STEPHANIE SY: Good evening, everyone. I'm Stephanie Sy. I'm a morning news anchor at Al Jazeera America, a cable news channel that can be seen throughout the United States. This is Ethics Matter.
Our guest tonight is the illustrious Karenna Gore, director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary. She is also, of course, the eldest daughter of former vice president Al Gore, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for spreading awareness of man-made climate change. Karenna is also the author of the book Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America.
Karenna, thank you so much for joining us here at the Carnegie Council.
STEPHANIE SY: We are talking about faith, ethics, and the environment, and I brought this Bible that I have had since I was 14 years old. I just want to start by reading from Genesis: Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth and over all the creatures that move along the ground." Then later: "Be fruitful and increase in number," God said. "Fill the earth and subdue it."
I just want to start by asking you, Karenna, how much is the Biblical interpretation of that, that man has complete dominion over the earth, the source of the environmental crises that we see around the globe today?
KARENNA GORE: First of all, thank you so much, Stephanie, for the introduction and warm welcome, and thank you to the Carnegie Council. I am really excited to be here and excited you got to the heart of the matter so quickly.
I believe that that passage in Genesis has a lot of power and a lot of influence. For some people who aren't even religious officially, it also has resonance because of the Judeo-Christian heritage in our culture and society, and in our legal doctrines. So I do believe that that is quite relevant and powerful. I don't think that it needs to be interpreted as dominion theology has interpreted it, which is that this is about control and man being at the pinnacle of creation. There are other ways of interpreting it—stewardship. Also, obviously, as you go on in Genesis, it can be a parable for how, if we upset the balance of the ecosystem that we are in, then—as Pope Francis puts it, if we destroy creation, creation will destroy us. [Editor's note: For more on Pope Francis, check out Vatican expert Marco Politi's recent talk.]
STEPHANIE SY: And you mentioned Pope Francis, of course so topical, because he has been speaking about the environment. He issued an entire encyclical about the environment. So I want to get to that, but first I want to go back in the history of the Vatican and the role it played in that interpretation, much less about stewardship, much more about what some would say is exploitation. You know about the Doctrine of Discovery, the foundation for a lot of our own legal systems. It gave Christian explorers the right to claim and exploit lands that they discovered, for any of you that don't know about the Doctrine of Discovery.
KARENNA GORE: I really appreciate the question, because I believe it is quite important, actually, to look at, in the 15th century, the papal bulls that were issued by the Vatican that said to explorers, "Go and vanquish and subdue and conquer the lands and the people. The Bible says you have a right to all of it. If they aren't Christian, then they are heathen, and they are part of the flora and fauna and need to be subdued."
If you look at how our world looks today, the people of the Americas and of Africa, which is where the papal bulls were directed, were treated with contempt, and so was the land. It connects a lot of these issues of exploitation. The Doctrine of Discovery came through U.S. law to basically just say that indigenous peoples did not have the right to the land, and it certainly is still used today.
STEPHANIE SY: But now we are seeing a shift, with Pope Francis saying climate change is one of the greatest challenges to humanity. We are seeing the faith community divest from fossil fuels. What has created that trend more towards stewardship and conservation?
KARENNA GORE: It's interesting. A lot of people say that it has always been the case, that previous popes have talked about the environment and stewardship. Certainly that is true if you go back and look at the documents. Pope Benedict, his immediate predecessor, put solar panels on the Vatican and spoke in similar terms about protecting the environment and about climate change.
But certainly there is a shift in tone and priority with Pope Francis. It must be said that other religious leaders—the Dalai Lama, Bartholomew the Patriarch—have issued lots of really eloquent statements about the priority of caring for the environment. There was just this year a rabbinical letter and an Islamic declaration. These things are really important and represent a huge shift.
Frankly, I think it is because we are seeing the effects. Climate impacts are happening. It is more easily translatable to some of these traditions to see it as a social justice issue and watch the impacts on the poor and watch the response. I think that has triggered this wave.
STEPHANIE SY: In fact, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, with which your father shared the Peace Prize in 2007, confirmed that global warming does, in fact, have a disproportionate effect on the poor. Is that fact changing the face of the environmental movement? I remember my father used to say it was a luxury to be able to care about things like the environment. If you are just looking to feed your family and provide for basic needs, are you thinking about the environment? Is that attitude changing?
KARENNA GORE: Yes, absolutely. I think we have seen just in this past year a complete shift in the frame—maybe the past several years—where we are seeing that there is a message from the grassroots, from people who have experienced poverty that climate change is going to affect them the most, that this is a matter of justice, in addition to something that will affect the planet as a whole.
Also in terms of the countries that are stepping forward—Mexico, the Philippines—it is not the old framework, where they said that developing nations are not going to want to make any sacrifices. We are seeing that people who understand that if they are in the bull's eye of climate change, this is something that matters now to act on.
STEPHANIE SY: Speaking of being in the bull's eye of climate change, I was interviewing an environmental scientist just today, and we were talking about the Maldives, which is one of the small island nations that could sink—not sink, but essentially rising sea levels could mean that it no longer exists. It occurred to me that this was another example of smaller, more vulnerable nations being at the mercy of the big polluters, because no matter what they do, at the end of the day it is the United States, it is China, it is India, it is the European Union that are the largest emitters.
KARENNA GORE: It is really stunning to look at the cases of these island nations. We were just visited at Union by the head of the Church of Tuvalu, which is rapidly disappearing. For them, it represents a loss of a culture and an identity, and it does put into very sharp relief what it is we are doing, what the loss is, what the price exacted is.
I want to just add that, not so much in some of these island nations, but in many cases, we can also see impacts on the poor in the extraction of fossil fuels. I think increasingly we are seeing, with all of the waste that comes from fossil fuel extraction, that there are a lot of health impacts that are disproportionate in poor communities.
STEPHANIE SY: And that is the case for this country as well—pollution, for example. That is another area in which you see poorer minority communities in this country more affected.
KARENNA GORE: Absolutely. It is interesting. I think the conversation is changing in another way, where health and environment are overlapping. I was in North Carolina with my colleague who is the head of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Initiative, talking about coal ash and the effect on the community. It was interesting. There were some people who were coming to the event saying, "I thought this was an environment event. Is it a health event?"
Obviously it is both. When the asthma rates and the cancer rates are—they really speak for themselves, and they are clustered around—but we haven't measured these costs, just like we haven't measured the real costs to the rest of the natural world.
When you start to tune in, as people are, I think change can happen more quickly.
STEPHANIE SY: Going back to Pope Francis, do you think it is a game-changer, the fact that he has taken this strong stance on environmental justice, in the sense that it does address not just the developed world and the actions they are taking to curb emissions, but at another level it speaks to people because it becomes, then, a moral issue?
KARENNA GORE: I do think that it has made a big impact. I think Laudato si', the encyclical that he released in June, is a deep systemic analysis as well as a theological document, really looking at root causes and how some of the same root causes of the inequality that we see are the causes of the destruction of the ecological systems leading to climate change.
STEPHANIE SY: And I do want to go back to that idea you brought up about native communities and how they were part of the exploitation of land and resources, but also people. Are they being brought back into the fold in this conversation about ways to protect the environment? For a lot of these cultures, we are talking about sacred places and the idea of a sacred earth.
KARENNA GORE: Yes. The wisdom that comes from these indigenous traditions—I am currently particularly experiencing the Native American tradition—is really important wisdom in any kind of interfaith dialogue, which is what I am involved in a lot working in seminary. It is very interesting, because interfaith has always been basically Jewish-Christian-Muslim, the Abrahamic faiths, and then Hindu-Buddhist. It starts to include a few more. But indigenous traditions have been kind of sidelined, in a way, or added on. In this issue, with climate change and interfaith dialogue, they are absolutely the most important tradition to elevate and to honor and to learn from, because it is so deeply ingrained that there is reciprocity with earth, with Mother Earth, that this is a living being, that this is not an object. Even our language is always objectifying. That is completely subverted talking to traditional indigenous leaders.
One of the wonderful things about being in a seminary and being in the context where we are doing that kind of dialogue is that we can engage that in a deep and sustained way.
STEPHANIE SY: In that sense, are environmental issues and climate change sort of a symptom of what you see as a larger systemic issue?
KARENNA GORE: I think that is the case. I think that certainly it is a wake-up call. We can look around us and see, as Pope Francis has called it, the throwaway culture. I don't know how far we are going with this or where we are going with this, but even in my lifetime, I have just noticed these plastic bags and plastic bottles and buying things all day long. I am not exempting myself. But it is notable.
Also we are measuring success and wealth by monetary value and earning more. I think these are values that are really out of whack. The balance that is disrupted—and we can see it in our weather systems—does indeed feel like having a cold or something. You have an illness and you are getting the message, and you have to restore balance in your body.
STEPHANIE SY: There is this transnational moral quandary, but is it also intergenerational? In other words, we may not see, or we may be seeing already, within our lifetimes the effects of climate change, but the thought of later generations, our children and our grandchildren being saddled with that burden.
KARENNA GORE: Yes, I think this is one of the most important ethical frameworks. I know the Carnegie Council has hosted a lot of important dialogue on this. I was reading an essay by Stephen Gardiner about this issue of intergenerational ethical frameworks and the tyranny of the contemporary. And I have started to really think—every time you hear "the economy," "but the economy," "but economic growth," I want to say, whose economy? How short-term are you talking about? We need to ask. It might be really, really short-term. Let's think about the economy 30 years from now. Could we do that? As we are depleting natural resources, that is important to take into account.
So I feel that—thank you for bringing that up—the intergenerational is very powerful.
STEPHANIE SY: I want to just challenge you for a little bit. I was thinking about these massive heat waves that we saw in India and Pakistan over the summer. Killed thousands of people, these heat waves. What if every single one of those people had an air conditioner? Would they have survived that heat wave? What would that have meant to the earth? Is there an ethical quandary? Obviously air conditioners use a lot of energy. They have a carbon footprint.
KARENNA GORE: I think we shouldn't assume that electricity cannot be powered by renewable sources. I think that when you hear that it needs to come from fossil fuel extraction rather than renewable sources because renewable sources are too expensive or too impractical, they are too expensive and too impractical because of policies. Polices can change. There is no reason we can't leapfrog that fossil fuel stage.
The other thing, though, is that there is—electricity and air conditioning obviously are important in that context, and lives would be saved, but there are other rights that are very compelling that come directly from nature, like water and clean air. Those are rights that I would like to see put forward and cherished before we have a big rush to say that the biggest concern is electricity for everyone in the world, no matter how much fossil fuel we have to burn. I don't think that is the right outcome.
STEPHANIE SY: Here is another sort of news tidbit, since I am in the news business. I don't know if you read this report, Karenna. A report recently found that air pollution levels in Syrian cities and in other Middle Eastern cities where conflict has caused severe economic downturn—from space, nitrogen dioxide levels—and you know nitrogen is a byproduct of burning fossil fuels—they were actually significantly less, and you could see that from space.
Obviously, I am not saying that is a silver lining of conflict we are seeing in the Middle East. But it does show how linked, I think, economic activity is to air quality.
When I read that, I thought, is it simply too late to change the paradigm?
KARENNA GORE: I hope not. One of the reasons why I like to work with religious and faith communities is that I think there is a great deal of untapped, sometimes latent power to do the right thing. A lot of people experience their moral commitments to others through their religious faith. It can change when, as in the Civil Rights Movement, suddenly it is framed with new language, with spiritual imperative, and it becomes about how you live your life while you are here, your purpose in life, "walking your values." I think that could happen here, and that is what gives me hope.
STEPHANIE SY: Are you seeing real momentum in the faith community? We talked a little bit about the divestment movement. I know that Earth Ethics played a role in the divestment movement there at Union. Where else are you seeing that? Is that a growing movement?
KARENNA GORE: It is a growing movement. We recently hosted the Church of Sweden. They were early to divest—quite a wealthy church that divested all interest in fossil fuels.
I think the interesting thing is that we are seeing that a lot of institutions are finding that it is actually economically in their interest to reinvest in renewable energy and to leave the fossil fuel industry behind. That feels new.
There is still a ways to go, but there certainly is momentum in divestment.
STEPHANIE SY: I want to talk a little bit about women's empowerment, which is the other passion. As I was thinking about that—you wrote a book about how women have changed modern America, and you talked about this feminine conscience—it is actually a line from the book that really stuck out. If you look at these two fields of your interest, the environment and women's empowerment, do you see links there?
KARENNA GORE: Yes, absolutely. The women that I wrote about were behind movements for major social change in modern America. Among them were Mother Jones, who worked at organizing coal miners and also fighting against child labor. One of the ways that she articulated that was to say, is our economic might too high a price if it is based on these poor children dying in mines and factories? That is similar to the calculation that we need to make when people continue to point to growth at all costs. We need to talk about values.
I think that, in some ways, some of these concerns, whether it was care for the elderly or public health, were not really on the political agenda, and they were traditionally women social workers that were dealing with them—Jane Addams, Frances Perkins, who ended up being secretary of labor. Rachel Carson was doing work that was not a mainstream interest to a more masculine career path. These were the women who were seeing that externalities of the industrialization that was going on with factories were not external to the people who were being poisoned by them and to the water and the other living beings.
Thank you for reminding me of that. It does, for me, thread together my work, and it is nice to revisit it.
STEPHANIE SY: I know people always like to hear a little bit about the personal story of our guests. You have been out of the national spotlight for some time, even though clearly you have been doing important work. But you were a star when you were campaigning for your father and he was running for president.
I want to ask you this. Had he won—and we know how important the environment is to him—do you think this country would be in a different place vis-à-vis environmental policy?
KARENNA GORE: Yes, I do. There is no doubt that environmental policy would have been very different in those years that were the Bush-Cheney administration. In some ways, we shouldn't dwell on that, I guess. But it certainly does call to attention the importance of presidential elections and how sometimes it is so much about personality and the spin, and we get so "inside baseball" on some of these really superficial things, and actually they are representing very different roads in some really important issues. I think it is just important to keep in mind.
STEPHANIE SY: Can you expand a little bit on that, on either the media or the societal obsession with little things?
KARENNA GORE: I suppose in some ways it is human nature, and there is no point in griping about it. I don't know what the solution is, but the filters that we have through a news media that seems based on ratings, based on short-term interests and ratings—and celebrity and all of these things—are not really, I don't think, matched up to the best of what the American want out of democracy. Although people will say that the programming is based on what people want, I don't think that is true. It is just harder to measure and match up.
I don't know what the solution is. I wish I did. But I actually do avoid reading anything about the horse race or watching anything about the election. I just find, in this season, it's toxic. It's so much gossip, and a lot about money, a lot about the things that shouldn't be driving the conversation.
STEPHANIE SY: The horse race seemed like it was always something that turned you off to politics.
KARENNA GORE: I guess so.
STEPHANIE SY: Yet you have been writing a lot about social justice, your advocacy work. You were called a natural when you were campaigning with your father. I was reading an old News & Observer article. I think the natural question is, is Karenna Gore interested ever in running for office or in being in politics and following the footsteps of your grandfather and your father?
KARENNA GORE: I am not interested in that, for all the reasons that we just went over. That is the current environment that you step into. Also money—it's a lot of fundraising, and people spend an inordinate amount of time just raising money, every single day. I think that should be a big priority. I think it is a huge problem behind our addiction to fossil fuels as a society, that we have people paying into the system. It is not a mystery. Lawmakers are voting a certain way because of their big donors. That also has affected the fundraising scene as well.
So basically the answer is no, but I think that there are so many other ways to be in public service. One of the good things about the book that I wrote, for me, was seeing some of those different paths to be involved in certainly politics, in the sense that it is power and laws and policies and change. That very much interests me, and I would like to be a part of it.
STEPHANIE SY: Was social consciousness something that was always part of you? What was it like to sit around the Gore dinner table? Did you talk about environmental justice?
KARENNA GORE: I have a lot of memories from the 1980s and the Reagan era. I was thinking about this. I know that there is a lot of discussion of war and ethics of war at the Carnegie Council. This was a time when we were in nuclear disarmament. I do remember my father explaining about the first-strike advantage and the warheads and using salt and pepper shakers—
STEPHANIE SY: And you were how old at this time?
KARENNA GORE: It was into my early teens.
I do remember talking about these issues around the dinner table. That certainly was the good part.
STEPHANIE SY: Global security issues—I know this is sort of off-topic of faith and the environment, but global conflict and global security are also being related now to environmental issues. The Syrian War, of course, started because they were in years of drought. There is also that nexus that is happening.
KARENNA GORE: Yes, absolutely. When you think about it in terms of theology or moral philosophy, it is very connected. Union is a place where Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, other ethicists were engaged in these questions when it seemed as if the end goal of science was the ability to destroy ourselves. That was the nuclear bomb. Dealing with that theologically is something that now is quite resonant to revisit, because it is so similar.
STEPHANIE SY: We did get a question via email, Karenna, so let's start with this. It is sort of a convoluted question, so I am going to try to paraphrase it:
David Groenfeldt would like to ask how you integrate earth ethics into the practical policy and engineering decisions made by corporations. What he references is the scandal at VW [Volkswagen]. I don't know if you all have been following this, but VW basically came up with a software that cheats on the EPA [United States Enviromental Protection Agency] emissions test. These cars are actually polluting at like 40 times the allowed rate, these diesel VW cars. It is a multibillion-dollar fallout.
But I think what he is asking is, how should ethics be informing these corporations, earth ethics, environmental ethics in particular? Is that just completely lost on corporations in this country?
KARENNA GORE: I think it is important to look at how there is a drive only for profit, how we base our paradigm of economic development and growth merely on sales of products and don't build in the costs. The measurement of GDP is the big flaw here. Still we use it in measuring economic growth of whole nations. But it doesn't take into account pollution, depletion of natural resources, positive good that is more long-term.
STEPHANIE SY: You think that should be factored into GDP?
KARENNA GORE: I don't know that I would put it that way, factor it into the GDP, but I do think that we need to change the measurement so that we can see the things of real value. How that applies to individual corporations has to do with—obviously in this case there are laws that are being broken. This is something where we need enforcement of laws. We also probably need better laws and policies and corporate culture change.
I would say, with earth ethics, when there is a shift in consciousness and the kind of change where people start to see it is right and wrong, then things follow, so that that is not something that will be acceptable, to cut corners now. I don't think we are quite there. People sort of think, "Well, my role is to keep the economy going. This is, itself, virtuous, that idea." And they are not factoring in that there are ways in which it is not virtuous if you are doing it that way.
STEPHANIE SY: Is it a false choice that is being put forth to protect the capitalistic systems we have in place already or is it a real thing that a developing country like China has to choose between emissions cuts and growth?
KARENNA GORE: First of all, I would like to question the idea that growth is the only way or that it is a trustworthy goal in a long-term, blanket sense.
STEPHANIE SY: But isn't growth what lifts people out of poverty?
KARENNA GORE: I have to say, these are some questions that I am asking myself. I really want there to be an engagement with wisdom and faith traditions to try to figure this out. It is important to think about how we measure a good life. It does seem like sometimes it is just earning a lot of money, having a lot of houses, having a lot of cars, and people saying, "Oh, he's really successful." Sometimes it just strikes me that the person who is working short hours in a humble situation with family around—why is that not success and wealth?
It is a difficult question, how we measure these things, but it is an important one and one that I think has really big implications.
STEPHANIE SY: The United Nations, of course, is continuing to meet this week, and they have come out with their Sustainable Development Goals. How viable do you think these goals are?
KARENNA GORE: The exciting thing about the Sustainable Development Goals is that there was such an inclusive process and that a lot of countries have bought into them and that they take into account ecological health, as well as many other factors. So it is very hopeful.
There are 17 of them. Implementing them is challenging, in a good way. I think that is also a case where civil society and certainly faith leaders can play a role.
QUESTION: I wanted to talk a bit about economic inequalities, which have gained a lot of attention in the past few years after the economic crash and the Occupy Wall Street movement and various academics publishing work on rising inequalities in the developed world, as well as between developing and developed worlds. I was wondering if you think that incorporating environmental parameters and considerations into our policies and into our development frameworks would contribute in a positive way to the increasing economic inequalities that we see around the world.
As a kind of corollary to that, as you mentioned, we see a lot of social justice activists looking at environmental issues as a sort of sideline or a marginal question that isn't necessarily relevant to questions of economic welfare or other human rights issues. How do we communicate the fact that environmental issues actually have effects in all of these areas and have repercussions on women's rights and economic affairs and queer issues? It is all kind of interrelated. How do we expand the understanding of that?
KARENNA GORE: I would say that the best way for me to understand that is to go to places like the Gulf Coast and to see how people are really affected by development policy, by fossil fuel extraction. Things may be going up, like GDP may be going up, and they say, oh, there is a great big development project and the developer gets a tax break and it comes in, and the extraction industries are just absolutely stripping away the wetlands and all the open space. None of that is measured. None of that is factored in.
A lot of people there, Gulf South Rising—there are a lot of groups that really speak much better for themselves than I could characterize here, basically saying, what kind of life is this? Whose development? Who is benefiting from this? We can't drink oil. If there is no clean water, it doesn't matter how much of this you are pulling out.
I think that going to these places—the same in rural Alabama, where I just was doing a workshop, where people were asking the same kinds of questions: Whose economy? It is very related to the environmental concerns.
So I think it is changing now. I know what you were referring to, that it seems like a side issue for social justice. I have experienced that as well. But I think it really is changing because of the health concerns and because of the fact that people are starting to see now that they are the ones who are being left out of any profit when it comes to the companies that are going away with all this.
QUESTION: I'm Krishen Mehta with the Aspen Institute.
One of the things that surprises me in not only the United States but elsewhere is that we are so afraid to challenge the corporations that are primarily benefiting from the state that we are in. The air we breathe is affected. Many corporations profit from the current system, as you have articulated. The food we eat—Big Agriculture is controlling a lot of the toxins in the food that we consume. Big Pharma is controlling the medicines that we consume. We see a lot of wars around, and the arms industry, the big defense industries are exporting the arms.
Why is it that as a society we are too afraid to challenge the corporations and the profit motive that is resulting in how much they control our lives? Already we have the corporations that have the legislators as captives, not only in this country. What can be done to counter this trend that is overwhelming us from every direction?
KARENNA GORE: I really feel that question, too. I think the challenge is also that we live in a state where, as you said, we don't know where our food comes from. We don't know where the waste goes. A lot of the landscape of our culture is chain stores and box stores. It feels as if there is very little control.
I have been wondering when this will be felt more in the kind of populist areas of the country. Part of where I come from is a small town in Tennessee where my family is from. There was a little town square, and it had all these shops. Then chain stores moved in. A big Walmart moved in. The town square got decimated for business. I have a friend with a furniture store who is one of the last holdouts. The Walmart is there. The chain stores are by the interstate, and everybody just drives to them. The culture is dead. I wonder, why don't people care more?
I think when everything is about the low prices at the Walmart, then it is hard to say that—but if we are talking about values and we start to step back and say it is not just about prices and jobs—those things are very important, and I sound elitist if I am going to say they are not. But it is also about the culture that we are experiencing together.
I think that it is putting it forward and talking about it more. Religion is one way that it comes up. Art is another way that it comes up. It is the base of a lot of great literature, obviously. I think we need to take better care of our culture—obviously there are great cultural institutions to do that—but in a more popular way and in a way that isn't just sort of ceding the decisions to Hollywood, but is making our own music and making our own theater.
I would like to say there is a movement in that direction. I sense that maybe there is.
STEPHANIE SY: It is interesting, I think, what you are bringing up, which really refers back to the Citizens United decision at the Supreme Court. I think, maybe without naming them, you are thinking about two brothers who are heavily invested in the energy industry and the coal ash industry, and just their power over politics. I know this isn't directly related to faith, but it does get at how all of these issues are holistic and are colliding in this country.
That brings me to the question of—we are talking about how certain faith communities are moving towards this issue of environmental justice. Then within the legislature, you have some of the staunchest Christian conservatives that don't even believe in the basics of man-made global warming. There is such a dichotomy there.
QUESTION: You mentioned that women's empowerment was an important issue. I was wondering if you have any advice for students like myself or young women who are looking to establish themselves in the environmental field, which tends to be very male-dominated.
KARENNA GORE: Thank you for that question. I am so happy that you are going into that work.
I can't presume to give advice. I would just say following your own value system and your own instincts and intuition, and not the set conventional career path and measures of success, because they just don't seem to be that reliable—otherwise, follow your heart. I know it sounds cliché, but I am really wishing you all the best in that work.
STEPHANIE SY: It sounds like a lot of what drives you is this explosion of convention. Is that something that was expressed in your childhood at some point? It seems like a lot of what you are saying is, go against convention, conventional beliefs about what success is, conventional beliefs about what being wealthy and rich is.
KARENNA GORE: I think that, like a lot of people, I have just experienced in my own life that the most valuable things are the things that don't come with celebrity or money or power, in the traditional sense of that word. I had a really good grounding experience joining a community and being able to get an education that included moral philosophy and different religious traditions.
I guess I do feel strongly in part because I feel that there is real deprivation in this consumer society. We don't necessarily see it that way, but that is the way that I think a lot of people actually experience it.
QUESTION: Thank you so much. I have a question that relates to when you were talking about air conditioning in India. You mentioned something about policy in there, and that that was sort of the biggest issue there, that we need to change the policy, and that is where the root for a lot of the change to renewables and deemphasizing fossil fuels will come from.
I was inspired by what you were saying at the beginning about the faith communities being so invested now in talking about stewardship and climate change, but at the same time I am sort of, I don't want to say demoralized, but I can't think of a better word right now, by the lack of power that faith communities have to influence policy. I am thinking especially, regarding Pope Francis's visit, everyone is talking about how important it is that he is talking about climate change, but then there is also this very vocal—especially I hear it coming in the news cycle from the climate change-denying caucus of Congress, "Well, the pope is not a politician, and he can say this, but it doesn't have to do with politics."
I am wondering, how do you see the power of these faith communities being able to influence policy? Or is it just sort of something that we can hope is going to trickle over?
KARENNA GORE: I think there is no doubt that the pope has great political power. Past popes have, too, in brokering nuclear peace and having breakthroughs between world leaders who were at odds. I think there is a need for moral language, spiritual language, some vision that isn't all about what is politically doable, but is, in fact, about what is right and is—"prophetic" is one term to use. The model is the Civil Rights Movement. In "The Letter from Birmingham Jail," Martin Luther King was writing to other ministers, saying, "How can you sit by?"
I think that probably we are in a stage now where there a lot of people who are complacent. Maybe the challenge is going to come more strongly to them from the faith leaders that are starting to speak out.
I think there are cultural shifts that can happen. I could talk about all the practical ways, too—that houses of worship all over can change to renewable energy, that the congregations can be motivated to go out and get involved in their communities and make practical changes. And I think that that is true, to some extent. But I actually think it is just that shift in consciousness that could come about in the way that it did with King that would be the most hopeful.
STEPHANIE SY: Do you ever meet, and do theologians and those in the faith communities that do believe in environmental justice, meet with politicians? Are they trying to lobby Washington and have a greater voice in this conversation?
KARENNA GORE: Yes, there are groups that are in Washington doing that lobbying work. The Friends Committee on National Legislation is one that I like. It is a Quaker tradition.
Washington and lobbying doesn't sound like a great thing to get involved in, but obviously it is really important—
STEPHANIE SY: Advocacy, I'll call it.
KARENNA GORE: But it is really important. There are interfaith delegations of young people who are going to these offices, Congressional offices, and saying, "Please change your way of thinking about this. Listen to us. This is the world we're growing up into." I think one of these days those young people in the office of one of these holdouts will definitely make a difference.
QUESTION: What I am taking away from some of this discussion is just the importance of reevaluating not only what individually we value, but collectively what our values are. I am a high school teacher, and I think a lot about my students' experience with technology and social media, and how it both isolates them and helps form their community. I am wondering if you have insights into what role you think that plays in either developing our communal values for younger people or in making us feel more separate.
KARENNA GORE: It is a really good question. You should jump in if—
STEPHANIE SY: Well, I was just thinking—as you asked that question, it just reminds me of the idea of the global citizen. I am applying for private schools for my kid right now. You have to write an essay on what you are looking for. That is what I see as the connection. It really is that this is a global issue—the Gaia hypothesis. As an environmental studies major in college, we learned about this holistic earth. An earthquake can create a tsunami that affects hundreds of thousands of people. The earth is holistic. It is one ocean and it is one earth.
I don't know. Is that what you see out of it? We had this conversation about the global citizen, that that is where the connectivity is.
KARENNA GORE: Yes. I think the Gaia hypothesis is fascinating and there is a lot of truth to that. Shifting to seeing things differently and thinking about connectivity differently is exciting.
Another thing that I was hearing in the question was about the role technology plays. As a parent, I am just one of many parents struggling with that all the time. How do you put limits on this?
I tend to agree with what was in Pope Francis's encyclical, that we have gone a bit far on a technocratic paradigm, where technology is seen as a good in and of itself, that we are meant to go along because this is leading us someplace great and this is man's progress. I think it's like, where are we going with this? What makes this world so much better than the one that my grandparents were handing to me? That's what I want to know. I liked that world.
STEPHANIE SY: But technology is also what we are talking about when we are talking about renewable energy. When we are talking about solar panels, when we are talking about wind or geothermal energy, we are talking about the advances of technology. Fossil fuels, that's the old-school way.
KARENNA GORE: It's a good point.
QUESTION: Thank you so much for coming here.
I am also a student here in the city. One thing that you mentioned that really spoke out to me was this competing interest between the concerns of the present and the concerns of the future, particularly in the minds of policymakers and also corporations. You mentioned this within the context of metrics that have extreme focus on the now. Given that metrics do exist, that kind of focus on human development and other factors, what are some ways do you think we can use these to promote and perhaps prioritize future interests in the minds of current policymakers and also corporations?
KARENNA GORE: There have been different experiments with Happiness Index and Bhutan. The concept of buen vivir (good living) is another way in which I have heard this expressed, where the triple bottom line is something that is discussed in corporate America, including different factors. These all seem to be promising fronts.
I don't know if I am answering your question, but I feel like getting back to some more democratic, small "d," control over some of the decisions that are made, where people are able to, through their values, change values—say, "These aren't our values. We want different values driving this conversation"—is where I would go.
STEPHANIE SY: It really gets back to your point about how you measure growth. We had this conversation about GDP. What she is bringing up is, of course, in Bhutan they have this happiness GDP. That sort of paradigm shift—I think a lot of people would embrace that, were it not for the fact that it seems idealistic.
KARENNA GORE: I think "well-being" is the concept that I like more. It is the full poetic experience of life. That is what we are going to get. There is death, there is sickness, there is hardship and struggle. Obviously I am not addressing the fact that people experience that in hugely unequal ways. I don't want to leave that aside. But the concept of well-being as opposed to just monetary value seems to me to be a good shift.
I know that we are told a lot that this is too idealistic, that this is going to be the ruin of us, that it is socialism. I'm not so sure. I think we have seen with the crash of Wall Street and with the fact that we just bail it out and keep it going, and there are people that make even more money off of this stuff—something has gone really awry in a way that I think people might start to question a bit more.
QUESTION: Just now you mentioned how Pope Francis pointed out a technocratic shift, in the sense that technology has advanced far faster than any kind of ethical contemplation and such. But wouldn't you think of it in a different way, where it is actually good that we now have all this technology, where we should probably think about how to message it right and to get the word out? The technology out there is already available for us to get the correct messaging out. I would like to know how you think about that. Have you ever contemplated reconciling the two to make this advancement, advancing the value, proliferating this idea of protecting the environment?
KARENNA GORE: I think it is a really good challenge. I have always been the one in my family who is a little bit more suspicious of technology. I like ancient wisdom and looking there also, because I think there is a lot that we can find that is very enriching in certain ways, to bring that to technology and make technology work for us and our value system and put limits on it.
But there are certain things where I feel like the objections that I would have to artificial intelligence taking human functions—maybe those are religious objections. I don't really know. But I am certainly uncomfortable with some of those boundaries and would want to discuss them.
STEPHANIE SY: Just to sort of close this out, obviously there is a big global climate change summit that is going to be happening in Paris at the end of the year. What role do you think the faith community will increasingly play in this global summit to influence world leaders to come to some sort of universal agreement on where we should be in emissions and how we should be tackling sea-level rise, climate change, major environmental pollution issues?
KARENNA GORE: I think that faith leaders—by that I mean leaders of religious traditions, indigenous community leaders—will be a moral voice in Paris. Henrik Grape with the Church of Sweden—I was impressed by something that he said: "Any meeting that is taking place on this issue should have three empty chairs: one for future generations, one for the poorest, and one for creation, non-human creation, other living beings with whom we share the planet."
That, to me, was the kind of statement that I think religious leaders can bring in and make their main point and really keep people focused on right and wrong rather than some of the power politics that come into play.
Obviously this is a road through Paris, and there will be a lot to do to implement it and carry it forward. I think another thing is to say they are there as cultural leaders to help make the necessary changes.
STEPHANIE SY: It seems like really smart PR. For the longest time, I think people have talked about climate change and they haven't seen climate change. It seems so far in the future, I think, to a lot of people—maybe not to the folks in Kirabati and in the Maldives. But it seems far away. Is injecting morality and ethics into the environmental movement sort of the fuel—pardon the pun—that is really going to be the tipping point for change?
KARENNA GORE: I think so. I suppose you could make a really good practical case, too, for addressing climate change.
STEPHANIE SY: Your dad has been making that case for 15 years.
KARENNA GORE: I think that we are really called to a higher purpose in life. We are living in a time when we can help to redirect some of the goals of society in a way that will be much more fulfilling and much more balanced and just, and hopefully also peaceful. I do believe that that moral voice is important.
STEPHANIE SY: Karenna Gore, thank you so much.
KARENNA GORE: Thank you.