The New York Society for Ethical Culture is a humanist community that has been dedicated to social justice and education since its founding in 1876. At a time when other nonprofit institutions, including major universities like Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia, have failed to divest and have so far failed to rebuild their curricula with a climate changed future in mind, Ethical Culture has become a hub in New York City for activists and discussion on how to move society forward.
Among the groups using Ethical Culture, located on Central Park West and West 64th Street, as a meeting space are activists pushing for New York City and State to divest. The work of this coalition, including 350NYC, resulted in a breakthrough announcement on December 19th that the City comptroller and Governor Cuomo both endorse plans to divest. [More here from the New Yorker.]
Emily Rutland interviewed Monica Weiss and Dr. Richard Koral about the climate program at Ethical Culture and its impact.
You say a fourth of your time now is focused on climate change talks and discussions – why is climate change an ethical issue and how did Ethical Culture get involved in this movement?
Richard: We are a religion of ethics. 140 years ago, our founder began this community based on the search for ethics and the journey to try and create a better world. It was during the Reform Era of the late 19th century when many religious organizations were looking to support the reform movement, and Ethical Culture was born out of that. They were involved in child labor reform, tenement reform, there was a nurse service. The reform was the driving force behind the movement. The notion of theology was set aside – they made the observation that what separates people is these notions of competing theologies while so many of these religious movements had at their core an ethical basis.
The new idea was really to look to the ethical tradition and take the theologies that divide people aside and leave the thing that really is the common journey – how to make this a better world, and how to make ourselves better people.
One of the original catch phrases was “deed before creed”, that it’s really what you do, and the notion that wisdom comes from experience more than revelation. I guess that’s our thing – we can make a better world by action.
I guess that’s our thing – we can make a better world by action.
The deed is how we act, and what we experience in the world is what teaches us. So, the world that we find ourselves in is the world we relate to. And it is our duty to make it as best we can. We can create a better world, and I guess that’s our thing – we can make a better world by action.
So to contrast the more evangelistic revelatory-type religion – where people tend to think that God is in control, that God makes the world, and God will fix the world – we are a nontheistic group. We feel that we are here to do the best we can, and we see that the world is in danger. So, how do you react to a world in danger with the environmental issues and challenges?
It is to act – to do what we can. Not to wait. And not to have faith in any supernatural cause that is going to save us in the end.
I was really surprised when I heard Evangelicals say that we will be fine if we just have faith, but we don’t think it’s going to happen that way. Because we caused climate change, it is our duty to do something. So I think as an obligation of citizenship, it is important to actually engage and deal with it – to step forward and meet the challenge, recognizing that it is such an important challenge – it is so real. How do we turn around and face future generations when we’re at this turning point?
And it’s a very powerful moral issue and we take it very seriously – this is one of our leading issues. Ethical Culture has been involved in social justice issues from the beginning – we were involved in helping to form the NAACP and had 3 members on the initial board of the organization. These are the important issues of our society; that’s why [our interest in the] environment is so strong.
Monica: In terms of specific engagement with environmental issues, in 2008 we had a part-time leader named Curt Collier who came to this position with an absolute passion for environmental causes. His personal journey as an Ethical Culture leader meant that he needed to take these ethics and apply them, and not just to human relationships. It was bigger than that – when you define ethical relationships as relationships that are not exploitative or the end justifying the means, then all relationships have to be respectful, including the relationship with nature.
That was really the beginning of a different consciousness for us here. It’s not that people didn’t think about it – it was about two years after An Inconvenient Truth came out – but he was already there. He had this vision on everything from economics to sustainability.
In our time at City Atlas, Ethical Culture has stood out among New York City’s nonprofits and religious organizations in terms of this demonstrated dedication to this issue – universities are ethical institutions yet many have not divested. The pope has acknowledged climate change but many churches are not acting on that – what makes Ethical Culture different?
Richard: I’m surprised you say we stand out – it seems natural to us so I’m surprised that others aren’t as active with it.
Monica: I think there’s a lot of this going on in New York City, actually. The Riverside Church has the Beloved Earth Community – that’s their environmental group and that’s very active and very committed. There’s a huge divestment movement going in in New York City and New York State.
Richard: Our national organization had some resolutions and we had a divestment resolution three years ago urging the different societies around the country to divest and this society did it – it took about three years and it’s not 100% because of the difficulty is with some endowments that are in portfolios, but we are in the high 90%.
Monica: You have to walk the talk, otherwise what’s the point?
A number of years ago, we formed a small environmental stewardship committee with congregants who were passionate about this. A turning point for us was in 2010 when 350NYC – the local affiliate of 350.org – had an action, it was called Moving Planet Day, and the purpose of it was to call attention to media outlets that were not covering climate change.
That was the first action that we became aware of in NYC, and because of Curt we participated. We were outside the NBC studios, demanding that they begin covering climate change issues and stop ignoring them. That was our first connection with 350, and after that the idea came up that we should connect with them ongoing and support the work they were doing more substantially, which we did. They’ve become our environmental partners, because we don’t drive the work – there’s so many incredible organizations in NYC who are doing this work, but we feel it’s our mission to support the work they do, to provide space, to empower them, to help spread the message. So we’ve opened our doors to them and provide a lot of meeting space, not just to 350NYC although they meet here four times a month.
An outgrowth of their meetings here was this coalition of environmental groups that became the NYC Grassroots Alliance, which formed about 4 years ago – it was just an open invitation to climate activists in the area who met here and decided that there were so many groups doing similar work – similar but also unique in some ways – and we all needed to have a conversation about what the others were doing and how we could network together and support one another. That group has been meeting here once a month.
There are clearly a ton of organizations that are involved in this. You mention that your role is to support their work and provide a place for them to meet and speak. How do you select the organizations that you bring in? By doing so you are shaping the conversation in some way.
Monica: Generally they come to us looking for space. The more space we give, the more people come to us looking for space. Obviously we can’t give space to every group that wants to meet – we also need to rent space to pay for the roof over our heads. 350NYC is the primary climate partner and the others are as needed – Food and Water Watch has meetings here as needed to launch special projects or campaigns. Wenonah Hauter had a book launch here for Frackopoly. We’ve been involved in the People’s Climate March and in New York Renews. Primarily we give space to 350NYC and the Grassroots Alliance, those are the major partners.
New York City is home to over 100 billionaires, and is one of the most culturally influential cities in the world. At the same time, much of the city is just as vulnerable to climate impacts like sea level rise as Bangladesh or the Marshall Islands. How do you think NYC can take on this leadership, which would then help the world overall? What changes minds?
Richard: That’s a very interesting point about the 100 billionaires. If they’re in their pencil towers when the water rises, that may be their solution. I don’t know.
I think that maintaining the message is really the important role that we play, and an educative function is what we do. I am also always concerned with our income inequality and the fact that there are all these billionaires – we live in different worlds. Our community is really a middle-class community – we don’t have any billionaire members. I would know if we did, but we don’t.
So I don’t have an answer to that question, but I like the fact that you asked it.
Do you have any ideas of how you can reach the wealthiest New Yorkers, many of whom live right around here?
Monica: It wouldn’t be just for the climate work. There’s a lot of substantial and important work that NYSEC does and has always been engaged in so, like Richard said, we are a congregation – we’re a center for ethics but we’re also a religious organization. We fulfill, on some level, the role of a religious institution, but also more than that. We see ourselves as a center for the ethical conversation in NYC. But it doesn’t just apply to environment and climate.
Richard: Social justice areas; we are active with the Black Lives Matter movement and trying to combat systemic racism.
But I don’t think they are entirely separate, I think they are connected through a concern for humanity, a concern for our world and a concern for our future. It takes a really cynical perspective on life to think that one is exempt from the trend – a trend of society dividing or a trend of the world that is really in danger.
People do act as if they are exempt, and I think that’s the income inequality drama that we are facing now. A book just came out a couple months ago from an economist at MIT – Peter Temmen. He applied a theory of economics that was designed for developing countries, about how there is such a big distinction between the rich and the poor, and in developing countries it’s the very tiny rich that live on the coastline or in cities and the vast majority live in rural areas and their relationship. His observation was that you can apply those dynamics to the American economy of today – in other words, we are dividing so much into super rich and everyone else, and that colors the politics in every respect, it really colors the question of what people feel is appropriate, what they can do and what really serves their personal interest.
So people have these divided perspectives on the world – the very few very, very rich who have aggregated so much economic and political power, so it’s an interesting question of what the future will be for the vast numbers of people who live along the coastlines that are going to be flooded in the next 50-60 years. Where are the billionaires? How do we engage them? I thought that was a fabulous question and now I’m thinking about it – why not?
Monica: Some of the billionaires are doing very good work. Bloomberg and others, he’s been a driving force in responsible environmental policy and climate policy from the time he was mayor and now through his philanthropy work.
Richard: There was something that just came out about the Association of Mayors.
Monica: US mayors have backed 100% renewable energy by 2030. This is an agreement that came out – de Blasio is part of this. Especially since the US has pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, mayors all over the US doubled down on their commitment to pick up where the federal government is no longer playing a role.
Richard: It’s a question of who’s speaking for America at this point. Maybe Donald Trump is not really speaking for America anymore.
Monica: Of course we were all shell shocked after the election. Everybody was just horrified.
Richard: We actually had grief meetings. I’m not kidding. One of the leaders here was treating people pastorally – people felt they had to gather here together and mourn.
Monica: We saw a huge influx of people coming to Sunday meetings because people needed to make sense of what had happened and likewise with the environmental groups too, we saw a huge influx of people. The response was extraordinary. We used to meet in a room that holds about 30 or 40 people and it was spilling out into the hall in January.
Richard: We had a meeting the week after the election, NOW (National Organization for Women) and we filled the auditorium downstairs, which has 800 seats.
Monica: It was because it had just been after the election, there was just a shell shocked atmosphere of people needing answers and trying to make sense and knowing they had to come together to withstand.
Richard: The Association of Mayors is coming out with their own statement, that they are doubling down, which is really a hopeful sign.
Have you found that that engagement has sustained?
Monica: I think so. We see new people every month. People coming to programs in larger numbers, and what we’re hearing from people over and over again at these environmental meetings is, I can’t sit by and read about it in the newspaper anymore, I can’t just worry about it, I can’t be the person who just goes to work and comes home. It’s kind of like what the People’s Climate March tagline was – “To change everything we need everyone.” People are starting to understand that we’re all part of the problem and we all need to be part of the solution.
And we explain to people, it doesn’t matter what you do, but do something. Show up and find your way into the climate movement, find what works for you. We’ve had people who are mothers who work full time – those are the people who have no time for anything – and they were showing up to meetings because they have children and felt they had to do something. So, it’s catalyzed people in a way – people were catalyzed before because we had the Climate March in 2014 – but his election has catalyzed people in a very extraordinary way.
Do you think that’s a silver lining of all this?
Richard: People do say that, that it will galvanize people and we’ll really see change. I was afraid of that. Let’s just have a slow but steady progression – it’s safer and more sure.
Monica: I think the damage he is going to do – Bill McKibben wrote an article about that – the damage he is going to do with his policies and neglect is going to outlast his term. We were in a place where we were so close to the tipping point, if not past it, and some people say we are. But we were also making progress. We were on a trajectory to hold steady and we’re no longer there – we’re not holding steady, we’re not going to hold steady with his policies and it’s possible that the damage he is going to do will outlast even a brief time in office. So it’s very frightening.
Are you involved with the NYC government or any policy making?
Monica: The groups that meet here are involved, like 350NYC, and are actually doing the work. Part of what we’re doing – and I’m wearing two hats because I’m also a member of 350NYC – is dealing with New York City’s plan that encompasses retrofitting buildings, waste management, transition to sustainable and renewable energy and transportation – those are the four elements of NYC’s policy.
It’s been key to form alliances within these different areas – it’s nice to be an environmentalist and climate activist, but if you don’t engage the faith groups and the labor community and all the other communities, you don’t have a movement, because it does have to include everybody. So when you talk about moving away from coal, it’s very easy for the people in this room to talk about not using coal, but very different for those people who don’t have a paycheck without coal.
You talk about building a movement and involving communities. I was at the Climate, Jobs and Justice event, where they were saying that we need an active social movement at the level where people are protesting in the streets. How do you motivate people to get to that level of action?
Monica: All of the groups that meet here are activist groups. The ethical culture movement is an activist-oriented movement, so we’ve already been doing that with civil rights and women’s rights and other things.
Richard: When we had our assembly of the national organization, one of the speakers was the newly elected congressman from Baltimore. This was in the interregnum period before Donald Trump was inaugurated, but demonstrations were mounting in the street. And the question of what they should do – he is a progressive Democrat – and how to deal with the oncoming administration and how they should engage with the Republicans – and what he said was, that the fact that there were people in the streets demonstrating was so electrifying to the people in Congress – the Democrats essentially – that it really changed their focus. It made them more courageous and more intent and I found that really heartening to know that the voices are being heard. It’s nice to hear that there is a reaction and there is an impact among those that are charged with the duty of making some decisions.
Monica: These climate groups are very activist-oriented, there are people working behind the scenes on policy issues, for instance the divestment movement is huge in New York City, it’s one of 350.org’s big campaigns. Our local divestment group meets here monthly and their focus is on divesting city pensions from fossil fuels, so it’s a multi-pronged approach.
You have the CUNY divestment movement which is a big CUNY movement that the students are leading, very effectively I must say. There are private universities that have divested because of student-led initiatives and at this point, there’s a constant barrage of small demonstrations wherever Scott Stringer shows up – ongoing – to petition him to divest. Between the Governor and the City Comptroller, there’s constant activity on the street, constant. And that helps – they call that birddogging – focus in on an elected official and wherever they are for whatever reason, if they think they are going to a private fundraising dinner or a book launch or whatever, a group of people is out there.
And it works. It worked actually to stop fracking in New York – the governor was hounded by Food and Water Watch, by Sane Energy and all of these groups and ultimately he did the right thing, I think for the right reasons. But if it hadn’t been for the pressure these groups exerted and the constant demonstrating and all of the programs, I don’t think it would have happened. So that was a huge success. Things do get done. And probably more locally than nationally – right now the focus has to be local – city and state.
What do you hope will happen in the next year in NYC?
Richard: I think there are important plans that have to be made for NYC and for the defense of NYC against the tides. Bloomberg came out with a very ambitious plan in his last year – it hasn’t been built yet, but that’s what I’m hoping. We have to recognize that we are a sea level city and there are practical things that need to be done.
Monica: Resiliency is huge in coastal cities. We need to mitigate the damage, prevent some of the damage – 2030 is very close. Very, very close. And it’s great to have a goal, and there are concrete plans. But between the goal and the plan and the idea it’s going to take a lot of push and a lot of commitment and financial backing to make these things happen. And there are forces that are going to push back, the real estate lobby’s going to push back against mandatory retrofitting – there are people whose interests are not necessarily the same.
Richard: Coastline development – it’s a whole change of mindset.
Monica: Offshore wind is very big – particularly Food and Water Watch and Sane Energy were instrumental in defeating the LNG board off the coast of Long Island – Long Beach. We have no fracking in NYC but we have the pipelines that carry the fracked gas from Pennsylvania to the coast, which is hypocritical to say the least, so the emphasis is on getting some of these pipelines stopped.
That’s also part of the focus – if fracking is a bad thing then stop facilitating all the fracked gas. The other thing was that this liquefied natural gas port off the coast of Long Beach – all of the fracked gas that was going there was going to be liquefied and exported. We didn’t want that to happen. It was also being built in a location that would have been perfect for a wind project, which meant that if the LNG terminal got built, the wind turbines couldn’t, so I think the local climate movement in New York State really defeated that. Now they are moving forward with plans for a coastal wind farm. It’s going to take a long time, it takes about 7 years to build a wind farm, but these are all grassroots movements, so that makes me hopeful. Everyday there’s something good in the news – there might be 10 bad things but there’s always one good thing, you just have to look for it.
That’s a good thing to remember. Have you experienced any pushback at all?
Richard: Within our community there hasn’t been any pushback.
Monica: There’s no downside to doing this because the people who walk through our doors are people who want to pursue more ethical projects and behaviors and relationships, so they’re already coming with that intention.
Richard: Part of the basic set of environmental values here is that people here respect science, respect education, and it’s meaningful – we spend billions of dollars making the biggest universities in the world and they come up with advances in medicine and physics and we like that, we thank them.
But when they say wait a second the climate is warming and carbonization is detrimental, then suddenly people say scientists are crazy. If people respect science, they recognize that people try and tell us something and we have to follow through and take the next steps, so I think it’s very fundamental of the worldview of people who chose to be here, that the conclusions that science takes is something we have to act on – we have to take the next step. I think it’s pretty simple for people here.
Monica: If anything it’s been beneficial. That was the unintended consequence – sometimes you just do the right thing and there are good unintended consequences. That’s why you’re here – we’ve opened our doors, we are doing the ethics that we talk about and try to practice and we are a welcoming home for people who are looking for the same things and who appreciate and share the same values. And we actually had a whole series of programs on Laudato Si’ when it first came out. Some of the people who belong to GreenFaith, a faith-based climate organization, did the presentations – some of them are from Riverside Church and some are from other congregations.
How well did that square with your mission to be a nontheistic religion?
Richard: It’s the deed before creed part.
Monica: When you speak things that are authentic and truthful and science-based and reason-based and reasonable and ethical, we’re all there.
Do you consider yourselves religious people?
Richard: There are some who say ethical culture is a religion and some who say it’s a philosophy. I tend to think of it as my religion – what we do here is what religions do – we marry people, we have memorials, baby namings. We have a Sunday school for kids with an ethical education program, and we have the potlucks and all the things a community will have. We find that the community and the search for ethics leaves you with a lot to talk about, so I consider it my religion. Some people say that just the notion that the universe is attached to our environment, that we are so interdependent and that we need each other and learn from each other and grow together, it invokes a religious response.
Monica: I consider it my religion. I didn’t come from a religious family, and I never used the word religion, but I do consider this my religion. It’s really about where we connect. Before the first People’s Climate March in 2014 there was a huge amount of planning, and Anne Klaeysen our head Leader was very involved with the faith community and all of the faith leaders in NYC were planning that contingent – it was a huge contingent for that march and we hosted the faith breakfast here.
Richard: That whole thing was really centered here in this building.
Monica: We provided a home for a lot of that organizing. And it was beautiful at the faith breakfast because everyone was there for the same reason and there was someone there from every religion speaking. There were at least 10 speakers, and the message was the same, because we were all there for the ethics. That’s what this is about, having an ethical relationship with the planet.
If you’re a person who believes that God created everything, which many of the faith groups do, there is an idea that, then you have to respect the environment that much more – it’s sacred, it’s magnificent, you were given this, what are you doing with it? And how dare you? We can feel the same way about it – we don’t know that this was given to us by a deity or anything super natural, but in my view, nature is magnificent.
The awe is the same, you can experience it the same way. There is a humanist spirituality component, it’s about what you’re connected to. You can be connected to God, you can be connected to the magnificence and awesomeness of the universe, but the experience is the same, and that’s what we believe here.
Richard: If I could just say one more thing about the difference with Ethical Culture – from some perspectives one sees oneself as walking through life, walking in this garden of the earth and dealing with it, surviving with it, cultivating it.
But I think there’s another view too, where we see that we as human beings really emerged with all the parts of nature, we’re not just walking through, we are of it. We are not separate. Therefore, I think the love for nature is all the more rich.
So the responsibility is there. We’re the ones who can think and plan. It’s up to us.