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Wilmington CA is the state’s most polluted neighborhood, downwind of the Port of Los Angeles, ships that burn what is known as bunker oil, trucks that burn diesel and five refineries releasing plumes of by product, often burned off. I lived in San Pedro, the port city closer to the shore and therefore upwind of the predominant on shore breeze. I could see the entire port from my house and watched nightly as the refineries burned off excess oil in two hundred foot flames shooting out of the stacks.
And I knew people in the downwind port city of Wilmington. One of those people was Alicia Rivera. Alicia was a friend of my congregation at the time and stalwart advocate for climate justice. It was through Alicia that I became involved with CLUE and our work to cut the emissions from America’s busiest port (ever wonder where all that stuff from China comes into the USA?) She would introduce me to families, like the Hernandez family who lost two of their children to cancer. The cancer rate of those downwind communities, Wilmington, Compton and South Central LA are the highest in the country.
I was here that I learned about the intersectionality of climate change and justice. Because climate change does not just affect those privileged of us to live in or near water, it affects those who are in the line of an industrial system that has created the global warming we are experiencing. The fact is that climate justice is not just about our eventual extinction, but has injustice embedded in it right now, in this world we live in and benefit from. It’s not just that whole countries like Bangladesh will disappear as sea levels rise, it’s that the greed of white, mostly male, capitalists who have created a system of extraction that treats the earth as expendable and who have laid a heavy hand on black and brown communities that produce that wealth. People of color are more likely to work in climate heating industries and to live in the direct path of the effluents of those industries.
This is yet another of our inconvenient truths: that climate change has a direct impact on communities of poor people of color and that even if we can stop this global warming, those same people will continue to bear the burden of our industrialized system for generations to come. Climate Justice always struck me as a white person’s privilege, a sort of moral debt we owed for enjoying modernity. The Green Sanctuary Designation of the UUA, which this congregation was awarded, seemed to be at best self-congratulatory to me: We change some lightbulbs, we use ceramic plates, we recycle and we are awarded a prize as if that was all we needed to do. The environmental movement seemed to be more interested in protecting the spotted owl, than the human cost of pollution. I always had a problem supporting environmental efforts until I learned that environmental conservation was a part of climate justice. Now I see the connection between community permaculture gardens and the need for poor people to eat fresh food thus reducing the carbon footprint. Now I understand that putting aside acreage helps to produce oxygen. Now I see the intersection between the movement and justice. This really only dawned on me ten years ago when I heard Van Jones speak at General Assembly in 2008 about the connection between climate change and justice. Green jobs, or the Green New Deal he said, could be the link between the two; providing jobs for communities of color to rebuild the infrastructure of our carbon based industrial complex into a renewable one.
Jones said “one good thing about green collared jobs is they can’t be outsourced. If you want to weatherize your building, you can’t ship it to India, if you want to build wind farms, its wind blowing in the US that is harvested.” (quoted in The Sun, interview with Van Jones March 2008) Working for justice requires making our environment more sustainable. But perhaps not in the way we see it. Because Jones also challenges us white environmentalists. As Jones said: “A lot of wealthy educated people wanted to take action after Al Gore’s movie, but most low income people of color I know had no interest in seeing it in the first place. They already have enough problems. They don’t need new crisis to worry about….poor people need to hear about opportunities.. (ibid Jones). And as if this intersection of justice and climate were not enough to worry about as good UUs, there is the even more pressing meta concern about whether we can keep our global warming under the two degree Celsius level most recently recommended by the Paris accord; an accord we are no longer a party to.
Twelve year old Greta Thurberg has begun a student led movement to bring attention to the very fact that if we don’t stop global warming, her children and her grandchildren will not survive. She has called for student walk outs around the world, one of which happened last week. I encourage you to view her TED Talk which I will post this week. It is absolutely amazing. She can change the world. And she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by the Swedish Parliament. The choice is very stark: Stop carbon emissions or face extinction. This is the reality our own Climate Group here is facing and dealing with. If you are part of this group would you please stand.
As David Wallace-Wells writes, we are in the midst of the sixth great extinction on earth. Five times before the number and diversity of species have died off by more than 90%. Remember the dinosaurs? That was child’s play. We are losing 200 species a day! If we do not stop our run away carbon train, the polar ice caps will melt not only inundating coastal area (spoiler alert Westport will be underwater) but also unleashing bacteria in frozen fossils much of which was here before humans and that will mutate into plagues we have never even heard of. We will lose oxygen, poor people will die first, and then the rich. For every 1degree Celsius that the planet warms we lose 1.2 percent of global GDP. We will not only be poorer we will be hungrier, and social unrest is sure to follow. As Wallace-Wells put it: “Our present eeriness cannot last.” (New York Magazine “Uninhabitable Earth” David Wallace-Wells, 2018)
Well, where is the hope in this? If we believed in the apocalypse and the second coming, we might even celebrate the death of our planet, civilization and species. But what are we to do as Unitarian Universalists who find faith in hope in life and this world now. Few scientists will be the ones to offer you such panaceas, but I do believe there is hope.
Vaclav Havel, the dissident who led the Czech Republic to freedom and served as its first president, wrote: “Hope is a state of mind, not a state of the world. Either we have hope within us or we don’t. Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Even if we are headed for the heat death, we can work towards a planet that sustains all that is beautiful.
As Wallace-Wells put it just recently:
“Whatever you may have read over the past year — as extreme weather brought a global heat wave and unprecedented wildfires burned through 1.6 million California acres and newspaper headlines declared, “Climate Change Is Here” — global warming is not binary. It is not a matter of “yes” or “no,” not a question of “(screwed)” or “not.” Instead, it is a problem that gets worse over time the longer we produce greenhouse gas, and can be made better if we choose to stop. Which means that no matter how hot it gets, no matter how fully climate change transforms the planet and the way we live on it, it will always be the case that the next decade could contain more warming, and more suffering, or less warming and less suffering. Just how much is up to us, and always will be.” (New York Magazine 2019) Just how much is up to us. And there are signs we are listening. Only a few crack pots, one being our president, still believe global warming is a hoax. The flooding of the Mississippi and Missouri river valleys this week are making this abundantly clear. And while old people’s habits are hard to change, young people like Greta Thurberg are on the front lines. My own grandson, now in high school, is dedicating his life to climate justice.
We can start with a little more humility. We can stop our extinction starting right here. We can remember, as Chief Seattle once said ‘that the earth does not belong to us we belong to the earth”. And once we recognize that even an inner city garden plot is part of this same problem our minds will be open to seeing the connection between honoring the earth and honoring those of us who live within its embrace. We would do well to see the connection between the earth and our culture. The beginning actually may be our humility; the belief that we are only as the 7th principle reminds us a part of the web. Humility, humbling, humus. It’s more than recycling. Recycling won’t save the planet. In fact, since China has stopped taking our recycled material, municipalities are just throwing those recycled items away. But an ethic of care to what we do with our waste and how we treat other people, humility that we are only visitors here might actually begin to save the world. A kind deed, a voice in the wilderness, the light we shed is never wasted. We have the power not only in our humility but in our creative ability to change the world. No truth in this vast swirling universe is sealed. It’s always open to the power of creation. It is the reason why we are here and why we teach our children to imagine a better world. It’s the theology of the earth and our creative abilities to honor and grow with this earth that makes us truly human. Human, humus.
In his book Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, Bill McKibben says that the world we have known is no longer the world in which we are living. We now live on a different planet than the one that has existed for the last 10,000 years. We no longer can depend on our Earth in the same ways we have. We now inhabit a different Earth. It looks a lot like the old planet, but our weather is not and will not be the same as it has been. Social critics such as McKibben and Thomas Friedman believe that we are in a new era, not B.C. or A.D. or C.E. but E.C.E, energy climate era. It’s time to stop looking back, time to look ahead.
What I’ve decided lately is that it doesn’t really matter so much whether or not we believe that, what the author Daniel Korten called, The Great Turning is possible. We have to live as though it was possible, or we’ll continue to be part of what is destroying the earth. Our despair will be part of what is destroying the earth: our despair and cynicism, our helplessness, all the things that tip us toward throwing up our hands and turning away. Whether or not we feel hope, we have to act out hope.
This has been the calling people of faith in every era, and people acted on this moral imperative to act out hope even if they didn’t feel it, even when they knew it would mean the loss of their own lives. They acted because it was the right thing to do, even if there was no visible outcome, even if the fruit of their action would not ripen for a generation or more. Like them, we need to find the way forward toward earth-shaking change even when we are confused or downhearted, even when there is no immediate result to what we do.
There is activism and resistance. This is composed of every action we take that slows down the destruction around us, every way we figure out to say “no” to corporate greed and to government passivity. Activism includes ratcheting up the pressure we put on our government to start doing its job when it comes to monitoring corporate action and holding industry accountable. It includes a demand for new levels of environmental protection and a new transparency about the connections between corporations and the government departments that are meant to protect us.
We must creatively build and live from new systems, new ways of doing things that are sustainable and life-affirming. One of the most important ways is to stop eating meet. Animal production is the greatest producer of carbon and methane. Our own Ethical Eating Team is already leading us in this regard. It’s in this arena that we push forward the possible. I look forward to what our own Climate Justice group will suggest for us to do as a congregation and as people.
It’s here that our own responsibility for change arises. We have to challenge ourselves to imagine things differently, to be brave enough, creative enough, to birth a way of life that does not bring so much death in its wake. We have to do this. We still live in the illusion that we have a choice, but we have no choice. It’s like believing that in the ten seconds between now and the moment your car crashes into the wall, it’s optional whether or not you turn the wheel. It’s not optional. We either turn the wheel or we crash. Turning that wheel means focusing intently on how we can live differently, how we can reduce, and reduce again, the enormous amounts of everything that we use—but especially the amounts of oil.
Ours is a shift in consciousness, a new way not just of living but of thinking and feeling. It requires us to understand all the way down to our core that we are the Earth: we don’t live “on” it; we are it, a conscious, thinking, choice-making manifestation of Earth. This change of consciousness is what Christian ethicist Larry Rasmussen calls “living by a different faith and ethic”. He writes, “It must be an Earth-honoring faith and ethic that holds the Creation at the center: earth, air, fire, water, life. It must reframe our lives, at a time when both beauty and necessity ask that of us.” (see Earth-Honoring Faith: Religious Ethics in a New Key 2013) We are born into belonging and belonging will save us.
I don’t know whether or not the Great Turning is possible. But I am absolutely convinced that nothing short of it will be enough. And I am absolutely convinced that the only ethical option available to us is to live as though it is possible, to live as though it depends on us. The beauty of the Earth, the necessity of the Earth is ours, our Blue Boar Home. AMEN.