Of all the envoys to the Earth Summit, the ones that should have the longest impact were the spiritual leaders who came from almost every culture. They came to Rio without briefcases or checkbooks, but they projected a powerful moral message over the bureaucratic proceedings. Whether tribal shamans or mainstream clergy, their common point was that the Earth is a living organism with inherent value, not a storehouse of things for human exploitation and consumption. As such, it is sacred, beyond the reckoning of property values.
The spiritual leaders' voices were ceremonial, marginal. Nonetheless, several hundred elected officials attended the first formal "Summit of Parliamentarians and Spiritual Leaders." They were addressed by the Dalai Lama and by Sen. Albert Gore, who said "the environmental crisis is fundamentally a spiritual crisis."
At a minimum, this served as a counterpoint to the traditional religious presence at the official proceedings, where the Vatican and Saudi Arabia were busy suppressing any discussion of abortion rights or family planning.
A right-wing religious vision has been very much present in U.S. decision-making on the environment ever since James Watt testified, as interior secretary, that preservation was unimportant because the Second Coming of Christ was near. Secretary Manuel Lujan recently declared his support for the Biblical story of Adam and Eve to belittle the Earth Summit's proposed biodiversity treaty, which is based on science's understanding of evolution.
Fortunately, the ideologues have been challenged by other fundamentalist Christians who believe that since the God of Genesis declared his creation "good," it deserves respect and protection.
The basic question raised by the spiritual community in Rio was whether the eco-system is simply raw material for the gross national product. This has been United Nations doctrine for decades, as expressed in a 1963 report: "Natural resources cannot develop themselves; it is only through the application of human knowledge and skill that anything can be made of them. . . . "
This is U.S and California official policy as well. The laws governing California's coastline and forests regard them as "resources" with only utilitarian value. Even 700-year-old redwoods have no inherent value under our law.
In this widely observed doctrine, jobs and development can come only from the systematic exploitation of natural resources. But this path has failed. Twenty years after the first U.N. environmental meeting, the gap between rich and poor nations has widened and the environmental crisis has deepened: World population has increased 1.6 billion, to 6 billion, and desertification and the loss of forests and topsoil have ravaged areas equal in size to India, China and the United States combined.
The alternative vision of the spiritual community turns the official development paradigm upside down in asserting that jobs and services will come only by restoring, instead of depleting, the natural environment; by living simply, instead of on a consumption binge.
The spiritual leaders in Rio put their faith to practice. I met a Hindu cleric, for example, who worked to save the Ganges River by reminding villagers that the river is the goddess of their culture. His efforts have led to three treatment plants.
There was Jose Lutzenberger, Brazil's chief exponent of the "gaia" principle--a Greek word for the Earth goddess--that the Earth is a unified, living eco-system. He was Brazil's functioning minister of the environment until he recently spoke out against official corruption.
And there was 85-year-old Dom Helder Carerra, the bishop of Recife. This tiny man, who blessed the Rio meeting, was persecuted for his espousal of "liberation theology." That doctrine inspired priests and lay Catholics to active solidarity with the continent's poor, where they felt the spirit of Christ was manifest.
Above the opulent Rio skyline is a huge statue of Christ, literally on an Earth summit. Below the statue are mountainsides cut and slashed by developers' bulldozers, now lined with slums built of the foul trash of consumer society. It struck me that if an Earth theology followed the example of liberation theology, the mountain would be symbolic of the body of Christ, crucified. And nearby, Pontius Pilate was addressing the United Nations.
After 30 years of protests and politics, I am more convinced than ever that a moral vision--an "Earth Gospel" appended to our religious traditions--is needed for a sustainable future. We have enough covenants with God above; we need a covenant with Earth below.