Climate Change as a Perfect Moral Storm

“The thread of operations is broken. Nature has changed course, and none of the agents she employs today would have been sufficient to produce her former works.”

Jean-Leopold-Nicolas-Frederic Cuvier, 1812


“Received ideas of justice do not anticipate moral agency exercised cumulatively across generational time, aggregately through ecological systems, and nonintentionally over evolutionary futures.”

Willis Jenkins, The Future of Ethics, 2013


[1]  As a college student, I failed an audition and had to take Bonehead Speech. My only memory is the professor’s advice: “Rasmussen, if in your lifetime you should ever need to give a speech, tell your audience what you are going to do, do it, and then tell them what you have just done.”

LRasmussenx250.jpg[2]   Here is what I am going to do. I am going to address (a) the material significance of climate change (“Nature has changed course”). Thereafter I will address (b) its moral significance (“Received ideas of justice do not anticipate…”).

[3] The result of (a) and (b) is (c): climate injustice as a perfect moral storm.

The material significance of climate change: golden spikes and carbon spikes

[4]  The International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) is the official keeper of geological time. To map Earth’s ages the ICS plants what it calls “golden spikes.” Golden spikes tell us where geological epochs begin and end. ​

[5]  The notion that Earth has discontinuous ages is quite recent.  Typical instead is a biblical sense of Earth time: no fossils appear in the biblical record and even the very beginning of beginnings finds God creating domestic animals for a settled existence of herders and farmers. This omits dinosaurs, mastodons, and ninety-five percent of human history (hunter-gatherer), to say nothing of Earth’s long tenure well before any life forms, even single-celled creatures. Thus it was against the grain of both religion and science that Jean-Leopold-Nicholas-Frederic (Georges) Cuvier (1769 – 1832) argued from his little Paris fossil collection that worlds previous to ours existed. “Life on earth has often been disturbed by terrible events,” he wrote in the early 1800s, “Living organisms without number have been the victims of these catastrophes.”[1] Nature had changed course, with devastating effect. Cuvier had exposed what no one expected—a history of mass extinctions on an Earth given to periodic seizures.

[6] The ICS will get back to us in 2016 about whether to plant a new golden spike. If it does, that will officially signal the end of the “Holocene” Epoch (Greek for “Wholly Recent”). For geologists, given as they are to a patient sense of time, this decision isn’t casual or precipitous. It means they have already accumulated sufficient evidence to deem the emergence of a new epoch worthy of a decisive judgment soon. ​

[7]   Meanwhile many scientists are not withholding judgment. Climatologist Paul Crutzen interrupted a meeting that kept mentioning the eleven and a half thousand year old Holocene as our habitat by exclaiming, “Let’s stop [this]. We are no longer in the Holocene; we are in the Anthropocene.” The Anthropocene became the coffee break buzz, and, after Crutzen’s  essay, “Geology of Mankind, was published in Nature in 2002, it became the popular topic of numerous scientific journals.

[8]   That human impacts are now orders of magnitude beyond what they were prior to the Industrial Revolution is doubted nowhere. Crutzen himself ticked off several: Human activity has transformed between a third and a half of the land surface of the planet; Many of the world’s major rivers have been dammed or diverted; Fertilizer plants produce more nitrogen than is fixed naturally by all terrestrial eco-systems; Humans use more than half of the world’s readily accessible freshwater runoff; Most significant, humans are altering the composition of the atmosphere.[2] The only question is, “Are these geological-scale events a dramatic turn of the late Holocene or the onset of a new epoch?” Should the ICS hammer in a new golden spike, or not?

[9]  The International Geosphere – Biosphere Programme has also rendered its verdict. “The planet is now dominated by human activities,” they said in a 2004 volume that, like Crutzen and friends, announces the Anthropocene (from anthropos, Greek for human). “Evidence from several millennia shows that the magnitude and rates of human-driven changes to the global environment are in many cases unprecedented. There is no previous analogue for the current operation of the Earth system.”[3] 

[10]  In this case, “there is no previous analogue” means that, for the very first time, human time has merged with geological time with sufficient impact to initiate a world unlike any previous one. The “thread of operations [of previous nature] has been broken” and nature has “changed course.” (Cuvier) To see this in graph form, see pages 56-57 of my book Earth-Honoring Faith.

[11]  Every geological age is distinguished by its core planetary surface processes, those intertwined operations of the atmosphere, oceans, and landmasses.  Natural history has, for example, witnessed a huge carbon spike that initiated dramatic changes in these processes and an epoch called the Eocene. The global mean temperature soared 9 degrees Celsius and sea levels rose 25 feet. Both North and South America shrunk, at least above water, because of the new ocean levels. The Arctic and Antarctic turned sub-tropical and lush. There was no ice anywhere, even in winter. Forests stretched from North Pole to South.  A humid climate enveloped the entire globe, so conducive to radiant growth that, over geological time, this radiance became deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas. Whether you travel by car, bus, subway, train or plane, you do so because that carbon spike effected those changes.  Presently, and this time because of a recent ice-melting carbon spike, carbon corporations are rushing to the open water Arctic so that we can all discuss the response of Lutheran ethics to climate change at a time when “the demand for oil [and gas is] at an all-time high.”[4]  Heaven-bound CO2 is also at a human-history high. Industrial humanity soldiers on without so much as a pause.  “Drill, baby, drill” is still the drill.

[12] The carbon-rich Eocene stretched from 56 million years ago to 33.9 million years ago. From eos, a Greek word for “dawn,” and kainos, a Greek word for “new,” the Eocene was the “new dawn,” meaning in this case the dawn of many modern flora and fauna, mammals and mollusks among them.

[13] The spectacular carbon spike that launched the Eocene proceeded more slowly than our present carbon spike. But it continued and topped out at 700-900 ppm of CO2. The exact cause, not yet settled, focuses on two events: big-time volcanic out-gassing that accompanied North Atlantic rifting, and the release into the atmosphere of vast quantities of methane that had been stored in large reservoirs during the previous geological age. In any case, eventually those high CO2 levels fell back to around 440 ppm, only 40 – 45 ppm more than ours in 2014. This decline took 150,000 years and was paralleled with a fall-off in global mean temperature. Again, vast changes followed the mean temperature decline, now within the Eocene.  Alligators gave up on the British Isles while Antarctic sub-tropical rainforests of the carbon maximum morphed to vast stretches of tundra. Apparently a key reason for this long, slow carbon and temperature reduction was the Azolla Event. Azolla is a species of aquatic fern that flourished across the Arctic and other seas during the carbon maximum. As these prolific ferns died and sank beneath the salty brine, they sequestered tons of atmospheric carbon.[5] This is again a reminder that we are alive and discussing climate ethics because, in a world previous to ours, nature changed its course so much so that mass death of flora then, even extinction, made possible our fossil-fueled existence now.

[14]  Incidentally, Luther’s Reformation took place across an unusually cold stretch within our present, or recently present, age, the late Holocene. Called the Little Ice Age, it had a good run—from about 1200 to 1700 C. E.  Stradivarius violins owe their extraordinarily rich sound not only to the craft of Stradivarius himself but to the fact that his chosen wood came from northern European pines that grew very little, hardly at all, across those long winters and short summers of The Little Ice Age. The consequent denseness of the wood—one tree ring is barely distinguishable from the next—created the instrument’s unmatched resonance.[6] If such beauty was wrested from the Little Ice Age, might not our question be, What beauty do we wrest from the Anthropocene so as to make music from our changing planet? If the Orthodox communions and the Navajo nation are right that in beauty resides our salvation, where do we find beauty and live by it on a diminished and convulsed Earth?

[15]   Let me not lose the point: Earth has seen wildly varied ages before, and will again before it becomes the cinder of an aging star.  On the other hand, Homo sapiens civilization has occupied one age only. Our tenure is strictly Holocene. All recorded human history and all human civilizations to date, bar none and starting with neo-lithic settlements, have enjoyed the Holocene’s emblem of a warm period of sufficient climate stability to allow, even foster, the triumph of life amid nature’s ongoing predilection for fluctuation, change, and a spirit of adventure that will try anything once, including big as well as little ice ages. [7]

[16]   Presently, however, the climate stability of the Holocene is apparently giving way to the climate volatility of the Anthropocene. The specific cause was never intended and is quite startling; namely, humankind has taken to regulating solar radiation and re-engineering Earth’s surface processes.  By burning dirty fuels on a massive scale, since 1950 especially but steadily from 1750 onward, we are resetting the planet’s thermostat and altering the core dynamics of the atmosphere, oceans and landmasses. One result is a dramatic carbon spike and climate volatility. Present CO2 levels in the atmosphere exceed those of the last 650,000 years.[8] 

[17]  “Global warming,” even “climate change,” while technically accurate, are misleading, at least for those of us still possessed of Holocene minds. Temperature fluctuation, sometimes upward or downward over longish periods, has happened now and again in the Holocene, as have notable changes of climate. Luther’s Little Ice Age is testimony. So who cares if winter’s a bit shorter and spring, summer, and fall a little longer, especially if you’re Swedish? We’ve grown accustomed to changing weather, even changing climate. (This distinction is nonetheless important. Weather changes quickly and often dramatically; climate changes slowly and gradually. Not every weather event is a climate event and not every climate spike merits a golden spike.)

[18]  In brief, “global warming” and “climate change” don’t tell the truth with the force it deserves.  But if they are too tame, souring seas as a result of galloping ocean acidification and the death of ocean ecosystems as a consequence of our carbon spike is a different matter altogether, as is enough ongoing seasonal difference to flummox subsistence farmers in Africa about what to grow, or sea level rise sufficient to place the coastal cities where so much of the human population now lives under threat and hand them a bill for rebuilding and future prevention they cannot pay, or extinguished species of flora and fauna and migrating pests and diseases. Likewise, a carbon spike sufficient to inundate millions of delta peoples and sink island nations is change of a different magnitude than what people fathom when they hear that temperatures have been ticking up a Celsius degree or two.

[19]  Thus are “global warming” and “climate change” unworthy of the reality they are meant to name. No prophet, certain of his or her word from God to the congregation, would find either their warning banner. To fathom what is happening, look instead to the geophysical “do-over” that ends and inaugurates Earth ages.

[20] Of equal import, even of utmost import for theology and ethics, look to human-induced causes. Why? Because the material significance of climate change this time around is anthropogenic geophysical change that goes where human agency and responsibility have never gone; namely, “cumulatively across generational time, aggregately through ecological systems, and non-intentionally over evolutionary futures” (W. Jenkins).

The moral significance of climate change

[21]  What about the moral significance of climate change? A recent sermon captures it well.

[22]  As a cub reporter for The New Yorker, Bill McKibben and a couple of friends started the homeless shelter in Riverside Church’s undercroft. Now, decades later, on Earth Sunday, he was back, this time in the pulpit, to preach on Job and “God’s Taunt.”

[23]  We all know the story, he said. Job is a good man who finds himself cursed by God. It is little surprise that over thirty-seven chapters Job insists that God appear and account for his suffering. Finally God responds and lets loose with the longest soliloquy in the entire Bible. And what is it but a grand tour of the natural world, from the morning stars to the gazelle, from the ocean’s edge to the eagle’s nest, from the inside of a whirlwind to the womb of both ice and grass. But God’s reply, says McKibben, “is delivered in a sarcastic, taunting voice, as if God is annoyed at having been bothered for an explanation. If you’re so smart, he tells Job, where do you keep the thunderstorms? Can you whistle up a blizzard?”And Job, of course, has to answer as all mortals to date. No, he says, “that’s your department. I can’t make the weather. You are big and I am small. Can I sit down now?”

[24]  Then McKibben delivers a word we really cannot comprehend because we do not yet have the ears for it. Job, McKibben says, has answered for all mortals up until our time. All mortals, at least on their better days, have said, “We are small and you, Almighty One, are huge.” But onlyupuntil our time. Now we are huge. Waves are us as ice melts and sea levels rise; tornadoes are us, as devastation churns; wildfires are us, as the land burns; droughts are us, as flora and fauna thirst; superstorms are us, as subway tunnels fill; the drying Sahel is us and not, it turns out, because of the inept practices of its farmers, but because aerosol pollution from Europe and North America shifted tropical rainfall patterns away from Central Africa.​

[25]  Who knew Job would have to be rewritten as the lowest barometric pressures ever recorded birth severe weather and the oceans no longer obey their Creator, even though the Wisdom literature says they always will? Who knew that we, rather than Isaiah’s God, are the ones “doing a new thing” upon the Earth?[9]

[26] No, God did not shrink or disappear. The universe remains unimaginably immense, and we are definitely not in charge of one hundred billion galaxies with a like number of stars and who knows how many planets! In the cosmic scheme of things, we are unimaginably small. But, here, in this wee corner of a medium-sized galaxy, on a so-so star, perched on our little branch of the great Tree of Life, we are huge. And there’s hell to pay.

[27]  McKibben’s point, of course, is not about Job, but about us. That “there is no previous analog for the present Earth system,” that nature “has changed course,” is because industrial humanity bears responsibility for core change across generational time, through life systems everywhere, and into evolutionary futures (Jenkins). We are presently laying down future fossil finds.

[28]  The question is this: How do we assign and bear responsibility in an age in which we are changing planetary creation for millennia to come? Climate change cannot be dialed back to the earlier Holocene anymore than the Eocene could dial itself into its predecessor age in the Cenozoic era.

[29]  That question, however, raises another: Facing “no previous analog for the present Earth system,” are we also bereft of moral analogues for the non-analogous Anthropocene?

[30]   Twenty years ago I argued for “the ascendency of ethics.”  At the time I thought it important.  “If the great new fact of our time is that cumulative human activity has the power to affect all life in fundamental and unprecedented ways, this means the ascendancy of ethics for our era, as an utterly practical affair. How ought we to live, and what ought wedo in view of a fundamentally changed human relationship to earth, a relationship we only partially comprehend?”[10]

[31]   But I had no idea then how difficult this new relationship to Earth would render the assignment of responsibility, not just politically, as we’ve seen across two decades of failed climate talks, but conceptually. I did not see then the moral storm climate change presents to those who would respond. Where are the moral analogues that show the way? Even if you believe the God of the Reformation is a God of transformation who charters resilient freedom for the Christian, what’s the big ethical metaphor that follows from that freedom? We may pray the Holden Prayer with newfound meaning—“Lord God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”[11] But is good courage, while certainly necessary, also morally sufficient? What guides for the Anthropocene does good courage provide?

[32] What operative justice, for example, lights up a moral landscape of truly extended time and space as well as the citizenship of the primal elements themselves—earth, air, fire, water? What justice practice knows that “natural disasters” and “acts of God” are now obsolete notions for both the insurance industry and theology? “Unnatural disasters” and “human-induced climate events” are more accurate.  They lack moral and legal standing, however. And how precisely do social justice and neighbor love spread their wings to soar as creation justice and creation love when the Samaritan travels the Jericho road in the present but the robber’s victim falls by the road generations hence, from causes she cannot trace to her ancestral assailant(s)?

[33]  For us, climate change is a perfect moral storm because we’re stuck with Holocene imagination, theology and ethics. Moral debates as well as our legal system continue as though the basic unit of human survival were human society. It is not. It is planetary nature comprehensively. Our debates and systems assume the first law of economics is to maintain economic growth for the sake of human welfare. It is not. It is preservation of Earth’s economy as utterly indispensable to each and every human economy. Holocene assumptions continue to consider human wellbeing to be primary. It is not. Planetary wellbeing is primary because human wellbeing, while always derivative, has never been more starkly so than in the Anthropocene. Holocene believers think that human individual and collective good is the sole and proper end of all our efforts. It is not. The common human good is not even possible if the primary goods of the planetary commons—earth, air, fire, water—are not accorded their due for their own regeneration and renewal on their own terms and timelines. Exactly the same holds for other-than-human life, from microbes and bacteria to flora, insects, and beasts, without which we do not live at all. In the Anthropocene the noblest human morality is not social justice. It is a flourishing life for all the children, human and more-than-human. Social justice is no longer possible without creation justice. Earth-made-poor renders all life poor.

[34]   Such is the moral matrix for exercising present—not future—agency. The generative, parental elements of all life—earth, air, fire, water—have moral claims upon us on their terms and not just ours, and for their futures together with ours.  Justice cannot ask for less when the anthropos that has modified the flows of most rivers and changed the catchment areas of the world, is us; when the role of the carbon cycle in the acidification of the oceans and the re-regulation of solar radiation is a role that has fallen to us because we have taken it; when this anthropos is now the main agent in the planet’s nitrogen cycle; and when this anthropos sends species to eternal death at a quickening pace.  It is not a metaphorical creation that groans in travail, awaiting human redemption. It is the literal one. (Ros. 8:22-23)

[35]  In the next presentation I will explore the Lutheran Reformation to see how we might “use our traditions to invent new possibilities of action.”[12] That is the task climate change presents. But we cannot go there immediately. We will only know what retrieval is promising when we see more clearly why current moral habits do not work.

[36]  The full treatment of this belongs to Willis Jenkins in his new book, The Future of Ethics. It is the extraordinary work we’ll draw upon for years to come. I won’t venture even a summary, in part because he deserves better than that and in part because my approach is different. Both of us, however, are intent upon a reform dynamic for a reform agenda.

Policy guidelines

[37]  I have probably said enough about social justice and neighbor love to illustrate their present awkwardness as norms in the Anthropocene. Let me do the same with a commonly used policy guideline, discussed by Jenkins, and then finish with comments to cosmologies and moral imagination.

[38]  The illustrative policy guideline is “the polluter pays.” It’s the grown-up version of “clean up your own mess” and “put things back where you found them,” both learned in kindergarten. Its virtue is that it holds us accountable for our actions, assigning “burdens [in keeping with] an agent’s causal role in creating the problem.”[13]  By any standard that’s good morality.

[39]   But climate change “is more complicated than kindergarten.” Climate change doesn’t honor “clear harms caused by discrete actions of definite agents” whom we can now identify and from whom we can demand appropriate recompense.  Rather, we have planetary impacts that are “the indirect, cumulative outcome of human action aggregated across space and time”[14] since around 1750. When my grandparents topped off the tank of their forest green ‘39 Chevy for Sunday afternoon visits to whomever might be at home, or when they enjoyed illumination at the flick of a switch in their newly electrified house, both of these courtesy of fossil fuels, they had no idea they were polluters who should pay.  Indeed, CO2 emissions only count as dangerous pollution because my grandparents’ actions joined trillions of such actions that, wholly unbeknownst to them, were quietly building, molecule by molecule, to a huge influence. “Polluter pays” still works, and should be used, for innumerable cases—BP and the Gulf spill, New Jersey toxic dumping, Holden Village mine remediation. Climate change, however, renders this common moral analogue obsolete for those innumerable cases in which the resulting destruction involves indirect, cumulative, and aggregate origins and outcomes spread over expanses of time and space that span centuries and the globe.  Jenkins draws his conclusion with a paraphrase of Iris Marion Young: “[E]thics must learn to construct justice without perfect liability or even the idea of complicity. When injustice is the outcome of the social relations that connect agents pursuing acceptable interests, then justice must take shape as responsibility for the systems through which we belong to each other.”[15]That does not absolve persons born into high-carbon societies,” Jenkins goes on, “but rather tutors the shape of our responsibility. How can justice reflect such contextual contingency, causal dispersion, accumulating privilege, and global participation?”[16] Jenkins here, and everywhere else in the book, never backs away from describing climate change as deep injustice: it imposes burdens on those who have contributed least to it, it harms persons “too marginal to have benefitted from the action and too poor to adapt to it, and [it creates] adversity for future generations,”[17] the very generations who have contributed nothing at all, nor benefited. The point is that climate change issues in structurally wicked problems involving vast systems that cannot be reduced to pin-pointed wickedness on the part of individual millions, even billions, of persons pursuing ordinary, life-sustaining activities. If an everyday commute, multiplied umpteen thousands of times, contributes to disaster; if growing food the way we do does the same; or if growing the economy to add needed jobs and lift millions from poverty, does, labeling the commuters, farmers, investors, policymakers, and workers the agents of far-reaching evil places the debate where it cannot move to a workable solution. The real debate is how we open new possibilities for deep systemic change while still caught in the contradictions of a way of life in which we are tied to one another by dirty fuels; and future generations, human and other, are tied to us, even after we’ve banished dirty fuels and switched to renewables.  How do we reform for new possibilities of action while wide awake about the injustice visited on today’s and tomorrow’s vulnerable populations; in different words, when we can we no longer dial back that injustice? How do we acknowledge the ecological debt incurred by the North vis a vis the South since the onset of the Age of Discovery while yet finding a way, together, to upend the global corporate economic order that continues to generate that debt? What moral and policy guidelines can inform profound change in the systems that, remembering Iris Young, are the very systems through which we presently belong to each other?[18] Climate change per se is not the enemy. We are. And the moral question is, how do we love this enemy so fiercely that we are changed? And how are we changed, not as a matter of personal virtue alone, but as systemic habits addressing structural sin that will continue to work its poison for centuries to come on the only place in the universe fitted out as home.

[40]  I must forego the rest of Jenkins’s superb discussion. I commend that discussion to you even as I move to cosmologies and imagination.

Cosmologies and Imagination

[41] The most promising cosmologies are those that have harbored creation justice and a love that includes the primal elements, non-human life, and future generations. The very peoples most oppressed by conquest and colonization, commerce and Christianity packaged as “civilization” are peoples whose sense of connectedness across the full community of life has often been profound. Their most common religious practices have been, and are, creation-based and creation-oriented. They happen also to be the peoples who have contributed least to climate change but suffered most from it. So perhaps here, in the wisdom of marginalized peoples, are to be found the needed moral analogues.​

[42]   I think so, and the next two June seminars—2014 and 2015—of the Earth-Honoring Faith project at Ghost Ranch will explore exactly that.[19]  But the search proceeds with a caution. Like all human cosmologies, and, indeed, moral imagination itself, this deep holism and human identification with both the biotic and abiotic worlds were forged in the age of relative climate stability and a confidence that nature is reliable. The moral plumb line across these moral worlds has most always been this one: In the face of error and wrongdoing, what do we do to restore ourselves to nature’s intrinsic harmony? Communal harmony was premised on the assumption of natural harmony. Even the costly surprises of fickle nature—drought or deluge—were judged to belong to larger cycles that could be counted upon to return. Does that now hold, when we know, first, that eco-systems themselves never reach a point of settled, “mature” harmony but are always undergoing adaptive change, much of it quite disruptive; and, second, when we know that a new geological age has likely intruded in which large-scale, long-term global volatility precludes notions of Holocene harmony.  

[43]  There nonetheless remains something vital in the moral orientation of native peoples; namely, that true human belonging means to fit in, fit into a creation community here long before we arrived and long after we leave. Human responsibility as “the fitting response” (H. Richard Niebuhr),[20] or the “fitting-in” response, becomes the basic stance, rather than the basic stance of industrial humanity, which is: What can we get away with so as to fit nature to our designs?  I only emphasize that climate change renders “fitting in” inordinately difficult because it means fitting into a profoundly changing planetary creation, with disruptions of biblical proportions and a destiny that is anything but manifest.

Reform-rooted Communities

[44]   I finish with what Willis Jenkins hammers out as his proposed way forward.  The backdrop is climate change as a perfect moral storm that renders our inherited moral habits, norms, even working cosmologies and imagination morally awkward, if not inept in both theory and practice. He underscores that radical inequality across the globe only intensifies the conflicts and frustrates the efforts to move forward together. Global climate talks tragically bear out this analysis.

[45]   What then? His reply is that the moral analogue for the non-analogous Anthropocene may rest, not with conventional moralities, but with communities that, facing moral uncertainty and incompetence, know how to drive moral creativity by reforming their own traditions to reach beyond their own work to date.  They drink from their own wells and cherish their own treasures but for the unusual purpose of setting out on paths as yet untrodden. I label these “anticipatory communities”[21] whose work is to meet the adaptive challenges of a new geological epoch.  

[46]  My Bonehead Speech professor said, “Finish by telling them what you did.” Here is what I endeavored to do.

[47]   I attempted to (1) Highlight climate change as the driver of planetary processes that inaugurate geophysical change at human hands and (2) Show that the same reach of human activity “cumulatively across generational time, aggregately through ecological systems, and nonintentionally over evolutionary futures” (W. Jenkins) that launched this new epoch makes most of our working morality out-of-step with the reach of human power. Standard guidelines, norms and cosmologies appear not to serve the moral universe of the new era (planetary creation as the matrix of human responsibility). (3) Lastly, I suggested, with Jenkins, that the most helpful analogue may lie elsewhere; not with moral systems we know but with communities whose reform-rooted traditions can take them beyond their own legacy, into moral creativity fitted to a different Earth age. The promise of the Reformation awaits.​

Larry Rasmussen is ​Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, New York City


[1] Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Lost World,” Part Two, The New Yorker, December 23 & 30, 2013: 50.

[2] Elizabeth Kolbert, “The Lost World,” Part Two, The New Yorker, December 23 & 30, 2013: 52.

[3] W. L Steffen et al., Global Change and the Earth System (Berlin and New York: Springer, 2004), v. 

[4] “Rushing for the Arctic’s Riches,” The New York Times Sunday Review, December 8, 2013: p. 6.

[5]Information from Eocene, and Eocene,

[6] This story was passed along by Paul Hawken, speaking at the Lensic Auditorium, Santa Fe, New Mexico, October 8, 2013. It will be part of a new book by Hawken on the history of carbon.

[7] “The Holocene,” University of California Museum of Paleontology,

[8] Nicholas Kristoff, ‘Neglected Topic’ Winner: Climate Change, The New York Times Sunday Review, January 19, 2014: 11, reporting data from William Nordhaus’s new book, The Climate Casino.

[9] From the sermon for Earth Sunday, April 21, 2013, available on the website for The Riverside Church, New York City:

[10] Rasmussen, Larry, Earth Community, Earth Ethics (Orbis, 1996), 5.

[11] Morning Prayer, Lutheran Book of Worship (Augsburg Publishing House, 1979), 137.

[12] Jenkins, The Future of Ethics, 20.

[13] Jenkins, The Future of Ethics, 33.


[15] From Iris Marion Young, Responsibility for Justice (Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 34 of Jenkins.

[16] Jenkins, The Future of Ethics, 34.


[18] Young, Responsibility for Justice, p. 34 of Jenkins.

[19] See “Earth-Honoring Faith” in the on-line catalog, available at  The 2014 seminar, June 23 – 30, is “Listening to Earth, Opening to God,” and focuses on women’s experience, traditions, and voices. The 2015 week, also in June, will turn to Native American wisdom.

[20] Niebuhr was moving into this in his latter years, away from exclusively teleological and deontological orientations. His turn was to moral theory arising from relational responsibility.  See his last work, The Responsible Self.

[21] See Rasmussen, Earth-Honoring Faith, 121, 223-24, 226-27, 361, 364-65.

© February 2014
Journal of Lutheran Ethics (JLE)
Volume 14, Issue 2​