Why battling climate change requires a spiritual rebirth (COMMENTARY)

This story appears in the COP 21 Paris feature series. View the full series.

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On Monday representatives from 195 nations gathered in Paris to grapple with the greatest moral issue of our time -- the war against Mother Earth. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius warns that “It is life on our planet itself which is at stake,” and there is an “absolute urgency” to turn things around.

This is not political rhetoric or religious apocalypticism -- it is science that is drawing (finally) nations together around our real foe: the environmental danger to our planet. If our forays into space the past 40 years have demonstrated anything they have instructed us that Earth is very special in the universe. Yes, we have discovered exoplanets we hope might some day reveal other forms of life -- and hopefully of intelligent life -- but for now, and in our neighborhood, Earth stands alone.

We are being urged as a species to wake up and get out of our narcissistic anthropocentrism, that is to say our preoccupation with all things human, at the expense of all our relations with whales and dolphins, elephants and tigers, birds and redwoods, rain forests and rivers, oceans and lakes.

Will we take this opportunity to wake up from denial? Whole political parties in America as well as giant industries supporting such head-in-the-sand candidates seem to prefer denial to truth. Yet only the truth will set us free and get us working.

Think how much shared work there can be between people of Asia, North and South America, Africa, and Europe, if we were to put aside our usual war-oriented budgets in favor of this real battle to defend the Earth and the survival of our species and other living things. Instead of new aircraft carriers and faster bombers, why not invest immediately in alternative methods of agriculture, energy, production and transportation that are respectful of the Earth and future generations still unborn?

Scientists tell us that rising seas will swamp huge areas of many great cities, from Shanghai to New York. Much of Florida will disappear (strange that we have two presidential candidates from Florida and both are in denial about climate change). Millions of people will be thrown into extreme poverty by drought and the disappearance of soil and flooding.

We are told that if the planet heats up by 3.9 degrees Fahrenheit (a path we are currently on), 600 million people will be displaced. Where will they go? Who will welcome them? How would they get there? If the planet heats up by 3.5 degrees, 280 million people will perish.

We are being told that 800,000 to one million years ago was the last time our planet hosted greenhouse gases that are equivalent to what we are now producing. “We are now really in unchartered territory for the human race,” said ‎Michel Jarraud, chief of the World Meteorological Organization.

Solutions must come from the Paris conference but they also must come from rapid education and change of values, from what the gospels call “metanoia” or change of consciousness. This is where spirituality comes in.

I define spirituality as “waking up” and I am not alone in this -- the great Indian mystic of the 15th century, Kabir, said: “You have been sleeping for hundreds of millions of years. Why not wake up this morning?” Both St. Paul and Jesus talk about “waking up.” We humans have been in a deep sleep, especially in the West, mesmerized by our own doings and gadgets and projections, but the crisis at hand is a wake-up call.

Our religions must change and be part of the solution and not the problem. My work for 45 years in bringing back the creation spirituality tradition has obvious implications for renewing Western religion but also for other religions as well.

As I pointed out in my book, The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, published 27 years ago, there is no such thing as a Buddhist rain forest, a Catholic ocean, a Lutheran sun, a Baptist moon, or an atheist cornfield. When it comes to Mother Earth we are all guests -- but guests responsible for right livelihood and right citizenship and thinking outside our own tribes to the survival of all beings and all of our children for generations to come.

Each religion must act swiftly and work with, not against, science. Pope Francis’ encyclical “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” is a good example of this effort. Science too must work out of wisdom paradigms of justice and compassion. Education must be similarly reborn. The wisdom of indigenous tribes is indispensable for this change of consciousness for they have been in communion with Mother Earth and her creatures for thousands of years. They are leaders in a more-than-human awareness.

We will all rise or fall together. The greatest opportunity our species has ever faced invites us now to GROW UP and reach deep within ourselves, to the cave of our hearts, to ignite the creativity we are capable of, to work side by side with people of other tribes and religions and no religions to combat our one foe: denial born of narcissistic species-centeredness.

Ancient Scriptures say: “I put before you life and death; choose life.” What will we choose? Will we choose life and creativity and a new stage in human evolution?

[Matthew Fox is a theologian and Episcopal priest who was a Dominican friar for 34 years. He was expelled from the order by then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger for, among other things, working too closely with Native Americans and supporting women’s, gay, and indigenous rights. His 32 books have been translated into 58 languages, including his recently revised Confessions: The Making of a Post-Denominational Priest.]

Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated temperature rises of 39 degrees Fahrenheit and 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Appropriate decimal points have since been added.

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