Climate Change and Neighbor Love

By Genny Rowley

Child with plantThe auditorium was packed in anticipation of the Environmental Protection Agency’s public listening session for my region. It was one of eleven such hearings being held around the country to garner public opinion about new carbon pollution standards for existing power plants.

The spectrum of people sharing their opinions in my region included business leaders from the energy sector, regional employees of the energy sector, local citizens concerned about air quality and climate change, and delegates from large environmental groups. Each group held a vision of “the good” that they were trying to uphold through these hearings. Business leaders shared their concerns about rising energy costs if regulations were imposed. Employees shared their fears of jobs being cut if their employers’ companies were not as profitable. One gentleman, a railway worker who hauls coal from mines to power plants, poignantly named the dilemma this way: “I know we have to do something different when it comes to the environment. But can we do it in such a way that we don’t lose our jobs?”

Why the concern about power plants?

Power plants are responsible for 30-40% of the total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and are the largest stationary source of carbon pollution.[1]  At present, there are no federal limits on the amount of carbon pollution emitted by existing power plants.[2] These emissions increase ground-level ozone pollution (smog), which has a deleterious effect on human respiratory health. They are also the key factor driving anthropogenic climate change (change resulting from human activities and influence), which threatens public health through increased heat wave and drought events, increased intensity of weather events such as floods and tornados, and increased risk of tick and mosquito borne illnesses. 

The importance of the regional hearings

These hearings are significant because of the potential addition of new standards to the Clean Air Act.  What kinds of changes would be made?  And what would that mean for our daily lives?

At the meeting I attended, many citizens spoke of their fears about climate change and voiced  concern for their children if our energy consumption practices remain unchanged. As a chaplain, local church pastor, and outdoor enthusiast, I shared my concerns about the respiratory health of our communities and the impact of poor air quality on the community.  Listening to these  various perspectives unfold illustrated clearly that how we understand and enact what we consider  “good” shapes the fabric of our common life. This becomes extremely complex in an energy-hungry society, where consumer demand for cheap energy often outweighs concern for air quality and usually outweighs concerns about climate change as well.  Lives are certainly at stake, and wrapped up in these risks are competing visions of “the good.” 

Why do we need a vision of “the good”?

While it is difficult to name a concrete and permanent vision of the good, my experience with the Christian tradition is that this tradition offers great wisdom in navigating the serious environmental threats we face today.  One of the central teachings of Christianity is love of neighbor, a vision of the good that asks us to work for the wellbeing of those beyond ourselves.[3]  For me, neighbor love was at stake in these particular hearings because we needed to recognize the significance of neighbor love in defining the common good— the air we collectively breathe and the health of the environment that sustains us all.

Poor air quality shows up in our bodies; those who live in neighborhoods closest to industrial polluters or in countries where the toxic waste of developed nations is sent for “recycling” feel the effects of living close to harm in the form of respiratory disease and higher cancer rates.[4]  Our current way of producing power means that our collective breathing space is like an open sewer for certain kinds of emissions, and those who live in closest proximity to these dumping grounds face the greatest health risks.  Our large global population has increased demand for energy, meaning that new power plants are being constantly built.  New power plants mean more energy— and more carbon pollution.  As a global society, people’s lives are improved in manifold ways through access to electricity; yet, we face ecological disaster if our method for accessing and distributing  it does not improve.

Peril and promise in our theological heritage

For those engaging in environmental issues from a Christian perspective, there is both peril and promise in our theological heritage.  Here, I would like to focus on the promise of neighbor love as a theological norm for our relationship with creation, and the peril of overly individualistic theological interpretations of the Christian story.

Individualistic dominion and stewardship tropes fuel disconnection between popular notions of faithful Christian living and faithful response to ecological problems. Popular interpretations of Genesis 1 include a hierarchical exertion of control; those atop the “great chain of being” have a “God-given” right to use those who are lower on the chain as they see fit.  Most human beings and all non-human members of the ecosystem can then be used and controlled by those above them in the hierarchy. Additionally, individualized understandings of the human person view human flourishing as the right and sole responsibility of individual persons, leaving people to work for their own satisfaction and subsequently their own enjoyment of material compensation resulting from that work as an entitled right.  This individualism passively discourages love of neighbor in favor of individual satisfaction.

This individualism reduces the theological concept of salvation to an individual transaction between a single person and God, who then “owes” them soul-salvation as a result of their “payment” of a prayer of commitment and individual moral uprightness. These implicit cultural and theological values combine to trap participants into a system where everyone and everything loses.  People, animals, and the earth itself become objects on a hierarchy, to be used rather than respected for inherent worth.  Those having higher placement on the hierarchy suffer the damage of being the perpetrators of violence.

Many people find themselves somewhere in between—being used, yet participating in a system that normalizes the abuse and objectification of the Earth and its inhabitants.  Rampant individualism creates loneliness and exacerbates frustration when desired levels of material success are not possible. It promotes the hollow accumulation of material privilege as reward tokens for the few who succeed.  Both ecology and richer interpretations of Christian theology resist this deeply unsatisfying culture of material objectification and individualism.

Who is my neighbor? (Luke 10:25-37)

What is neighbor love in an era of climate change? That ancient question, “Who is my neighbor?” remains pertinent.  I suggest that two shifts may help focus our ecological lenses for neighbor love— how we understand neighbor love, and who we understand our neighbors to be.

First, to grow in awareness of how we conceive neighbor love, I return to one of the concerns addressed above: hierarchical ways of relating and objectifying those we see as “other.” Feminists have long addressed the ways in which a gendered hierarchy and rigid behavior norms cause great psychological harm. Ecofeminists place these critiques in the wider context of ecological concerns, and work to shift this “logic of dominion” from all of our planetary relationships. If our relational metaphor were to shift from hierarchy to that of an interconnected web (a helpful image from the natural world), the character of our relationship with the natural world would then need to be characterized by respectful engagement instead of taken-for-granted control.

This leads to a second shift in understanding neighbor love. If an interconnected ecological network sustains our lives in this world, we are inevitably in relationship with all parts of that living web. We are ecological and planetary neighbors, in spite of species difference. Our love for our human neighbors —particularly the ecologically marginalized— is enhanced by respectful relationships with all parts of this planetary ecosystem. Additionally, as the teaching says, we love our neighbors as we love ourselves when we shift the character of our relationship with the natural world.

In the issue of carbon emissions from power plants providing us with a healthy and comfortable lifestyle, neighbor love means taking some risks. In our day-to-day habits, we form the value of neighbor love through changing our practices of energy consumption.  In our wider circle of relationships, we must be brave enough to engage in public discourse about our energy economy. Cynthia Moe-Lobeda reminds us that “Christian traditions throughout history have claimed that where the ‘powers that be’ require people to defy God’s call, then allegiance to God takes precedence; we are to obey God rather than the powers.”[5]

On April 29, 2014, a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 6-2 vote upheld the EPA’s authority to regulate coal plant pollution that drifts cross state lines. Interestingly, such regulations are termed “good neighbor” rules.  This further sets the stage for the EPA’s new proposal for regulating the carbon emissions of existing power plants that is expected to be issued by June of this year.  If you are experiencing a call to widen your concept and actions of neighbor love, you can provide input at any time through this webpage.

End Notes

[1] The Environmental Protection Agency, “Learn About Carbon Pollution from Power Plants.” [back to article]

[2] Power plant emissions are regulated by states using guidelines established by the EPA. Currently, the Clean Air Act regulates carbon monoxide, ozone, lead, nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter (also known as particle pollution), and sulfur dioxide. There are no guidelines for carbon dioxide, a key pollutant fueling climate change.  [back to article]

[3] It should be noted that a vital component of neighbor love is self-regard rather than self-abnegation. “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:37-40).  [back to article]

[4] For a summary of environmental justice issues in the United States, see the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries excellent resource, “Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty,” by principal authors Robert Bullard, Paul Mohai, Robin Saha, and Beverly Wright.  A printable pdf copy is available through the UCC website.  [back to article]

[5] Cynthia D. Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 2013.  [back to article]


© 2014 by EEWC-Christian Feminism Today

Rev. Dr. Genny Rowley
Rev. Dr. Genny Rowley is a graduate of Brite Divinity School’s Pastoral Theology and Pastoral Counseling program. She is a GreenFaith Fellow and coordinator of Utah Interfaith Power and Light’s Community Solar Initiative. Her current research focuses on the constructive theological implications of congregationally based environmental activism. Genny is part of the Alliance of Baptists and recently relocated to Salt Lake City, Utah, with her spouse and their two cats.


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