To Care For Our Earth

“The long prelude is finally over,” says key environmentalist writer Bill McKibben-“the nearly two decades when those of us who knew about global warming felt like prisoners in a bad dream, unable to convince anyone else that [it] was real…. It shouldn’t have taken us 20 years to reach this point (and it wouldn’t have, if the energy lobby hadn’t poisoned the waters of public debate with bogus research), but it’s cause for celebration we’ve come this far.” That’s what Bill McKibben says, acknowledging the work of Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, both recipients of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Their work has consolidated public sentiment on the urgency of the global warming issue; and so has direct experience on the ground, from unpredictable weather patterns, water shortage, and rising costs of gas and food at home, to food demonstrations far away, the collapsing Greenland ice sheet, drought and famine in Northern Kenya, Pacific islanders and Bangladeshis seeking higher ground as the oceans gradually rise, Native peoples of the Arctic watching their homes sink into the melting permafrost.

Global warming has finally gotten our attention. It’s on the radar. We get the picture. The crisis we face is just as Bill McKibben describes it: “a ruthlessly timed test.” Unless we do something dramatic within ten years, then what the youngest children among us will know is a world that will be warmer than it has been for hundreds of millions of years. Just five more degrees Fahrenheit-and this is not the worst-case scenario but the middle-case scenario-and what we will have, in effect, is a totally different planet, with extinction consequences comparable to what happened 65 million years ago when a giant asteroid collided with the earth and wiped out the dinosaurs. This is the crisis, and the long prelude of doubting it is over.

So now what? What do we do now?

I’m struck by the image of the “ruthlessly timed test” that Bill McKibben uses, and it reminds me of something that the English poet John Keats said almost 200 years ago. He said, in a letter to family members, “Call the world if you Please ‘The vale of Soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world…. I will call the world a School instituted for the purpose of teaching little children to read-I will call the human heart the horn Book used in that School-and I will call the Child able to read, the Soul made from that School and its hornbook. Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a Soul? A Place where the heart must feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways!” That’s what John Keats says, and it has always rung true for me, and it rings true now. The classroom of the world has always brought us tests which have made us feel and suffer in a thousand diverse ways; and through all this, in the midst of such challenges, as we grapple with them, we are developing character and identity, resilience and courage, forgiveness and hope. Soul growth. And now the world brings us a test unlike any other, one that is “ruthlessly timed.”

The world is a vale of soul-making. It is a spiritual classroom. And as I go deeper into this metaphor of the world as classroom, something that comes to mind is the fact that its different students are at different places with regard to the environmental crisis. I’m thinking about people like Al Gore, or like Lester Brown, whose new book, called Plan B 3.0, offers a scheme to mobilize countries at warp speed to move toward sustainability before critical tipping points are reached. Lester Brown urges a massive, communal effort similar to one we saw during World War II, in which everyone willingly did their share, but in this case success is reducing greenhouse gas emissions 80% by the year 2020, transitioning to sources of renewable energy, eradicating poverty, humanely reducing population numbers, restoring ecosystems, and rescuing failing nations.

In other words, in our classroom of the world, we have genuine visionaries and geniuses like Lester Brown, who see the problems and the solutions before the rest of us. The Honor Society folks. The straight A students. The Top Ten.

Another visionary is The Rev. Martin Battle, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center here in Atlanta. He says that “[Environmentalism] could be the biggest movement since Civil Rights. Everyone, “he says, “saw how the Civil Rights Movement transcended limitations. All of us are equally vulnerable in a bad ecology. The air doesn’t know what color you are. The air doesn’t care what color you are. So this movement transcends all of our sectarian, political, racial and ethnic barriers. It’s the one great moment that forces us to see the commonness of our humanity.”

What a vision! Our “ruthlessly timed test” is definitely one that crosses color lines and class lines and political lines and religious lines-and it can focus us to work as one like nothing else. At UUCA, a cherished chapter of our history was our role as the first integrated church in Atlanta, together with the rest of our contributions to the Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps the next chapter we write will tell about the role we played in the biggest movement since Civil Rights, which is before us right now.

I sincerely hope so. With UUCA eco-heros like Roger Johnson and others, it’s already begun. But having said all this, it’s important that the rest of us don’t get too far behind the Honor Society folks. Care for the earth, the way it needs to happen now, must involve everyone. We all have to go far fast, all of us together, in the classroom of the world.

So what do we do? This: help each other dissolve the blocks that slow many of us down, or stop us completely. Fellow students, facing the same ruthlessly timed test, inspiring soul-growth in each other, caring for each other. Doing this, to care for the earth.

In particular, I’m thinking about the difficult feelings and paralyzing thoughts that we might experience even more intensely than usual when we hear about a vision like Lester Brown’s or Martin Battle’s. The class visionary and genius speaks up, and in a completely unintended way, we can end up feeling even more guilt than we already do, even more helpless than we already do, even more despair than we already do.

Part of this has to do with the complexity of our emotions. I was reading Creative Loafing the other day and found this in its “News of the Weird” section (know what I’m talking about?). This item: “Several psychotherapists told the New York Times in February that treatments are being developed for people who are excessively worried about their own carbon emissions being responsible for ‘global warming.’ More than 120 therapists are now listed as specialists in the field of ecopsychology…. ” That’s what I read in Creative Loafing. People experiencing debilitating guilt and anxiety, hyperaware of their contribution to the climate change crisis, their concern of course all out of proportion with reality, and yet there is a tiny part of the truth in it: that just to exist, they must leave a footprint in nature.

Which leads to the deeper level of guilt in the human psyche. A level that is not novel, not “news of the weird,” but ancient, with us from the very beginning, part and parcel of our humanity. I’m talking about the undeniable fact that in order for me or for you to survive, other living beings must lay down their lives. Life feeds on life. The approximately 100 trillion cells of this body, and all these cells organized into greater degrees of complexity-tissues then organs then organ systems then ME-all of it survives and thrives by the grace and sacrifice of other organisms: other bacteria, other plants, other animals. They are there not because of anything I have done necessarily; their lives have their own significance and standing. And yet they die for me. My very living requires their dying. I cannot exist, without their sacrifice. Living into the truth of this is sobering. It can provoke primal guilt. Hopefully it inspires primal gratitude as well, and a will to leave the lightest footprint possible, and a remembrance that, just as they die for me, I will die for them, I will give my body back to the earth, the circle of life will go on. And yet, there can still be that sense of guilt. Others must die so that I can live. Life feeds on life.

Our emotions towards nature-and our place in it-are complex. They can overwhelm us when the class visionaries and geniuses speak up about how to solve the ruthlessly timed test placed before us. They talk and talk, but we’re overwhelmed by emotion, we can’t hear what they are saying….

Or this happens. We hear what they are saying, and we respond, Why bother? Why bother to do all the things we can do to reduce our carbon footprint-like choosing a vegetarian diet; or switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs; or taking public transportation whenever we can; or taking quicker, colder showers; or turning off electronic devices and pulling the plug whenever possible; or stopping junk mail; or reusing and recycling whenever possible; or planting a tree-why bother to do all these things and more, why bother to turn my lifestyle upside-down, when it’s unclear how real change will happen. The conundrum is like the proverbial chicken-and-egg. Which comes first: grassroots changes in our values and personal lifestyles, or top-down changes in the law, in business, and in technology? Do we wait for market-based solutions, eco-friendly legislation, and developments in green technology; or do we just go ahead and start reimagining what our true needs are and what real wealth consists of and then realign to this how we spend our dollars and how we spend our time? Chicken, or the egg? The arguments run both ways, and we can stand in the middle, waiting until the experts make up their minds before we make up our own.

This is but one of the many ways we can rationalize to a conclusion of Why bother? So many stories we can tell ourselves to justify doing nothing. We’re in the world classroom, we face a ruthlessly timed test, and if we’re not underneath our desks, curled up into a fetal position, we’re saying Why bother? What’s the use?

We’ve got to help each other get through this paralysis. Dissolve the blocks, release positive energy and vision for action. The world is a vale of soul making, and our job is to help each other to grow, to help each other develop greater character and identity, resilience and courage, forgiveness and hope. Minister to each other, in this place and in this time. That’s our job. That’s our mission.

To this end, I suggest several things. One has to do with the “chicken and egg conundrum” I mentioned a moment ago. Must we wait for changes in government, big business and technology before we change our lifestyles? My suggestion here is absolutely, positively NO. We can cut through all the helplessness and the why bother? if we but reflect on something said very well by writer Michael Pollen in a recent New York Times article. Here’s what he said: “For us to wait for legislation or technology to solve the problem of how we’re living our lives suggests we’re not really serious about changing – something our politicians cannot fail to notice. They will not move until we do. Indeed, to look to leaders and experts, to laws and money and grand schemes, to save us from our predicament represents precisely the sort of thinking – passive, delegated, dependent for solutions on specialists – that helped get us into this mess in the first place. It’s hard to believe that the same sort of thinking could now get us out of it.” That’s what Michael Pollen says, and here is the clincher: when he says that “the climate-change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle – of character, even. The Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us (consumer spending represents 70 percent of our economy), and most of the rest of them made in the name of our needs and desires and preferences.” That’s what Michael Pollen says. We don’t have to wait for others to change. We want laws and business and technology to change. Of course. But we don’t have to wait until they do. We don’t have to stay passive and dependent on them changing. In fact we dare not. Business and law will not change unless we do, unless we reform our lifestyles with their countless little choices which all add up to something huge. Unless we vote differently, with our time and attention and dollars and, yes, our votes.

“The climate change crisis is at its very bottom a crisis of lifestyle.” It touches all of what we are. It’s about our priorities and values. It’s about money. It’s about families and relationships and community. It’s about diet and health. It’s about work and play. It’s about homes and gardens. It’s about transportation and energy use and carbon footprints. And we can do something about all of this. We can help each other do something about this. This is, in fact, the Big Vision of the Care of Earth team that is starting up here at UUCA. How can UUCA in all that it does model sustainability? How can it support and equip families and people of all ages to live sustainable lifestyles? I want UUCA to be a leader in this, a leader in Atlanta and in our denomination. We are not going to get stuck in the chicken and egg conundrum and a why bother? mindset. We’re Unitarian Universalists! We don’t stand, we move!

Change can happen right now. We can encourage and support each other as we transform our lifestyles. And then there is this, the last thing I’ll offer up today. We can help each other come to terms with the complexity of our emotions about what’s going on. Finding nonjudgmental spaces where we can experience worry and hope together, in all their fullness-fear and love, guilt and gratitude. For me, the need for this came alive in a surprising way, many years ago when I was a seminary student in Chicago. It happened when I was studying with an Episcopalian priest. He was a gay man, a beautiful spirit. Every week, he would lead a traditional Christian communion service, and I would break the bread and drink the wine even though it was something I had not done for years, since leaving the church of my youth and an exclusive adherence to Christianity. But there was something in that ritual I still hungered for. Bread and wine-among the most ancient and basic staples of human agriculture, lifted up into transcendent meaning through the art of the ritual. And then one day, as I was caught up in the eating and the drinking, I found myself weeping. It had nothing to do with the Jesus story. I found myself weeping, because finally I had made the connection between the bread being broken and the wine being drunk-between this and the circle of life. How for me to live, countless life forms must lay down their lives. How the earth is suffering, broken up and drained by human excess. How I and all other humans cannot help but take from the earth, and yet we can learn a different way of taking, we can live more lightly, we can love and honor it more fully. My tears were full of guilt and gratitude, fear and hope; and in this fullness of emotion I realized that I had for so long been needing a way to express this. Ritual to contain and give voice to the complexity of my heart. Ritual to help me face my deep ambivalence, and to dwell in it richly. This is what I had been hungering for.

And this is something you and I can give each other. A signature Unitarian Universalist ritual that helps all of us express our feelings about the interdependent web of all existence-the guilt, the fear, the gratitude, the hope. Creating this, developing this, experiencing the kind of power and deepening only ritual can offer-and it becomes just one part of the open-ended journey I urge us to go on, together, all of us, as we face down the ruthlessly timed test. A journey which will take us to new forms and new depths of religious community. A journey of discovery and surprise. A journey in which we will find our families and ourselves transformed. A soul-making journey, in this classroom of the world, if we but give ourselves to it.