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The Calamity Has Begun: The Problem of Economic & Religious Beliefs

Jonathan Schell died recently. His legacy starts with a 1982 book, The Fate of the Earth, which galvanized awareness of the "unthinkable" consequences of nuclear war. In a conversation with Bill McKibben just before his death, Schell recapped the limited response to his warnings about nuclear dangers and compared them to warnings about climate change.

Schell said the same dynamic was at work: "despite ample scientific warning … we [are] headed toward catastrophe." While we may understand individual and group loss, he said, "When it comes to extinction we're left with a kind of blank." He added, "The essence of the matter…is what religious people say about taking care of creation."

Schell probably knew the Hopi prophecies about taking care of creation, delivered to the world via the United Nations on several occasions, starting in the 1940's. Hopi prophecies about the natural balance of the world predate the anti-nuclear and climate change movements by millennia. The Hopi speak from deep experience and spiritual tradition, not just recent scientific data.

Thomas Banyacya, interpreter for the Hopi hereditary Kikmongwis, explained in a message to the 1976 United Nations Conference on Human Settlements, "We have seen this destruction … before, we do not want to see it happen again, when mankind had put more emphasis on material rather than spiritual things, when laws of nature were interfered [with] and ignored and the world was destroyed."

Banyacya emphasized the Hopi are "not against other religions or beliefs," but are "opposed to those who try to destroy a people or a nation in the name of a religion." He may have had in mind the infamous Biblical command of the God of Abraham, father to the Judeo-Christian-Muslim religious complex, to "subdue the earth"—the foundation of colonialism and domination of Nature for centuries.

"Christian Discovery," the legal doctrine still enforced in the U.S. and other countries, is built on the Abrahamic religious command. The same command undergirds an economics of "resource" extraction extending around the world, treating nature as a bunch of "things" to be exploited.

That extractive system regards maximization of "gross domestic product" (GDP) as the primary economic goal, measuring national wealth as the "market value of the goods and services produced by a nation’s economy during a specific period of time." All economic activity, from food production to oil pollution cleanup, is included in GDP.

Keeping in mind that food may be "good" and oil pollution "bad," we begin to see that even an oil spill contributes to national "wealth," because the cleanup activities are counted in the GDP! The actual harm to the natural world is not easily—if at all—measurable as a negative in GDP. Only the cleanup is easily measured, as a positive value, in costs of labor and materials.

Economic principles built on exploitive practices, with roots in a religious tradition, are the culprit behind the unfolding ecological catastrophe. The Hopi warnings are directed at the roots of this convergence of destructive belief and activity.

Schell and McKibben do not put their foremost attention on spiritual discourse. Instead, they focus on scientific data, obtained through the standard repertory of experiments and observations. Whatever attention the ecological movement gives to spiritual approaches is typically couched in generic terms, with no deep analysis of divergent trends in religious dogmas and doctrines.

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In the case of Christianity, for example, the ecology and anti-nuclear movements typically cite generalized statements of concern by contemporary religious speakers, without examining ways in which the various religions may be implicated in the destruction of nature or the imbalance of human relations to the rest of creation. This approach may be necessary to avoid antagonizing people or provoking a "blame game," but it results in a failure to understand the roots of the problems.

As Schell told McKibben, "Somehow the public has not grasped the very, very special, unique, weird character of this whole thing (the nuclear and carbon crises)." Schell said he found "People aren't in denial about climate change, but they sighingly say, 'Isn't it terrible?' And I'm sure it's because they lack faith in the system to change anything." This points to the very core of the problem: faith.

Faith in creation, in life, in our power as humans to understand nature and to interact in balance with all our relations: this is the ecological core and the core ecological problem. How can a person whose deepest faith is tied to ancient doctrines and practices of domination come to grips with the crises brought about by that domination? A faith rooted in domination will not produce the way to live in balance, until the original domination is seen, understood, and rejected.

To be specific, those who today want to talk about the Abrahamic God loving all creation have to face the fact that this same God is the font of terrible commands of devastation, commands that have led generations of "God fearing" believers to commit numberless atrocities in the name of faith against "non-believers." That is a true "crisis of faith." It underlies the environmental crisis at a depth almost unimaginable.

This crisis of religious faith parallels the crisis caused by the disjunction between the economic principle of maximizing GDP and the environmental consequences of that principle. Every corporation or government that today expresses a commitment to "protecting Nature" is coming face to face with the disjunction. The ecological crisis is rooted in the combined dysfunctions of self-contradictory religious and economic beliefs and practices.

In a commentary on F. Sherwood Rowland, the scientist who discovered in the 1970s that chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) destroy the earth's protective ozone layer, Elizabeth Kolbert notes that the first major report on climate change was published by the US National Academy of Sciences at the request of President Jimmy Carter. Kolbert writes, "It's been clear since that time what needs to be done…. Carbon emissions produced by burning fossil fuels…have to be phased out."

Kolbert adds, "Currently, instead of discouraging fossil-fuel use, the U.S. government underwrites it, with tax incentives for producers worth about four billion dollars a year." There's the dysfunctional economic, political interlock rooted in a faith of domination. The recent (fifth!) report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change confirms and amplifies all the previous reports, but political leaders from George H. W. Bush to Barack Obama have "had better things to do" than to address the problem.

When Thomas Banyacya finally succeeded in 1992—his fourth attempt—to speak to the United Nations, only a few delegates stayed to listen. He said, "Nature itself does not speak with a voice that we can easily understand. Neither can the animals and birds we are threatening with extinction talk to us. Who in this world can speak for nature and the spiritual energy that creates and flows through all life? In every continent are human beings who are like you but who have not separated themselves from the land and from nature. It is through their voice that Nature can speak to us."

Nature is still speaking, not always with a Native voice. The calamity is no longer looming, but happening. It seems we are learning the hard way where to put our faith.

Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was Staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.