Yesterday, I participated in an interreligious gathering at the Episcopal Cathedral of the Incarnation. It was convened on behalf of the Baltimore County/Baltimore City Watershed Agreement, offering religious leaders and activists insights into the goals and challenges facing us as we work toward replenishing and renewing our seriously degraded water-systems.
We were greeted by the Episcopal Bishop, Rt. Rev. Eugene Taylor Sutton, an impressive man who is eager to be known as Maryland’s first green Bishop. In his welcoming remarks, he laid out a compelling challenge to us all. He told of a visit to Africa he made a few years ago. Witnessing the devastation of land through what was due in part to climate change as well as the importation of international agri-business practices, the Bishop was asked by a destitute villager: What changes will Americans make in their lifestyles so that we can live?
It is a searing question. How mindful are we that it is not our extraordinary behaviors but our casual, habitual, daily ones that contribute to the troubles the world is in? What changes are we prepared to make to help heal the world? What changes in our manufacturing, distribution, housing and consumption patterns will we fight for so that all people everywhere can live?
The villager’s question sounds harsh and condemnatory cast in this way. It sounds as if we are being asked to give up our excessive habits, and sacrifice our wanton and chosen greediness on behalf of the needy. But what if we ask this question another way? What if we asked: if we knew the outcome of our behaviors, would we continue to do them? If we saw the impact that our daily habits have on the environment and the health of others, could we continue as we are? If we got immediate feedback about the harm we were causing by buying this dress instead of that, by driving to that store instead of there, wouldn’t we make different choices?
I do not believe we Americans are particularly greedy, nor are we notably mean. I think rather that we are sadly ignorant, illiterate about the way our learned behavior of the late 20th century affects the world and the inhabitants throughout it. We never knew and were never taught. Given the knowledge and the chance, I believe we would work to align our behaviors with our values, which would include protecting the well-being of the earth and all humankind.
Someone suggested that if all our tailpipes vented directly into our cars, we would demand cleaner cars today. I agree. If we did not hide, whisk away or delay seeing the degradation we cause, if we truly knew the impact of our actions, and if we had appropriate alternatives, I believe we would choose to behave differently.
That seems to be our task, then: to learn about the invisible or distant but nonetheless devastating and cumulative impact of behavior; and to demand that industry, the marketplace and government provide alternatives. Sustainability will be achieved not only or even mostly through our personal behavioral changes but by demanding systemic changes throughout our society: how we make things, how we move things, how we design things, how we think of systems (eg, asking not what we do with our waste but how we design production so there is no waste), etc.
What was momentous about this gathering was not just the airing and exploration of this powerful message, but the fact that so many religious folk (almost all non-clergy) determined to convene again, to explore how our various religious communities can come together to make a public pledge to work to health this wounded world. Through this high-profile effort, should it come to be, we hope to elevate sustainability to a high religious priority for all of us. In time, perhaps, it will be as unacceptable for a congregation to pursue unsustainable practices as it is for a congregation to turn away from the needy and destitute.
Kudos to those who organized this gathering - and here’s hoping that it changes the religious landscape of our community.