Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Polar Bears, Ecological Intelligence, and Confession

The convergence of the arrival of Daniel Goleman’s new book Ecological Intelligence, some medical tests for me, and the Obama administration’s announcement that the Endangered Species Act cannot be used to restrict greenhouse gas emissions for the benefit of polar bears, has led me to think about individual and corporate responsibility for creation care.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that the single greatest threat to the polar bear is the melting of Arctic sea ice due to climate change. However, the administration argued that individual power plants and factories can’t be singled out for emissions limits under the Endangered Species Act since it is the cumulative effect of overall greenhouse gas emissions that is causing the ice to melt. When everyone is responsible, it is difficult to hold an individual plant responsible.

This, on a large scale, mirrors a problem environmentally conscious individuals puzzle over in our daily lives. We are individuals, but are connected with various institutions. Any one person’s water and energy use, recycling efforts, and consumer choices don’t have much effect one way or the other on the environment, but our cumulative choices do. Throw in the decisions made on our behalf by institutions – like the disposable medical supplies used by the hospitals we visit for medical care – and we find a complex causal web that makes it very difficult for even the most motivated stewards of creation to know how best to live. Even the paper or plastic – or reusable canvas – shopping bag choice can be a dilemma.

In Ecological Intelligence, Daniel Goleman explains why many of the consumer choices that are labeled “green” are in fact not the best choices for the environment. Looking at the life cycles of products from extraction of materials through manufacture, and on to transportation of the product, use of the product, and its eventual disposal, we can begin to get a more realistic picture of the impact of our buying habits. Goleman sees us moving toward “radical transparency” of the impact of the products we might buy on the environment, thus enabling consumers to make better choices for the health of our planet and of our own species.

As we continue to think about the responsibilities of individual consumers, individual corporations, and other institutions, and as industrial engineers become better and better at helping us understand the true impacts of the decisions we make both individually and corporately, the necessity of the voice of the Church in the discussion becomes more evident. People look to religious institutions for moral guidance, and the question of how best to care for creation is both an engineering problem and a moral problem. Those of us who see the Earth as part of God’s creation have an important perspective to share.

In The Episcopal Church, we usually include a prayer of confession in our Sunday morning liturgy. Everyone present joins in the prayer; while many worshippers no doubt think only of their personal shortcomings during the past week as they pray, our prayers of confession are written in the first person plural: “We confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed…” We are confessing not only our personal sins, but our corporate sins. We as a people, we as a Church, have done things we should not have done, and failed to do other things we should do. Institutions, including the Church, are made up of individuals, but they are also more than the sum of their members.

Perhaps one of our distinctive contributions to understanding moral environmental issues might be some insight into how to confess our corporate sins, and how to turn as a people toward a way of life that allows us to delight in God’s will and walk in God’s ways. How can we best share this?