Greg Sterling is dean of Yale Divinity School. In this second half of an interview that took place in January 2023, he shares details about his lifelong interest in environmental stewardship as a citizen and educator. The dialogue transitions to further conversation about YDS’s Living Village project and its potential, as Sterling sees it, to foster similarly deep personal commitments in the spiritual leaders who succeed him.
Earlier today you mentioned that, although Chris Sawyer introduced you to the Living Building Challenge, you have a longstanding interest in sustainable building. Where does that come from?
Like most people who are my age, I wasn’t as sensitive to all aspects of the environment while growing up. I grew up in California when water contamination and nuclear power were major issues. Then, when I was a graduate student serving the church while finishing a degree in classics, I was one of those people who had the temerity to get up and preach about replicating ourselves without exploding our population. That did not always go over well. Yet I was concerned about it. I was also concerned that Christians and Jews were blamed for the ecological crisis because of our faith, which struck me as wrongheaded but which has run through some public intellectual circles.
Why do you disagree?
The critique I’m going to give you is set at an annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion and Society for Biblical Literature. Jimmy Carter was a featured guest. This took place at a major auditorium in San Diego, with several thousand people present. One of the interviewers on stage asked, “President Carter, you’ve always championed the environment, but don’t you feel some kind of tension between what the biblical text says and your stance as an environmentalist?” And to his credit President Carter responded, “I’m assuming you’re alluding to Genesis 1:26-28 where humans are told to have dominion over creation, and to those who argue that that gives people carte blanche to do with creation as they wish. But I never read the text that way. At my Baptist church in Plains, Georgia, every year the minister would preach a sermon from that text and say something like, ‘You are responsible for how you take care of creation in the fields. And you’re answerable to God for how you care for it. Your actions will not only affect your lives but your children’s and your grandchildren’s lives. So be a good steward.’” That’s probably as effective an answer as I’ve heard someone give.
How has your environmental awareness evolved as climate change becomes ever more urgent?
I’ve always made a point of stewardship when teaching a biblical text that concerns the environment, although the climate challenge is more palpable today.
Championing the planet’s healing is no longer something you can do just periodically.
Holland Island in the Chesapeake Bay had 400 inhabitants in 1900 and it’s not even visible today, because the land is sinking and the water is rising. Or think of the Dead Sea: when I first started going to Israel, there was one body of water. Now it’s two, thanks mostly to the water being pulled out of it for irrigation.
How would you describe your emotional state about this crisis we’ve made?
I’m not naïve about what’s happening. The loss of biodiversity, for example, is something we won’t get back. At the same time, while it’s late in the day, that doesn’t mean we can’t make things better. There are ways of helping to turn the tide; even if we can’t avoid all negative consequences, we can mitigate those negative consequences. Secondly, there is a moral obligation. We need technology, that’s beyond any question, but people have to want to change and make a decision to change.
This brings up the Living Village as an architectural expression. However much it feels like an extension of Yale’s historic fabric, the building also possesses a different-ness—and together these qualities could stir people’s desire to change.
One of the things I appreciate about the Living Building Challenge is the priority it places on beauty. I had no desire to build something that was not aesthetically appealing. The Living Village does have a complementary character—the dimensions of the courtyard are roughly those at Trumbull College. But it’s different. Instead of slate roofs, for example, its shingles will be photovoltaic cells. The building is not going to be over the top. It won’t be taken for granted, either.
How will one’s experience of the Living Village support a personal move toward change?
You can’t live in this building and act like you always have. Because you have to pay attention to water consumption. You have to pay attention to energy consumption. I think about monthly energy statements and how they have sensitized me to consumption, and I think that the Living Village will sensitize people in a similar way. I don’t want to turn off the heat and wear an overcoat to sit in my own office. That’s not where I’m at. But we do have to do everything we can.
Are there ways that YDS can ensure that sensitization takes place?
There has to be programming around the building. It’s not going to be enough to go into the Living Village and to look at all the cool gadgets. The people who run the building can help to provide an educational structure for the building and for our own curriculum, which goes beyond the different experience of living in it.
In the long term, how do you foresee the Living Village transforming the people who have interacted with it, especially its occupants?
My hope is that this structure will challenge the way every college and university thinks about residential structures. As for the students who come here and live in or around the village, I hope that after they graduate they go out and do simple things like learn about indigenous plants in the landscape surrounding a church.
Or if they’re working for a nonprofit, that they are the thinking about the sustainability of the structures they inhabit. Or if they’re serving food, then they’re learning where that food comes from. My hope is that they become apostles of the environment.