Monday, May 4, 2009

Earth Institute Searches for Science-Religion Common Ground

I am participating in Columbia University Earth Institute's Fetzer Institute symposium "Common Ground: Science and Religion in Dialogue for a Sustainable Future."

Yesterday, Earth Institute Director Jeff Sachs opened up the conference with the observation that human activity is having a greater impact on the Earth's environment than ever before, becoming a factor shaping the Earth's natural cycles and systems. Sachs calls this new age the Anthropocene; here is Sachs talking about this idea on BBC in 2007:

I called my lecture today 'The Anthropocene'—a term that is spectacularly vivid, a term invented by one of the great scientists of our age, Paul Crutzen, to signify the fact that human beings for the first time have taken hold not only of the economy and of population dynamics, but of the planet's physical systems, Anthropocene meaning human created era of Earth's history. The geologists call our time the holocene—the period of the last thirteen thousand years or so since the last Ice Age—but Crutzen wisely and perhaps shockingly noted that the last two hundred years are really a unique era, not only in human history but in the Earth's physical history as well. The Anthropocene is the period when human activity has overtaken vast parts of the natural cycles on the planet, and has done so in ways that disrupt those cycles and fundamentally threaten us in the years ahead.

Sachs therefore calls for a new ethic of sustainability (one of the missions of this symposium through curriculum development) in a world of strangers. Historical ethical systems had been created to suit smaller human communities in which people generally knew one another. How do we develop a global ethical system in which human activity has global impact but it is difficult to hold all these strangers to account?

James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies then gave the keynote address. Hansen explained why he decided to start speaking publicly after for many years bunting speaking invitations to his colleagues such as Michael Oppenheimer. On the main conference screen, Hansen showed photographs of his grandchildren and said that he felt a responsibility to do whatever he could to address the climate change crisis for the benefit of future generations. He mentioned that despite the remark Larry King made to him that "nobody cares about 50 years from now," perhaps from a media perspective, Hansen sees inter-generational justice as fundamental to many moral systems. The past eight years of the Bush Administration trying to stamp out the climate change truth has delivered a bleak message to future generations: "You are on your own, baby," Hansen said.

As for solutions, Hansen was critical of cap and trade schemes, saying they often leave too many loopholes, and that the clean development mechanism (CDM) under the Kyoto Protocol has allowed some countries to increase their carbon emissions, by planting trees elsewhere for example. Instead, Hansen prefers a carbon price through a tax that would be significant enough to change behavior and amass a public fund for investment.

The panel I moderated was titled "Creating a vision for Sustainable Business," featuring Kevin Knobloch of the Union of Concerned Scientists, Rev. Fletcher Harper of GreenFaith, and George Pohle of Suasoria and formerly at IBM. I opened up the panel by linking Jeff Sachs's remarks about the need for an ethic in a world of strangers to a book I am now reading, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers, by Kwame Appiah.

In his book, Appiah makes the case that what we believe (based on observation) and what we desire are linked and closely related. Moreover, the facts we believe to be true can change while beliefs can be difficult to disprove. Appiah famously uses the case of witchcraft in Ghana. He asks, isn't it true that people get sick without a clear explanation and isn't it true that some people wish ill on others? What fact can you point to that disproves that witchcraft doesn't exists? And what fact can you point to the universal truths exist? Appiah tries to bridge moral relativism and positivism; his "challenge" is cosmopolitanism, which says:

1. we have obligations to others
2. we should take seriously the specific lives and beliefs of others

Appiah's cosmopolitanism is about keeping a sincere conversation going. As my Unitarian church, while I was growing up, implored, "peace through understanding." Perhaps the "uni" in Unitarian should refer to "one world" instead of a single God.

Carrying on a sincere conversation is a good ongoing process, but can't we agree on some fundamental ethical foundations as well? My study of religions, as a religious studies minor in college for example, taught me that most of the major religions do actually make the case for the Golden Rule or its flip side a variation of "do no harm." Isn't truly good business sustainable business and truly sustainable business good business? I said I hoped this conference would not only advance a conversation but also help find common ground for an ethic of sustainability.

One of the most interesting discussions among the panelists was sparked by a comment about spiritual experiences. Harper has developed an adult education program that asks people to describe spiritual experiences they have had in the natural world. Many people have had profound experiences in the natural world but nobody talks about it (one of the participants later in the evening guessed it might be because Judeo-Christian societies have a fear of Paganism or reverence toward nature). The panelists agreed that introducing nature's power to inspire should be a part of child development as well as curricula development. Some suggested that this spiritual engagement, as well as green jobs, conservation, energy efficiency, smart regulations, and green investment, might comprise an ethical business venture in the post-crisis economy.

Those are my initial thoughts. Time to get back to the second day of the symposium.


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