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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Lost Gospel

Air Date: Week of

Author Senator Tom Hayden talks with Jan Nunley about some of the fundamental beliefs behind his new book on the sacred ethics of preserving all life. The book's title is The Lost Gospel of the Earth published by Sierra Club Books.


NUNLEY: As religious communities work to retrieve the environmental roots of their faith, at least one politician is engaging the question as well. Tom Hayden, a California State Senator and long-time environmental advocate, has written The Lost Gospel of the Earth, published by Sierra Club Books. The book speaks to a mysticism about nature, which Mr. Hayden believes is at the core of all religions. He says we must reclaim a reverence for the Earth in order to cope with what he calls the planetary crises of population explosion and resource loss. Tom Hayden joined us recently to discuss his book, and I asked him how this gospel of respect for the earth was lost in the first place.

HAYDEN: In the original search in our western tradition for a single god, there was also a search to unify the state or the kingdom out of all the various tribal communities that worshipped many gods. And so as a consequence of that, there came to be an emphasis on an overarching god that was above the earth, that we said our prayers to pointing upwards. And anyone that dissented was seen as what we know today as a pagan and was persecuted for worshipping in sacred groves and so on, and so it became an almost extreme division between grace and nature. And as a senator in Sacramento, I chair the environmental committee, the natural resources committee. And I have noticed over the past decade that in all of our environmental debates there never has been a clergy voice. They may come to testify on homelessness issues, or abortion issues, or what have you. But for the most part, the environment is considered outside the scope of expertise of organized religion. Now that's changing, there is a national partnership on religion and the environment and I would hope that this book accelerates the change.

NUNLEY: Now, one of the things that you mentioned was a need to rethink various tenets of religions, and in western monotheism you talk about rethinking the idea of a creator who's external to the creation, the notion that humans are really the only beings who have moral agency and the idea of an afterlife. Is it really those ideas where the trouble lies, or is it with people who use those concepts to justify their own self-interested decisions?

HAYDEN: I think you could make the argument either way. It depends on your attachment to a tradition. If you're attached to a tradition, I would say recover the lost part of it. But I think one can believe in a single god, for example, or monotheism, and incorporate the Earth as also sacred. I'm not choosing, I'm not choosing from the menu of religious experience here. I think it's extremely important that this notion of reverence for the Earth as sacred be revived in whatever tradition we find ourselves.

NUNLEY: But there's a little bit of self-interest involved here, too. If we don't take care of the Earth, the Earth won't take care of us.

HAYDEN: Exactly. Although I don't know that the Golden Rule will get us through. I think you have to have some sense of reverence. And I know in a secular political realm, that's difficult to come by. What I mean by that is -- is that if we believe that the environment has a price tag, that it's subject to utilitarian ethics, it will always be traded away in the clutch. But if we believe that the environment has a sacred dimension that doesn't have a price tag to it, that there is a certain value in a salmon and in the mind of a salmon and in the heritage of a salmon that can't be calculated, and that the loss of a salmon is the loss of our own imagination, the diminishment of our own capacity to be creative, then I think the environment would be treated altogether differently than it is now.

NUNLEY: Now, let's talk about politics and some of the changes in policymaking you'd like to see. You've said that the nature of the state must be harmonized with the state of nature. Now what do you mean by that?

HAYDEN: Well, it's out of whack. If you take the west, where I'm from, you find that all the rivers have been dammed. It's costing billions, perhaps trillions of dollars over time. It's all kind of an engineered Leviathan state from Los Angeles to the Colorado River. And the premise there is that not only are we entitled to mastery but that we can achieve it. And this is the real problem with being a little lord of the universe: this belief that there is a scientific, technological fix for everything. In my view, the -- the nature of the state now has to be made more harmonious with the state of nature. What would that mean in a practical sense? In Los Angeles it would mean, instead of building higher and higher walls for $500 million in the old Los Angeles River and calling it a drainage project, which is what we're doing now with taxpayer dollars, which will only shoot the cascades and floods of water faster towards Long Beach, we ought to be recreating the Los Angeles River and building our society and our economy alongside of it.

NUNLEY: Do you have any churches that are involved in this issue? Synagogues, anybody?

HAYDEN: Yes. The -- one of my observations in the Senate has been that the clergy have been absent from the environment debate. So we organized in Los Angeles and around the state a network called Clergy for All Creation. And they've gotten involved in issues like the Los Angeles River. They've testified in Sacramento that on the basis of Genesis, on the basis of our western tradition, all of creation is meant to be sacred, and therefore the Endangered Species Act has an ethical and spiritual justification. That is a very powerful argument when you add to it the economic, the ecological and the legal arguments. I find that that's very -- that engages people.

NUNLEY: Does it surprise some legislators to see people showing up?

HAYDEN: It did. It did. One of my colleagues who previously thought that he had the lock on Christian discussion found himself in a very animated debate with these ministers and rabbis over the true meaning of Genesis. And I don't know that it changed his mind immediately. But it certainly engaged him in a way that's fruitful, and he continues to think about it and talk about it. And I think that's extremely healthy.

NUNLEY: My guest has been Tom Hayden, the author of The Lost Gospel of the Earth: A Call for Renewing Nature's Spirit in Politics. Thank you so much for being here.

HAYDEN: Thank you.



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