An atheist concludes that he can't talk about climate without talking about God
by Auden Schendler
ONE DAY, a man named Walter Bennett walked into my Aspen, Colorado, office holding a laptop. He was in his mid- to late fifties, with a graying crew cut, wearing khakis and a button-up shirt. He looked like, and described himself as, a west-Texas redneck. His younger (second) wife accompanied him, saying little. As we chatted, Walter mentioned that his daughter had just given birth to a baby boy—a grandson. Walter reminded me of the aging, Cheney-esque board members I’d been hoping would die off so we could actually start doing something on climate change. But that was exactly what he wanted to talk about. He set down his laptop and hooked it up to a projector.
“Do you mind if I show you this presentation I’ve prepared for my senior management?"
“No problem,” I said, thinking, Get me out of here. This is going to hurt.
I’m a climate guy. I work for a ski resort, Aspen Skiing Company, where my title is “sustainability director.” In theory, I work to address all aspects of the resort’s environmental impact, from weed control to cage-free eggs, from taking calls about new technologies to handling attacks about what a bunch of hypocrites we are. It’s fun. I enjoy it. But, to be brutally honest, I don’t care that much about those subjects. Twenty years ago, I took my first course in climate science. The news I read today is essentially the same. And I believe two things: First, to quote ABC newsman Bill Blakemore, “climate isn’t the story of our time; it’s the only story.” Second, it seems obvious that a ski resort should both care deeply about climate change and also be in the vanguard of solving it.
Because my job is high profile, people often ask to meet with me about climate, sustainable business, and the environment. That’s what Walter Bennett was doing. Walter works for Stihl (pronounced “steel”), the German chainsaw manufacturer. We have a partnership with them. They support free-skiing competitions, and we use Stihl saws on our mountains to cut trails. I didn’t expect much from the meeting. After all, we’re talking about a chainsaw manufacturer here. But after Walter got his projector set up, he clicked a button and proceeded to blow my mind.
He had prepared an hour-long multimedia event on climate change, complete with country music overlays, video clips, and charts and graphs, that rivaled any presentation I’d seen from experts in the field, nonprofit heads, and climate PhDs. It got the science exactly right, the challenges, and some of the solutions. Walter’s goal was to convince Stihl that it should begin to take action on climate change, in concert with its efforts to develop cleaner burning chainsaws and other power tools.
When Walter was done, I sat in silence. Finally, I asked, “Walter, if you don’t mind my asking . . . what was it that moved a self-professed west-Texas redneck to care about climate change at all, let alone try to change an entire corporation’s perspective on the issue? You don’t really fit the mold of someone who would do this.”
Walter said: “Holding my grandchild—holding that little baby in my hands. . .” His voice trailed off. I thought he was going to cry.
WALTER’S EXPERIENCE, I believe, is being lived throughout the country, throughout the world, because climate change is a threat the likes of which our society has never seen. Unlike some earlier predictions of doom from environmentalists (the population bomb, for example), this one has uniform scientific agreement. Climate change is happening, and it will get worse. The best science—represented by Rajendra Pachauri of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and James Hansen at NASA—tells us we have to act in the next few years to cut carbon dioxide emissions 80 percent by midcentury, or the planet will be unrecognizable by end of century.
And yet, somehow, we don’t seem to be able to engage this monster adequately. While Aspen Skiing Company has developed a worldwide reputation as a green company, our energy use keeps increasing, despite herculean efforts to reduce it. Not only are other businesses struggling in the same way, but also most of the nations that signed the Kyoto Treaty are missing their targets. Why? Because our society is entirely based on cheap energy. We can’t just retool it overnight. Solving climate change is going to be a bitch.
Given the extreme challenges we face in implementing solutions—whether trying to make mass transit work, fixing the problem of existing buildings, building enough renewable energy to power our operations, or driving federal action on climate policy—it’s worth asking the question: what will motivate us to actually pull this off? How will we become, and then remain, inspired for the long slog ahead? Because this battle will take not just political will and corporate action; it will require unyielding commitment and dedication on the part of humanity. We need to literally remake society.
We can intellectualize the need for action all we want, but in my experience, in the end our motivation usually comes down to a cliché: our kids and, for want of a better word, our dignity. The journalist Bill Moyers has said, “What we need to match the science of human health is what the ancient Israelites called ‘hocma’—the science of the heart. . . the capacity to see. . . to feel. . . and then to act. . . as if the future depended on you. Believe me, it does.”
Moyers, who is an ordained Baptist minister, taps into something positively religious about the possibilities in a grand movement to protect the Earth. Climate change offers us something immensely valuable and difficult to find in the modern world: the opportunity to participate in a movement that, in its vastness of scope, can fulfill the universal human need for a sense of meaning in our lives. A climate solution—a world running efficiently on abundant clean energy—by necessity goes a long way toward solving many, if not most, other problems too: poverty, hunger, disease, food and water supply, equity, solid waste, and on and on.
Climate change doesn’t have to scare us. It can inspire us; it is a singular opportunity to remake society in the image of our greatest dreams.
WHAT ARE THOSE DREAMS? The concept of an ideal society has been a core element in human thought for all of recorded history. In 1516, Thomas More wrote about a kingdom called Utopia off the coast of the recently discovered Americas; in doing so, he brought the concept of an ideal society out of the realm of religious faith and the afterlife and into the world of the living. For centuries, that utopian ideal had been called by different names but had always existed in some other world: the Garden of Eden, Paradise, the Land of Cockaigne. More’s idea that such a place might exist here on Earth was radical, but it came from the same yearning for meaning and betterment that has always driven human beings to new heights. One of the great and hopeful concepts of human history, it carried itself into the present: from the settling and then founding of America and all its promise; to the vision behind Kennedy’s City on a Hill and Johnson’s Great Society; to Martin Luther King, who said that he might not get there with us, but he had seen the Promised Land.
The absence of that vision is despair.
Barry Lopez has written, “One of the oldest dreams of mankind is to find a dignity that might include all living things. And one of the greatest of human longings must be to bring such dignity to one’s own dreams, for each to find his or her own life exemplary in some way.” This longing is a fundamental aspect of human experience. In my work, I see it on a daily basis, in people like Walter Bennett, in the hundreds of college graduates looking for work in the field of sustainability, in people all over the world.
Recently, I received the following e-mail from Bob Janes, an Alaskan tour guide I had met in 2007:
Greetings from Juneau, Auden,
. . .My interests are being drawn more and more towards the global warming issue (whose aren’t?). I am able to involve myself both personally and in a business capacity now and into the future, but am definitely in the dark on a specific course . . .
Do you believe one can actually find a way to earn a bit of a living in this emerging (crisis?), and at the same time go home at night and let the kids know that something good is being accomplished? My business sense tells me there are many grand opportunities, but the field seems to be a tempting invitation to intrusive species and interests. What is reality? What will stand the test of time?
When you get a chance, Auden, could you drop me a line with some thoughts and possible information links . . .
In a note dashed off after work or between tours in the mayhem of a busy day, Bob was asking some of the most basic, consistent, and profound questions humanity has struggled with. And when I tried to pinpoint exactly what Bob was talking about, I ended up with words that didn’t square with the biology background I have, or the empirical perspective the field of sustainability and climate has historically followed. The words I found to describe Bob’s goals came from the religious community—words like grace, dignity, redemption, and compassion. And it occurred to me that the environmental, political, and business worlds, in their discussion of climate change and its solutions, have been missing something fundamental.
There have been scores of books published on climate change and sustainable business over the last two decades. Most come from the secular academic or left-leaning environmental community, or they come from the free market–crazed economists at right-wing think tanks. It’s either pure science or pure economics. Few of these books address the broader, seemingly glaring point that no such holistically encompassing opportunity as climate change, nothing with so great a promise to achieve universal human goals on so large a scale, has been offered up since the establishment of large, organized religions between two and four thousand years ago. The vision of a sustainable society, with its implications for equity, social justice, happiness, meaning, tolerance, and hope, embodies the aspirations of most religious traditions: a way of living at peace with each other, the world, and our consciences; a graceful existence; a framework for a noble life. Most religions originally evolved to meet a basic human need for community, understanding, and mission. Religion, in its original intent, and the sustainability movement seem to be sourced from the same ancient human wellspring.
Is it any wonder, then, that so many have come at sustainability, and in particular the climate struggle, with an almost religious fervor? And that many prominent leaders of this movement—leaders like Al Gore, Sally Bingham, Bill Moyers, and Richard Cizek—are either ordained or educated in theology? Indeed, many critics of environmentalism and the current climate “crusade” point out the avid, zealous enthusiasm behind the movement, as if to say, “What a bunch of wackos.”
But religion has been one of the most important forces shaping society throughout history. If there are some very clear parallels between the goals of most religious traditions and the goals of a sustainable society, how is it possible to talk about huge philosophical issues that cut to the core of human desire—like climate change, which threatens the very nature and existence of life on Earth—without talking about . . . God?
MY INQUIRY into religion and climate change began through conversations with my friend Mark Thomas, who was at the time studying for a degree in theology at Berkeley. Mark once said, “To think God is some old guy sitting in a chair, you’d have to be insane.” As a member of no religious practice and a lifelong atheist who always felt religion was absurd, the idea was liberating to me. I was guilty of viewing religion in the most simplistic terms.
When I talk about religion, I’m talking about its core founding principles, not what seems to be the bulk of popular modern religious practice in the U.S. As Bill McKibben has pointed out, in America, the evangelical agenda prominent in politics—with its unwavering focus on gay clergy, same-sex union, and abortion—has very little to do with the original teachings of any religious faith, let alone Christianity, despite the fact that roughly 85 percent of U.S. citizens call themselves Christian. He notes that three-quarters of Americans think the line “God helps those who help themselves” comes from the Bible. But Ben Franklin said it, and the notion actually runs counter to the founding ideas of most religions, which focus explicitly on tolerance and helping the poor.
At the same time, the American religious community—even the most unmoored element—is on board with climate action. Leaders typically cite a biblical mandate regarding stewardship, describe Earth as “God’s creation,” and note Jesus’s commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” I believe this represents the beginnings of a seismic shift back toward core principles in religion, not contemporary distractions—a shift toward the original, more humble aspects of the Judeo-Christian tradition, and away from making tax cuts permanent. In a way, this makes sense. As we move out of an unprecedented age of abundance and back into a world of scarcity, we are going to need these ideas of tolerance and human dignity that help people work together and coexist peacefully. We are going to need these ideas to solve climate change.
The sustainability movement, too, is arguably seeing a shift toward “core principles” in the sense that we’re less focused on the microscale and the individual (recycling, paper or plastic, self-righteous SUV-hating) and more focused on the collective (solving climate change as a social, economic, spiritual, and environmental effort).
To get a sense of what might be happening on the leading edge of religion—and how this evolution might relate to the climate struggle—I contacted two young progressive religious thinkers: my friend Mark Thomas, now Director of Mission Integration and Spiritual Care at Providence Hood River Hospital, and Rabbi David Ingber from New York’s Kehilat Romemu congregation. I asked them about Lopez’s “dignity that includes all living things.” In the process of listening to their responses, it became clear to me that Thomas and Ingber had a particular definition of “God” that informed their whole worldview. Further, it had nothing to do with my simplistic understanding of the idea of God. Let me explain.
Two distinct concepts of God have existed in parallel since the origin of religion. Theologian Marcus Borg explains them: Supernatural theism, he says, imagines God as a personlike being. Panentheism, however, “imagines God and the God-world relationship differently. . . . Rather than imagining God as a personlike being ‘out there,’ this concept imagines God as the encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is.”
Both Thomas and Ingber used this latter definition, what Father Thomas Keating, a leading thinker on the subject of contemplative prayer, calls the “isness” of the world, or “isness without boundaries.” In fact, after conversations with Buddhist leaders, Keating came to a description of God they could all agree on: “ultimate reality.” In this context you could also define God as what Lao Tzu called the Tao, or, simply, “the sacred.” Similarly, the Talmud says of God, “He is the place of the world; the world is not His place.”
When you talk about God as ultimate reality or the sacred, and if you see religion as a way of relating to the world in a dignified way—a broker for grace—then the religion discussion becomes much less charged. Nobody’s trying to get you to believe something ridiculous. Instead, we’re simply talking about a philosophy of living.
In response to my question about Barry Lopez’s “dignity,” Ingber and Thomas both described a faith that has the goal of bringing the natural world into harmony with people, bringing the divine to everyday experience. As Ingber writes, “Religion seeks (at its best) to illuminate our eyes, that is to actualize our capacity to realize, apprehend, see (with the eye of Spirit) that there is nothing but G-d, everywhere, now and always.”
The idea of the divinization of the world—of our lives—is a powerful and unifying concept tying together religion and the climate challenge. It means that it doesn’t matter what direction we come from; most people, religious or secular or something in between, can agree on common goals. An atheist might be envisioning an ideal society running on renewable energy, and others might have the same vision but see that as the true meaning of “God’s will be done” on Earth. Heaven must look like a sustainable society.
And yet, for someone like me, the question is, how do you talk about religious ideas, or use words like “grace” and “redemption” and “compassion” in a business context, which is all about return on investment (ROI), net operating income (NOI), cash flow, and year-on-year growth?
Aspen Skiing Company is a good case study. In 1994, our mission, though unstated, was to make money by selling lift tickets. That’s not very inspiring. Our incoming CEO at the time, Pat O’Donnell, tapping into the idea that people’s lives are, ultimately, a search for meaning, suggested that people won’t happily come to work each day to make money for the bossman. Instead, we needed a set of guiding principles that would be based in values, not profits, though business success could certainly become one of those values. What resulted was a core mission for the company that sounds radical to the point of froofiness: “We provide opportunity for the renewal of the human spirit.” Come to work to do that, and suddenly things change. Your mission as a company begins to evolve. We’re more successful than ever, but that’s in part because we’ve begun to see ourselves, and our mission, differently. Perhaps our role, in part, is providing safe, gratifying work to members of the community, creating fulfilling jobs about which people can be proud. Perhaps business can be graceful. If that transition is happening in one corporation, it can happen in others.
And the business community is indeed slowly moving in this direction. It started, in part, with books like Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce and his and Amory and Hunter Lovins’s Natural Capitalism. Their argument was that capitalism is wonderful, but it has never been practiced. We’ve always discounted the value of the natural (and human) world and the costs of our impacts on it. Making the costs of air pollution, climate change, and fisheries destruction part of the business equation—and recognizing the true value of the natural resources we use as feedstocks—would in fact be a divine act: it would mean the business community finally seeing not just the bottom line but the entire world as sacred. It would mean seeing the dignity of the world, the harm in damaging it, and the vision of a sustainable future.
It is there. It has always been there. Can we see it?
THERE IS A MOVEMENT within many religions called the contemplative tradition. Contemplation, or contemplative prayer, is a form of meditation, the goal of which is to cultivate an understanding of and relationship with the divine—the life force, the ultimate reality of the world. That ultimate reality might be a dignity that includes not just all living things, but all things. Father Thomas Keating has called the entire contemplative tradition simply “a long and loving look at what is.” He’s now eighty-five, and living at the St. Benedict Monastery in Old Snowmass, Colorado, not far from Aspen Skiing Company’s slopes.
I decided to meet with Keating, a leader in this field, because the practice of contemplation is in effect the same thing as the practice of trying to solve climate change; both are an effort to pursue the divinization, the making sacred of the world and of ourselves. That’s couched in religious terms, but pagans like me might simply call that state of grace “global sustainability.” It’s the same idea, though markedly less poetic.
You could argue that the world today is utterly missing the clarity Keating’s contemplation is meant to provide, and that’s why we haven’t moved more quickly on climate change. You couldn’t get farther from what Keating calls a “radical participation” in the reality of the world than, for example, Star magazine and Us Weekly. Those magazines—just like a public obsession with sports or video games—simply take our attention off what matters. If the public at large needs a clearer view of the world, so do businesspeople and politicians, who both base decisions on short time frames—quarterly reports or election cycles that are meaningless without any kind of broader worldview for context.
To someone who asks, “I want to establish a relationship with the divine. Can I come to your monastery?” Keating might reply, “You can have that relationship anywhere, and should.” My conversation with Keating reminded me of the many phone calls I get from eager, young, well-educated college graduates who desperately want to get into the “sustainability field.” My response is that given the scale of the problems, every job must become a sustainability job. So one approach is to look for ways to turn your own position into one that addresses climate change. If every job doesn’t become a climate job, we’re not going to solve the problem. Even if you work for the worst of the worst—let’s say it’s ExxonMobil—we need people inside the beast. We need moles. And there isn’t a job in the world that doesn’t somehow influence the changing climate.
My forays into religious thinking revealed to me, above all, a desire within humanity to live in a dignified world. This is Walter Bennett’s vision while holding his grandchild; it’s what Bob Janes aspires to when he warms up his truck each morning in Juneau. Their urges, hopes, and desires are the deeply rooted, very powerful forces that have been part of human experience always.
This is a hopeful concept: maybe humans are hard-wired to durably engage, participate in, and relish the challenge of solving climate change, because it offers us a shot at just this dignity.
And maybe something even better: maybe we can’t help but do it.