, causing massive hunger, forced migration, and violent conflict over the control of scarce resources. Some in the South Pacific are quite literally going to be voted off the island in a generation or two; governments of those small nations are already planning to move entire populations to higher ground as oceans rise. And this just acknowledges the impact on the human species. Thousands of plant and animal species are disappearing because of climate driven changes to their habitats.

Pope Francis’ recent encyclical letter Laudato Si’ “on care for our common home” attracted headlines for its clear word about the reality of global warming and the primary role of human activity in producing it. But at its heart it is a spiritual document calling our attention to those most likely to find themselves without a chair or voted off the island – the poor, the vulnerable, the fragile, the endangered among humans, plants, animals, and the elements and structures of the earth and the seas.

Central to the Encyclical is a call for a new spirituality that rejects Survivors and musical chairs. Rather than the logic of competition, Francis calls us to a logic of solidarity. He asks us to reject “denial, indifference, nonchalant resignation, and blind confidence in technical solutions,” all the refuge of the survivor, and to create a “new and universal solidarity.” This spiritual conversion, ultimately and necessarily embodied in corporate behavior, scientific and technical development, and public policy initiatives on a global scale must precede all the rest, lest our strategies merely privilege those most likely to survive, those most likely to retain their chairs.

For the Pope, his namesake Francis of Assisi provides the model of this spirituality in which “his response to the world around him was so much more than intellectual appreciation or economic calculus, for to him each and every creature was a sister united to him by bonds of affection.” Pope Francis goes on,

“Such a conviction cannot be written off as naïve romanticism, for it affects the choices which determine our behavior. If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder, if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously. The poverty and austerity of St. Francis were no mere veneer of asceticism, but something much more radical: a refusal to turn reality into an object simply to be used and controlled.”

Pope Francis says of Saint Francis, “Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.” For those of us who are quick, clever, ruthless, or just plain lucky, playing the game of climate change musical chairs and global warming Survivor may seem plausible, allowing us to continue consumption without caution and use without care. But the trajectory of this deadly serious game is really the same as it is in a child’s game or a silly television show: One day we will sit in a chair on our island discovering that our song has turned to lament because we are now the only one left singing.

John H. Thomas
July 16, 2015

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