Eco-Justice Notes785px-rembrandt_harmensz_van_rijn_-_return_of_the_prodigal_son_-_google_art_projectThe Prodigal Goes Home
Copyright 2016 – Eco-Justice Ministries

This week’s issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Jerry Rees and Sallie Veenstra of Leawood, Kansas. Their generous support helps make this publication possible.

In a backhanded way, it appears that we can thank Donald Trump for some very good news this week.

The Paris Agreement on climate change has been ratified by the necessary number of countries, and will “enter into force” on November 4. Ratification came earlier than expected, in part because of a global fear that a Trump presidency would pull the US out of the agreement. Thanks, Donald!

In the Paris Agreement, the nations of the world commit to limit global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius, with an aspirational goal of keeping below 1.5 degrees. It recognizes that the world must reach net-zero emissions — no further rise in CO2 levels — by the second half of the century.

The steps promised by nations are not enough to reach those goals, but the ratification of the agreement is an essential step in getting to more substantial actions in the future.

The stuff of international climate treaties is technical and abstract. An essential element of reaching the climate goals is hidden when we focus on legal language. Today, I turn to a familiar story from Bible to reveal what must take place.

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The parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15) is familiar to most folk. I won’t tell the whole story — only highlight a few details that we need to remember today.

The younger son in an affluent family had the audacity to think only of himself, and he had the chutzpah to claim his share of the inheritance long before his father died. He went to the big city, and “squandered his property in dissolute living.” Then, in poverty and desperation, he went home to beg for a job, and was greeted with love and grace. The parable doesn’t say this directly, but it is implied: Junior has already received his share of the father’s estate. He’s not going to get another cut of Dad’s wealth later. (Dad tells the big brother, “all that is mine is yours”.)

In the old story of love and forgiveness, I find some illuminating resonances with our current situation of climate crisis and action. For our exegetical perspective today, look at us, the dominant culture of the modern world, as the younger son.

Like the prodigal kid, we — our materialist, technological culture — have looked primarily at our own needs and desires. We’ve claimed the riches of creation for our own, without much concern for other people, future generations, or the rest of creation. We’ve discovered enormous quantities of fossil fuels, and said, “I want it all now!” (Or, as some have verbalized the demand, “Drill, baby, drill!”)

Through the last century, we’ve squandered that fossilized wealth. Some of the hallmarks of our civilization are consumption, excess, inefficiency, and waste. Just like the kid who blew the inheritance, we’re thoroughly enjoying our excessive pleasures. We see our extraordinary levels of consumption as “the good life” and “normal.”

A decade ago, we were on the verge of the prodigal’s realization. The prospect of “peak oil” and declining production threatened to end the party. But rather than face reality, we stretched the audacity even farther, and made another claim on the estate. New technologies for “extreme energy production” — deep water drilling and fracking — opened up more oil and gas, and have let us continue squandering Earth’s treasure.

Unlike the parable, we’re not finding ourselves impoverished by our way of life. But we have hit the wall in a different way as the effects of our profligate use of fossil fuels trigger undeniable climate change. Last winter in Paris, the nations acknowledged that we can’t keep burning through these fuels and survive. We’ve been on an unsustainable track. Major change is only path to survival.

I believe that there is good news for us, the same good news that is at the heart of the Bible story. When we turn away from dissolute living, and go back to simplicity and sufficiency, there is love and grace. As we make that turn toward right relationship, we can be welcomed by the Earth community. As we adopt sustainability as a guiding principle, we can discover a rich and rewarding way of life.

But we do have to remember that implied detail of Jesus’ story: we’ve already had our share of the wealth. We’ve more than used up the carbon budget that keeps the climate stable. We can’t expect to keep tapping into the inheritance. We can’t expect to keep squandering the wealth, and we can’t keep the fossil-fueled party going any longer.

Columnist David Roberts is painfully honest in describing what the end of the party involves. He draws on the report I described last week, which concludes that all new production of fossil fuels has to stop. He writes:

If we really want to avoid 1.5 degrees, and we can’t rely on large-scale carbon sequestration, then the global community has to zero out its carbon emissions by 2026. Ten years from now.There’s no happy win-win story about that scenario, no way to pull it off while continuing to live US lifestyles and growing the global economy every year. It would require immediate, radical shifts in behavior worldwide, especially among the wealthy — a period of voluntary austerity and contraction.

The prodigal son was forced to give up his dissolute living, and go home to hard work on the ranch. He discovered that rejoining the family, and living sustainably, was the joyous option.

We — individually, but more importantly culturally and politically — need to face up to what the Paris Agreement and the latest math on climate budgets require of us. The words of the Paris Agreement recognize that the party is over, but most of the nations are still acting out policies that keep squandering the wealth, and keep warping the climate. Science and the Paris Agreement tell us that we have to slash emissions, but nations and corporations keep looking for more fossil fuels.

It was humbling and painful for the prodigal to go home. It will be a painful shock to our collective identity when we begin to “go home” to sustainability and a more stable climate. There will be huge economic and cultural impacts. We cannot ignore them or avoid them; we can only try to minimize disparities and injustices as we make the changes.

It is time for us to recognize that we have been acting out the part of the prodigal son. We have selfishly claimed a vast inheritance, and we’ve squandered it in a way that puts all life on Earth at risk. We have to stop pretending that we can continue the excessive way of life that we’ve come to know and love. It is time to end the party and go home.

May we work hard at bringing about the necessary changes in technology, economics and values. May we discover a different kind of good life as we live within Earth’s budget.


Shalom!Rev. Peter Sawtell
Executive Director, Eco-Justice Ministries