Copenhagen, the Land and Our Witness

Copenhagen, the Land and Our Witness

by Craig Uffman

Recent headlines include news of the United Nations meeting in Copenhagen on global climate concerns. Because the goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in order to mitigate climate changes has such profound economic - and therefore, political - consequences, it seems likely that we will witness an intensified public relations battle as the leaders of nations gather to negotiate our commitments to one another.


When it comes to the science of climate change, I am not even an amateur yet. I know only what oceanography I learned in the Navy and what I have gleaned in my hobbies of environmental ethics and economics. What I do know about what happens in Copenhagen derives mostly from my vocation as a disciple striving to follow the Way of Christ. And that vocation leads me to suggest that the most important thing that most of us can do as we overhear the debates is to listen to them first and foremost as persons summoned out of the world to live within the world in such a way that our common life illumines the world. In short, our individual and corporate environmental ethics are matters of discipleship.

I confess that I am too ignorant of the science involved to venture opinions on whether or not the temperatures of the earth are actually rising, or whether or not our consumption patterns are contributing negligently to such a rise in temperatures, or whether the goal of capping our global temperatures at 2 degrees Celcius above pre- industrial temperatures will make any difference whatsoever. But I don't need to have strong opinions on these in order to recognize that a profound question of ethics arises when we Americans are responsible for 20% of the world's pollution of the earth's atmosphere through emissions of greenhouse gases. And I don't need to be certain of the facts about global warming to be thankful that the pledge we Americans will make at Copenhagen is to reduce our own emissions "by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2025, 42 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050" (NY Times, "Meeting on Climate Opens With Calls for Urgent Action", December 7, 2009).

I don't need to be certain about the facts of global warming in order to welcome a commitment by the U.S. government to reduce our pollution because I am already certain of my identity as a disciple of Jesus Christ. That identity calls me to repent of all actions which harm the land given to humankind, as Wendell Berry says, "to live, not on, but with and from, and only on the condition that we care properly for it." Indeed, I don't need to be certain about the science of global warming in order to repent of actions which harm the earth precisely because the witness of Scripture is that the land with and from which we are to live is part of the divine Mystery of our relation to God and each other. That Mystery, because of our finitude and alienation from the creation of which we are a part, will always eclipse our efforts to comprehend it. Our science will always fall short of the Truth about the land. We proclaim this poetically through our oblations of wine and bread. We, who come from and will return to mere humus, learn to embody humility as we consider eucharistically the gift of the land. Our worship of God precludes its profanation. All land is holy land when we live rightly with and from it.

There are those who say that we Americans should not commit to reducing our pollution of the atmosphere of the earth unless the other nations make similar commitments. Such a commitment, it is said, would put North America in a strategic disadvantage in the competition for global economic resources. That may be a practical consequence of such a commitment. But, as disciples, we are called to a Sabbath life that reverences the earth and all creatures precisely through our commitment to a common life that proclaims, against the world's teachings, that God has already provided and will continue to provide all that we need to live in holy friendships with one another. We are those called to tell the world about the bread and the fish and the land of milk and honey. We are those given eyes to see the land not as a resource but as a subject of reverence given, like our neighbor, as gift. Our gentle forbearance, especially in this Advent season, is one of the ways that we proclaim the good news of the God who is ever for us, with us, and on the way.

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