By Joe Arruda
Springfield College students filled the pews of the Harold C. Smith presentation room in Judd Gymnasia for “Climate Change: What are Religious and Philosophical Responses?” on Tuesday evening.
Local religious leaders representing the Catholic Agape Community, Unitarian Universalists, and the Muslim faith, along with a Springfield College philosophy professor, gathered for a panel to discuss the different ways they approach climate change.
Professor Robert Gruber explained, “Climate change has been called by philosophers the most challenging moral issue that humans have ever had to face.”
This issue is one that is often overlooked and approached in different ways by people of different beliefs.
A Catholic Agape Community take:
Brayton Shanley emphasized that he believes the Catholic religion as a whole hasn’t done much with climate change.
“I think a lot of Catholics are well to do, and a lot of the Catholic hierarchy – that is authority of the church – they’ve lived well and it’s more of a status quo problem,” he explained. “They’re really not talking about the environment because that means change. And people that have a good deal in life don’t like the idea of change.”
Shanley noted that change is in the works with the election of Pope Francis. He described how the Pope chose St. Francis for his namesake, a man who had a relatively unique view and care for environmental issues. The newly elected pope continues looking to extend that idea.
He was the first pope to embrace the idea of caring for the environment. Statues of St. Francis can often be seen with a bird on his shoulder, displaying a love for animals.
Recognizing this issue, Shanley decided to do his part.
“My wife and I started a Catholic intentional community dedicated to peace, which is a very hard sell in this culture because we’re so individualistic,” he said. “We try to live collectively, we try to understand how to live non-violently, and we learn about how the natural world is telling us on how to live.”
In the Agape community, members live in straw bale houses on 34 acres of land. They are vegan, powered by solar energy, and use as little water as possible. Members of the Agape community use compost toilets, one of their many efforts to conserve the precious and finite resource of water.
The idea of going vegan is behind the fact that 20 percent of greenhouse gases come from the commercial meat industry. Shanley emphasized that 60 billion animals are killed commercially each year.
“Take your cues from nature. Nature never hoards,” Shanley said.
A Unitarian Universalist take:
Cynthia Sommers is a member of the Unitarian Universalist (UU) community. She is involved in the UU Service Committee, and one of the leaders of the UU Green Team.
For those unfamiliar to the Unitarian Universalist religion, she explained it as one that “cares deeply about the environment and calls us to action.” Unlike other religions, the crowd of UU followers can all have a very different view of God.
“We have respect for the interdependent web for all existence which we are apart,” Sommers said. “We have a direct connection to the natural world that not everybody has.”
The UU community is based on 11 acres of forested land directly across the street from Forest Park. The property is an extension of the wild lands of the park, so they encounter several different species of free roaming animals.
She described large glass windows in the sanctuary which look out into the woods. Sommers explained that being a guest in their land is a benefit in understanding nature, and the importance of maintaining it.
“Unitarian Universalists see ourselves as part of the global community. Therefore, we are obligated to act in ways that will bring peace, liberty, and justice for all,” she said. “And climate justice is needed because our energy consuming habits here in the U.S.A. have detrimental impacts upon people all over the globe.”
Sommers explained that she is a part of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC), which is a social justice organization that partners with local organizations from frontline communities around the world facing climate-forced displacement.
The UUSC works with the Pacific Climate Warriors, people from 15 different pacific islands who are facing climate change effects. The UUSC also work with the Lowlander Center, an organization based in the Louisiana Bayou. The Lowland Center worked on a resettlement plan for the Isle de Jean Tribe, which has lost 98 percent of its land due to global warming.
Sommers is passionate about working on stopping pipelines in the local area. She described how Columbia Gas plans to put a pipeline down Sumner Avenue in Springfield.
“We want them to continue to repair the leaks that are going on, because every time there’s a leak in the pipe, all this methane goes into the environment, and there goes the ozone layer,” she explained.
Sommers works on the local, as well as the global scale, to ensure the maintainability of the environment. Through the UU Green Team, she has made an effort to stop using plastic water bottles, as well as encourages others to eat less meat for the same reason that Shanley stated.
The Green Team has held “EarthWise living fairs” to help the public understand steps they can take at home to save energy and live a more sustainable life.
A Muslim take:
Mary Johnson is an immigration lawyer who represented the Muslim faith on the panel. She used a story as an analogy to the global climate change issue.
“There were these animals and they were all gathered around, and the forest was on fire. The animals were standing around just watching the forest burn, and watching the place where they live burn, and they really felt helpless,” she began.
“The hummingbird decided she was going to do something about it. She saw a nearby pond and took up some of the water. She started trying to put out the fire. She kept going back and forth just putting little drops of water on this blazing fire,” Johnson continued. “The other animals asked her ‘What are you doing?’ and she didn’t even pause to tell them, ‘I’m doing my best.’”
She explained, “Sometimes when there is a big issue, we have to be like the hummingbird and just do our best.”
According to Johnson, the Muslim faith believes that the Earth is a sacred place. You are allowed to worship on the Earth, to the Earth, and about the Earth. Like Shanley, she emphasized that the everyday person can contribute to saving the atmosphere by engaging in an act as simple as budgeting water.
Johnson also mentioned the animals, but described a very different practice. She explained that in the Muslim community, killing animals is a special practice.
She views the process as a one to one process, that killing an animal should be a personal feat. In doing this, she says it causes the hunter to appreciate the animal more. They are able to recognize the importance of the creature in nature, and also to humans.
“Even when something can seem useless or helpless, that’s the time to take action and to do whatever you can,” Johnson emphasized.
A philosophical take:
Springfield College Professor of Philosophy Robert Gruber joined the panel to explain an individual view and reaction to climate change.
“We are used to dealing with individuals face to face, one on one. We are used to seeing the effects of our actions up close and personal. You shouldn’t kick someone for fun, and why not? Because you can see the pain that it causes them, it activates something within you,” he said.
“With climate change, the results of your actions you cannot see directly. You don’t see how they impact anyone at an individual level.”
Gruber emphasized the importance of thinking collectively. While the difference that a single individual can make is relatively minuscule, a compilation of several individuals makes for a much larger impact.
In the philosophical world, leaders are focused on not only identifying problems, but also on delegating ways to combat it.
“What do philosophers do when it comes to a difficult problem like this? We just think a lot. We’re not very good at taking action, unfortunately,” he said.
In teaching an Environmental Ethics course at Springfield College, Gruber is not only sharing with students the problem of global warming and climate change, but also teaching ways to reduce it.
On several occasions, he mentioned the fact that while citizens do not necessarily see the effects first hand, there are still many instances where the issue is affecting people around the globe.
Though major results of climate change are not prevalent on a day to day basis in 2019, Gruber warned that they will be in the near future.
“The people most affected by climate change haven’t been born yet,” he said.
CORRECTION: The italicized paragraph has been updated for clarity and corrections. The Student apologizes for any confusion.