Kenneth Ettlinger works with Maya and Zianya Kane in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation's butterfly and bee garden in Bridgehampton.
Jamie Wilson with daughter Kaylie and a friend working in the Unitarian Universalist Congregation garden in Bridgehampton. The children plant and harvest the garden themselves. KENNETH ETTLINGER
Solar panels on the roof of the Unitarian Universalist Meetinghouse in Bridgehampton. KENNETH ETTLINGER
Most people know God for his work as a spiritual guide for the last several thousand years. What often gets overlooked is that as world creator, he’s an expert on the environment. Since he has over 6 billion followers (not including Instagram), I was lucky to score an interview with him when I ran into him at the W hotel.
Q: Thank you for meeting with me in this busy season. I grew up in the Episcopal Church and don’t remember ever hearing much in sermons about the environment. Was it a concern for you back then?
A: Of course! It’s planet earth. Its health has always been a huge priority for me even if religious leaders chose not to focus on it. It wasn’t called “climate change” in ancient scripture because it wasn’t really a thing. But in all religions, I’ve made my position very clear — the earth is a gift. From me, to you. And I put a lot of hard work into creating it. I created this planet as your home, fully stocked with everything you could possibly want or need.
Q: Thank you. And living here on the East End, it seems like you’ve given us one of the best rooms in this home. So are you playing favorites with us?
A: It’s true that the Hamptons is more Edenic than many places — abundant fish, great soil, stunningly pretty beaches, etc. I suppose I could have given you Oymayakon, Russia, where the average temperature is negative 58 degrees with light for only three hours a day. But here’s the deal — with such huge blessings comes huge responsibility. I expect you to take care of your home, and to protect it.
Q: What do you think is preventing us from caring for the planet?
A: A lot of people have forgotten their connection to nature. So many live in cities and spend all day on screens, buffered from the outside world. Nature isn’t just this setting you happen be living in. People have become anthropocentric, putting themselves at the center of every decision. You can’t keep looking at the earth as purely utilitarian, going around depleting the planet’s resources, willy nilly. Looking back, I regret saying, “Man should have dominion over the fish of the sea.” The word “dominion” is misinterpreted. It doesn’t mean you have absolute power and the freedom to abuse nature.
Q: We can’t be masters of the universe, so to speak?
A: Right. You can’t play me. I tell you right out of the starting gate in Leviticus 25:23, “The land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.” Think of the planet as a beautiful estate in East Hampton. I am the owner. You are the gardeners. I took Adam and placed him in the garden to work and protect it. Muslims, as trustees of Allah, are also called to be stewards of the earth. Notice I said “stewards,” not “owners.”
There’s a Jewish parable a friend or mine likes to tell: Abraham is walking along and comes across this palace that’s on fire. He asks, “Who owns this place? Who’s supposed to put the fire out?” Surprise. I look out from the palace and say, “I’m the owner, and because you’re the stewards of the palace, you have to put the fire out.”
The weird thing is, nowadays it’s not just a parable. Fires are burning everywhere. Greta Thunberg couldn’t have said it better, “Act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.”
Q: Here on the East End, there’s not really a burning palace. Sure we have the occasional flood, but mostly, we’re surrounded by pretty hiking trails and farm stands.
A: Right now, it’s more of a smoldering, but pretty soon it will be a roaring fire. And if people think somehow I’m going to take care of it, I’m not. Let me remind you of my command in the Old Testament: Bal Tashchit — Do. Not. Destroy. I spell this out in every religion, but still people are actively destroying the earth. And even those that aren’t, have gotten so apathetic, thinking, “OK. If I’m not destroying nature, I’m doing just fine.” It’s not enough not to destroy the planet. You need to actively protect it.
Q: Um … You seem kind of angry.
A: Well, why wouldn’t I be? I give you this incredible planet and you’re trashing it. Now it’s a genuine crisis. Sometimes I’m tempted to strike you all with a bolt of lightning, just to knock some sense into you. In the olden days, I could take the old fire and brimstone approach, unleash a little wrath and whatnot. But you’ve already got massive fires and floods and drought and swarms of locusts in Kenya. If none of my old tricks are working, what will? I’m not mad. I’m just frustrated. I wish everyone could go into outer space like the astronauts and see Earth from my point of view. You’d see how tiny and defenseless your planet is.
Q: Some good people are much more focused on immediate needs like food pantries and helping the poor. Shouldn’t “loving thy neighbor” be a priority right now in a pandemic?
A: You can’t sit in a pew and profess to love your neighbors if you’re not taking care of the planet. Impoverished people across the world deal with polluted water and air, drought and famine that are turning them into climate refugees. They bear the brunt of first world lifestyles. As the Buddha said, “Treat not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Remember Gandhi? He said, “What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and to one another.”
What people now call “environmental justice” is really just the Golden Rule.
Q: Realistically, by the time climate change swings into full effect, a lot of us will already be in some sort of afterlife. How can you expect us to care for an environment we won’t be living in?
A: If you believe in me, you should love the little children, right? By depleting the planet’s resources, future generations will pay for it. So ask yourselves, “What kind of world do I want to leave my children?”
Q: You seem to focus mostly on Christians. Are you picking on us?
A: No. It doesn’t matter how you worship — one me, many me, you can call me a she if you want. Just do the right thing. Change a light bulb.
Q: A lot of people think you don’t exist, no offense. Does that mean they’re off the hook?
A: Atheists? They don’t have to believe in me, but it’s their moral imperative to care for each other.
Q: I talked to a minister the other day who said he won’t bring up climate change in sermons because he doesn’t want to get into political issues. What would you tell him?
A: This isn’t a political issue. It's a me issue. We’ve come a long way since Jerry Falwell was calling global warming “a myth and Satan's diversion,” but religious leaders need to stop worrying about offending the congregation. If you love me, you have to take care of the planet. It’s that simple.
Q: OK. Got it. So what do you want us to do specifically?
A: Waste less. And consume less. Don’t order everything that pops up on your screen. And for my sake, listen to scientists. You can have faith in me, but trust their data.
Q: What about Jesus? What would he be doing if he were alive today?
A: You mean, “What would Jesus do?” I have that bumper sticker. It’s hard to know with your kids, but he had a pretty low carbon footprint. He walked everywhere and bought only local produce.
Q: Any last thoughts?
A: I wish I could change the scriptures to be less cryptic. It’s never going to be spelled out in the 10 Commandments, “Though shalt not burn carbon dioxide.” Which is why I’m glad I got the opportunity to talk to people here today.
Shalom. Namaste. Peace be with you. Please recycle.
Signs Of Hope In The Climate Movement:
Roman Catholic Encyclical “Laudato Si” by Pope Francis addresses caring for the planet. An 84-page urgent plea.
The Long Island Interfaith Environment Network helps places of worship become more environmental, teaming with Power Up Solar Long Island to install affordable solar panels.
Jewish Climate Initiative is committed to Tikkun Olam (repairing the world) by working to avert the threats of climate change.
Unitarian Universalist Green Sanctuary Program supports engagement in the climate justice movement.
Green Muslims connects Muslims to environmental activism, focusing on conservation and sustainability.
Catholic nuns who regularly join the Friday Fire Drill climate protests in Washington, D.C.
One fine body…