By Deb Markowitz
Last week I had an opportunity to spend some time with an older gentleman who has lived in the hills of Vermont his whole life. As he showed me his land, he shared his belief that more Vermonters are environmental stewards than folks in other states because we are connected to the land. He went on to suppose that the churches aren’t as full in Vermont as some of those other places because so many Vermonters experience their own spirituality in the out-of-doors.
Perhaps he is right. When I am surrounded by the abundant life and beauty of the natural world it feeds my spirit, and I often see how Vermonters’ personal ties to our lakes, mountains, fields and forests lead them to fight to protect the land and water. It is as though we ascribe to the Native American proverb: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
It has long been debated by theologians whether there is a moral obligation to be stewards of the earth. For that reason, it is no small thing when a world religious leader calls upon the faithful to be dedicated to environmental action. That is what Pope Francis did when he declared September 1st a day for “Care of Creation.”
This follows his encyclical on climate change, in which he called for a new partnership between science and religion to combat human caused climate change and listed specific actions we should all be taking to limit our consumption of the world’s resources and to protect the planet for future generations. With 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, this call for an “ecological conversion” of the faithful can be a powerful catalyst for meaningful social change.
The Pope is not the only religious leader to address the moral imperative to change the way we live so that the earth can continue to nourish and provide a good life to all beings, present and future. The Dalai Lama, the leader of Tibetan Buddhists, and a spiritual teacher known world-wide has said: “Among the thousands of species of mammals on earth, we humans have the greatest capacity to alter nature. [It is our] responsibility to undo the serious environmental degradation that is the result of incorrect human behavior . . . Humanity must take the initiative to repair and protect the world.”
Here in Vermont we have an active faith community including Christians, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and many others who experience spirituality outside of churches and temples. Across all these faiths, we have long known that our lives and livelihoods are so intertwined with nature that we cannot separate ourselves from it. This knowledge comes with an imperative to act.
As a Jew, I am reminded every year of our obligation to take care of the planet. Rosh Hashanah–one of the Jewish religion’s High Holidays–celebrates the anniversary of creation. This is a time for Jewish people to reflect on our lives and on our relationships to one another, and to rededicate ourselves to “Tikkun Olam”–healing the world.
The Pope’s call to action reminds each of us, whatever our faith, to explore a pressing question: Does humanity have a moral obligation to respect and protect the earth and all of its abundance for all living things and for generations not yet born, or does the earth exist for our sustenance alone?
I was recently at a conference for people from across the U.S. who work on climate change. During the opening session, a woman came to the microphone and spoke a simple poem that expressed her own spiritual motivation to lighten her footprint on the earth. “There is an illusion that I can’t make a difference. ‘I am just one person,’ said the collective billions. But I am not here to do everything, I am here to do something,” she said.
And with each of us doing “something” we can change the world.
Deb Markowitz is secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.