The prime minister of Hungary was welcomed at the White House. He is a person who has reactionary positions regarding immigration and refugees and who preaches about the need to maintain a Christian Europe.
The people of the Philippines, a majority Catholic country, gave their current president an overwhelming majority in their legislature. He faces allegations of authoritarianism, sexism and human rights violations. He also wants to reinstate the death penalty.
Then I saw the May 27th issue of Time magazine with Greta Thunberg on the cover, and the focus for the reflection began to emerge. Greta is the Swedish 16-year-old who has been speaking out and encouraging students to strike for climate change. She has spoken to the U.K. Parliament, the U.N. Climate Change COP24 conference in Poland, the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and has met the pope. Many young people see the climate change issue as an intergenerational injustice. They don’t believe that the older generations are doing enough to address it.
Thunberg believes that “once we start behaving as if we were in an existential crisis, then we can avoid a climate and ecological breakdown. … But the opportunity to do so will not last for long. We have to start today.”
According to my dictionary, an existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions if one’s life has meaning, purpose, or value. Climate change is not just an individual crisis; rather, it is the collective, communal crisis for all of us living on our Earth home.
Climate change seen in this way brings us face to face with the core questions of every human person. Who are we? Why are we here? What do we care about? Faith and religion have tried to address such questions and offer ways of responding.
However, the way that Christianity is too often interpreted — so as to justify authoritarian leaders and narrowly focus the value of life in public policy — no longer offers us a way forward.
Greta is asking us to think differently. She is asking us, the older generations, to let go of our myopic view of who we are-why we are here-what we care about and expand our consciousness.
Who are we? To address climate change, we cannot see ourselves isolated within our own “tribe” be it race, gender, nationality or even species. This existential crisis asks us to see ourselves in a world-centric way. We are all connected. What we do affects the climate, and the climate is not separated by national boundaries. No wall can be built to keep us safe.
We are also connected to other species. On May 6, 2019, the United Nations released its “Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.” The Report addresses the great variety of living species — at least 8 million* that we know of, and there could be more — that make up our “life-supporting safety net,” providing our food, clean water, air, energy and more. It forecasts that one million species may be pushed to extinction in the next few years.
It goes on to address how our forests, oceans and other parts of nature soak up 60% of global fossil fuel emissions every year. A secure biosphere protects the climate and acts as a buffer to extreme weather events.
Reflecting on who we are at this time invites us to feel our connection to other sentient and non-sentient beings. To become conscious of how nature works to enhance life on Earth and for all species. Bringing these realizations to contemplation releases our fears of the “other” and sense of separation and offers a new way of understanding that we are all creatures sharing in the life of God.
A volunteer picks up trash at Freedom Island, a marshland considered to be a sanctuary for birds, fish and mangroves in a coastal area of Las Pinas City, near Manila, Philippines, April 2015. (CNS/Reuters/Romeo Ranoco)
Reflecting on why we are here invites us to see ourselves as active participants in bringing about the kindom of God. Bringing these realizations to contemplation opens our hearts to know God in new ways; to expand our capacity to love; and to be willing to serve the evolutionary process so as to bring the fullness of life to our planet.
What do we care about? That question needs to be rethought in a culture that has prized consumerism, wealth and individualism above all other values. Depression and suicide rates among young people have been rising since 2009, according to a 2019 report in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Although there are many contributing factors, I believe the absence of having something to live for that is greater than one’s self is certainly one. The health of our Earth home is a valuable, inspirational goal to which each and every one of us can contribute.
Reflecting on what we care about invites us to examine whether we make economic and political choices that value biodiversity, renewable energy and a healthy environment — so as to move us toward a fossil-fuel-free world. Bringing these realizations to contemplation releases in us a willingness to live for something greater than ourselves; to live in ways that will ensure that future generations will live life fully.
Greta is correct. Climate change is an existential crisis. Her call is the call from the future — the future generations who want to live. It has a claim on all of us — right now! It is the claim to work for the right to life for our Earth home.
From Pope Francis’ “Laudato Si’: On care for our common home,” paragraph 159:
Once we start to think about the kind of world we are leaving to future generations, we look at things differently; we realize that the world is a gift which we have freely received and must share with others. … Intergenerational solidarity is not optional, but rather a basic question of justice, since the world we have received also belongs to those who will follow us.
*An earlier version of this column gave an incorrect number.
[Nancy Sylvester is founder and director of the Institute for Communal Contemplation and Dialogue. She served in leadership of her own religious community, the Sister Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Monroe, Michigan, as well as in the presidency of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Prior to that, she was national coordinator of Network, the national Catholic social justice lobby. You may be interested in the current ICCD program, “Enter the Chaos: Engage the Differences to Make a Difference.” For information go to iccdinstitute.org.