- Thoughts on an Interfaith Gathering
Four colleagues and I, most of us from Georgetown's Ph.D. program in theology and religious studies, presented in a panel on Buddhist and Christian responses to the ongoing slow burn of the environmental crisis at the 2018 Parliament of the World's Religions in Toronto. My own presentation encouraged nonbinary thinking, which has a long history in Buddhist traditions, particularly with regard to moving beyond the rhetoric of heroism and villainy as deployed by environmental activists against corporations. The intent was not, however, an apologetics for corporations. The hope was, rather, for us to face up to the multifactorial complexity of what we talk about when we talk about an environmental crisis. If we want to talk about climate change, I suggested, what we also need to talk about are supply chains: the patterns of production and consumption involved in our living out the visions of our aspirational lives.
There are many ironies and, dare I say, moral hypocrisies involved in our very presence at this Parliament of the World's Religions. The Georgetown delegation for this panel flew three hours per person round-trip from Washington, D.C. to Toronto, releasing over 1,000 kilograms of CO2 into the atmosphere at roughly 90 kilograms of CO2 emissions per flight-hour. How do we evaluate whether or not our presence at such a conference was "worth" the emissions—worth our marginal contribution to the currently existing pool of atmospheric carbon? Is the hope that the network effects of communication across 8,000 people at varying levels of fame and influence will be "worth" the 8,000 flights to and from Toronto (over 2 million kilograms of CO2 emissions, extrapolating from our four flights)? That words are more than mere words, and have something of a performative impact?
I'm not sure. I don't know how to do the calculations; I'm not sure how to evaluate the value or the efficacy of a communication. Perhaps communication is valuable for its own sake; but there are marginal, incremental stakes involved, and for the more-than-human.
In my optimistic moments, I think to myself that a gathering such as what happened in Toronto is meant to galvanize the faithful. That it is a resting place, where people who are vested in the day-to-day hard work of organizing, educating, and doing justice work can recharge their batteries, speak to and be inspired by others, and return to their work rejuvenated. Where moments of listening and sharing can indeed occur between representatives of a cornucopia of perspectives. These things are really there, I think; I must not deny them. [End Page 317]
In my less sanguine moments, I wonder what cumulative change all this talk will actually generate. I wonder if we are the choir preaching to the choir: an echochamber of well-intentioned voices singing songs of comfort to ourselves as we walk the road of our collective damnation. I lament the difficulty of forming deep or even just nontrivial friendships across distances both geographic and perspectival. I'm asking too much, I know, of one humble conference. Structurally, a gathering of one week has its limits: on what can be said; on what can be heard; on the depths of relationships that can be formed, especially when participants fly back to locations that are thousands of miles removed.
But my frustration lies exactly here: that this humble gathering included the best, brightest, most nobly intentioned among us. Therein lies the epic story, to be told and retold and passed across to the other side of the apocalypse: that in this best and brightest and most nobly intentioned of worlds there were indeed heroes; there was indeed folly; that here at this council of thousands valiant words were spoken while the sleeping still slumbered. Let the poets pass on this tale for the world to come. It was high tragedy, and the grandest of comedies, and something very mundane in between. [End Page 318]