Doing Our First Works Over

[1] James Baldwin wrote about “do[ing] our first works over.” “In the church I come from—which is not at all the same church to which white Americans belong—we were counseled, from time to time, to do our first works over.” “Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself,” Baldwin says, “but know whence you came.”[1] Doing first works over means to reexamine everything from its onset and tell the truth about it, as best we can.

[2] First works, those by which we expect to work out our social salvation, are layered deeply in psyche and society. They generate the “normative gaze” that frames and guides feeling and thought alike.[2] They fund our personal habits and the habits of our institutions. They show up in our modes of production and reproduction, our cultural sensibilities, our basic aesthetic, intellectual, and moral values. They comprise, at day’s end, our way of life.

[3] As the incarnation of first works, a way of life is rendered so “natural” and so firmly in place that those who benefit barely notice its painstaking and costly construction. Its wisdom seems conventional, its good common. Only the stranger, some other wanderer from the borderlands, or those habituated to the “twoness”[3] required of persons who must know two worlds in order to survive in one, are routinely aware of its quirky logic and composition. Those native to their own first works treat them as plants do topsoil.

[4] This makes truth-telling difficult, since our first works construct the mind-sets with which we see the world. If we benefit from that world, our first works also flatter us. Their ideological biases turn our good luck and advantages into achievements we feel we’ve earned. All this is well-known to students of human nature. But few have said it as succinctly as Baldwin himself. “People who imagine that history flatters them (as it does, since they wrote it) are impaled on their history like a butterfly on a pin and incapable of seeing or changing themselves, or the world.”[4]

[5] How, then, do we see our way of life and our first works differently? How do we avoid pinning ourselves down and rendering ourselves incapable of constructive change? Learning to live in more than one world at a time is one way. It’s the “twoness” mentioned earlier. Letting the past speak again and anew is another. This is Baldwin’s “go back as far as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it.” Discerning the signs of the times is a third avenue. Look up, down, and around to puzzle out what you see. What is revealed? The revelatory power of accelerated and extreme climate change is an example of this path, and the one taken for this article.

[6] Pumped-up climate change is the biggest thing to happen to Planet Earth in tens of thousands of years. It is a rude interruption of the first works future historians will call “the fossil-fuel interlude,” the epoch made possible by coal, oil, and natural gas. Yet try as we might to get our petrochemical groove back, climate change takes daily revenge somewhere on the planet. It is an in-our-face demand to do our first works over, a revelation demanding a conversion.

[7] What does climate change tell us? Allow a brief history of recent climate change as relayed by the church body most attuned to climate issues, the World Council of Churches (WCC). The WCC put climate change on the agenda from the late 1980s onward and tied it to the “just, participatory, and sustainable society” program begun in 1974. The WCC in fact gave the world the term and theme of “sustainability” as a norm for society and not simply, as before, a term for the yield of forests and fisheries. Included in the 1974 description is this: “A sustainable society requires a level of human activity which is not adversely influenced by the never ending, large and frequent natural variations in global climate.”[5] This was before the world’s attention to human causes of “variations in global climate.”

[8] Yet soon the WCC did single out human-induced climate change to give it a hearing when very few were listening. Accelerated Climate Change: Sign of Peril, Test of Faith (1994), is an example. It moved quickly to the ethical issues, and underscored two of them. (1) Climate change throws into sharp relief the unjust balance of wealth, resources and economic power between the rich and the poor. Since the rich are by far the chief contributors to climate change but the poor suffer the most, any moral response should distinguish between “the luxury omissions of the rich” and the “survival emissions of the poor” whenever emission targets are set. In different words, social justice belongs near the center of efforts to create a different economy fueled by different means as we undertake the long, hard transition to other first works. (2) Climate change also reveals that nature has become “co-victim with the poor.” Such is the compounded effect of violating intricate natural systems and exploiting human communities. One stark conclusion is that “Earth and people will be liberated to thrive together, or not at all.”[6] Another is that “we must not allow either the immensity or the uncertainty pertaining to climate change and other problems to erode further the solidarity binding humans to one another and to other life.”[7]

[9] The admonition not to “allow either the immensity or the uncertainty pertaining to climate change” to sever bonds between persons with one another and bonds with the rest of the community of life became a standing moral imperative for the WCC, and the kind of complicated solidarity that serves as an ethical norm for future first works. Keeping these bonds intact is made more difficult by an exploding human population—another arena of WCC attention in the 1980s and 1990s. The population was 1.6 billion in 1900. It had taken all of human history to arrive at that point. By 2000 it was 6.1 billion, and a mere century was all that was needed to add the difference of 4.5 billion.

[10] Human population working the industrial paradigm is not the only factor generating climate change, of course. Per person consumption levels reveal even more. But the exploding global population is a multiplier of all the other factors that jeopardize eco-systems, threaten species, habitat and land, air and water quality, tax resources, and generally undermine the well-being of the whole community of life.

[11] Behind WCC attention to climate change were the early scientific reports. James Hansen, a lead climatologist, testified to Congress in June, 1988. His bottom-line conclusion was that the planet had entered a long-term warming trend and human-made greenhouse gases, added to natural cycles, were likely responsible for it. Hansen also laid out the scenario that government-sponsored science foresaw, should current trends continue: because warming would enhance both extremes of the water cycle we would see stronger droughts and forest fires, on the one hand, and more intense storms, heavier rains and floods, on the other.

[12] About the same time, the head of the newly-formed Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Sir John Houghton, a prominent climate scientist who also happens to be a Welsh evangelical lay leader, spent a day with a WCC consultation on climate change. He laid out the consensus of thousands of scientists from around the world who, under UN auspices, rigorously reviewed one another’s work. Without Sir John so much as raising his voice or changing his tone to underscore a point, the consensus he reported scared all of us around the table. The “immensity and uncertainty of climate change” was beginning to sink in, though we had little capacity to see what the full range of planetary consequences might be. That initial scientific consensus would eventually go public in the first IPCC report. And eventually, in 2007, after four five-year reports later, the IPCC would conclude with “very high confidence” that “the net effect of human activities since 1750 has been one of warming” and that the concentration of carbon dioxide “exceeds by far the natural range over the last 650,000 years (180 to 300 ppm) as determined from ice cores.”[8]

[13] Yet Sir John’s own concerns were elsewhere. The data were there. But how would the human community address the moral issues of equity internationally and inter-generationally, he wondered. How would the right moral climate be created so as to handle the cascade of difficulties brought on by an altered physical climate? First, there would likely be denial and then, for the convinced, despair. And even if the science were accepted and attention turned to urgent policy, how could the needed action be coordinated on all the relevant levels—local, regional, national and international? Would the long-haul common good first be sacrificed in the desperate effort to address immediate crises? For Houghton, the WCC’s “test of faith” was inseparable from the “sign of peril,” and the more difficult part. Science could speak truth to power, but then what? What would the powers do with it? The basic issues were not epistemological, in his mind. Nor were they technological. Yes, there are many technological hurdles, and all the stops should be pulled to develop “green” energy and habitat. But technology would not be the bottleneck. The basic issues were ethical, spiritual, and strategic, matters of political will and bold leadership, matters of human hearts and willing hands.

[14] James Hansen returned to Congress on June 23, 2008, twenty years to the day of his initial testimony. In a move that infuriated much of the scientific community, the Bush Administration, via the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had censored his work together with that of other climate scientists. Congress nonetheless called him in to hear him out. He noted the “one big difference” from his 1988 report: “We have used up all slack in the schedule for actions needed to defuse the global warming time bomb.” If the next President and Congress fail to take responsibility “commensurate with our responsibility for the present dangerous situation,” then we shall likely pass the tipping points in this (non-linear) system that will create a “perfect storm” for global catastrophe. At that juncture, events will be in the saddle and riding us; climate changes will have spiraled out of control and become unmanageable.

[15] Hansen was clear about implications for the policy framework. “The safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is not more than 350 ppm (parts per million) and it may be less. Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. The stunning corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation.”[9]

[16] From an ethics point of view, the conclusions are clear enough. We should assume that this science, or, more precisely, its updated and refined versions, is as sound a knowledge basis as we have and that bold action taken sooner is far better, more feasible, and less costly than any action taken later. Inaction is immoral, since by all our best scientific bets, staying the fossil-fuel course will generate more extreme and far-reaching dislocations in both the present and future, and will make suffering more certain and repair more difficult. Extreme climate change is a slow tsunami. But it is a tsunami and size matters. Is this tsunami Small, Large, or XXL, and for whom?

[17] Ethical issues are central, and inaction is immoral, for another reason, beyond the time frame. Climate change, like so much of nature, does not play fair. Name the sector—food, health and disease, land, water supply and safety, species survival, coastal and inland flooding, ocean fisheries and their nurseries, the coral reefs, housing and shelter, forests, flora and fauna—climate change won’t play fair. Precisely because of this, sharing benefits and burdens, with those most responsible for the sins of emissions bearing proportional costs, sits atop the list of moral issues.

[18] The sobering note that accompanies this focus on fairness and reinforces the conclusion of dramatic action sooner rather than later is that some key effects of accelerated and extreme climate are proceeding at a pace and a scale near the upper end, not the middle, of the scenarios that science has laid out. The melting of the Arctic ice cap and the massive West Antarctica and Greenland ice sheets are examples. This is especially frightening because on Planet Water (70% of the Earth’s surface) it is the great world ocean that absorbs the bulk of the warming. Furthermore, the world ocean holds heat longer than the warming air. This in turn means that a dangerous inertia will affect the climate in ongoing systemic ways. In different words, forget air temperature and pay attention to ocean warming and effects on ocean currents as these in turn affect the atmosphere and its currents and, with that, the biosphere and its community of life. Pay attention as well to the “rivers” in the oceans, its currents. These may change, too, with far-reaching consequences for continental land masses.

[19] Affects are already happening. East Africa had record drought in 2005 while 2006 saw deluge—the heaviest rains in 50 years. Moreover, the seasons are changing, a matter of grave consequence for agriculture. In 2008, East Africa’s Rift Valley saw snow for the first time ever in October and newly-planted crops had to be replanted. Moreover, malaria has recently surged because of rising temperatures and is one of Africa’s leading killers (2000 African children a day.) At the same time, the Sahara is expanding farther into the Sahel, contributing to the growing ranks of environmental refugees,[10] whose numbers now exceed those of political refugees in most years. While the nature of something so huge and complex as climate change makes it nearly impossible to trace any air-tight causal relationship between global warming and specific climate events, these developments are in keeping with what is expected, given the warming trends. What we can be certain of is that none of this bothers urban apartment dwellers in the same way and degree it “bothers” global populations of subsistence farmers immediately in touch with raw nature. For them and for rural village life, it’s an apocalypse that pushes destitute populations into increasingly vulnerable urban centers, many of them located along vulnerable coasts. In short, some peoples, lands, and eco-systems are far more vulnerable to climate change than others, even when all are affected. Playing fair, then, is the most pressing ethical issue in the hands of human beings, themselves a source of the unfair climate change.

[20] In short, climate change mandates doing our first works over. The big human economy is frightfully out-of-sync with the great economy of nature upon which it is utterly dependent, and nature will have the decisive word. The alternative to doing our first works over? Standing by and watching them being done over in catastrophic fashion. Even what we can do now is limited by failure to act in a timelier fashion in the period 1990-2008. “There are degrees of screwed,” says Peter Glick, head of the Pacific Institute for Studies in Development, Environment, and Security. “And no matter how bad it is, it could be worse or less worse. There is a huge difference between a two-foot sea level rise and a ten-foot. There is a big difference between a two-degree temperature rise and a five-degree temperature rise—and that is why thinking about manageable and unmanageable comes into play, because one scenario might kill ten million and one might kill a hundred million.”[11]

[21] “Degrees of screwed” acknowledged, here is where we are now in Thomas Friedman’s judgment. We are not “post-anything” anymore, not post-colonial, postwar, post-Cold War, or post-post-Cold War, so much as we are “pre-something totally new.” (New first works.) Friedman even gives this an “era” name, the “Energy-Climate Era,” and, tongue-in-cheek, suggests E-CE as the new dating scheme. The era threshold we’ve crossed is one from “the happy illusion” that the fossil fuels we were using “to generate mechanical power, transportation power, building heat, cooking heat, industrial processes, and electricity were largely inexhaustible, inexpensive, politically benign, and (though nasty if you lived in Newcastle) climatically benign as well.” But that changes in the Energy-Climate Era. Now these fuels “are exhaustible, increasingly expensive, and politically, ecologically, and climatically toxic.”[12]

[22] Moreover, the “Climate” portion of the new era crosses another line. For thousands of years, human impacts on climate and environment were relatively manageable and reversible, though hardly benign. Accelerated and extreme climate change now yields something else—an era where cumulative human effects on Earth’s natural systems is becoming potentially unmanageable and irreversible. Friedman concludes that we should seek to manage effects that are already “unavoidable” (“baked into our future,” he says) and avoid effects that will truly be “unmanageable.” A Sigma Xi bumper sticker becomes his guideline: “Avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable.”[13]

[23] How did we get here? Every ethical framework includes an assumed narrative on the part of those pursuing answers to the ethical questions of “is,” “ought,” and “how”. Allow, then, a history of Earth-human relations that brings us to the Energy-Climate Era.

[24] Histories of epochal transformations in Earth-human relations normally set the stage with hunter-gatherer humanity. It’s a full 95+% of the record! But that 95% is essentially benign, in terms of human impact on the planet, and only the prelude to the first genuine revolution in Earth-human relations, the series of changes labeled the Neolithic Revolution. The neolithic transformation was vast and deep. It resulted in the growth of settled societies; the emergence of cities and of craft specializations; the rise of powerful religions and philosophies with equally powerful accompanying social elites; the development of writing, horticulture, pottery, weaving, and many of the arts; the domestication of animals and plants; and the onset of population growth. Indeed, by about 2000 B.C.E. all the major crops and animals that belong to present agricultural systems around the world had been domesticated, even though agricultural systems themselves were dramatically altered in later epochs.[14]

[25] To say it differently, this revolution self-consciously reconfigured nature for the sake of society and reorganized society in order to produce more effectively. From now on, and in great contrast to the hunter-gatherer society, society became a humanly designed and set apart rendition of nature. The worlds of art, science, culture and agriculture developed as human society found a way whereby a growing number of people needed no longer to be engaged in the direct production of food. Builders, architects, artists, priests, philosophers, and scientists, together with their creations, were “invented.”

[26] The mention of “priests” needs a further word. Christian faith and its elder, Judaism, assume in virtually every line of their sacred texts and across their practices the Earth-human relationships wrought by the Neolithic Revolution. Almost nothing of the 95% of human history in nature, as nature, with nature is present in our holy writings and traditions of thought and action. How massive that deficit is, with its concomitant loss of human intimacy with Earth, we will never know.

[27] But neither is the second great transformation of Earth-human relations present in the formation of Jewish and Christian sacred texts and traditions. That, too, is a significant datum, since it underscores the rather strange newness of Christianity’s ecological phase. The second great transformation is the Industrial Revolution. Benefits have been huge. None of us wants to travel back in time to live when lifetimes were only half as long; none wants to live in the days before millions and millions were lifted by modernity from the misery of poverty; none wants to return to “the Great Mortality”[15] of the Plague and the scourge of pandemic disease.

[28] That great transformation in Earth-human relations was made possible by compact, stored energy in the form of fossil fuels—oil, coal, natural gas. Accessible stored energy let us indulge two illusions. Fossil fuels let us bypass the rhythms and requirements of nature that pre-Industrial populations had to observe season in and season out. We could have our own built environment as our own preferred habitat, and soon we did not even bother to ask about nature’s demands for regeneration and renewal on its own complex, leisurely and non-negotiable terms. We forgot that every human economy is always and everywhere utterly a dependent part of the nature’s economy. Earth’s economy is substructure, the human economy is superstructure. The former must be matched to the latter, or big trouble ensues.

[29] Bypassing nature’s rhythms and requirements for its own regeneration on its own terms made possible the second illusion. Namely, we could bring nature under our control and liberate humankind from futility and toil. We now know that planetary processes are not only more complex than we think; they are probably more complex than we can ever think. They are certainly more complex than we can master and control.

[30] Life lived inside these two illusions, when coupled with massive supplies of stored energy and the rampaging industrial paradigm, means this: no precincts of other-than-human nature, from genes to grasslands to glaciers, are exempt from human impact and change. The rest of nature has no independent life apart from us now. Nature belongs to the empire of its most aggressive species.

[31] But the empire is far overextended, and accelerated and extreme climate change and every major life system in decline is the uninvited blow to its illusions of control. Now add to this the utterly unsustainable production and consumption of recent decades. If Alan Durning is correct, global consumer classes produced and consumed as many goods and services in the half century from 1950-2000 as throughout the entire period of history prior to that date.[16] And the beat goes on. Yet the beat cannot go on—it’s unsustainable for the planet, and that has brought us to the threshold of the third great transformation of Earth-human relations, the “Energy-Climate Era.”

[32] The more proximate chapter in this story is the one hinted at with Alan Durning’s startling statistic; namely, the post-World War II period. It merits a closer look. The big, orienting ideas driving the imagination and activity of so many peoples after World War II were human rights, economic growth, and the advance of freedom and security in the form of democracy. While these sometimes worked against one another and worsened conditions for some peoples, these were also treasures that benefited millions, even billions. Human rights found their way into constitutions in many societies and found advocates in every society, a vibrant middle class emerged where there had been none, there was no World War III or nuclear holocaust, and the Berlin Wall and borders fell.

[33] For both better and worse, these big, orienting forces formed and shaped the world of the last sixty years and brought us to this time of decision. It is a time of decision because these forces, with some of their roots deep in the Industrial Revolution, have also given us global warming and unprecedented human numbers on what is now a flat, hot and crowded planet.[17] These ideas and forces were strangely blind to the needs of the life systems upon which all this tumultuous activity utterly depended. Likewise the great institutions developed around these big ideas—Bretton Woods and the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization—were blind to the way the big human economy failed to mesh with the great economy of nature.

[34] Now everything has flipped. No peace and security, no sustainable economic growth, no enjoyment of human rights and no righting of remaining wrongs is possible apart from new attention to the primal elements of the planet: earth (soil), air, fire (energy), and water. A just peace cannot be achieved apart from developing clean energy, mitigating the effects of accelerated and extreme climate change as best we can while adapting to what we cannot change, bringing to a halt the crime of extinction and the loss of indispensable biodiversity, and creating political, economic and social structures that treat Earth as the standing miracle that gives birth to us and sustains us. We do not save the planet, the planet saves us—this is now the starting point for doing our first works over. The planet’s well-being is primary; human well-being is derivative. That is the “flip” we must make.

[35] In turn this means Christian ethics in a new key. Christian ethics to date has not rendered the primal elements themselves theologically and morally central—earth (soil), air, fire (energy), and water. They are now. Not a single one of those essential elements can be taken for granted. Nor has Christian faith been an unequivocally Earth-honoring faith in which fidelity to God is lived as fidelity to Earth. Facing the new set of wild facts created by climate change, it must be so now. Without Christian ethics of this sort for Christianity’s ecological phase, we have little to offer what we most need: new first works.


Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985).

Baldwin, James. “White Man’s Guilt,” reprinted in Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to be White, ed. David R. Roediger (New York: Shocken Books, 1998). Cited from Study Encounter 69, vol. 10, no. 4 (1974).

DuBois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folks (New York: New American Library, 1960; original publication, 1903).

Durning, Alan T. How Much is Enough? (London: Earthscan, 1992).

Friedman, Thomas. Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—And How It Can Renew America (NewYork: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008).

Gettleman, Jeffrey. “Annan Faults ‘Frightening Lack of Leadership’ for Global Warming,” The New York Times, 16 November 2006: A16.

Hansen, James Hansen. Testimony to Congress, June 23, 2008, as printed in Earth Letter, Autumn 2008: 10: “Global Warming Twenty Years Later: Tipping Points Near.” The testimony is abstracted from a paper by Hansen and eight other scientists, available online at: and

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment Report: The Physical Science Basis (Geneva: IPCC Secretariat, February, 2007), 2-3, available online.

Rasmussen, Larry, Earth Community, Earth Ethics (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1996).

West, Cornel, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982).

World Council of Churches, Accelerated Climate Change: Sign of Peril, Test of Faith (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1994).


[1] James Baldwin, The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1985), xix.

[2] I take the phrase from Cornel West and his discussion in Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1982), 53ff.

[3] This is the term of W. E. B. DuBois in The Souls of Black Folks (New York: New American Library, 1960; original publication, 1903). “Twoness” means, in DeBois’ exposition, that African Americans must of necessity know two worlds, their own and that of white folks, for the sake of their survival as an out-of-favor minority. It also refers to the consequences for their souls and psyche of living on this ledge.

[4] James Baldwin, “White Man’s Guilt,” reprinted in Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to be White, ed. David R. Roediger (New York: Shocken Books, 1998), 321.

[5] Cited from Study Encounter 69, vol. 10, no. 4 (1974) 2.

[6] World Council of Churches, Accelerated Climate Change: Sign of Peril, Test of Faith (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1994) 12-13.

[7] Ibid., 14. Emphasis in the original.

[8] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Fourth Assessment Report: The Physical Science Basis (Geneva: IPCC Secretariat, February, 2007), 2-3, available online.

[9] The citations from James Hansen’s testimony are all from his testimony to Congress, June 23, 2008, as printed in Earth Letter, Autumn 2008: 10: “Global Warming Twenty Years Later: Tipping Points Near.” The testimony is abstracted from a paper by Hansen and eight other scientists, available online at: and

[10] Jeffrey Gettleman, “Annan Faults ‘Frightening Lack of Leadership’ for Global Warming,” The New York Times, 16 November 2006: A16.

[11] Cited from Thomas Friedman, Hot, Flat and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution—And How It Can Renew America (NewYork: Ferrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 44.

[12] Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, 37-38.

[13] Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, 44.

[14] Items about the Neolithic Revolution are from my Earth Community, Earth Ethics, 55.

[15] What we call “the plague” was, at the time, called “the great mortality.”

[16] Alan T. Durning, How Much is Enough? (London: Earthscan, 1992), 38.

Larry Rasmussen

Larry Rasmussen is ​Reinhold Niebuhr Professor Emeritus of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, New York City