KINGDOM ETHICS D A V I D P. G U S H E E
The Ultimate Ethical Issue? Global warming is becoming the ultimate ethical issue, and both political and faith leaders must mobilize immediately to address it. No society is more reluctant to accept these two claims than the United States, and no faith community is less sympathetic to them than “Bible-believing” Christians. What will it take for us to change our ways? Last November the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) offered a powerful summary of its latest research. The report ends the debate about whether man-made emissions of fossil fuels, along with deforestation, are primarily responsible for the rise in atmospheric temperatures. The data is in: Human beings are indeed culpable. Their findings are staggering (though not new), and it is not surprising that it has taken us a while to wrap our minds around it. No one anticipated at the dawn of the industrial era that somehow the very success of the industrialization project would bring in its wake a dangerous change in the very conditions of life on this planet. But that is where we are. The IPCC group has also sharpened its warnings related to the likely consequences of climate change.These include the loss of one-quarter or more of the world’s species, more violent hurricanes, drought and famine, further Arctic and Antarctic melting, and a significant sealevel rise that will threaten coastal and low-lying regions. We are already facing the likelihood of a significant decline in the quality of life in many regions of the world, with spillover effects throughout the planet. And we face the possibility of the eventual collapse of the planet’s ability to sustain human life. This is not an “environmental” issue, as in “save the
whales.”This is a “save the humans” issue. Will that suffice to get our attention? The IPCC scientists are now saying that time is running out for us to stabilize emissions of greenhouse gases. We must stop the increase of GHGs and find a point of stabilization by 2015—which means, in the words of IPCC leader Rajendra Pachauri, “What we do in the next two or three years will determine our future.” Specifically, the US—along with the rest of the world—must implement a cap on carbon emissions within the next two years. After 2015, assuming we have made the enormous changes necessary just to slow down this runaway train, we must globally move toward significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (and deforestation) and finally towards a transition away from carbon-emitting technologies by the middle of this century. I turned recently to a careful reading of Collapse (Penguin, 2005), a hugely significant book by geographer/anthropologist Jared Diamond. Diamond distills decades of his own fieldwork in the climate history of the planet, especially with regard to civilizations that eventually collapsed. In researching civilizations as diverse as Easter Island and Norse Greenland, Diamond finds that a combination of human-caused ecological damage, climate change, deteriorating relations with neighboring countries and trading partners, and an inadequate societal response to these growing challenges have been at play in various degrees when cultures have collapsed. Reading Diamond’s panoramic view of the rise and fall of human civilizations helped me to see once and for all that the survival of, for example, our beloved United States of America is hardly a sure thing—because the survival of no nation, no civilization, is a sure thing. And Diamond points out quite tellingly that one difference between previous collapses and the one we might now face is that the world is indeed connected PRISM 2008
in a way never before seen. When Afghanistan sneezes, Des Moines catches a cold. As China industrializes using dirty coal, all of us get sick. And if we go over the tipping point toward abrupt climate change, no one will be spared. Diamond essentially pleads for our own country and the world to find the leadership needed to respond to what is becoming a question of human survival. We need leaders who will avoid the mistakes made by those long-dead civilizations, which failed to anticipate problems before they arrived, failed to perceive problems even after they had arrived, failed to even try to solve problems once they were perceived, and if they finally tried to solve the problems failed to find the right solutions in time. Because human well-being is at stake, even human survival, those looking to affect politics must now say that this is the ultimate moral values issue. Where is God—and the church—in all of this? This is not Diamond’s topic, but he does say this: One reason some dead civilizations responded sluggishly to threats to their very survival was that their existing system of values was not up to the task—and they were unwilling or unable to change those values in time. I suggest that any Christian theology /ethic that believes that human beings are too puny to affect the planet’s ecosystem, that God will not let anything bad happen to us, that anything that happens (good or evil) is the result of God’s direct will and purpose, that social ethics and morality are unimportant, that gay marriage and judicial activism are the key values issues in 2008, or that nothing must be done to hinder or regulate the free market is part of the problem, not part of the solution, and needs to change before it is too late. For evangelicals, our responsibility is great indeed. ■ David P. Gushee is a professor of Christian ethics at McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University in Atlanta, Ga.