Rainforest thoughts: Considering news coverage of Orthodox ecumenical patriarch's views on climate

I’m writing this sitting on the deck of a rainforest lodge in a remote corner of southwest Costa Rica just a few miles north of Panama. And I’m wondering; when will today’s afternoon tropical downpour begin?

They don't call them rainforests for nothing.

The forest surrounding the Golfo Dulce is thick and seriously humid, filled with a dazzling variety of climbing, slithering, flying, and just plain-old walking wildlife doing what they can to survive and multiply. (My wife would be happy to do without the gazillions of insects, but it just ain't a rainforest without them. Sorry.) And the best part?

Virtually all the hills and mountains here are government protected. No hunting, no logging -- no human habitations other than a few widely scattered, and small, homes and lodges along the gulf’s shoreline and reachable only by small boat.

Given where I am, is it any wonder that the following two stories caught my attention the day previous to my arrival here last week?

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The first was from The New York Times, detailing the rapid loss of rainforest environments around the globe -- and their importance to slowing the growing planetary upheaval we call climate change. Click here for that story. If you happen to know little about how critical rainforests are to the global environment, or how fast they're disappearing, please read this piece in full. Consider it a crash course.

The second piece is from the Washington Post. It carries the enchanting dateline, “ABOARD THE SHIP MORE SPACIOUS THAN THE HEAVENS.” That’s the name of a ship commanded (not literally; I'm sure he didn't steer it) by the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, one of the world's most environmentally oriented global religious leaders.

Just goes to show you that while you may be a staunch theological traditionalist (Is there any Christian body more traditionalist in form than the Orthodox churches?) you can still be quite progressive on other issues. This is one reason the GetReligion team is not fond of journalists pinning shallow labels on people with complex beliefs.

Here’s the top of the story written by Juliet Eilperin, who deserves a shoutout for her prolificacy and ability to toggle between being the Post’s senior national affairs correspondent chronicling the Trump administration’s policy changes, and global environmental stories.

(Wait. Maybe that’s how she stays sane in today’s Washington?)

ABOARD THE SHIP MORE SPACIOUS THAN THE HEAVENS -- Off the island of Spetses, the leader of 300 million Christians worldwide told a group of nearly 200 religious leaders, academics and activists that they needed to move beyond intellectualism when it came to the environment.
“What remains for us is to preach what we practice,” said Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople. “Now we must begin the long and difficult way from the mind to the heart . . . May God guide you in your service to his people and the care of his creation.”
The environment has defined 78-year-old Bartholomew’s tenure for more than a quarter-century: The gathering at sea this month was the ninth he has organized since the ­mid-1990s. This one focused on Attica, the peninsula surrounding Athens that juts out into the Aegean Sea, and Bartholomew brought together scientists and clergy to examine the state of bodies of water including the Danube and Amazon rivers, the Baltic and Adriatic seas, and the Arctic Ocean.

Before moving on, it's crucial to explain one point: Bartholomew is not the actual leader of the world's Eastern Orthodox Christians, other than as the "first among equals" of the patriarchs of Orthodoxy's ancient churches. (The pope of Rome used to be the first among equals in the ancient Christian churches, until the great Schism of 1054.) This story's lede is a mild example of a tendency among journalists to assume that the ecumenical patriarch -- leader of one of the world's smallest Orthodox flocks, in the repressed reality that is modern Turkey -- is some kind of "Orthodox pope."

However, Bartholomew is an important newsmaker -- especially on this issue.

Further down in the story, there is this long, but crucial, passage: 

In November 1997, [Bartholomew] had delivered an address in Santa Barbara, Calif., where he officially classified crimes against the natural world as sins.
“For humans to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for humans to degrade the integrity of Earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the Earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands; for humans to injure other humans with disease, for humans to contaminate the Earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances,” he told a crowd that included ­then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt. “These are sins.”
Pope Francis has likewise drawn global attention to environmental activism: On the same day Bartholomew was concluding his conference in Greece, the pope brought the leaders of multinational energy and investment firms to the Vatican to discuss the path forward on climate change.
At a time when some political leaders have become more cautious about -- or have outright rejected -- policies aimed at curbing greenhouse gas emissions, several major faith leaders are making environmental care a top spiritual priority.
But they have also struggled to inspire some of their congregants to action.
“Even when there’s a will, there is not always a willingness to act,” said Ni­ger­ian Cardinal John Olorunfemi Onaiyekan, one of two [Roman Catholic] cardinals who traveled to the patriarch’s conference. “The spirit is willing, but very often, the flesh is weak.”

Did you catch that reference to “some political leaders”?

Far be it from me to read between Eilperin’s lines, but did I mention that she works in Washington and covers the Trump administration?

I did.

So, local religion reporters and other journalists, if you haven't already this may be the  time to check out the pro-environment activities or discussions happening at Orthodox congregations in your circulation area.

What do they have to say about Bartholomew calling crimes against nature a sin?

By the way: It's crucial to separate the beliefs that Orthodox priests and believers may have on this issue from their opinions about the high-profile role that Bartholomew has taken in Orthodox affairs in the past decade or so. Ask questions about the environment and doctrine, not just this patriarch's efforts. This issue is bigger than one man.

Finally, just so you know: Today’s tropical downpour began about halfway through my writing this post. I love the intensity of it all.

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