Developing a Moral Vision for Climate Change
Pope Francis recently proclaimed, “Safeguard Creation, because if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us! Never forget this!”
The IPCC, NASA, the AAAS, and an overwhelming majority of scientific societies strongly warn of the human causes of climate change. The near-universal scientific consensus is that our activity endangers the stability of the planet’s future.
Last Monday, the EPA announced its most aggressive plan ever to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the United States: 30 percent by 2030. Cutting the poisonous greenhouse gas is the first of three objectives outlined in Obama’s Climate Action Plan (CAP) and forms part of what Obama calls “a moral obligation to leave our children a planet that’s not polluted.”
Political talk of moral obligation almost always invokes future children; it is not politically controversial to hope that our children and grandchildren will live on a safe planet. But the moral dimensions of climate change are far more complex and granular: food shortages here, extreme weather events there, floods that displace people in coastal regions, melting polar icecaps causing increased extinctions, the vulnerability of the global poor.
A moral vision able to see these granular risks comes, I would argue, not from time (Obama’s “future children” or the Pope’s “Creation will destroy us”), but from space.
Since 1946, the modern world has been able to view images of the earth from space. Some four millennia earlier, Hebrew scribes penned Genesis 1’s creation account of the whole known world. Ancient and modern, these are two portrayals of the earth, one to begin the Scriptures and one iconic of the modern space age — both spatial lenses offering moral vision about climate change.
Overview: Genesis 1
Genesis 1 is like an "earth from space" image. The poem puts the whole world in one frame, starting off in mystery (formless voids, windswept chaos) and introducing a powerful voice with a benevolent arrangement of animate and inanimate beings. The moon feels like it has an organic, silvery skin, and all of the creeping and swarming things brim in fecundity.
Despite the mystery and virility, Genesis 1 is really about order. Chaos is untangled into light and darkness, inchoate ground is divided into water and land, and a firmament is erected to hold the rainstorms above at safe distance from the ground water below. Most of the language is about separating and dividing, like the task of one doing laundry.
Order governs the six-day work week as well. Days forge perfect parallels between habitats and creatures. It takes three days to create earth’s spaces and three days to fill them with correlating animate and inanimate creatures. For example, on the second day, God creates the dome of heaven in the midst of the waters (v. 6-8), and then, on the fifth day, he fills the sky and the water with birds and fish (v. 20-23). Every day fits the scheme. And poetic repetition of phrases like, “It was good” infuse Genesis 1’s spatial proportion with a moral aesthetic.
Genesis 1 insists that the meaningful contours of the world are basic: sea, sky, and land. Land is where land animals roam. The sky is where birds soar. The oceans are where fish obey God’s command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (v. 22). The spatial proportion of the world allows earth’s diversity to flourish. Everything needs its place.
Overview: The Blue Marble
In 1972, astronauts on the Apollo 17 took an earth-from-space photograph. Called the Blue Marble, it is the most shared and widely seen image in all of modern history by some counts. The NASA caption for the image was straight-forward, descriptive, and comprehensive: “This translunar photograph extends from the Mediterranean Sea to the Antarctica south polar ice cap. …Note the heavy cloud cover in the Southern Hemisphere…”
If you look in the right places, overview images of the earth abound these days. One of my favorites is NASA’s “Images of Change” which shows the effects of climate events on granular regions, like Hurricane Katrina’s impact on New Orleans and Typhoon Haiyan’s on a river system in the Philippines.
But the Blue Marble photograph resembles Genesis 1 by putting the entire earth in one frame. The light is separated from the darkness, as the glowing earth floats in the black ocean of the universe.
Two moral issues attend the Blue Marble image. The first is marvelous, and the second is pretty eerie. The astronauts and first people to view the image all report feelings of awe:
“It was profound;”
“Such a different perspective;”
“The focus had been ‘We’re going to the stars, we’re going to the other planets’ and suddenly we look back at ourselves;”
“A new kind of self awareness'”
“Looking back at the earth … may have been the most important reason we went;"
“You’re overwhelmed … it’s this dynamic alive place that you see glowing all the time;”
“Realizing your interconnectedness with that beautiful blue ball;”
These descriptions of viewing the earth from space have implications for our moral vision of the planet: overwhelmed, self-aware, interconnected. God reports a similar sense of awe every day of Genesis 1 when he utters, “It was good.” These are expressions of a cognitive shift that can unleash a moral desire to see to it that it was—and will stay—good.
But the beauty and awe of the overview can also dull our moral attentiveness. Two days prior to the NASA photo shoot, a cyclone killed 80 people and 150 cattle in Tamil Nadu, India. The deathly cyclone can be seen swirling in the photograph, described above as ‘the heavy cloud cover in the Southern Hemisphere.” That cyclone swirl is how the Blue Marble got its name.
Seen from above, the earth-from-space conceals what I have been calling the granularity of the planet’s climates. What Genesis 1 kept at level of sky, sea, land, and what the Blue Marble obscures in its gorgeous swirling surface are the countless habitats on the earth and the different risks posed to each of them.
“Just as no country is immune from the impacts of climate change, no country can meet this challenge alone” (CAP). There are rumblings that China will follow the U.S. in capping emissions. Right now, the United Nations are meeting in Bonn, Germany for twelve days of climate talks. Indeed, the contours of climate risk do not correlate with national boundaries. The contours of climate risk run along ridges, rivers, coastlines, and watersheds. We need to see our spaces anew.
If we could zoom in on Genesis 1, perhaps we could extend its vision of the morality of the spatial: sea is for fish and sky is for birds and coral reefs are for urchins, deep sea trenches are for bioluminescent fish, arctic ice sheets are for polar bears, rainforests are for rare spiders.
Ingrid E. Lilly is a visiting scholar at the Pacific School of Religion (Berkeley, Calif). She earned her Ph.D. from Emory University in Hebrew Bible and has taught at Candler School of Theology, Georgia State, and Western Kentucky University. Her work focuses on philology, literary and cultural studies of prophetic and apocalyptic literature. She wrote "Two Books of Ezekiel: Papyrus 967 and the Masoretic Text as Variant Literary Editions" (Brill, 2010) and is the Executive Producer of FLOODofNOAH.com.