Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 198: The Climate Imaginary: Earth Ethics, Spirituality, and Social Justice — with Karenna Gore

Speakers: Kathy Feng, Am Johal, Karenna Gore

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Kathy Feng 0:14
Welcome to ‘The Climate Imaginary,’ a Below the Radar series. As we navigate our future within the ongoing climate emergency, we seek different frameworks to help guide our learning and our actions. In this series, we bring together guests from across artistic and academic disciplines to speak about their approaches to working in solidarity amidst the climate crisis. We feature conversations that range from the unique power of creative works to mobilize people, to the importance of collaboration and interdependence across fields.

Kathy Feng  0:50
Hello listeners! I’m Kathy Feng with Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. On this episode of Below the Radar, our host, Am Johal, is joined by Karenna Gore, founder and executive director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, and author of the book, Lighting the Way. Together, they discuss the collective problem of climate change and the role for interfaith dialogue in the environmental movement. We hope you enjoy the episode!

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Am Johal  1:27
Hello, welcome to Below the Radar. Delighted that you could join us again this week. We're about to go into our last episode of The Climate Imaginary series and we have a special guest with us today, Karenna Gore. Welcome, Karenna.

Karenna Gore  1:43
Thank you so much for having me. I'm very happy to be here talking with you, Am.

Am Johal  1:48
Yeah, Karenna, I wonder if we can start with you introducing yourself a little bit.

Karenna Gore  1:55
Sure. So I'm Karenna Gore. I am the Executive Director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. So that's the short introduction, I don't know how much you want me to go into.

Am Johal  2:11
Anything else you want to add?

Karenna Gore  2:13
Okay, so let's see, in terms of vocation I, I was trained as a lawyer, I worked a little bit as a lawyer. I worked for non-profits like the Association to Benefit Children in New York City. A little bit for Sanctuary for Families, Legal Center, more focused on, I would say, social justice issues in that non-profit work. I wrote a little bit of history about social movements in a book called Lighting the Way. And then I went to Union Seminary, mid-life mid-career at a real turning point in my life, and got a degree there. And I graduated with a Master's in Social Ethics in 2013. And that was, that was really a turning point where I kind of felt called into the work of, of climate and ecology, by virtue of being in sort of a certain place and time in which that work could come out of union. And I was just there to really facilitate it. So we started the Centre, technically, in the spring of April 2015, and I've been doing that work there ever since.

Am Johal  3:22
Karenna, I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about sort of how you first got involved with environment and climate change issues. You know, the Germans have this word, Weltanschauung, it's like, “worldview”, and you know, how you came into this work? Like did it start as a young person? And you know, you mentioned Union Theological Seminary, but clearly, even when you're working on social justice issues, environmental and climate issues are, are close by and adjacent, as well.

Karenna Gore  3:53
Yes, well, I love that you bring that term in and worldview, mindset, belief systems, those are all terms that I think are really relevant to what I work on, and we work on at the Center for Earth Ethics. I grew up around American politics. One of the reasons I went to Union was that I was very interested in the role that social ethics and moral philosophy play in our nation. I feel that ethics is actually you know, it's interesting, it undergirds laws and social norms in a society, right. But it's most powerful when there's a deep sense of right and wrong. That really is a gut level feeling that humans have. Its most powerful, when, not deep sense of right and wrong is out of step with both laws and social norms. And I believe that's the case with ecology and climate today. We have to confront the fact that most of what is destroying our climate and our environment is perfectly legal, and even socially encouraged.

Karenna Gore  5:03
And another time in which that was the case, obviously, was the civil rights movement. I was born in 1973. And I grew up in the wake of, of the civil rights movement, and kind of thinking about how change happens. And so to change laws and social norms, there was an effort in that movement, to draw deeply from faith traditions. And that it's obviously no, in particularly the black church and the power of the black church, you know, is a whole topic in and of itself. But I think that one of the things that has drawn me into doing this work from Union is to think about what is the potential, not just of religion, per se, but of really distilling ethics moral philosophy in this time and asking the question, not just what is politically feasible, but what is the right thing to do, and what laws and policies and social norms need to change, to get us there. And that does come down to worldview, sometimes, many people have said, we're in a paradigm shift now. And I think that's true. And it is, it is really exciting to be a part of that happening in so many ways. And I know you've written about that. And really happy to discuss more.

Am Johal  6:18
But wondering, you know, environmental ethics, I know, when I was working on my own dissertation, I got one of those, you know, big thick textbooks on environmental ethics. And I went from beginning to end and you know, some of the stuff that was written in the 60s and 70s. And I remember finishing it, and there was a lot in it that had to do with, like, individual kind of level actions, which are important, and there's ethical things there. But it felt to me it never really quite got into this broader notion of collective ethics, or there's definitely a body of literature there. But it was definitely in the minority. And I'm wondering in, in your own sort of consideration of ethics, how do we move beyond the individual, you know, recycling, doing less ourselves versus the kind of collective problem before us because it can be really, at least at the individual level, you feel like you can do something or you have some agency over that, on the collective level, you're coming up against systems of power and other things that feel like are out of one's hands, you know?

Karenna Gore  06:42
Yeah, that's such a good question. Martin Luther King famously said that, you know, rather than throw a coin to a beggar, you need to take down the scaffolding that produces the beggars, something like that, I'm sorry, to paraphrase. And then there's another voice, Dom Hélder Câmara of Brazil, comes to mind who said, you know, “when I give food to the hungry, they call me a saint, when I ask why they're hungry, they call me a communist.” And the both of those really represent that thought that this is a systemic problem, that when you're doing, you know, I mean, in this case, they're talking about individual acts of philanthropy, but it can also be applied to the idea of individual acts of changing your lightbulbs, and, and composting and so on, when in fact, this is a massive systemic problem that needs to be solved.

Karenna Gore  7:20
I think that it's important, you know, there's a little bit I find, there's a couple of sort of almost dialectics. If I'm misusing dialectic, you're the one to correct me, okay. Here's how I'm trying to use it. They're kind of like two poles that people seem to veer between in the climate conversation. And sometimes, and sometimes it's about  the kind of optimism and pessimism like people say, you know, you're scaring people, it's too much fear, you know, this is a terrible way to message about it, you need to talk about hope. And people say that for a while, and then the climate messengers talk about it in another way, and they say you're not telling people the truth, it's more severe than that, you know, it's kind of, you veer a little bit back and forth. The same way. I think, also with individual and collective action, you sometimes have people say, well, hang on, how can you tell people, I mean, we have the one sentiment, which I was just talking about, which is basically like, it doesn't really mean anything, to be only focused on your individual actions, when it's a big systemic problem. And of course, you have people pointing out that BP and other other oil and gas corporations really love this whole carbon footprint idea because it takes the heat off of them. It's basically telling people you know, you calculate your own carbon footprint and, and don't look at us. And so you have that, on the other hand, you'll have people saying, well, how can you tell people, how can you be out there advocating to change the system when you yourself, don't even, you know, have an electric vehicle or compost or whatever, you can't, it's too hypocritical. You have to walk the walk and change yourself if you're going to be a messenger like that. And I think that rather than veer between those poles like that, you know, we have to recognize that we have to hold these things together, obviously.

Karenna Gore  9:47
And many people have articulated this before me, of course, that there are different levels. There's individual, family, community, and on the civic level, there's also the local, state, national, global. And this is one reason why this is a challenging thing. In terms of ethics, I would just add that, you know, in the field of ethics, there's always this idea of what's the circle of moral concern, or at least the way I was taught. And the circle of moral concern is drawn differently depending on what kind of ethics you're doing. So you know, if you have workplace ethics, you have different obligations to people that you share a workplace with, a different set of expectations than those that you don't. And, in our case, you know, when you're talking about ecology, we're starting to realize that the way that people have drawn the circle of moral concern, I mean, this has to do with how ecology and economy relate. And I know you've written about and know that the root word of "oikos" is the home, which is the same, but people have, when they talk about the economy, you know, often that is such a small circle that's been drawn. And so widening the circle of moral concern in how we do this work, it has to involve how we talk about the economy, which is, of course, you know, related to ecology, and I have a friend at the Church of Sweden, Henrik Grape, I quote him saying this, and he always says it was actually someone else at the Church of Sweden who said at first, anyway, what he says is that in any room where there are decisions being made about climate policy, there should be three empty chairs, for those who are most impacted, and least likely to have a say, and that is for the poor and marginalized people of the world, for future generations, and for all non-human life. So I think the first task of ethics in this time is to widen that circle of moral concern, when anyone is talking about, I would say, the economy, and ask, are those three categories being kept in mind, because when you think about it, it's not only that it would be more fair, it's that it would have been more sane. We wouldn't be in this situation had we kept those three categories in mind.

Am Johal  12:02
Karenna, in, you know, I'm on the listservs of many environmental organizations. And, you know, there's clearly a crisis around us on so many fronts, and there's a lot of campaigning that happens. So I get the emails in my inbox saying, you know, click on this link, and send a letter to a member of parliament or this type of thing, or this is where the rallies are going to be. And all of those things are very, very important. But sometimes they take away the agency of people to think through the problems on their own, to some degree or to give it a space of reflection, because it's constant campaign mode. And there's something about philosophy, theology and other places that leave open the space of reflection in a different way, in a way that perhaps, can change people in terms of also how they carry out their activism or agency in the world. And I'm wondering if you could speak to your own experience in diving deep into ethics and theology and how that's helped you orient yourself in relation to these questions that in many ways have gone through our lifetimes, and will go beyond our lifetimes in many respects.

Karenna Gore  13:16
Yeah, it's a good question. It's true, we do we live in this time, those of us that are in in these circles, right, that are that are interested in the advocacy and the activism, do get bombarded with with the calls to action and the tenor of crisis, and you're not doing enough and it can be, it can be draining of the kind of energy that we need. And at the same time, we have to recognize that there are so many people out there that actually just haven't totally come to awareness, have that kind of sense that something is off. And sometimes it's even from seeing the seasons change themselves, right, seeing the weather patterns change. I mean, there are many people who are experiencing climate change right now on that just really firsthand, visceral level and of course, it's mostly people who remain connected to land in some way, who aren't just, we live in a society, of course, where we're increasingly in, speaking from this country, increasingly, on screens, indoors in climate controlled situations. Obviously there are equity and justice considerations with that, there are people that don't have adequate air conditioning or don't have adequate heat, and, you know, we need to take that into account. But by and large lifestyles are divorcing us so much from contact with nature. But nonetheless, you know that that's a factor I would say in not moving quickly enough, but there are people who are experiencing the changing patterns who are also experiencing other elements of the ecological crisis, whether it's the plastic pollution or the loss of biodiversity. I mean, I've been amazed at the voices that, you know, you'll hear, who will remember when they could gather food in their landscape, when there were more birds, when there were more animals, and now there are not. And, you know, happy to share more about those voices.

Karenna Gore  15:10
But I would say, back to your question, and please correct me if I'm not understanding it rightly, but I think that, that one of the things that has been helpful for me is to not be just reactive, to kind of think, to the root cause. So, I really think, and this is where, you know, one concept from kind of faith traditions is, I think, helpful, is karma. I wouldn't pretend to be an expert on it. And I'll readily say that I'm just, although I have studied some with with those that that come from Hinduism and Buddhism and talk about it with more wisdom than I do, that this relationship of cause and effect is actually really important for us right now, is something we need to learn as a society. And through this climate conversation, it's particularly important. So a lot of activism can sometimes feel very reactive, just reacting and on the level of effect. And I think when we go to a deeper level of cause we get to what you said before, worldview, we get to belief systems, we get to an understanding that in some ways, the world that we have around us reflects the thought forms that are dominant in human society right now. I mean, actions, of course, yes, but even thoughts, even the way we talk about wealth, or worth, or success, in the way that people are constantly sort of echoing that in around dinner tables in cocktail conversations, or whatever, is, has fallen into this mindset and worldview, that does not count the things that are not monetizable, are not commodifiable. And we have, as a result, a world in which those things are being devoured quickly.

Karenna Gore  17:00
And people are, at the same time that we're experiencing climate change and environmental injustice and pollution, biodiversity loss, we also have a health crisis, a mental health crisis, physical health crisis, there are human beings increasingly experiencing things that you know, are defined as anxiety, maybe, or depression. But it has often to do with this mismatch on that root cause level of what we value, and what is actually truly essential to human happiness and flourishing. So I would say that, going to that level of philosophy and ethics and faith, you know, it doesn't have to be an overly academic exercise, but it is in a way, a sort of more fulfilling zone to be in when you're dealing with these issues. Because you're not always at that reactive level, you can start to be in a place where you identify the root and then you also, there's a little bit more of a room for compassion with ourselves, with our neighbors, with people who are still in that reactive zone. Of course, you know, I'm not saying I never am, I go in and out of it all the time. But there's more compassion with that, to understand that there's deeper work that we all need to do together.

Am Johal  18:17
One of the things I find really interesting about interfaith organizing, and others is that you know, out of the sort of progressive left communities that I come from, there's certain types of coalitions that were formed, in particular communities with land defenders, indigenous communities, and others, but working with interfaith groups can sometimes be a challenge for historical reasons and colonialism, like all sorts of aspects of baggage that relate to the church or religious traditions in various ways. And at the same time, if we're going to take risks with larger coalitions in order to work for the types of change that are going to be more durable in the future, I'm wondering if you could speak to, you know, what you found fascinating and interesting and exciting about working with interfaith communities around climate questions.

Karenna Gore  19:14
Well, thanks. Thanks for that question. We actually, before the Center got started, it grew out of a conference called Religions for the Earth, which was really about interfaith work on climate. And it was about internal work within religious traditions and communities, but also what can be gleaned from interfaith dialogue. And so I really love that, that whole field, and one of the interesting things is that, you know, you can distill what is held in common across religious traditions. And that's really important, because, of course, you know, this can bring us together, I mean, we were all in the bodies that breathe air and drink water and eat food nourished by soil and need sunshine, I mean, these are, it's so basic, we forget, but it can bring people together. And there are many, you know, organizations like EcoPeace Middle East, for example, that talks all about that and has a Jordanian Palestinian and Israeli director and talks about how the water of the Jordan River, this brings people together in a way that nothing else really can.

Karenna Gore  20:22
And so there's, there's the thing about what do we share and the idea of looking out for the more vulnerable that there is something sacred about, you know, of course, creation is a bit more of on the Abrahamic side of understanding than it would be for Indic or East Asian, or some Indigenous traditions, but that nature creation, ecosystem biosphere, that there is something beyond human apprehension about it, that is in the realm of of sacred, there is something larger than ourselves as humans involved here that deserves our reverence. And that itself is very, is quite powerful. But also the differences are interesting. So sometimes you don't think about your own assumptions until you're really talking to somebody who, through the difference, reveals them. Right. So even if you're talking about people who have different views of whether there's an afterlife, is there a heaven and hell? Or is there a reincarnation? How does that relate to the Indigenous teachings of seven generations from now, make every decision now with seven generations ahead in mind? You know, these are different ways of conceiving of that one empty chair, you know, we talked about before the future generations. You know, we can say future generations, and everybody has a way of receiving that.

Karenna Gore  21:45
It has moral charge to it, but why? Why? How do we really conceive of that? And when you're doing inter-religious dialogue, and you realize that there are whole communities and traditions that believe in reincarnation? How does that change the way that you would think about future generations? And it can help to tease out the moral dimensions of that whole category of moral concern. So that's just one example. I mean, there there are others, of course, and I think that we, you know, when we had this conference, Religions for the Earth, somebody said at one point in the group discussion, you know, in the past, because they had, of course, been to other conferences about this topic, they said, in the past, I'd feel like it was about tolerance. And we needed to tolerate each other. And now I feel we need each other. And I think that sentiment in this conference was before the Paris Agreement. It was at a time when it really, there was almost nothing to hold on to at all about, are we going to be on the road towards a resolution that will avert the worst case of catastrophe.

Karenna Gore  22:53
So this sense that, you know, on some level we have to understand, as human beings, we live in a mystery beyond our understanding. You can have varying degrees of certitude in any faith tradition, but almost all of them allow for some, for moments of doubt, for moments of mystery, for moments of, you know, I call it, apophatic understanding. And I think that that is something that can bring us to that place of humility that we actually need towards the natural world. And it puts you in contrast to a more secularized, more materialistic, mechanized, industrialized, you know, objectifying kind of ethos, that really has human hubris driving it, that doesn't take into account that mystery. And that's the one that is almost behaving like a cult, because it's, I mean, how can it be that we would allow, as a species, ourselves, to destroy our own habitat. It's a kind of maniacal cultish worldview, that insists that humans are at the top of the pyramid and that, you know, we can somehow manage this. And if it becomes a problem, we'll just invent some new technology to suck the carbon and reflect the sunlight back out. And, and it's really a very so the interfaith dialogue, in a way, just takes you into another place, which I think, you know, can actually be more in line with science, almost ironically, because it takes into account that we don't know everything. And the scientists, including the you know, Brian Greene and other, you know, astrophysicists, will say, much of the universe is dark matter, there's so much we don't know. And there's so much we don't know about the inter-related web of life. So there's a lot that we can gain from interfaith dialogue. And it's just a pleasure to do that work.

Am Johal  24:49
Yeah, and I agree with you, the geoengineering gods of today won't save us, that's for sure. In, you know, various theological traditions, you have this sort of dissonance between, on the one hand, a kind of human domination of nature, in some of the narratives, along with a kind of reverence for the more than human that exists. And so you find both a kind of progressive side where you can read into it, a relationship to the natural world, to other species, to all of these forms, and on the other hand, the human. Wondering how you, yourself think through these aspects of theologies to through different faith traditions, and how it sort of talked about in relation to climate and environmental issues?

Karenna Gore  25:38
Well, I come from, so I was raised Baptist, so Protestant Christian roots, and very much raised in a church that had a male creator that created everything, all and, I didn't really think about the ecological implications until later. But the idea of dominion from the book of Genesis was repeated over and over. And it is powerful. At the same time I studied American history, and I know as many of us do, how deeply that was embedded in the people who, you know, who came from Europe and settled and forged this country, there was a, you know, talk of it being the new Israel. There was, you know, echoes of the book of Genesis and Deuteronomy and in a lot of what early Americans talked about, as they were understanding what, you know, one Puritan minister called the quote, “errand in the wilderness”, that, you know, this was what this country was sort of based on was the idea of a God given, sort of, right to take this land. And also Manifest Destiny, you know, as a concept.

Karenna Gore  26:55
And I also want to say that, that, you know, this come this has had an outsized influence on the world. It's not an accident the United Nations is based here in New York City. The United States was ascendant, you know, after World War One and Two, for various reasons, and many of which have been a positive for the world, the assumptions or the mandates, the kind of moral underpinnings of the United Nations are ones that, you know, many people around the world agree have been good in terms of human rights. I mean, that probably first and foremost, but in another way, it hasn't been so good. And that is mainly the ecological and environmental destruction that in many people around the UN are sort of obviously realizing this since the early 70s, when the United Nations Environment Program opened, and the climate process started. And so, you know, the UN is now doing a lot of work for the environment and climate. But, they're also a little bit playing catch up, because the development paradigm was set in a way that did not take into account nature in the natural world.

Karenna Gore  28:00
And to bring it back to your question, I think that there's a kind of sometimes missionary tone in development, right? That also almost has echoes sometimes of that dominion idea. And so I believe that theological interpretations are very important in how we got to this point, and particularly that one which is of course we understand that, you know, Jewish scholars have been studying the Hebrew Bible, Torah, what we call the Old Testament, for much, much longer. And so, you know, there is that deference when we're studying in a theology school, for example, to understand that, but it's also true that the those texts have been interpreted, have been interpreted not just through Christianity, but through empire and colonization. And so I think that it's very important to see that, like, first and foremost, just see it. We don't have to judge right away and point fingers right away, but just to start to recognize it, I think is very important. And then the work can be done as it is being done. Pope Francis, for example, in Laudato Si': On Care For Our Common Home, the encyclical has whole passages about how Dominion has obviously been misinterpreted. And then here's the other way to interpret it. And so and there are others in other aspects of Christianity. And of course, in Judaism, there's the Dayenu, Hazon. They're wonderful organizations that spend a lot of time on this. So that's my first, my main answer to your question, which is drawing, as I say, from my faith tradition, rather than taking all into account, but I would say that I do feel in doing so,  it's not to say that that's the most important, it's to acknowledge that it has played a role in the problem. And so we have an extra responsibility to look at it closely and to help make things better.

Am Johal  29:57
It's an interesting, you know, inside of the ecological question is this sort of broader idea of how we reconcile tradition and change. And in the ecological sense, we're trying to preserve a kind of repetition of the natural world in a number of ways. And in some sense, the kind of capitalist world that we live in, presents a form of change or is a world that we that we live in that has particular tropes, orientations, inertias that works against the ecological world. In some sense, it requires a change in an alteration so that we can all live collectively and in imagining this relationship between tradition and change, I'm wondering, is there some theological or ethical approaches that we can imagine how to think beyond that dichotomy or dialectic.

Karenna Gore  30:58
Yeah, I mean, I think that we are now looking at ancient wisdom in a way that is taking it much more seriously, many of us, taking it very seriously, as as guideposts for for how to live, because we are aware that the kind of metaphysic that we're in, part of the problem with it is this kind of technocratic paradigm that we just constantly need to be moving forward into some future, that's going to be better. And we realized that, you know, we're not going to create a better Earth than the one that we have. We're making it worse because of the human hubris of exactly that way of thinking. And if we look back, you know, one of the other things about about faith traditions is that they were all forged in a time, I mean, not all of them, there new religions, of course, but the the major world religions, as well as all Indigenous traditions were forged in a time before electricity production, consumption cycles, you know, global capital trade patterns, in most cases, and so to look at what constitutes a good life, in terms of those ancient traditions, is in some ways a balm for some people.

Karenna Gore  32:18
It feels more calming in a time when we have, I mean, I think I think we can't, you know, we have a tendency to say, "Oh, well, there's always been new things, right." The printing press, for example, people objected to that, well, you know, it goes through, and sort of put everything in that category as if anyone now who who exhibits some concern about where we're going with with artificial intelligence, or, you know, solar radiation management is somehow some kind of Luddite that would have objected to the printing press or the light bulb or something. But I think that that's not quite right. I think that we're in an unprecedented, because the pace has picked up, the pace and the scale has picked up so much, that we're losing things rapidly that we won't be able to get back.

Karenna Gore  33:06
So looking at tradition, is, I think, an important ballast for us in this time and a balm. That's not to say that it's always good. I mean, obviously, around the world, there are places where people are hampered and held back and oppressed by tradition, and power uses tradition sometimes. But in our case, I think - to continue power imbalances - but in our case, I sort of, meaning in this society that that I'm speaking from, I actually feel like the kind of neoliberal ethos of that, what the market dictates is always best, that new technology is going to somehow save us, that it's all moving in this direction. And you just have to have faith in the Invisible Hand of the Market and so on. That itself, there's a real need to push back on that and to see that it is in ancient traditions and in wisdom and ethos, that people have valued the things that aren't commodifiable and monetizable. So did I answer your question at all?

Am Johal  34:08
Yes, absolutely. Absolutely. I have another one, which is, you know, the ecological question is oftentimes framed as an existential one, you know, just as at an earlier time, the threat of nuclear weapons brought to the surface the possibility of a kind of human will to collective annihilation. With the challenge of the climate emergency, there's something to the temporality and the duration, that it plays out over a long period of time, even though, you know, in some instances, in BC, where I am, we had a major flooding, we had an entire town burnt down, we see all the global news in Pakistan, 15 million people displaced through flooding and climate related things. So in some places, it's very much immediate, but in other places, life goes on and it carries on until we reach other tipping points. And I wonder if there's a way that you think about time in relation to this crisis, or is there ways that theological traditions do that can help us make sense of this?

Karenna Gore  35:14
Hmm, that's such a good question. Yeah, time. Well, of course, there's that analogy that many people have made about the frog in the boiling water right and that is real, that one can become slowly acclimated to something that will kill you. Whereas had it come all of a sudden you would immediately avoid it, right? I think that that is a truth that we have to recognize and understand that part of our species’, I mean, I really think our species' intelligence, I mean, I'm not alone in thinking this, is the jury's out, right? I mean, it's not clear whether we are intelligent enough as a species to deal with this in exactly the way that you're posing this perception issue when it comes to time. Because when you're asking about time, you're also time at perception, like how do we, can we recognize it as a, and this has to do with pattern as well, you know, can we see, can we see this pattern?

Karenna Gore  36:19
One of the things that I would say about it is, we can't underestimate the extent to which, you know, this massive lavishly funded, relentless misinformation campaign has an effect. So some of it is about us as humans and how we recognize, how we recognize things in terms of the temporality and there is this concept of "slow violence", you know, Coretta Scott King used that term, and there's a book, Rob Nixon’s, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, you know, that's another way of thinking about it, time wise is to recognize that slow violence is still violence. But we have to recognize that this misinformation that's coming at us and coming at people in various forms. So it comes at people in terms of advertisements, messaging through whatever their consultants are up to, to put it in this, that and the other, you know, the philanthropic channels that sort of, you know, throw throw crumbs from the profits, to, of oil and gas, you know, in order to buy good PR, and to really influence narratives that will kind of prevent us from seeing what is happening over time is very real. And then of course, at the other levels of lobbying, it's very real. So I don't want to let that part off the hook. I think we have to recognize that.

Karenna Gore  37:38
And there is, you know, people really just in the past couple years. I would say one of the biggest things to celebrate right now, climate movement-wise, for me, is the extent to which the United Nations, the Secretary General, António Guterres, I think is fantastic. He's made the, you know, exposing greenwashing and a big part of what the UN needs to do. There are other people, you know, I mean, I can name like Jamie Henn and Genevieve Guenther, and there are people who are out there, you know, in that sort of immediate sort of circles of information, constantly fighting to show how that's happening, that misinformation. But you're asking, I think a question that, you know, that said, also just has implications for human beings and how we process things over time. And I would say that, it's a real question, I don't know, I feel as if this is something that we're going to get right, so to speak. And I just don't that we'll get it right in time, for pretty much exactly the reason you're putting your finger on, which is that it's just a little bit too, the pace is a little bit off where we need to act. But this is where, you know, some element of faith is helpful, because there's a lot we don't know. And I would say, the power of human consciousness. You know, there's some faith traditions that hold consciousness almost like an element, like you have, you know, air, water, soil, fire, and consciousness. I've heard it said, and that can be very powerful. And it goes back to what you said about worldview or mindset. I don't know what, it could be that when we actually understand this by virtue of shifting those greenwashing techniques, calling them out and ending them. Also understanding that these impacts are here. And then we have to say the market forces that are moving us in another direction are real as well, towards renewable energy. It may be that we can get there but tell me you're telling me your thoughts on the temporality.

Am Johal  39:42
The reason I asked you is because I'm still trying to sort it out, so.

Karenna Gore  39:47
Okay, so what about addiction? I think it is sometimes a good metaphor, right? People who've been through, you know, really life threatening addiction sometimes, it's like a, you know, there's a sense in which people talk about rock bottom, you know, do we have to hit rock bottom before we're going to stop our addiction to fossil fuels. And we all kind of know that even though maybe an individual could on some level and then get clean. We can't really do that with the whole earth, right? Because rock bottom is the tipping point of no return. Yeah, you would think that with the election of, I don't know, I mean, the political situation that we had in the past few years and the COVID pandemic and the in the way that they, can't that be rock bottom? You know, maybe we can decide that it is and pick back up from there. But go ahead.

Am Johal  40:40
Yeah, I had a chance to interview, many years ago, Ralph Keeling, who is the son of Charles David Keeling, longtime climate scientist, you know, he's the one who began monitoring the record at Mauna Loa, that, you know, helped provide the background on the science. And so, you know, they've been doing this work a long time. And it was interesting, because, you know, he's a scientist who's followed through and continues with the measuring of CO2. And the challenge of, you know, we've been through other crises before, you know, people oftentimes mention after this, the Second World War, all of the kinds of public institutions that were created in a global way to rebuild out of that context. And so the institutional memories are there in terms of how acting in a collective way whether it's at the nation state or global level.

Am Johal  41:35
Seth Klein, here in BC, has written a book called The Good War, which was about taking the notion of mobilization that happened during the Second World War and putting it into a different context and inertia. And so the political will and mobilization is kind of the space where that may need to happen. And we've seen it during the pandemic as well, where state systems were mobilized in a particular way. And so, in one of the things he mentioned, was that, you know, it's almost as if, he felt as a scientist who followed the various administrations through time to say that things almost have to get worse before they get better, because the the emergency style intervention hasn't sustained or remained durable as a policy direction.

Am Johal  42:19
I was gonna ask you, Karenna, about, I haven't really gotten around to talking about your work at Union Theological Seminary. But you know, what are some projects that you're excited about in the near future, or you're working on currently, because I'd love to give you the space to be able to share that with our listeners as well.

Karenna Gore  42:38
Oh, thanks so much. Well, we work in three different ways. We do some education, some convening, and some advocacy, or movement building, and we're based at Union Seminary. And so it's really a blessing to be able to work with seminarians. There are many interesting people that come through Union as students. And we've been workshopping some courses over the years. And the idea with that is that, you know, we really like to have, it's not ivory tower, you know, it's more trying to be accountable to what's happening on the front lines and the grassroots and bring those voices into the classroom and bring the classroom out there. And so that's been exciting. I'm excited to do that. I'm co-teaching with Liz Theoharis and Kelly Brown Douglas next semester, and they're both extraordinary and based at Union. Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis is the co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, a national call for moral revival, alongside Reverend Barber, and so I'm really excited to be teaching with her and with Reverend, Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, who is a womanist theologian who studied with James Cone and is also, you know, the head of Episcopal Divinity School at Union.

Karenna Gore  43:53
So we're going to talk about the ways that race and gender intersect with both economy and ecology and bring real movement leaders into the classroom and try to bring some of the you know, the ideas and scholarship that's happening inside Union and in the academy in general out into the field as well. And, so that work is important. We've also been trying to sort of forge new ways of working outside, like turning both churches and classrooms inside out so that people are in forests and at bodies of water. And, that is, of course, there's so much hunger for that, right now among people who are called to ministry in this time of ecological breakdown. And so we're doing some of that. We've done some convenings. The last one we did was about freedom of religion or belief. So that's a mandate in the UN. There's a Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Religion or Belief, as applies to Indigenous peoples. And then there was a report that Professor Ahmed Shaheed did about that topic. And we had a convening at Union that, where he presented the report. Actually, it had been presented to the United Nations just the day before. And then we had Indigenous respondents talk about what elements of their, you know, life, ways of life and cultures, what elements or dimensions have to do with what many would categorize as religion, spirituality, belief, because oftentimes, that's a category that has legal protection. And it needs to be applied to sacred sites, natural sacred sites, for example, that should be given the same protection as a cathedral or a mosque or synagogue.

Karenna Gore  45:34
So that was an interesting convening we had, and then we do advocacy and activism work in various ways. You know, we had folks at a March in New York, for the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, you know, that's a state level piece of legislation in New York State, which is, you know, various levels, we have to work for these changes. And we also are working at the United Nations level, and one thing that we're doing there, I'm very excited about the work that we've done, convening dialogues, which, you know, can lead to action sometimes, as you know, for what you do, ideas matter, right, talk matters. And so my colleague and my colleague, Andrew Schwartz, along with our colleague, Gopal Patel have taken the lead on on, the UN has a decade on ecosystem restoration. And we have done a series about the role of values, culture and spirituality in ecosystem restoration. And so, what is so exciting about that is that we're living now in a time in which more people are doing this, recognising the need for this kind of work. But sometimes it's a little bit top-down, kind of like, think about how people are doing offsets, you know, like, "Oh, we're gonna plant like 500 trees, or 1000s of trees, and take care of it. And then we can keep polluting, right?" And, in fact, sometimes those projects, tree plantings, they don't take into account what kinds of trees, is it appropriate to plant them there? What else is there? What does the local community think about it? And so we're emphasizing that ecosystem restoration needs to be bottom-up, not top-down. It needs to be taking into account that actually that relationship between humans and nature is the most precious resource right there.

Karenna Gore  47:26
And if we can, if we can have local communities, and their culture, values, and their spirituality, come into play, and this is true, you know, there are areas in this country where this this is obviously true, the Colorado River Basin and I mean, I know you've written about tar sands. There are so many places in which there needs to be healing of landscapes that involve healing of human relationships, as well. It's also true, we did one of the consultations on the river Yamuna in India, and how, you know, elements of spirituality have have often been sort of crowded out by development, where, you know, people's connection to that river hasn't been as as strong because of of the development and how do we how do we make sure that development models take into account the value of values, culture, and spirituality? So I'm very excited about that work and really appreciate you asking.

Am Johal  48:22
Is there anything you'd like to add, Karenna?

Karenna Gore  48:25
No, I am just grateful for the chance to have this conversation. I know you have really thoughtful listeners, and I've listened to some of your other programs. So just to sort of greet everybody listening and say, What a pleasure it is to be in community with you all and if you want to learn more about us, you can check out and sign up for any of our newsletters. We have events online every now and then and we would love to stay in touch with everyone. And thank you so much Am.

Am Johal  48:55
Yeah, Karenna, thank you so much for joining us. It's been a real pleasure. Look forward to seeing you in New York sometime in the New Year and we have to figure out a way to bring you out to Vancouver because I think people where I live would have a lot of time to come and listen to what you have to share. So thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar.

Karenna Gore  49:17
Thank you.

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Kathy Feng  49:22
Below the Radar is a knowledge democracy podcast created by SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement. This has been our conversation with Karenna Gore. Head to the show notes to read up on some of the initiatives and examples mentioned in this episode. Thanks again for listening, and we hope you enjoyed our Climate Imaginary series. Make sure to check out the previous episodes if you haven’t already, and we’ll catch you next time on Below the Radar.

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Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
December 13, 2022

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