We are dependent upon the earth and its bounty for our survival. “The advantage of the land is paramount; even a king is subject to the soil.” (Eccl. 5:8) When the air and water are not clean, we get sick. When the soil is poor, we cannot grow food. Take the case of mercury, for example. When we burn coal to produce electricity, mercury is
released into the air, falls to the earth in rain, then flows in rivers and streams into lakes and seas.
Mercury in the water is absorbed by small fish, which are then eaten by larger fish. When we eat the fish, we ingest all the stored mercury, which is especially harmful for children and pregnant or nursing mothers.
We cannot remove ourselves from creation—we are part of it. “The creation of the heavens and the earth is far greater than the creation of mankind. But most of mankind do not know it.” (Qu’ran 40:56)
The stories of humanity and of creation are inextricably linked. “For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals…. All go to one
place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.” (Eccl. 3:19-20) In the story of Moses, God speaks through a burning bush and miracles involve water, rivers, and natural disasters. God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind. Psalm 104 shows God as active in creation: “He waters the mountains from his upper chambers; the earth is satisfied by the fruit of his work.” (v.13)
In God’s commandment to observe the Sabbath, the interconnectedness of humans, nature, and God is revealed, for all are to observe the Sabbath. “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall do no work…. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day.” (Ex. 20:8-11) In addition, on every seventh year, the land is to rest: “every seventh year you shall let [the land] rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat.” (Ex. 23:10)
Our actions and choices affect the earth. In Isaiah, humanity’s bad choices are made manifest in the environment: “The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have
transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.” (24:5)
The ancient law of give and take, action and reaction, and cause and effect is explained by Paul in Galatians 6:7: “You reap whatever you sow.” In the Qu’ran, a crisis in creation is shown to be an opportunity and a call for humanity to change its ways: “Corruption has appeared in both land and sea because of what people’s own hands have brought about, so that they may taste something of what they have done, so that hopefully they will turn back to the right path.” (30:40)
Buddha taught that relationship to others and to the world—even to animals and plants—should be based on compassion. “The goal is to develop genuine compassion, this genuine wish for the well-being of another, in fact for every living being throughout the universe,” the Dalai Lama said. “Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive.”
Rajah Koravya had a king banyan tree called Steadfast, and the shade of its widespread branches was cool and lovely. None guarded its fruit, and none hurt another for its fruit. Now there came a man who ate his fill of fruit, broke down a branch, and went his way. Thought the spirit dwelling in that tree, “How amazing, how astonishing it is, that a man should be so evil as to break off a branch of the tree, after eating his fill. Suppose the tree were to bear no more fruit.” And the tree bore no more fruit. —Anguttara Nikaya
“All of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another, for ‘God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’” (1 Pet. 5:5)
“The first law of our being is that we are set in a delicate network of interdependence with our fellow human beings and with the rest of God’s creation.” –Desmond Tutu
A Call to Justice & Respect for Life
The religious call to work for justice is strong. Many different traditions affirm that people are created in the image of God and that we should treat people the way we would like to be treated. Climate change will disproportionately affect vulnerable populations such as the poor and the elderly because these groups will be less able to adapt to the changes in their environments. Already, marginalized communities in the United States are more affected by climate and pollution: African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely than whites to live in areas with bad air quality, are twice as likely to die in heat
waves, and are three times as likely to be hospitalized because of asthma.
Environmental degradation increases suffering, sickness and death for God’s
children, especially the young, elderly, minorities and the poor. Pope John Paul II said,
“Protecting the environment is first of all the right to live and the protection of life.”
Jesus instructed his followers to care for the less fortunate: “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mat. 25:45)
It is estimated that every year, 300,000 people die due to climate change, mainly from worsening floods and droughts in the developing world. We also see increased mortality from malnutrition, the spread of disease and heat-related illnesses.
Although the U.S. accounts for just 4 percent of the world’s population, it produces 25 percent of the world’s greenhouse gases and uses 25 percent of the earth’s natural resources. We have disproportionately contributed to problems that are causing global
suffering both here and abroad.
The call to help our neighbors comes not just from a sense of fairness and justice. It
also comes from compassion and love. Jesus told his disciples, “Just as I have
loved you, you also should love one another.” (John 13:34)
Jewish teachings illustrate our responsibility to ensure that the world we bequeath to our descendents is a bountiful, sustainable one. “Be careful that you don’t spoil or destroy my world—because if you spoil it, there is nobody after you to fix it.” (Ecclesiastes Rabbah 7:13)
The command to “be fruitful and multiply” was given first to fish and fowl, not humans. Birds and animals are full partners in the covenant God establishes with Noah: “As for Me, I am going to establish My covenant with you and with your descendants after you, and with every living being in your care—the birds, the beasts, and all the land animals in your care—all who have gone out of the ark, all earth’s animals.”
Global warming is already underway. Scientists tell us that some changes are, at
this point, inevitable. But they also urge quick action to reduce human behaviors that
are causing climate change such as emissions of greenhouse gases and the
clear-cutting of forests. Still, the problems are myriad and, taken together, can seem overwhelming. In the face of it, there is a human tendency to wonder, “What could I possibly do? The problem is just too big.”
And yet, as the prophet Mohammed said, “If the Hour (Day of Judgment) comes
while one of you holds a palm seedling in his hand and he can cultivate it, he should
“Therefore choose life, that you and your descendents may live.” (Deut. 30:20)
“What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as an instrument.” –C.S. Lewis
“When a group of people are sailing in a boat, none of them has a right to bore a hole under his own seat.” -Rabbi Yisroel Meir HaKohen
Finding Our Way
In the scriptures, God’s vision for the earth and humanity is revealed.
• “They shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid.” (Micah 4:4)
• “The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.” (Isaiah 11:6)
• Jesus tells his disciples, “I came so that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
We have not yet lived into God’s vision, or into the promise of abundance. And yet the best-known and most often-recited Christian prayer seeks an earthly transformation: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
Expressing gratitude to Rev. Dr. Janet Parker, Dr. Catherine Keller, and John Hill for generously sharing with us their wisdom and insight on the role of religious communities in the care of creation. Cover photo by Carlo Abbruzzese.
Throughout history, people of all faiths have led great, transformational movements in their communities. Today, global environmental challenges offer our diverse faith traditions the opportunity to join hands in shared effort. The Rig Veda counsels, “Let your aims be common, and your hearts of one accord, and all of you be of one mind, so you may live well together.” (10.191.2-4)
People of faith can proclaim again that the right path is one that leads us closer to God’s promise: “Thus says the LORD: Stand at the crossroads, and look, and ask
for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 7:16)
“Grandfather, Sacred One, teach us love, compassion and honor that we may heal the earth and heal each other.” -Ojibway prayer