Reflections On Global Warming

Speaker: Rev. Carolyn R. Brown

A Matter of Science. A Matter of Politics. A Matter of Faith. A Call to Action. Personal Practices. These are the categories dividing the information found in the draft Statement of Conscience formulated by the Unitarian Universalist Association. Earlier in the service, Will read from the portion titled “A Matter of Science” and I read from the portion titled “A Matter of Politics.” I will talk about the portion titled “A Matter of Faith.” Next week our Green Sanctuary Committee will lead a service that will deal with the last two portions, “A Call to Action” and “Personal Practices.”

In 1998 Steven Rockefeller, Professor of Religion at Middlebury College in Vermont said during an interview: “Our environmental problems will not be fully addressed until we come to terms with the moral and spiritual dimensions of these problems, and we will not find ourselves religiously until we fully address our environmental problems.” It reminds me of the old song “Love and Marriage” which go together like a “horse and carriage, you can’t have one without the other. Ask the local gentry and they will say it’s elementary.”

The fact that our association selected Global Warming as the 2004-2006 Study/Action Issue gives us an opportunity to respond to both sides of this marriage of faith and environmental problems.

The discussions regarding the scientific basis for concern about the threat of global warming include strong statements of somewhat conflicting points of view. In 1998, a paper was widely distributed to thousands of scientists and medical personnel, claiming that the increase in carbon dioxide was actually good for the earth. About 19,000 people with various credentials signed this so-called Oregon Petition, thinking it had passed peer review and was connected with the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. The writers were not climate scientists. It had never been published anywhere. Yet this fraudulent work is cited by some people in congress as their reason for opposing the Kyoto treaty.

Increasingly during the last eight years, the tide has turned, to make a bad pun, and there is convincing evidence that our actions have contributed to climatic changes and that CO2 may not be so good. ABC Correspondent, Bill Blakemore wrote last week that a number of leading scientists are showing a new level of concern “about the possibility of global warming producing planet wide upheaval in the lifetimes of today’s children. He goes on to say that this bad news will be greeted by different people with …a “medley of natural denials and particular ignorance of probabilities.” This is a psychological response, dependent upon the way each of us deals with bad news.

You may have seen recent programs on television, or read the latest issue of Vanity Fair, or Time magazine’s special issue last month with “Be worried, be very worried” on the cover. I have been worried since I read the National Geographic issue from September 2004, with the cover “Global Warning: Bulletins from a Warmer World.” They devoted 74 pages to stories about global climate change and expected their readers to complain that it is not real nor the result of human actions. They wrote that publishing this report was worth the risk of cancelled subscriptions.

This morning I am not going to cite the statistics or the evidence that left a lasting impression on me and convinced me that something we humans have done has affected the planet. I am going to join the Queen of England in her 2004 concern that spring is coming three weeks earlier in England than it did 50 years ago when she was a new queen.

I begin from the position that we humans have triggered some planetary problems with our life-styles, our use of hydrocarbons, burning the rain forests, raising millions of cattle, paving the woods. What is our ethical response?

On the UUA Website I found a short piece outlining the theological framing of our response to the threat of global warming. This piece makes the following point about the way we live that explains somewhat the difficulty we may experience trying to express our caring about the earth in the practice of our daily lives.

“Global warming is triggered by the way we humans live on planet Earth. Our life-ways, in turn, are embedded in the social, economic, and political structures we have created to define where and how we live, what and how much we consume, and who controls distribution of benefits and costs.”

As Unitarian Universalists, we are aware of the importance of the way social, economic and political structures influence our lives and our futures. We continue to experience guilt at some level about the ethical implications of the fact that we consume 25% of the world’s natural resources even though we comprise only 5% of the population.

We are often frustrated by an economic system which continues to increase the gap between the poor and the rich, the haves and the have-nots. Our decisions about where and how we live are influenced by factors that contribute to diversity and fairness. All the decisions we make in these areas are affected by our experience, our religious views and our philosophy of life.

Even with care and consideration, we know that our decisions may have a negative effect on the planet. Will and I live in a 4,000 square foot house and we use more of the world’s natural resources in terms of electricity, gas and water than we should. Will’s old friend, Dorothy Zopf, built a small solar home off the grid near Taos, NM. Designed with no 90° corners or wasted space, it faced southward with a view of the surrounding hills and the deer eating her garden each morning during the summer.

While I admired her convictions, I haven’t wanted to follow her example. Witness the effects of the cultural conditioning which define the social, political and economic structures in which I want to live. Dottie had only a radio telephone for emergencies. No cable for internet access. Limited water supply. No dishwasher. When she did her ironing, she had to go to bed early because her batteries would be too low to make coffee early in the morning. She had reduced her possessions to the essential. She had no room for collecting stuff.

We see ourselves as integral parts of the world. How we relate to one another and how we respond to the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part shapes our individual and shared spiritual orientations and theologies.
While we hear the call to be active in the world, working to heal damages done by the choices we make in living our lives, we are so affected by needs, imagined or real, which we have been encouraged to experience in order to support our way of life – we are a product of social, political and economic world views.

It may be that at this point in time, the more important question each of us should be asking is how we respond to the moral and religious issues of the threat of global warming.

How do we respond to the interdependent web from the viewpoint of our morals, values and faith. What part of the responsibility for dealing with the problems do we share. As we examine our fundamental beliefs and values, do we see what actions we can take to create change in the world.

Our spiritual tradition contains a long history of respect and honor for the natural world. We share this with ancient peoples of all races and creeds. Human consciousness has an inherent awe and gratitude for all the elements of the natural world. We salute the sun, we welcome the rain, we light our celebratory flames, we breathe the fresh air of spring, we entrust our seeds to the rich soil, we walk beneath the trees, beside the water, and look out from the high mountain meadows, caring for the earth reflected in our continuous awareness of the beauty that lies so near us in every miracle of nature’s diversity.

Our Transcendentalist brothers and sisters of the mid-nineteenth century believed that our access to the holy, to the one, was through nature. No confession of faith, no priestly intervention, no creed nor scripture was required.
Henry David Thoreau moved to Walden Pond in 1845 to experience nature directly. In his book Walden, he writes of his connection with nature as a very intimate, two-way relationship:
“The indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature,—of sun and wind and rain, of summer and winter,—such health, such cheer, they afford forever! . . . Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mould myself?”

Consider Ralph Waldo Emerson’s description of the Over-soul, the encompassing framework within which we have a direct relationship with the holy and with nature, sounding very much like one and the same:
“. . . that great nature in which we rest . . . that Unity, that Over-Soul, within which every…[one]’s particular being is contained and made one with all other. . . . We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within …[us] is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal ONE.” (Essays, 1841)
Emerson believed that the divine exists in nature and in us as well. How would a person in this relationship with Nature respond to the current concern over the future of life on this planet?

We draw wisdom and strength from our rich religious heritage. For over 400 years Unitarians have sought justice, sacrificed for justice, and continued to work for justice in a stream of life full of boulders and waterfalls. The world calls us to use our spiritual wealth to study, to grow in understanding, to realize our possibilities for action and to take leadership in this time of pending crisis. We must have the courage to act and respond while others fear taking a stand.

Our response begins with our 7th principle which reminds us the truth of Steven Rockefeller’s statement: “Our environmental problems will not be fully addressed until we come to terms with the moral and spiritual dimensions of these problems, and we will not find ourselves religiously until we fully address our environmental problems.” Our 7th principle is that we covenant to affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Our religious life is incomplete without acknowledging and celebrating our relationship with our beloved earth.

We affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning in our 4th principle. Certainly global warming more than any issue today demands our careful and critical seeking for truth. As we continue to practice our 3rd principle, by promoting acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations we can explore the “deeper traditions in the human-Earth relationship through worship, prayer, meditation, covenant groups, and spiritual practices.” One of the resources I read on the UUA website cited the benefits of our engaging with this issue. As we work together to deal with this difficult issue that others may fear to confront, or deny its existence, we will grow our congregation as other seekers encounter our responsive and responsible relationship with our home planet. (UUA Seventh Principle Project)

There are many questions to ask. None of us has the training to evaluate the data that is available. We must find a balance between science and politics, and discern where one is acting most responsibly. Our psychological response must be tempered by our spiritual grounding in respect for the interdependent web of all existence. We need not fear being wrong about the threat of global warming unless we decide to bury our heads under our foam crumble pillows and listen only to one side of the conversation. It’s not a matter of being right or wrong, it’s a matter of an ethical response to the future of the seventh generation.

An Iroquois chief is quoted by Jeremy Rifkin in Time Wars:
“We are looking ahead, as is one of the first mandates given to us as chiefs, to make sure [that] every decision we make relates to the welfare and well-being of the seventh generation to come, and that is the basis by which we make decisions in council. We consider: Will this be to the benefit of the seventh generation. This is a guideline.”

I close with these words of Joanna Macy:
“We have received an inestimable gift. To be alive in this beautiful self-organizing universe – to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it – is a wonder beyond words. And it is, moreover, an extraordinary privilege to be accorded a human life, to possess this self-reflexive consciousness, which brings awareness of our own actions and the ability to make choices. It lets us choose to take part in the healing of our world.” Joanna Macy, Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World (New Society Publishers, 1998)