September 22: “When Hope is Hard to Find” with Rebecca Gant
Click here to start at the sermon.
So, I come to you today with my heart alternating between hope and grief.
This week I was in Boulder, Colorado to visit my daughter who lives there. On Friday, we attended a rally on the University of Colorado campus that was part of the world-wide climate strike. I saw elementary school-age kids gathered with their signs- signs that described a future that children should not have to contemplate.
The college age leaders there reminded us to stay on the grass not block the sidewalks, and then outlined the movement’s demands: adoption of the green new deal, total emissions reduction, respect and reparation for indigenous lands and people, among others. There were older people there, too, including a well-known community activist in his sixties who the youth had invited to speak. He told how he is working to convince the city commission to allow people to sign petitions electronically so that more can participate in direct democracy within the city.
As I listened to the speakers at the rally, I felt my Gen-X tension of being in-between. When I heard the young people demanding such comprehensive change in a very short time, my jaded older self had some doubts about how much of that will get done. Listening to the older activist discuss online petitions for the city government, I felt a younger person’s impatience with such slow, incremental changes when we are facing catastrophe.
The younger people there were demanding nothing short of a revolution in how we consume energy and goods in the country, with not much information about how it would happen. The older activist was discussing what has worked in the past, and what may continue to work, though it doesn’t promise a huge change. This tension between generations– between incremental change and revolution — is real. It hangs over this movement and this moment. Long-time political activists are wondering how to pass a revolutionary agenda in a democracy like ours where things move slowly. The science is telling us that revolution may be the only way we will avoid catastrophe.
Google is full of articles with titles like “Top Ten things you can do to address the climate crisis.” Generally, these kinds of lists include suggestions that we fly and drive less, eat less meat, turn off the lights when we’re not using them, etc. These actions are helpful, of course, but they are not revolutionary on their own.
In a recent article in Time magazine dedicated to the topic of climate crisis, Michael Mann writes that these kinds of lists are worse than misleading:
“There is a long history of industry-funded “deflection campaigns” aimed to divert attention from big polluters and place the burden on individuals. Individual action is important and something we should all champion. But appearing to force Americans to give up meat, or travel, or other things central to the lifestyle they’ve chosen to live is politically dangerous: it plays right into the hands of climate-change deniers whose strategy tends to be to portray climate champions as freedom-hating totalitarians. The bigger issue is that focusing on individual choices around air travel and beef consumption heightens the risk of losing sight of the gorilla in the room: civilization’s reliance on fossil fuels for energy and transport overall, which accounts for roughly two-thirds of global carbon emissions. We need systemic changes that will reduce everyone’s carbon footprint, whether or not they care.”
I agree with Mann that the gorilla of our reliance on fossil fuels must be addressed. This problem will require a massive re-tooling of how we move people and goods. And I also think that our tiny individual actions are important. We don’t have to choose an either-or– in fact, I think it’s dangerous for us if we choose only one of these paths. If we believe that only systemic change will make a difference, we may throw up our hands because we don’t have control of the system ourselves. It feels too big. What difference can we make in such a huge system? If we do that, we lose the opportunity to live in concert with our values. To do things just because they are the right things to do.
On the other hand, if we fall for the campaigns that place all the burden of change on individuals, we might bike to work and recycle and adjust our thermostats and believe that we have done enough. We lose the opportunity to affect the system. If we want to help avert the coming crisis, we must choose both to change our personal behavior and to work to change the system.
We must choose both. Taking individual responsibility to change the things within our sphere of control while fighting for system change is a way to live in alignment with values, a way to remind yourself every day about what is important, and a deliberate choice to face the problem rather than passively leaving it to others to solve. As Rebecca Solnit writes, ” [working for climate justice is] entirely compatible with grief and horror; you can work to elect climate heroes while being sad.”
Our choice can be framed as a response to the seventh principle of Unitarian Universalism. The seventh principle is “Respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.” Choosing to act for our earth is a choice to act for all of life. We are part of the web, along with the water that serves as the earth’s circulation, the plants and animals that keep earth’s skin healthy, and the air that she and we breathe. What affects one part of this web affects us all.
Our choice can also be framed as a response to the first principle of Unitarian Universalism which is “the inherent worth and dignity of all people.” In the New York Times, Jamie Margolin, 17-year-old leader of the climate action movement called Zero Hour, frames the fight for the planet in this way:
Why do I do this? I am striking for a decolonized future. A decolonized world is one in which the wealthiest nations and industries do not continue to exploit communities in the global south, and instead support them in dealing with the effects of the climate crisis, like droughts, hurricanes and floods. A decolonized world is one where those most affected by the climate crisis — poor and indigenous communities and those in the global south — are heard and have a seat at the table where decisions are made.
I am fighting for a decolonized future, because a decolonized world is the only one that will be able to turn the tide on the climate crisis.
Many people pin the start of the climate crisis to the Industrial Revolution… [but it] actually started long before that.
Colonization started the climate crisis. With colonization, European settlers destroyed natural habitats, hunted species to death and brought in invasive plants that [enslaved indigenous and African people] were forced to grow.
With colonialism came the idea that everything on this earth is made for our extraction and that everything is to be bought and sold… stolen and abused.
With colonialism came the idea that nothing — not air, water, trees or animals — was sacred or priceless. And this historical mind-set is the core of how we got to the climate disaster. Before the first coal was mined, even before the first factories opened, the seeds for the climate crisis had been planted.”
This climate crisis is not limited to its effects on animals, soil, and land. The climate crisis, as Jamie writes so wisely, disproportionately affects people in the Global South, people who live on the coasts of our land masses, and who live on the margins in terms of identity and financial privilege. If we who live in the center of the country, who are relatively privileged and therefore not yet affected by the climate crisis are not moved to act, we are harming others by our inaction. Humanity is part of that interdependent web and we forget that at our peril.
This– this swath of humanity. The beauty of the earth. For the earth forever turning. Justice for all people. All of this is worth fighting for.
How can we energize ourselves and others to go beyond simply worrying about climate crisis? How can we encourage people to do more than just recycling a bit more or driving a little less– even though those are important– how can we and the people we can influence be more effective?
I believe that one answer lies in the messages we choose to focus on. The predictions of rising sea levels, melting ice caps, more frequent and stronger storms and wildfires and drought– is frightening and overwhelming– and most people, when frightened or overwhelmed, shut down. Sharing the stories of what is predicted is important, but I believe it alone is not effective in helping motivate people to take loving action. They feel helpless to effect any change, or they just can’t face the enormity of what could happen. But beyond the effects it has on people’s capacity, preaching only the apocalypse is, I believe, a betrayal of our love for the earth and its creatures.
Hosea Ballou, Universalist minister and theologian in the 19th century, wrote something similar about the practice of scaring people with hellfire and damnation to make them show their love of God and virtue. He wrote: “The preaching of future rewards and punishments, for the purpose of inducing people to love God and moral virtue, is not only useless, but pernicious. All such preaching, be it ever so well intended, not only amounts to a declaration, that God and moral virtue, are, in themselves, unlovely, and unworthy of being loved, but, as far as it is believed, serves to alienate the affections from these most precious objects.” (p 49, Justice on Earth)
To paraphrase Ballou, our earth is lovely and worthy of being loved, and similarly, our actions will be better motivated by those feelings of love rather than the feelings of fear and despair.
Czech dissident, writer and statesman Václav Havel said “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.” We can’t know for sure if our actions will bring about enough change to save us from the worst of the climate collapse. — no scientist on earth has lived through anything like this before and so we must rely on the best computer modeling available. But I am certain that taking action is worth doing whether it works or not. Failing to act is not an option.
From this place of love and action will come hope. Hope will be the fuel for further action. This virtuous cycle is what can save us.
There are practices we can adopt in this time to increase our ability to address the climate crisis and be in alignment with our values. These practices are recipes for hope and antidotes to despair. The most important of these, I believe, is gratitude. By engaging in gratitude, we remind ourselves what is important, what is beautiful, what strength looks like, what tenderness feels like, what forgiveness sounds like. We remind ourselves what we’re fighting for.
Another antidote to despair is to gather with people who share our hopes for a better future. Look at that- you’re here! When we gather, we can give one another strength to find our part in the struggle, and it reminds us that we individually do not have to do everything– And that the reality is that we cannot individually do everything. We need each other.
The third recipe for hope is to change our stories. We can tell new stories– stories that reject the either/or of Either systemic change Or individual action. Stories about how the adults who failed to avert climate crisis listened to the youth who called BS and finally took action. We can stop getting sucked into fake fights over whether it’s better to adjust your thermostat or stop eating meat, paper or plastic. We can focus on the beauty of what we’re trying to save instead of contributing to crisis fatigue.
The most effective antidote to despair, however, is to act. And the best way to do that is to join a movement. Movements can hold all these qualities- gratitude, gathering, stories and action. Don’t worry if you, like me, are no longer classified as a youth. The youth movements for climate change welcome adult participation. Now, they might not be so welcoming if your goal is to “teach them what to do”– but if you can join with a willingness to do what’s asked, you are welcome. You can use Google or Facebook to find one of the groups working here in Kansas City– Sunrise movement, Extinction Rebellion, 350KC, Sierra Club, and the Citizens Climate Lobby.
Climate justice does not exist in a vacuum. As Adrienne Maree Brown writes “E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G—is connected. The soil needs rain, organic matter, air, worms and life in order to do what it needs to do to give and receive life. Each element is an essential component. Organizing takes humility and selflessness and patience and rhythm while our ultimate goal of liberation will take many expert components. Some of us build and fight for land, healthy bodies, healthy relationships, clean air, water, homes, safety, dignity, and humanizing education. Others of us fight for food and political prisoners and abolition and environmental justice. Our work is intersectional and multifaceted. Nature teaches us that our work has to be nuanced and steadfast. And more than anything, that we need each other—at our highest natural glory—in order to get free.”
The entanglement of all systems of domination and all work for justice means that working with MORE2 for racial and economic equity is climate work. So is working for housing with KC Tenants. and so is working to get people registered to vote.
If you have ever wondered when would be the right time to get involved– or to get more involved– there has never been a better time. Our beautiful earth is worth your attention. Join the climate movement or step up your involvement. Movements are messy, but our house is on fire and we don’t have time to quibble about exactly how to put it out.
Perhaps poet Adrienne Rich said it best: My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.”