One of the most confusing statements I’ve heard over the past several years is “I don’t believe in global warming,” as if an environmental phenomenon is something you can choose to believe or not believe.

It’s similar to those who say they don’t believe in evolution, but on a less comprehensible level. While one can understand how a reading of Christian Scripture could lead to a rejection of an evolutionary process of development, it is less clear why people would avow disbelief regarding global warming.

Global warming is not something you choose to believe in; it is simply taking place according to an overwhelming amount of data. Therefore, it is surprising to hear so much rhetoric aimed at objective data. It seems as strange as debating whether you believe it is the year 2010.

A debate about the degree to which humanity has contributed to the current warming trend would be understandable. Global warming and global cooling have occurred throughout our global history. Therefore, asserting that these are natural processes that humanity cannot control or that our influence on these warming and cooling trends is minimal would be comprehensible.

However, positing global warming as a matter of belief is disingenuous. What is more disingenuous is the rhetoric of the conservative movement, which offers its experience of cold weather (during winter of all times!) to “disprove” global warming. As I write, it is 41 degrees. Is it sensible to argue that because it is cold where I am that it must be cold everywhere else in the world? Of course not.

Yet, as Robert Parham pointed out in his editorial, this is the underlying logic of those who do not believe in global warming; they are using our experience of cold weather in parts of North America as evidence that global warming is a farce. This is questionable logic at best.

I’m sure motives for “disbelief” in global warming are quite diverse. For some it may be influenced by religious ideology, for others by political ideology, for still others by a sense of fear or the human proclivity to avoid taking responsibility for our errors. Whatever the reason, facts often take a backseat to rhetoric. This begs the question: Is there a way to move beyond rhetoric and debates about global warming so that we can work to change our lifestyles to better maintain our world for future generations?

The way forward is found in the concept of sustainability. Global warming polarizes and makes constructive dialogue nearly impossible. Much ink is spilled, rhetoric spouted and breath expelled in debating the truth (or falsity) of global warming with nothing tangible being accomplished. No matter how much data supports a warming trend, I don’t believe that you can ever “win” the debate about whether global warming is happening because it has become a matter of beliefs rather than a matter of data.

However, I believe we can find common ground in a discussion about sustainability, a concept introduced to me through the works of Paul Hawken’s “The Ecology of Commerce,” Herman Daly’s “Beyond Growth” and Brian McLaren’s “Everything Must Change.” I refer you to their works for greater detail on this concept.

The idea is simple: Our global system is too large to be sustained long-term. Short-term there is vitality. Long-term there is exhaustion. We need to reform our lives so that we cease outstripping the natural limits of the world. To put it in biblical terms, we need to stop re-enacting the fundamental sin of the Genesis narrative, namely, outstripping the limits God placed on creation by assuming the place of God, believing that we know best and that our actions will not have devastating consequences.

I believe that a shift in focus from global warming to sustainability can provide a way forward. The concept is simple; the implementation is difficult. Yet I believe that our very survival as a global community depends on our moving beyond debates about global warming, which are often more about ideology than fact, to discussions about sustainability.

Whatever our role in global warming, an effort to establish a sustainable global system would help correct whatever we have contributed to the problem. If we fail to change our ways in favor of the status quo, the world will continue to be abused as global resources continue to be depleted, as unhealthy levels of toxins continue to enter our environment and as products continue to be produced that are discarded after use to sit in landfills for hundreds if not thousands of years.

The consequences of maintaining our present course will be no less tragic than those experienced by the figures of the Genesis narrative, who were meant to teach us that living within limits is salvation and living beyond limits is destruction.

Unfortunately, many Christians have debated the historicity of the Adam and Eve narrative, but failed to grasp the point of the story, which can give us direction in our present circumstances.

Eden can serve as a topic of debate like global warming, in which people spend lots of time and effort debating its existence with no consensus and no practical results. Or it can serve as an image of salvation and redemption like the concept of sustainability, which offers us a new vision of how life could be.

I suggest we understand Eden as a metaphor, which offers us hope for a fruitful, abundant and sustainable life – one that thrives by living within boundaries, which can offer us a way forward both now and in the generations to come.

Zach Dawes is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship ministerial resident at Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie, Ga. His blog is here.

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