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Nobel winner Tutu urges green living at NYC forum

Brian Wright O’Connor | 12/3/2008, 3:47 a.m.
Moderator Steven Curwood (left) joins panelists Archbishop Desmond Tutu (center) and environmental activist Majora Carter at the recent “Green Justice: Caring for People and Planet Together” forum, sponsored by the Global Citizens Circle and held at the South African consulate in New York City. E. Lee White

NEW YORK — Years ago, according to South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, anyone who cared about the environment was considered part of the “lunatic fringe.”

But with global warming melting the polar caps, turning arable land into desert and hastening the demise of hundreds of species, the lunatics have come in from the cold to take their rightful place at the pulpit, said the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize laureate at a recent New York City forum entitled “Green Justice: Caring for People and Planet Together.”

Invoking the Biblical mandate of good stewardship of the earth as humankind’s spiritual obligation, the genial Anglican cleric, speaking animatedly and gesturing broadly, described several startling illustrations of the reality of climate change.

At church services held during a global warming forum in Norway, Tutu found himself preaching “with a block of ice next to the pulpit. And I was looking at it, slowly melting, hoping it would still be there at the end of my sermon.”

Tutu leaned forward to make a more serious point, the golden bling of a heavy cross dangling from his clerical collar.

“There was a woman from Greenland there who said hunting and traveling were more limited than ever before,” he said in his trademark lilting accent. “For them, global warming is a ghastly reality.”

Best known for his work fighting apartheid, the 77-year-old Tutu likened environmental activism to the charge of watching out for all God’s children and trying to restore harmony in our relations with all the creatures of the earth.

“The Bible is an incredible book because right at the beginning God says to Adam and Eve, ‘Now you will have dominion,’” he said.

“Many people think dominion means aggressive control, but it actually means man ruling in the image of God — compassionately, caringly,” said Tutu, who is often called “South Africa’s moral conscience” for his work not only fighting apartheid, but also leading reconciliation efforts between races after the fall of the white-led government.

Steven Curwood, a veteran print and radio journalist who has reported extensively on the environment, directed the conversation to more specific issues facing policy-makers, such as how to reduce dependence on coal-fired electricity generation while increasing the use of low-emission hybrid vehicles.

“The way out of this mess is through a green path,” said the executive producer and longtime host of Public Radio International’s “Living on Earth.”

“The New Deal itself was a green path, developing not just rural electrification but also building parks.”

Panelist Majora Carter, who created the nonprofit organization Sustainable South Bronx in 2001 to lead a successful fight against the expansion of hazardous waste-transfer facilities in her community, said the striking evidence of climate change should be seized upon to broaden the movement to protect the planet.

“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” said the MacArthur “Genius” fellow, citing an immediate need to ensure that the burden of environmental degradation is not visited exclusively on the poor.

Tutu, who received the Global Citizens Circle life achievement award at the outset of the forum, drew a comparison between environmental justice and caring for the human family.

“God would like us to know that we are family. That sounds rather corny. I’m sure you’re thinking, ‘Can’t you say something more profound?’ But it is profound,” said the retired bishop.

“Would you drop bombs on your family? If you know that down there is your mommy and daddy, your sister and your brother, would you drop them?”

The Global Citizens Circle was founded by members of the Dunfey hotelier family 35 years ago to provide a forum for freewheeling discussion of current issues and events.