First, Compassion

by Rev. Clare Butterfield

When we consider the morality of our presence on this lovely and fragile little planet we can start with some entry-level considerations: frugality is good according to most of our faith traditions. We might just start with that. But eventually bigger issues will have to be addressed as more and more of the world decides that it wants the same standard of living that Western people have enjoyed for decades, and as Western people, especially Americans, probe the Earth for fossil fuels at a dizzying rate without, apparently, regard for the consequences.

I suppose since the beginning of human existence, all people have sat at a point of decision: right now we can envision a world in which people learn to value the land itself — for its food production capacity, for the way it cleans our water, and for all the nonhuman living things that rely on it. Or we can dig into it for every fossil mineral we can get our hands on, to burn or to build, from rare minerals to coal to fracking for natural gas. If we go that second route we’ll leave nothing behind us but death and destruction, though neither death nor destruction was the goal.

So those entry-level moral questions no longer seem to be enough. We ought to ask what kind of animal we are and why we do the things we do. Why is it that for some of us the idea of fracking the shale layer — at the cost of poisoning the water supply — is clearly an appalling thing to do, but for others of us it’s simply a way of securing a fuel stock? How is it possible for reasonable, moral people to think so differently? To assume that only one group is reasonable and moral is a mistake — and it also won’t get us anywhere, as we ought to know by now. Money clearly plays a role in all this, and a big one, but it’s not the only influence.

Much seems to hinge on how our imagination works. Some of us think big-picture and long-term, and do it very naturally and by preference. Others are focused on the short term and on achieving a specific end, and may think more about the morality of working hard and supporting their families, and less about long-term environmental impacts. All of these points of view have legitimacy, and name-calling by either group is unhelpful. We have got to come together as a people to cultivate a vision about what kind of world we’re after. It frightens me to think what will happen if we don’t.

Thus far we in the environmental arena have been best at forecasting doom and polarizing the conversation (not that there hasn’t been plenty of polarizing going on everywhere). But an ethical obligation we may overlook is in how we argue. Are we compassionate and kind in the way we state our concerns, and in how we view and treat those who may actively disagree with us? If we thought more about the means we are using (whether our descriptions of the future allow room and scope for imagination and hope) perhaps we would be more successful in gathering the ungathered.

Ministers call this being pastoral — paying attention to the emotional content of whatever is being discussed and to the emotional needs of those discussing it. Instead of trying to frighten people into agreeing with us (however good our data), maybe we want to spend more time simply admitting that we ourselves are frightened, explain why, and then say, unequivocally, that it is possible to describe an alternative that is better than the one we’re making.

Our failure to ignite a broad-based popular movement to stop climate change is in part, I think, a failure to describe what the alternative looks like in some detail, persuasively, and with kindness. We’re too focused on describing disaster. Forecasts of doom do not draw people toward those making them, however right the forecasters may be. Just ask Cassandra. We need to ask ourselves whether we are merely content to be right (assuming that we are) — or if we really want to have a conversation.

I’m not suggesting that everything will change for the better if we think more compassionately about the people we address, and if we act with greater kindness toward our audience (kindness which includes allowing avenues for hope in this perishing world). Once we’ve learned to speak differently, then we’ll still have to figure out what to do about the influence of money. But I think our experience of one another would change for the better, and I can only suspect that the outcomes would be better as well.

Rev. Clare Butterfield is an ordained Unitarian Universalist community minister. She is the Director of Faith in Place, an interfaith environmental ministry in Chicago that gives religious people tools to become better stewards of Creation.