A “higher power” was invoked last month at NYU’s Climate Action Conference as a rabbi, two ministers, and activists representing a variety of backgrounds all posited that, far beyond politics, there are spiritual and moral imperatives for protecting the environment.

The two-day conference—hosted by NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts along with the Hip Hop Caucus and the Justice Action Mobilization Network—brought together leading climate activists, scholars, politicians, and artists to discuss social change, the water crisis, and building an inclusive green economy. Advocates explained how the most vulnerable communities are the most affected by environmental issues, even as they are the least responsible for climate change. Health professionals described climate change as a public health crisis, and leaders of climate action organizations offered tips for proving to others that we are in a climate emergency.

In one panel, Reverend Rodney Sadler, associate professor at Union Presbyterian Seminary, interpreted the call to climate change action as a spiritual, moral, and religious duty. Others who pondered the topic of “Climate Change, Spirituality and Morality” included Rudy Arredondo, president and CEO of the National Latino Farmers & Ranches Trade Association; Wes Clark, Jr., co-founder of Shared Mission and Veterans Stand for Standing Rock; Rev. Dr. Gerald L. Durley, pastor of Providence Missionary Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and veteran of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s; Alec Loorz, founder of iMatter and Circle of Fire; Karen Monahan, senior organizer for the Sierra Club; and Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder and director of The Shalom Center.

As we celebrate Earth Day, here’s a look at some of the highlights from that discussion.  

photo: on stage at climate action conference

The Relationship Between People and the Earth

The Hebrew words ha’adam, meaning human being, and adamah, meaning Earth, are completely different from the English words for human and environment. The environment means it’s out there somewhere, but ha’adam, the human, and adamah, the Earth, are intertwined just the way the words in Hebrew are intertwined. In fact, the creation story in the Torah and Old Testament describes birth of ha’adam from adamah—so “Mother Earth” is really how the Bible explains that relationship. And the intertwining continues—it doesn’t end with the birthing.”
—Rabbi Arthur Waskow
“Right now, the dominant narrative is one of separation. We are told that we are separate from one another, from other communities, and especially from everything that is not human. That’s allowed for a creation of an economic system built solely on exploitation which has wrecked absolute havoc on landscapes across the world, threatening the stability of our global climate.”
—Alec Loorz
“How many here are involved in agriculture? Now, how many of you eat? You’re in agriculture! As [a person of Aztec descent], a land-based people, the land is sacred, water is life, and the sky is a means by which to guide us to plant the crops and harvest. We have to ensure that we protect the land, that we do not deplete the nutrients, that we do not contaminate the water, and that we utilize natural and traditional agricultural processes so that we aren’t poisoning people. It’s important for consumers to be aware of the practices, because the pollution from those [Big Agriculture] processes make us sick.”
—Rudy Arredondo
“The teaching that we are intertwined with the Earth is at the heart of the Hebrew Bible, which is essentially a spiritual expression of an earthy people who lived on the land, who were shepherds and farmers and who understood the connection and who knew you had to heal the land, protect the land, support the land, and let the land rest.”
—Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Connections Between Environmental Destruction and Other Systems of Oppression

Panelists referenced religious teachings which indicate that we are not only connected to the Earth, but also to one another, to assert that we have a moral responsibility to care for one another and our home.

“I had been beyond agnostic and bordering atheistic my entire adult life, but hearing [about police attacks on protestors against the Dakota Access Pipeline] brought me back to memories of being a child sitting in Mass and hearing ‘That which you do to the least of my brothers, you do to me.’ And it just lit this fire in my heart and I spent about six weeks trying to get everyone I knew to help Standing Rock and nobody would help. And I felt like a vibration in my heart, an intuition that was like, ‘Go,’ and I accepted it and went out there.”
—Wes Clark, Jr.
“We have this illusion of separateness. We go about climate change as if it’s the ultimate problem, but it’s really a symptom of a corrupt system. Climate change stems from racial and economic injustice—you can’t deal with it any other way. Why would someone want to create a system to exploit a human being, to exploit a group of people who came from the Divine, to exploit the very thing they come from, that they are made of—Mother Earth—for ‘stuff’?”
—Karen Monahan
“Racial and economic injustice are symptoms of a spiritual void, and that is the illusion of separateness we have to get rid of—the disconnect from God, Allah, the Divine, and the Universe. We need a shift in consciousness where I can look at you, and I can see myself in you, and where you can look at me, and see yourself in me, and know that we are connected and part of Mother Earth.”
—Karen Monahan
“I do a lot of traveling to rural America, which has been neglected for time eternal. Having grown up in and continuing to work in those communities, where military service is the only economic outlet for some of those folks…we need to do better. They are wonderful and caring human beings who know the Earth, and they love the Earth, but they have been sidetracked by believing they are lesser than they really are. We need to help heal those that are hurting at this time.”
—Rudy Arredondo
“At this time, many people, especially young people, are beginning to question the dominant story and as we do, we sort of enter a limbo state—a hybrid between stories. I feel like faith has an important role to play within that time, reminding us that we are participants in the greater community of life, teaching us to listen to the voices of all who are not human and to recognize the deep suffering of the world and to grieve for it. And I feel like once we are open to the grief of all that is lost we will see that we, too, have been injured by the culture of domination.”
—Alec Loorz
“I never thought that 57 years [after the Civil Rights Movement] that we would be in the same position fighting for civil and human rights: the right to clean air, the right to fresh water, and the right to a healthy way of life.”
— Rev. Dr. Gerald L. Durley

Lessons from Religious Texts

Panelists also drew parallels to how religious texts explain what will happen to the Earth as a result of humanity’s ills.

“The story we are living through right now is [that of Exodus]. Pharaoh not only oppressed, brutalized, and murdered human beings but also brought plagues upon the planet because of his arrogance, cruelty, and stubbornness. If you think about it, each one of the plagues is an ecological disaster—such as the ‘unheard of hailstorms’, as the Torah says. This is a story of the danger of power getting addicted to its own power but it is also the story of the uprising of people moved by the living breathing spirit of all life.”
—Rabbi Arthur Waskow
“What we are living through right now is unique in human history. I have children that are 11 and 13 and they will be the last human generation on Earth unless we do something. We will be rendered extinct unless we organize properly. So, if you look at this through a religious lens, we are living in the end times. What does that mean? I don’t think it means the extinction of the human race, I think it means the end of this horrible oppressive system we’ve been living under. It’s a very clear moral decision. But our country, as it has been for most of its history, is immoral, driven by pride, violence, hatred, malice, greed, and lust—everything that religion tells us is bad. That is what we have staring us in the face. So, the question is: what are you willing to do about it?”
—Wes Clark, Jr.

photo: Rabbi Waskow on stage at Climate Action Conference

Photo Courtesy of Tisch Initiative for Creative Research

A Divine Vision for the Future

“The most powerful form of social change is collapsing the distance between the future and the present. The sit-in movement didn’t start out by saying, ‘we are going to get Congress to change the law.’ They didn’t start out by saying, ‘we are so disgusted that we are going to blow up these segregated restaurants.’ They said, 'we imagine a future where we can all eat at the same restaurant. So, it’s not going to be in the future. We are going to do it right now and they are going to have to figure out how to deal with us.' That is what we need to create in the climate care and the earth care movement.”
—Rabbi Waskow
“These problems are coming much faster than anyone fully understands. We are basically at the start of a J-curve. We were born to be here at this time, to do this work. The whole digital revolution was one of knowledge and connection and what it has done more than anything else is opened people’s eyes to the common humanity that we all share. People say I’m a leader, but I’m not a leader. I’m just a dude, and you’re all dudes, and dudettes, too. All of us are familiar with the story of the hero’s journey and can answer that call.”
—Wes Clark, Jr.
“We’ve made a big mistake, as a people, and now we share the responsibility for healing those wounds to the soul and to the Earth. The vision is collective so I cannot articulate it for everyone, as it requires us all to come together and listen to one another, but I think key pieces are remembering that communities are connected and that everything has a voice—wolves, salmon, song birds, trees, and the wind that flows through them. All have spirits and are mysterious, intelligent, and incomprehensibly awesome. There is a vision emerging in all of us, and despite the darkness of our times, I do feel excited to see this transition unfold.”
—Alec Loorz
“We were willing to sacrifice and we were willing to risk. But for us to go against the system of racism, there had to be something greater than us. Seven years ago, climate change was not in my scope of understanding. I couldn’t have cared less whether the polar bear made it to the glacier or about what people were saying about Carbon Dioxide, but I did know something was wrong. And when something is wrong, I believe there is a God who can fix it if I am willing to sacrifice and join forces with others of the same mind. We must understand that there is a God who sits high and looks low. God gave us a perfectly balanced ecological world and we destroyed it. We treat it like a rental car!”
—Rev. Dr. Gerard L. Durley 

A Movement of Love

“In the words of Dr. King, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love.’ And love is the ultimate solution to the all of these injustices that we see. I believe the Divine is Love and if I come from the Divine, I must be made of love, too. And this really is a movement of love and it starts within ourselves.”
—Karen Monahan
“I’m very fortunate that with the help of many mentors, I’m able to continue my work keeping in mind what my parents have taught me about the interaction among human beings—respecting and treating each other as equals. We are interconnected and we need to take care of each other. You being here means you are caring and now you are our connection to even more communities and are part of the answer.”
—Rudy Arredondo
“In order to succeed as a civilization, we’ve all got to answer that call. Don’t think veterans are going to do it. Don’t think some secretive CIA or FBI agent is going to ride in and save the day. Nobody is going to save you. Nobody but you. You have to do it.”
—Wes Clark, Jr.
“I really feel good passing the torch on and I feel comforted listening to the young people here and looking at the audience. It feels good that you can finally sit down and say, hey, pick it up! Run on! Don’t stop! Don’t quit! Don’t back up, don’t bend down, and don’t bow! Move on!”
—Rev. Dr. Gerald L. Durley
“We have an opportunity. The veil has been lifted. None of this is new. But we have a responsibility when we are doing this work to not perpetuate the very same thing we say we are against—the illusion of separateness—by judging each other and engaging in turf wars and all of that. We can’t say, you’re either for this or for that, you’re either with us or against us. I think of Dr. King’s words: ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Climate justice, economic justice, racial justice—it’s all the same. Our humanity is tied up in each other’s, so if there is an injustice anywhere, it is all of our job to make sure that we are standing arm in arm and that we are moving forward to make sure that we can transform all these injustices.”
—Karen Monahan


Rev. Sadler closed the panel with a final quote from Dr. King:

“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”