Rev. Brian J. Kiely Unitarian Church of Edmonton June 1, 2014
This is a sermon about hope and dread, about chronic optimism and rational pessimism, about paralysis and progress and powerlessness. It is a sermon about climate change, the fate of the earth – or more rightly the fate of human beings who populate the earth.
The vast majority of scientists generally agree that climate change is real and dire. The world is getting warmer, the ice is melting, the water is rising. The facts seem pretty clear. The planet appears to be on a path towards becoming unable to support human life, at least the way we live today. A lot of people think that our misuse of the planet is the cause. And there is growing doubt that we can significantly change that future course. And while scientific predictions from the past haven’t always come true, I feel pretty comfortable accepting that we are in serious trouble as a species.
More importantly, in spite of worldwide cries for change, not enough is happening to stop our lemming-like drive towards self-destruction… not yet. As a human race we are daring one another to lean just a little farther over the edge to see if anything bad will really happen, believing in our invulnerability.
And far more importantly, some mega-corporations that serve shareholders and the bottom line and the governments that often serve the corporations more than the people who elect them, are showing very little interest in mitigating the damage they do…that we do, for we are the consumers of the products, the shareholders of the corporations and the electors of those governments. It seems that every victory won on behalf of the environment is small and often soon undone. Consider the modest proposal that was the Kyoto Accord. It was merely a commitment to do less damage, not actually repair anything and even that was abandoned by the Canadian government as soon as Mr. Harper took office.
Disheartening. Debilitating. Discouraging Depressing
It’s not hard to apply these words to our inhumanly human response to climate change.
Greed, Ignorance, Corruption, Self-centeredness, Avoiding reality, Perceived powerlessness
It’s not hard to apply these words to the billions of people around the world who are unwilling or unable to do anything about it.
Even some environmentalists are giving up turning to a different kind of discipline. Consider this story by Michelle Goldberg writing in The Nation:
There is a brutal conundrum at the heart of the fight against catastrophic climate change: when people grasp just how dire things are, they’re as likely to hunker down as to rise up. Maybe more likely.
A haunting New York Times Magazine story from last weekend demonstrates this. It’s about Paul Kingsnorth, a onetime environmental activist who has essentially given up, devoting himself instead to a multifaceted project of grief and survival called Dark Mountain.
“Everything had gotten worse,” Kingsnorth told writer Daniel Smith. “You look at every trend that environmentalists like me have been trying to stop for 50 years, and every single thing had gotten worse. And I thought: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit here saying: ‘Yes, comrades, we must act! We only need one more push, and we’ll save the world!’ I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it! So what do I do?”
What Kingsnorth did was draft an apocalyptic manifesto, titled Uncivilisation. “It is, it seems, our civilisation’s turn to experience the inrush of the savage and the unseen; our turn to be brought up short by contact with untamed reality,” he wrote. “There is a fall coming. We live in an age in which familiar restraints are being kicked away, and foundations snatched from under us… Now a familiar human story is being played out. It is the story of an empire corroding from within. It is the story of a people who believed, for a long time, that their actions did not have consequences. It is the story of how that people will cope with the crumbling of their own myth. It is our story.
“Uncivilisation” is not a practical plan of action. Rather, it’s a call for a new artistic and literary movement meant to grapple with life amid the coming ruin. “It is time to look for new paths and new stories, ones that can lead us through the end of the world as we know it and out the other side,” wrote Kingsnorth. “We suspect that by questioning the foundations of civilisation, the myth of human centrality, our imagined isolation, we may find the beginning of such paths.” Meanwhile, as the Times story says, he and his family have moved to rural Ireland, where they plan to grow their own food and develop the skills their children will need to survive in a hotter world.
In some ways, Kingsnorth’s story is an old one—he is, after all, hardly the first charismatic visionary to withdraw from society amid visions of the end. What makes it new is that there’s nothing supernatural or even all that improbable in his predictions. Plenty of sensible people are similarly alarmed. The science writer Jared Diamond, for example, recently put the odds of human civilization surviving another 100 years at 51 percent—a terrifyingly thin margin of optimism. Indeed, the only people offering assurance that everything is going to be fine are the climate change denialists, who are either ignorant, mendacious or both.
There are days when I join Mr. Kingsnorth and wonder why we even bother. There are days when it is mighty hard to feel like there is a way out. To dive into theological concepts for a second, there are days when it is hard to look at our behaviour and think we even deserve a second chance, some redemption.
I went to see the film Noah with Russell Crowe. It is a retelling of the flood story in Genesis, of course, but with a twist. In Genesis, the sons of Adam and Eve are Cain and Able. Cain murders Able and is cursed to wander the earth by God. In the first moments of the film we discover that the Children of Cain went on to develop a mighty technological civilization that in time destroyed the environment with their rapacious hunt for resources to fuel their machines. There is an implied hatred of Yahweh and the Garden here. Sound familiar?
The tale takes place after the environmental collapse. Noah and his family are scroungers trying to exist in the rocky deserts, harassed by the tribes of Cain. So far so good. Pretty standard Hebrew Bible stuff.
Here’s the twist. When Noah begins to act on his visions and build the ark, he comes to understand that his true mission is to save the animals…not the humans. He brings no wives for his sons except for one girl who had her uterus destroyed by violence. The story culminates when by miracle she is made pregnant and gives birth to twins -a boy and a girl and Noah decides that the just thing to do is kill them.
Now you have to go see the movie to find out what happens.
But the film’s theological questions are a valid ones. Can we still save ourselves? Do we deserve to be saved by ourselves or some outside agency? If we are indeed stewards of the earth, as Genesis suggests, then we have done a pretty poor job. Maybe we do have to pay for our sins. Maybe we should leave the planet to the cockroaches or whatever comes after.
There are times when that seems fair and right to me.
But after a good wallow in self-disgust and despair, my naturally optimistic side re-asserts itself. Here’s another theological point: There is always room for faith and its sidekicks hope and love.
Faith in what? Faith in our human ability to use our reason, ingenuity, intelligence and even our courage to overcome problems. Faith in our ability to eventually do the right thing.
Hope in what? Hope that we will come to our rational senses in greater numbers and begin to act as necessary for the common good. It is a hope that there will be a dawning of knowledge that self-preservation is more in our self-interest than profit and progress. We have done it before, sacrificed mightily for the common good. Look at the Great Depression and World War II. We have perhaps forgotten that we can sacrifice together.
Love for what? Love for our children and dare I say it our fellow humans and the generations to come and yes even the interdependent web noted in our seventh principle. Love that says let’s set aside some of our pleasures and learn a different way – not just bag our recycling, eat organic and try to take the bus kind of way, but the way of – for want of a better word – the way of salvation. The love that understands that no sacrifice is too great not to be made.
Can we do it?
There are some positive signs, especially here in Edmonton. Already we are one of the world’s most environmentally conscious cities when it comes to waste management. Our city leads in recycling, in transferring and processing compostable waste, converting waste to bio-fuel, recycling e-waste and a number of other things.
The LRT is expanding as are bicycle and pedestrian friendly routes. Construction codes are encouraging greener houses and neighbourhoods. It might not be much, but it is something.
So, what else can we do?
We know we can’t count on government do it alone. They just won’t. We have to make personal choices as we are able. Switching our homes to solar or geothermal energy, even getting a high efficiency furnace is beyond a lot of us. And many of us live in apartment or condo buildings where we are limited in what we can do. But I do have one suggestion.
We have often spoken of this church as being a symbol of our outreach. I wonder if we could use this to make a positive environmental impact?
The Unitarian Universalist Church West in Wisconsin last year installed 42 solar panels on their roof. The array generates 10 kilowatt hours a year and takes care of 15% of the congregation’s energy needs. They figure that their direct cost saving is $2,150 per year. That will only go up as power costs rise, of course. Certainly it was an expensive project. It cost $77,500, although with grants the church only had to raise $28,000. Still steep.
In the next few years we will be continuing the process of renewing and repairing our own roof. That’s a must do. Should we be looking at solar energy as part of that?
It is costly. I know I can’t afford to do it in my own home yet, even though it might well pay for itself in time. But I do know that if we don’t reduce our reliance on non-renewable fuels, the cost to our children’s children will be much, much higher. I can’t change my house but I could join with others to help to change this communal house of ours. Sure, replacing the roof will be a first step, but perhaps we should keep this idea in mind as we address our overhead issues.
Perhaps it is time for the people to lead. We might have to be patient in chasing the government, but in small groups such as churches, community centres, condo associations we can take visible steps that will have a positive impact, that will create that little bit of positive pressure.
You see it’s back to faith, hope and love. It’s back to optimistic action in the face of pessimistic reason. As the need to address climate change grows ever more dire, every person will have to do their part to influence consumer production, to decrease our reliance on fossil fuels and to take the kinds of actions we want our governments to support.
One final note. You all know I cycle. On August 3rd we will hold a bicycle in the park picnic and ride for all ages. It’s meant to be a celebration of our bodies and our ability to find cleaner ways of transportation. Whether a beginner or an expert there will be rides available. We will also have a couple of people on hand to help with minor repairs, bicycle evaluations and even cycling tips. Look for more details in our summer newsletter. You see just getting out and biking or walking to stores makes a positive impact.
Will these small gestures be enough to save the world? Nope. But each small step- each sacrifice we make – pushes us just a little closer to tipping the balance. Every dollar we spend differently influences corporations. Every letter we send or vote we cast influence government slightly. If we live in faith, insist on keeping hope and choose to live with love we just might turn away from the apocalypse.