Tuesday, March 4, 2014

UUs and Climate Change

I gave the following sermon to my congregation a couple of weeks ago in support of the Interfaith Power & Light's annual Preach In.  I help run the Missouri Interfaith Power & Light affiliate and it is something I would love to see more Unitarian Universalist congregations get involved in.  If you went to GA 2013, you may remember the wonderful march we did to protest fossil fuel extraction in Kentucky.  The Kentucky IPL was instrumental in organizing that event.  Please check out if your state has an affiliate and get involved!
The Time Is Now
When I was a senior in high school, way back in 1991 (which, honestly does not seem that long ago…), I wrote my senior thesis on the devastating consequences of chlorofluorocarbons.  Anybody remember those?  They were one of the main components of aerosol cans.  Those of us who grew up in the 80s were most familiar with them through our copious use of hair spray.  Unfortunately, our big hair was causing a large hole is the ozone layer and this was stressing me out. All I could think about was that we would all die of skin cancer or burn up from the suns intensified rays. Perhaps I was over acting a little bit, but this really did consume a lot of my brain power.

I have no idea why I, a typical Midwestern teenager raised by conservative parents, was so obsessed with the environment, but I was.  Perhaps it was because growing up in Iowa, I was constantly deluged with weather reports and how it would affect the corn crops.  The evening news always had a segment relating the lack of rain, or too much rain, or early frost, or late frost, etc. and the surely devastating consequences they would have for all our livelihoods. I don’t ever recall a weather forecast where they actually said “all is perfect and we will live to eat another day!” It was shocking when I moved to St. Louis and discovered that most people didn’t give a second thought to the weather except to note if they should bring an umbrella.  Didn’t they understand our survival depends on the jet stream?!!?

Additionally, every science and biology class in school would talk about the rapidly decreasing topsoil that had made Iowa the breadbasket of the US. Currently, estimates stated that Iowa has gone from 45cm of rich topsoil to just 15cm of top soil. On top of that, the quality of it has greatly diminished due to the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides.  As a kid, it didn’t take a great leap of my imagination to tie together that without soil there would be no farms, without farms there would be no need for tractors, therefore my dad (who worked at John Deere) wouldn’t have a job, and, worst of all, there would be no food!  I liked food!  The connection between the environment and our well-being was impressed upon me at a very early age.

What really sealed it for me, though, and spurned me to take a more active approach was when I went to Germany and Austria with my high school German class.  Everywhere we went, there were special, three-sided, green garbage cans.  One for glass, one for cans, and one for general waste. To my fifteen year old perspective, this seemed genius. Why wasn’t everyone doing this?!  It had never dawned on me that a whole country could get behind recycling.  Not just one or two or three, but a WHOLE county. Amazing.  My second surprise was going to a grocery store and discovering that if I didn’t bring my own bags, that I would have to pay for them. What?! Isn’t it the right of the consumer to get a bag with their purchases? Evidently, Europeans saw things differently.  I came back to the US with a much larger view of the world and a new sense of what is possible.

I was quickly frustrated when I returned.  Where to begin?! I was just one person in a country that wasn’t all interested in what I had to say.  I did what I could, joined Earth Clubs, recycled what I could, cut out CFC, talked to whoever would listen, but, overall, felt I was pretty ineffectual.  The only reason my parents recycled cans was because Iowa paid for them, not through any sense of environmental activism. I just couldn’t understand why people didn’t care.  Didn’t they want the best for their families?  Didn’t they want clean air and water? Didn’t they want to continue to enjoy all the beauty and the resources the Earth has to offer?  What is wrong with these people?!  Don’t they see how right I am!  Perhaps my self-righteous lecturing wasn’t the best motivational strategy.

There are a lot of reasons why people don’t take a greater role in caring for the Earth.  Some don’t see it as an issue, some have greater priorities in their life, other’s feel it is not their responsibility, or that science will discover a solution to all our problems. Today, though, I want to discuss another common reason.  Many faith groups feel that our presence on Earth is just a passing phase.  We are merely enduring our human form until we move on to Heaven or some other plane of existence.  With that framework, Earth is not all that important.  We can pollute it, use up its resources, change its climate and who really cares?  Earth is temporary, it is only something for humans to use on our way to greater things. Because of this egocentric view, the Earth and all it inhabitants have greatly suffered. It has been speculated that the next mass extinction in upon us and human interference is leading the charge.

I find this train of thought to be particularly depressing.  Next to China, the US is the greatest polluter of CO2. Carbon emissions are one of the largest causes of climate change.  With close to 80% of Americans claiming some sort of religious affiliation, this is a huge group of people that could have an impressive impact on the environment.  Every major religious denomination has a statement on environmental stewardship.  From Judaism, Catholicism, B’hai, and, yes, even, Evangelicals.  The leadership within these groups have recognized that it is the moral duty of people of faith to take care of God’s creation.  Unfortunately, there is a huge disconnect between what is determined to be religious responsibility and actual action.  As Unitarian Universalists, it is part of our Seven principles. (Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part).  We come from a long tradition of environmental stewardship that makes me proud.  We need to continue and step up that effort and be a positive model for other denominations. Whether your faith is in a God, Goddess, or the energy of the Universe, we have a moral obligation to take care of each other and our environment. 

I recently participated in a panel discussion regarding the need for Ameren to transition from coal to clean energy.  The event was sponsored by Metropolitan Congregations United and was held at South County church that was being affected by the pollution from the Meramec coal-fired plant.  It was to be an informative evening to not only discuss the plant, but to also discuss the moral/faith-based dimension.  Unfortunately, the audience chose to debate the scientific merit of the arguments and then completely ignore any sort of faith-based, moral reasoning.  As entrenched audience members continued to drown out the panelists effort to be neutral and only share facts, it became painfully aware to me how far we still need to go; both in scientific and religious understanding.

It boggles my mind that even though 97% of the world’s scientist agree that climate is changing and that it is most likely caused by humans, there is still a significant portion of the US population that continues to deny that it is happening.  Whether or not you agree with the science, you know things aren’t like they used to be. One just needs to look around and see the increase in droughts, floods and severe weather. When I was in school, we often talked about the precautionary principle.  Even if there is a remote chance that something might be true, precaution should be taken.  What is the worse that will happen?  Our air gets cleaner? Our water safer? More jobs in the clean energy sector? Food that we feel safe eating that is not destroying the ground on which it is grown?  None of these sound tragic to me and all seem pretty worthwhile goals.

Putting the science aside, though, as people of faith, it is our ethical duty to take care of each other.  The people most affected by climate change will be the ones least able to adapt. Most of us are fortunate to be able to afford air conditioning, heat, insurance, and higher food prices.  This is not the case for everyone.  We have all heard the stories of folks afraid to turn on their air-conditioning or heaters due to the cost and have then suffered tragic consequences. As we see through our Fourth Saturday lunches, there are many food insecure families in our communities.  Climate change will only exacerbate these conditions.  Scarcity and costs will only increase and the most vulnerable will be the ones who suffer the greatest. As I speak, there are whole islands disappearing with their populations being forced to leave due to rising ocean waters.  We have a moral duty to help our brothers and sisters.  Combating climate change is one important step in this process.

As Unitarian Universalists, many of us already take significant steps to be environmentally friendly. We recycle, use public transportation, garden, utilize solar panels and try to reduce our consumption.  We do what we can, but is it enough?

I currently help run Missouri Interfaith Power & Light.  It is the state affiliate of the national Interfaith Power & Light.  Their mission is to help congregations of all denominations become more energy efficient through connecting their beliefs with stewardship of the planet.  By coming together, congregations not only support each other in decreasing their carbon footprint, but advocate to help change state and national policies to be more environmentally friendly.  While we are new to Missouri, many states have very active affiliates. 

For instance, this past summer, Kentucky Interfaith Power & Light helped organize an event at General Assembly that had close two thousand UUs in Louisville marching to protest fossil fuel extraction. Illinois IPL, who works under the name of Faith of Place, provides extensive programming and advocacy for IL congregations. They are a model for many other state affiliates. This past fall, Missouri IPL participated in a faith walk with several different faith groups to Ameren headquarters asking them to transition to clean energy.  The national IPL offers many programs to assist affiliates and congregations in their greening effort such as their Cool Congregations and Cool Harvest programs. These focus on energy efficiency and eating local. Additionally, last weekend and this weekend, congregations all across the US are participating in a national Preach In to combate climate change. All of us preaching on the same topic, hopefully galvanizing change.

This is just the beginning.  As more and more faith groups start making the connection between human behavior and religious duty, real change can be made.  We are at a turning point in human history.  We can continue on our current path, or seek new ways of living.  Nobody is claiming that this will be easy.  We are currently on the easy path and it will be ending very soon.  Together, though, through supporting eachothers efforts, we can forge a new way.  A way that protects all of Earth’s inhabitants.  In your Order of Service, you will find a postcard.  While I understand the wording in not typical UU phrasing, I ask you to please consider filling it out mailing it to your Senator.  By combining with other faith groups, our voice is magnified.  Imagine Senators being flooded with hundreds of post cards calling for action!  As we so often say, we are part of interconnected web. Let’s do our part.  I don’t want to one day look at my grandchildren and think I could have done more.  Climate change is happening, we will all be affected, it is up to us to each one of us to do something about it.

Remember how I started this talk with chlorofluorocarbons?  In 1991 the ozone hole was getting bigger every year.  The outlook was bleak unless something was done right away.  Thanks to the efforts of a vocal and loud group of activists, CFC were eventually banned.  And guess what, the ozone hole has shrunk to only 2% of what is was in 2000.  When we put our mind to it, we can make a difference, despite the odds stacked against us.  Please be that loud and vocal activist. Take a stand and set an example.  Only good things can happen.

Thank you!

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