A phrase associated with newspapers and religious institutions uses wordplay to assert this mission: “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” Those of us who attend UUCA have heard this from the pulpit on many occasions. It seems like most of us nod our assent and picture ourselves on Team Righteous, whose roster is full of charitable donors, petition-signing activists, and occasional volunteers. 

We are quick to identify society’s wrongdoers and to take refuge in our (presumed) ideological homogeneity when hot-button issues and panic-inducing candidates come up. We are the choir that’s getting preached to. We sincerely want to see the end of affliction and suffering, and we believe the comfortable – those whose comfort has been built on the unjust exploitation and suffering of others – need to experience affliction that will open their eyes. 

Here’s what I’m realizing: when it comes to environmental collapse, you and I are the comfortable. “The United States makes up roughly 5% of the world’s population, yet consumes 25% of the world’s resources. … David Tilford of the Sierra Club stated, ‘Our per capita use of energy, metals, minerals, forest products, fish, grains, meat, and even freshwater dwarfs that of people living in the developing world.’ The percentage of waste created is similarly disheartening: Americans create an estimated 30% of the world’s waste” (RE Sources).

Data published by the World Economic Forum in 2017 provides stark contrasts: “Americans enjoy practically unlimited access to food, water, energy, and other resources that power a modern society. This makes U.S. residents some of the most resource-intensive human beings on Earth. The average person born in the U.S. creates 13 times as much damage to the environment as someone born in Brazil, uses 35 times the resources of a typical person in India, and consumes about 53 times more products than people who live in China, according to Scientific American. Also, the lifestyle of Americans is second only to that of Canadians in generating the most greenhouse gasses per person.”

Wait, those two paragraphs are describing us, aren’t they? Those mind-blowing stats highlight our compulsive consumption, our obsession with convenience, our insatiable craving for easy access and endless variety. They reveal our disgusting disregard for the consequences of our behavior. Yes, this is about those of us who are driving to UUCA every Sunday or tuning in to the livestream. But wait (we protest), we’ve earned our comfortable lifestyles, right? Don’t blame us for our choices; this is the society and the norms we’ve been raised in. We know people who are living far more extravagantly than we are. Stop looking at us!

Sorry, y’all: it is us. An editorial writer with The Dispatch, Jonah Goldberg may be on to something: “The people most enamored with afflicting the comfortable have a highly selective and ideologically loaded conception of what counts as acceptable comfort.” We’ve become quite adept at rationalizing our comfort and avoiding taking responsibility for our daily choices. Anyone who questions us must be “extreme.” Come on, we say, be realistic.

Pope Francis knows that it’s us who are the comfortable, too. He writes in the 2015 Encyclical Letter Laudato Si: “Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms, simply making efforts to reduce some of the negative impacts of climate change. However, many of these symptoms indicate that such effects will continue to worsen if we continue with current models of production and consumption.”

The pope offers us encouragement, though: “We are always capable of going out of ourselves towards the other. Unless we do this, other creatures will not be recognized for their true worth; we are unconcerned about caring for things for the sake of others; we fail to set limits on ourselves in order to avoid the suffering of others or the deterioration of our surroundings. Disinterested concern for others, and the rejection of every form of self-centeredness and self-absorption, are essential if we truly wish to care for our brothers and sisters and for the natural environment. These attitudes also attune us to the moral imperative of assessing the impact of our every action and personal decision on the world around us. If we can overcome individualism, we will truly be able to develop a different lifestyle and bring about significant changes in society (emphasis mine).”

Digesting the harsh statistics is no easy task. Accepting the practical lifestyle challenges necessitated by this “moral imperative” requires research, effort, and sacrifice. And using the “I’m just a miniscule part of the equation” rationalization just won’t cut it any longer – we’ve always only had control over our own lives. Believe me: I’m with you in wishing to remain comfortable and in hoping some powerful “they” will figure all this out for us and especially for our families’ youngest generations. The climate crisis does not respect our nationality, our socio-economic status, or our habitual rationalizations. It is already severely afflicting the comfortable. You and I will not be exempt.

JOURNEY WITH US: The Climate Action Team is for you because, well, the planet needs your urgent action – and we need each other as we navigate these changing times. Learn all about the group here,  and check out our minutes and take action table, our lending library and the Carbon Offset Fund. You can also request to join the Climate Action Team on Realm. Contact Jon Reese to connect to the CAT and join us when the group begins meeting again in August after a summer hiatus.