Climate Justice: What's the Big Idea?

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
July 19, 2015

Along with millions of other people back in 2006, Cindy and I watched the documentary An Inconvenient Truth in which Vice-President Al Gore presented compelling evidence about the empirical truth of global warming.

Afterward, I felt an urgent need to do something – to do SOMETHING before it was too late!

Here is what I did: I purchased a composter. I did some internet research and then ordered a barrel-shaped composter that was about four feet high. Several days later, it arrived at our house and I put the pieces together. For the next year or two, I made a devoted effort to compost kitchen scraps, grass clippings, autumn leaves, small tree branches, and other organic items. Cindy can confirm that I was not particularly successful. We still have the composter sitting inconveniently in our yard, but it has not been used for several years.

Had this composting adventure worked out, our household might have diverted a small stream of kitchen scraps and yard leftovers from the landfill. And had this composting adventure worked out, we might have generated a small supply of compost to build up the health and fertility of the soil in our yard.

But had this composting adventure worked out, would I really have done much to reduce greenhouse gases in our atmosphere and thereby avoid global warming? In other words, was setting up one composter for one household an effective strategy for addressing the challenge of global warming that Al Gore lifted up in An Inconvenient Truth?

Let’s just hold onto that question and leave it unanswered for now. I will come back to it in a few moments.

On June 18, Pope Francis released an Encyclical called “Laudato Si: On Care for Our Common Home.” Although I have read through the entire document, I certainly cannot claim any definitive expertise on how to analyze this remarkable message. However, while I do not want to turn this sermon into a book report, I would suggest that the Pope’s Encyclical lifts up the following themes:

First, Pope Francis links the struggle for environmental justice with the struggle for economic justice. Over and over in this Encyclical, he mentions the difficult circumstances of those who live in poverty. In Section 49, for example, he writes: “Today . . . we have to realize that a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” And in Section 139, he writes: “We are faced not with two separate crises, one environmental and the other social, but rather with one complex crisis which is both social and environmental.” Finally, in Section 175, he writes: “The same mindset which stands in the way of making radical decisions to reverse the trend of global warming also stands in the way of achieving the goal of eliminating poverty.”

Second, Pope Francis affirms that global warming is definitely the result of human activity. In Section 23, for example, he writes: “A very solid scientific consensus indicates that we are presently witnessing a disturbing warming of the climatic system.”

Third, Pope Francis expresses concern not only about global warming, but about the reckless habits of consumption and waste that degrade the earth in many ways. Thus, in Section 21, he writes: “Each year hundreds of millions of tons of waste are generated, much of it non-biodegradable, highly toxic and radioactive, from homes and businesses, from construction and demolition sites, from clinical, electronic and industrial sources. The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.”

Fourth, Pope Francis identifies a dangerous link between powerful short-term economic interests that promote environmental devastation and the tools of technology that have been used in the service of these powerful economic interests. Thus, in Section 20, he writes: “Technology, which, linked to business interests, is presented as the only way of solving these problems, in fact proves incapable of seeing the mysterious network of relations between things and so sometimes solves one problem only to create others.” And in Section 54, he writes: “The failure of global summits on the environment make it plain that our politics are subject to technology and finance. There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected. . . . The alliance between the economy and technology ends up sidelining anything unrelated to its immediate interests.”

I hope that these few brief quotations provide some insight into the challenging and courageous message that Pope Francis has set forth.

We Unitarian Universalists have also made official statements about environmental sustainability. Back in 2006, for example, the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly adopted a Statement of Conscience that addressed global warming and climate change. Here is the first paragraph from that statement:

“Earth is our home. We are part of this world and its destiny is our own. Life on this planet will be gravely affected unless we embrace new practices, ethics, and values to guide our lives on a warming planet. As Unitarian Universalists, how can our faith inform our actions to remedy and mitigate global warming/climate change? We declare by this Statement of Conscience that we will not acquiesce to the ongoing degradation and destruction of life that human actions are leaving to our children and grandchildren. We as Unitarian Universalists are called to join with others to halt practices that fuel global warming/climate change, to instigate sustainable alternatives, and to mitigate the impending effects of global warming/climate change with just and ethical responses. As a people of faith, we commit to a renewed reverence for life and respect for the interdependent web of all existence.”

This Statement of Conscience provides a list of personal practices, congregational actions, denominational initiatives, and advocacy goals for all Unitarian Universalists who feel called to take action.

Taking action. That is the challenge. I am thinking about that composter I used unsuccessfully for a couple of years after watching An Inconvenient Truth. Even if I had figured out how to get my composter to work, would it really have been an effective strategy? Would it really have made a difference? Or would my time and effort have been used more effectively in other ways?

Pope Francis actually makes some worthwhile comments about individual actions in his Encyclical. His message calls for a change of heart, a spiritual transformation, a redefinition of what we mean by progress, a move away from consumerism and wastefulness to a more mindful and more deeply satisfying way of living.

Thus, Pope Francis writes: “A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions . . . Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices. All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity.” And Pope Francis continues: “We must not think that these efforts are not going to change the world. They benefit society, often unbeknown to us, for they call forth a goodness which, albeit unseen, inevitably tends to spread. Furthermore, such actions can restore our sense of self-esteem; they can enable us to live more fully and to feel that life on earth is worthwhile.”

From this perspective, I think Pope Francis would approve of my composter, and no doubt he would have approved even more if I had actually learned to use it. From this perspective, using a composter could be a spiritual discipline, an ongoing act of love for the earth, a way of spreading goodness in the world, an opportunity to live more fully.

At the same time, I understand that operating my composter is not really going to reverse global warming. Yes, it would be worth doing. But I think it would be worth doing primarily as a way of ordering my inner spiritual life and strengthening my inner spiritual resolve. It is a kind of sacrament, defined by St. Augustine as an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible grace. It would be spiritually useful as a tangible way of monitoring the health and strength of my inner life. But even ten thousand composters would not reverse global warming.

Pope Francis shares this view. After extolling the virtues of little daily actions whereby we care for the earth, he offers this realistic assessment: “Nevertheless, self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing our world today. . . . Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds.”

Later today, two people from our church, Sarah Benson and John Ballance, will begin National Leadership Training in Chicago with the Gamaliel Foundation, the parent organization of our own Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network.

One of the most important things that Sarah and John will learn over the next week is this: Power is organized people and organized money. Power is organized people and organized money. Say it with me: Power is organized people and organized money.

We can compost and we can carpool. We can recycle and we can reuse. We can eat lower on the food chain and we can turn off unnecessary lights. All of these practices are wonderful. They feel good. They enrich our interior spiritual lives. They are sacraments. They give us hope. “Nevertheless,” as Pope Francis says, “self-improvement on the part of individuals will not by itself remedy the extremely complex situation facing our world today. . . . Social problems must be addressed by community networks and not simply by the sum of individual good deeds.”

We need power if we are going to accomplish the systemic or structural change that will reverse global warming. And as you have heard, power is organized people and organized money.

Acquiring power means using your rich interior spiritual life as a foundation for building a courageous and effective public life.

Here at First Unitarian Church we provide opportunities for people to build a courageous and effective public life. Part of that is humanitarian service that meets tangible human needs here and now. Another part, however, is political engagement, calling on our elected officials to serve the ninety-nine percent not merely the one percent, insisting that our elected officials make the structural and systemic changes that are necessary to avoid the disasters of unchecked global warming. This means working in coalition with others, not working in isolation. And working in coalition means working with others who are different from oneself.

The African-American lesbian feminist Audre Lorde once said: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” I do not have the academic expertise to offer a scholarly analysis of this statement. However, I do know that this statement was made in a context where Audre Lorde was criticizing the fear of difference – the fear of difference that keeps people apart, the fear of difference that keeps people from working together, the fear of difference that enables those with oppressive power to keep on exercising that oppressive power. To the best of my understanding, Audre Lorde was saying that one of the master’s tools has been the fear of difference, for this fear has kept people apart who might otherwise overthrow oppressive systems if only they could work together more effectively.

So when we say that power means organized people and organized money, we need to understand that organizing people means working across differences, building relationships of affection and trust and respect, setting aside the master’s tool that keeps people isolated and therefore ineffective.

My sermon title this morning is this: “Climate Justice: What’s the BIG Idea?” The BIG idea is that although it is essential to have a rich interior spiritual life, if we truly want to be effective in pushing back against global warming, then we need to use that rich interior spiritual life as a foundation for developing a courageous and effective public life. And because power is organized people and organized money, if we truly want to be effective in pushing back against global warming, then we need to join with others in organizations and associations and institutions. To name just one example, you might consider joining up with the Citizens Climate Lobby. You can find out more about this organization downstairs in the Undercroft Gallery during our social hour.

Although I am strongly encouraging all of us to develop a courageous and effective public life, I would like to close my sermon this morning by affirming the importance of having a rich interior spiritual life as a foundation. Consider these challenging but healing words from Pope Francis: “We need to take up an ancient lesson, found in different religious traditions and also in the Bible. It is the conviction that ‘less is more.’ A constant flood of new consumer goods can baffle the heart and prevent us from cherishing each thing and each moment. To be serenely present to each reality, however small it may be, opens us to much greater horizons of understanding and personal fulfilment. . . . It is a return to that simplicity which allows us to stop and appreciate the small things, to be grateful for the opportunities which life affords us, to be spiritually detached from what we possess, and not to succumb to sadness for what we lack. . . . Such sobriety, when lived freely and consciously, is liberating. . . . In reality, those who enjoy more and live better each moment are those who have given up dipping here and there, always on the look-out for what they do not have. . . . So they are able to shed unsatisfied needs, reducing their obsessiveness and weariness. Even living on little, they can live a lot, above all when they cultivate other pleasures and find satisfaction in fraternal encounters, in service, in developing their gifts, in music and art, in contact with nature, in prayer. Happiness means knowing how to limit some needs which only diminish us, and being open to the many different possibilities which life can offer.”

May this be a spiritual pathway to personal fulfillment and a foundation for political effectiveness.

© 2015 by David Herndon

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
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