Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Quantifying Our Values
distributed 9/25/09 - ©2009

Good principles don't lead directly to decisive actions. It is quite possible to have noble and virtuous values, but to be lost and ineffective in putting those values into action.

As the readers of Eco-Justice Notes know, I firmly believe in the importance of defining and cultivating moral values. Especially as leaders in our churches and communities, it is essential that we know why we care about Earth community, and that we be able to articulate our values clearly. Those moral values are important, but they're not enough.

We need to be able to quantify our vision, and put teeth into our principles. Getting specific will make us become active and effective. Let me walk you through some of the progression in values and details that I have seen in faith communities. Quantifying our values makes a difference as we address the crisis of global climate distortion, and other ecological issues.

+     +     +     +     +

Shifting of values: As our society has become increasingly aware of the science about global warming, the transition from awareness to concern to action has been slow. "Why should I care?" is still asked too often.

A shift in consciousness has often happened when people stop thinking exclusively about their own lives in the here-and-now, and start to think generationally. A change happens when the question becomes, "What sort of world do I want to leave to my children and grandchildren?" Now, there is a reason to care. Now, the long-term problem of a warped global climate gets personal.

A few years ago, I started to push folk harder about that expansion of their moral universe. I turned the question around: "What sort of world do our children and grandchildren have a right to demand from us?" We're challenged to go beyond our own compassion, and to think of the legitimate rights and expectations of coming generations.

Seriously considering the rights of those who will live 50 or 100 years from now is major change from a passive "why should I care?" perspective. I do believe that the value shift to honoring the future is required if we are going to make substantial changes.

But those broadened values don't do much if we can't give some specific content to the sort of world that they might demand of us. A nebulous sense of "they should be able to expect a world that they can live in" doesn't tell us much, and doesn't guide us toward complicated choices about lifestyles and public policy.

Getting specific: About a year ago, some leading climate scientists -- most notably Dr. James Hansen -- announced that the processes and impacts of climate change are coming harder and faster than anticipated. They said that former standards for dealing with greenhouse gasses were far too optimistic. The critical number to avoid catastrophe, they said, is 350 parts per million. Carbon dioxide levels higher than that will push us past tipping points that are profoundly destabilizing. (The 350 number is at the heart of the growing global movement for climate action.)

Respecting the needs of the future is not enough. Vague principles about sustainability, renewable energy, and somehow dealing with climate change don't quantify the sorts of actions that are needed, or drive us with the urgency of that action.

If we say, though, that 350 ppm is the upper boundary for a viable world, then we know what needs to be done. "350" is what those future generations can demand, and we're not giving it to them. 350 is a number which speaks about the climate stability that will preserve the water supplies that flow from glaciers and snowfields, minimize the sea level rise that will cause refugees, reduce the weather shifts that will disrupt agriculture, preserve the biological diversity of plants and animals that is essential for ecological health, and avoid the distortion of ocean chemistry that will devastate marine life.

If we accept the moral claim of future generations, then we must hold ourselves to the difficult task of getting carbon dioxide down to 350 ppm, and doing so right now. Setting our goals at 350 reveals the inadequacy of US climate legislation, and of our own trifling lifestyle changes.

"I'm concerned about global warming" or "I care about the world my kids will inherit" are nice principles. They are a good starting point, but they are too vague. "Because my kids have a right to a livable world, I am demanding action to get CO2 down to 350 ppm" is a specific call to action. It is one that we all need to take on.

Beyond climate change: Climate change is The Big Issue, but it is not the only problem that we face. An article in this week's Nature magazine, A Safe Operating Space for Humanity, says that "identifying and quantifying planetary boundaries that must not be transgressed could help prevent human activities from causing unacceptable environmental change."

The researchers identify nine essential planetary boundaries that must be preserved to maintain anything resembling the conditions of the Holocene Era -- the 10,000 year geologic era that defines our contemporary environment. In addition to climate change, other boundaries include biodiversity loss, the nitrogen and phosphorus cycles, ocean acidification, and freshwater use. For each of the nine boundaries, they chart pre-industrial values, current levels, and what their research indicates is a safe boundary that avoids a tipping point toward extreme instability. For six of the nine thresholds, the current status has exceeded the safe boundary, in a few cases very dramatically.

Just as 350 ppm gives us an objective standard for addressing climate change (350 ppm is the climate boundary listed in the Nature article), our values about sustainability are made concrete when we can assign a measurement to what "stable" or "sustainable" looks like. When we know an acceptable rate of species extinction, ozone depletion, or fresh water consumption, then we can see if our policies are sufficient and effective.

+     +     +     +     +

Church leaders are the primary audience for Eco-Justice Notes. Pastors, educators, and the folk who serve on local and denominational committees have an essential role to play in nurturing and motivating the turn toward Earth community. Church leaders need to do the values education and moral formation that will make ecological action possible.

The rapid deterioration of God's creation, of our global environment, makes it clear that our moral values have to be tied to objective standards. Ecological sustainability can be measured, and we have exceeded many of those boundaries. Our virtuous concern needs to be tied to quantified standards such as 350 ppm of carbon dioxide.

The international day of climate action on October 24 is the most immediate opportunity to link our values to a quantified measurement. We must insist that world leaders -- gathered in Copenhagen this December and in national legislatures -- address the tipping point of 350 ppm, and that they take urgent and dramatic action to get greenhouse gassed back down to that level.

Join me on October 24, and beyond, as we quantify our values in a call to action.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

Eco-Justice Ministries   *   400 S Williams St, Denver, CO   80209   *   Home Page:
Eco-Justice Ministries ended all programming on July 31, 2020. This site is an archive of writings and resources.
To contact a representative of the agency by e-mail, please use the contact form