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A Faith-Based Wake-Up Call on Earth Day

Day Offers Opportunity to Reflect on Our Lack of Action

SOURCE: AP/Cliff Owen

A large globe, with the U.S. Capitol in the background, on the Mall as part of Earth Day celebrations in Washington last year.

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See also: Celebrating Earth Day with a Commitment to Environmental Justice by Alejandro Garcia and Jorge Madria

Is it just coincidence, or divine providence, that Earth Day 2011 is also Good Friday? In the midst of budget cut proposals, compromises on services to the poor and needy, and a rush to preserve the wealth of America’s top-earning 1 percent, it is not surprising that the environment is all but forgotten.

Ignoring environmental issues will cost us, too, however. Current efforts to rein in spending and reduce the federal deficit are all done in the name of future generations who, the thinking goes, should not have to shoulder the burden of massive federal debt perpetrated by previous generations. This sounds reasonable. But at the same time we are neglecting climate change and other environmental problems that will affect not just our children and grandchildren but every living thing on earth. What good will a manageable debt be if we can’t breathe the air, drink the water, or withstand the sun’s harmful rays?

The little attention that is paid to the environment in the current budget debate is troubling. For instance, there have been recent attempts to strip the Environmental Protection Agency of its newly won authority to control polluting emissions into the air. Yet this aspect of the budget fight has not been able to break through the larger narrative about deficits, taxes, and government spending.

We see the trickle-down theory actually working on efforts to reverse the progress we’ve made on the environment. Just last week, The New York Times reported on efforts underway in state legislatures to gut environmental progress: Gov. Paul LePage of Maine has announced a 63-point plan to eviscerate environmental regulations in that state; Gov. Rick Scott of Florida is proposing drastic cuts in outlays for land conservation and the allocated budget for restoration of the Everglades; and North Carolina’s Republican-led legislature is proposing a 22 percent cut to their Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

These attacks at the federal and state level are made under the assumption that environmental regulation is the enemy of job creation and hurts economic growth. Recent studies suggest otherwise, though.

A new report by Ceres and the PERI Institute at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, finds vast economic benefits from two Clean Air Act rules expected to be finalized in 2011: the Clean Air Transport Rule and the Utility Maximum Achievable Control Technology.

The report outlines the jobs impact of “investments in pollution controls, new plant construction, and the retirement of older, less efficient coal plants as the country transitions to a cleaner, modernized generation fleet under new EPA clean air standards.” Perhaps it is more than serendipitous that Earth Day 2011 will fall on a religious holiday since the challenges faced by the environment are religious and moral. Both sides of the climate change debate appeal to Genesis 1:28, in which newly created humankind is told by God, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

One side argues that “having dominion over” the created order means using it for our own betterment and treating it as a financial asset to be plundered in the service of humankind’s comfort—a decidedly self-absorbed attitude.

The actual meaning of the Hebrew word used for “dominion” in Genesis has to do with responsible stewardship of creation, not its subjugation. Human dominion should correspond to the kind of dominion exercised by God, which is benevolent and peaceful.

I am old enough to remember the first Earth Day in 1970. I can remember the excitement of that day, the feeling of oneness with the Earth and with one another. It has been over 40 since that first Earth Day. And what do we have to show for our efforts?

Yes, we have made some legislative progress—major amendments to the Clear Air and Water Acts—and some individual progress as even the most remote places find people recycling and turning off lights. But some—many of them in Congress, funded by anti-environmental lobbyists—still argue that global warming is a fiction created by granola-eating liberals.

If, among other things, the crucifixion remembered by Christians on Good Friday is an example of humankind’s blindness and cruelty, then certainly our lack of action on environmental issues is another example of our penchant for blindness to reality and cruelty to future generations.

Maybe what we need to be praying for on Earth Day 2011 is an Easter of sorts, when our nation wakes up to the pressing—even desperate—needs of the Earth and commits itself to passing along to future generations a clean and viable planet.

Without that the national debt will be the least of our worries.

Bishop Gene Robinson is a Senior Fellow at American Progress.

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