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Karenna Gore in inter-religious action

Reversing environmental degradation on a planetary scale, curbing global warming and eliminating immense inequalities are 21st century challenges that demand the utmost in human wisdom in politics, economics, culture and spirituality. When imagination and spirit are lacking in pragmatic processes, religiosity can be a source of inspiration to join forces and open new paths. On November 8, in the context of the Brazilian Conference on Climate Change, a historic meeting brought together Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, Afro-Brazilian and Indigenous leaders, in an interfaith event, in defense of the environment at the oldest Synagogue of the Americas - Kahal Zur Israel (2 pm) and at the SinsPire Hub (4 pm), in Recife Antigo.

The "Faith in the Climate" event brought together Rabbi Nilton Bonder; Father Fábio Santos, coordinator of the Commission for Ecumenism of the Catholic Church of Pernambuco; Pastor Paulo César Pereira, president of the Baptist Alliance of Brazil; Mother Beth de Oxum, Ialorixá from Terreiro Ilê Axé Oxum Karê and Jaqueline Xukuru, from the Xukuru indigenous community (Serra do Ororubá, Pesqueira - PE).

The event was a co-hosting of Centro Brasil no Cima (CBC), the Institute for Religious Studies (ISER), the Faith in Climate initiative and the Climate and Society Institute (ICS), with the support of the Israelite Federation of Pernambuco (FIPE), chaired by Sônia Sette.

The program, mediated by environmentalist Alfredo Sirkis, was attended by Karenna Gore, Director of the Center for Earth Ethics, graduated in history and literature by Harvard University, daughter of former US Vice President Al Gore, who has intense international environmental activism. Karenna works with ecumenical mobilization in defense of climate balance and in this exclusive interview, synthesized the importance of connecting material and immaterial dimensions in the search for consistent solutions to the great problems of humanity.

Originally published in Portuguese – Diario de Pernambuco – November 8, 2019

By: Sérgio Xavier

Does planet Earth have a natural ethic that can be perceived, learned and practiced by humanity in building a just and sustainable civilization?

Karenna Gore: Yes. Ethics is a field of core values. It becomes especially important when laws and social norms are out of sync with matters of moral conscience. For example, this happened regarding the end of the horrific institution of slavery. More and more influential people began to think about it through an ethical or moral lens, rather than a purely utilitarian economic lens. In the case of planet Earth, the activities that are degrading and destroying the biosphere are legal and in line with social norms. However, more and more people are coming to awareness that this system has come into conflict with ethical concerns about the most vulnerable peoples among us - and also in conflict with the laws of nature. We can perceive, learn, and practice natural ethics by observing and aligning ourselves with the laws of nature, whether we conceive them as science or as God’s sacred Creation, or both. If we want to build a just and sustainable civilization, we should measure the impacts of big decisions on three voiceless groups in the decision making: poor and marginalized peoples, future generations, and non-human life. If we pay attention to these categories, the health of the whole will improve for all of us.

The first challenge to avoiding climate change is to convince people, businesses and governments to change perceptions and attitudes towards the environment. How does Center for Earth Ethics working this context?

Karenna Gore: The Center for Earth Ethics bridges the worlds of academia, religion, policy and culture. We believe that scientific data is important, but we also know that this climate crisis is about perception of value, moral obligations to others, and courage to change. If logic and reason were enough, we would not be in this dire emergency. Many people have been educated to believe that humans are separate and superior to the rest of the natural world and so society can spew as much pollution into the air as we want, without any effect. But the truth is more beautiful and interesting than that - we are interconnected with the whole web of life. Our bodies are created from the Earth - air, water, iron and much more. We have simply signed on en masse to an insane accounting scheme that does not acknowledge the actual costs of the fossil fuel extraction economy. The Center for Earth Ethics wants to help us look beyond the current snapshot of prices into the deeper long term reality of value. Therefore, we work with education, offering workshops on topics such as: Religion and Climate Change; Beyond GDP; How to measure a successful society; Indigenous voices on colonization, Ecology and Spirituality; Rights of Nature.

What are the relationships between the environmental crisis and spirituality?

Karenna Gore: One root cause of the environmental crisis is the illusion that humans are separate from nature and can treat all elements and other living beings as objects, resources or properties. A theologian I like, Thomas Berry, taught that we must come to see that “the universe is a communion of subjects, not a collection of objects”. That sense of communion is spiritual.

Nature (sky/heaven, water, forests, animals, earth, humans) is the visible face of the Gods of various religions. So polluting and degrading ecosystems is disrespecting and attacking God. Why do most people worship and respect God, but do not care and not respect nature?

Karenna Gore: There is some history of defining monotheistic religions against animist - or "pagan" - traditions that see nature as having personality and divinity. I think that in some parts of the world, including the Americas, a historical fear and contempt for animist traditions accounts for some of the inability to translate religiosity into truly respectful care for nature. This has also been exploited by those who wage cultural wars for political reasons. There is hope, though, especially because of how innate and natural it is for children to love nature in a genuine way.

To reverse global warming and mitigate climate change, innovation is essential. How traditional religions can encourage creative change in politics, economics and technology?

Karenna Gore: Traditional religions and interfaith dialogue can help foster the creativity and innovation we need to make changes to solve the climate crisis. There is rich cultural knowledge and historical memory held within faith communities. They were forged in a time prior to ingrained dependence on fossil fuels and can help us remember deeper values and more sustainable lifestyles. They can also serve as a force contrary to some prevailing messages from contemporary society such as the confusion of monetary wealth with virtue.

The urgency to reverse global warming requires immediate and large-scale action on all continents. Is interfaith dialogue an effective strategy to accelerate the mobilization of humanity?

Karenna Gore: Diversity always encourages creativity and spiritual diversity in Brazil is a huge strength. Interfaith dialogue can help discern essential common values and reveal how many different colorful ways can be expressed. Some of those common values are care for the poor and vulnerable; the importance of community over competitive individualism; respect for ancestors and future generations; and a sense of the sacred that should be protected from sale and corruption. In reality, not all religious leaders or institutions fulfill these values, but interfaith dialogue can help discern a more pure expression of them as well as celebrate the aspirations we have in common. Mobilization comes from inspiration and also from necessity. Some people are still in denial about the urgency and severity of the climate crisis, but there is something that will touch them or move them eventually. We need all the ancient wisdom we can get to meet this challenge.

In the face of fake news and the denial of climate science, how can interfaith dialogue bring us closer to the truth and inspire actions in defense of peace and life?

Karenna Gore: Interfaith dialogue can show that morality is not simply a matter of following one doctrine or spiritual leader, but is rather a deeper conviction.

In the age of digital networking, how can journalism make truths more attractive and more convenient?

Karenna Gore: In the digital age, journalists can raise voices of people who are suffering the impacts of pollution, deforestation and climate change. In addition, they can show the solutions, especially those that are about living in balance with nature, to demonstrate the way forward.

The building of a sustainable, peaceful, culturally diverse and without poverty civilization depends on material and immaterial developments. Your father, Al Gore, was notable for articulating political, economic and technological solutions to reverse global warming. You engage in interfaith dialogue and the development of spirituality. Is it possible to integrate material and immaterial by creating a new biocentric, collaborative and spiritualized economy?

Karenna Gore: The relationship between matter and spirit is a timeless and fascinating inquiry. After all this time and so many approaches, we still do not seem to have resolved it! Of course, the mystery is part of the beauty. The legacy of dualistic thought, which holds that matter and spirit are separate, is very much present in the mindset of climate denial. In this regard, I believe there is some healing power in the syncretic traditions that have artfully and gracefully blended Indigenous traditions and dominant world religions like Christianity. There is also a new kind of denial, which is based in the idea that we do not need to worry about this crisis, because technology will save us somehow. Of course, it is related to what Pope Francis has referred to as the technocratic paradigm in our society. I believe we need to question this paradigm and invest more time and energy in reconnecting to nature. One benefit of this is that it is better for human health because, after all, we are nature and our species evolved in conditions that were more in sync with natural rhythms and cycles. The epidemics of anxiety and depression may be related to disconnection from nature on several levels. Certainly, the climatic disturbances of the planet are related to the fact that human societies are at war with the laws of nature. At the same time, we need innovative technologies. If we are connected to the deepest sense of ourselves and the ultimate meaning of life, changes can be lasting and have integrity. The material and immaterial are related and can support each other if we reconnect.

President Trump announced this week the formal exit of the Paris Agreement. 25 U.S. governors, from the US Climate Alliance, are making opposite movements, similar to the "Governors for the Climate" initiative in Brazil, which has the participation of Governor Paulo Câmara. With its innovative capacity, the United States would gain much more by leading the transition to the new low-carbon economy. How to convince President Trump to change his mind?

Karenna Gore: The "We Are Still In" movement is very important in the US. There is action and momentum from many subnational actors and also from community movements. We cannot be distracted by the forces of the absurd, no matter how highly placed they are temporarily in our own government.

Leading green movements requires setting examples and showing that behaviors and consumption can be changed. What material and immaterial examples from your daily life might be inspiring to others who want to contribute to climate sustainability?

Karenna Gore: One tactic of those who want to prevent us from changing and avoid mass ecological destruction is to criticize the messengers. They focus on individual human beings, who are imperfect, and do not deal with the crisis. Change needs to occur on many levels at once - individual, community and large-scale change. The latter is the most important, but individuals can give examples. I appreciate how Greta Thunberg did it and, of course, traditional indigenous leaders who have lived low-impact lifestyles for millennia. They are important leaders in ecological and climate justice. For my part, I have little to brag about - I rarely eat meat, I try to fly less, I am conscious as a consumer, I try not to waste energy - I use renewable sources in my home and at work - and so on. But I know that I am part of a high-consumption sector of human society, responsible for this crisis. So, I think the most important thing I can do is raise the voices of people on the front lines and advocate for systemic change.

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