In honor of the end of the Mayan long count calendar on the winter solstice 2012, I preached to you this summer about the apocalypse, and how it has captured our collective imagination. I bet we can all think of examples from the phenomenal success of book turned movie the Hunger Games to TV shows like “The Walking Dead” about a world ravaged by a zombie epidemic.
And whether you watch TV or not, I know you have heard the apocalyptic stories told by politicians and preachers. Both the right and the left have these stories. The story the right tells is about the rapture, wherein all good Christians will be raptured to heaven, and the rest will be left to experience the end of the earth. The story the left tells is about an environmental catastrophe which will be the results of global warming, or the end of fossil fuels, or the collapse of the global food market.
Whereas I am blithely unconcerned about zombies taking over the world, I am concerned about the ways we are caring for one another and for the earth who supports us all. When 2500 scientists from 130 countries confirm that man-made climate change is threatening the earth in the Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change, I worry. When Unemployment rates barely sink below 10% for years at a time I worry. When last-summer’s drought threatens not only the livelihood of our farmers but the subsequent increase in the price of corn creates a crisis for livestock farmers, I worry. When the Food Bank do the Southern tier says 46 percent increase in people receiving emergency food each year through the nation’s network of food banks since 2006,[i] I worry.I have a good life. I know I am very blessed. But I know there are more folks falling into poverty every day, more species becoming extinct, more carbon building up in the atmosphere. I cannot take for granted that the things I count on to keep my life as it is now, and I cannot look away while others suffer. Something has to change.
As a person of faith, I believe we cannot give in to despair; it is our responsibility always to create together a vision of hope. While all these stories of impending doom crowd our imagination, we must that among those stories is a more hopeful dream, one where we turn away from societal collapse, and create something new together. And we are not alone in this. A group of folks have dared to pear over the edge of the abyss, at peak oil, at global climate change, and the rising gap between rich and poor, and have asked themselves “given the economic, scientific and political realities of our world today, what more can we imagine? As people who honor the evolution of life on this planet over millennia, we know that massive change is possible, and that life strives, clings, fights for life. Joanna Macy, Buddhist teacher, and activist once remarked “Evolutionary pressures want us to survive.” Evolution is the transformation of species and eco-system to increase the odds that life in all it’s abundance and variety can survive. And sometimes it can be radical change, change as radical as the first plants who photosynthesized light into food, as radical as learning to breathe air, as radical as holding the first tool. The survival of life counts on our capacity to change, to evolve as the world itself changes and evolves. A change of this magnitude is not the same as changing your shirt, or coming about in the little sunfish I used to sail when I was young, but more like turning a great ocean liner.
Teachers such as Joanna Macy and economist David Korten believe that such a turning has already begun. They point to all the people working for change in our communities- the compassionate outpouring of the “it get’s better” response to GLBTQ teens who are bullied, or the growth of the local food movement and the resurgence of local farmer’s markets, the expansion of recycling programs
[here the congregation paused to share a few other examples]
And I think it is encouraging, when thinking of the massive change that would be needed to steer society in a new direction, to realize that this is something we don’t need begin from a dead stop, but that we can build on change already in progress.
The change that is required is so big, one could easily get discouraged. Unlike an ocean liner that has one captain who can set in motion the turning of even the largest ship, we humans are more like a powerful river and all its tributaries, careening in our creek and river beds. So often the thought that the work is too big for us causes us to throw up our hands and resign ourselves to the path that we are already tumbling down, it’s all we can do for look out for the rocks ahead as we go over the rapids. One way we get stuck in this thinking is by imagining that the work the Bradford County Human Society is doing to protect animals is different from the work that ProjectGrow is doing to create an empowered citizenry in this food shed, is different than the work Tioga Outreach is doing to feed hungry folks, is different from the work the New Hope Center does to protect victims of abuse. This “separate” kind of thinking that puts the owl’s need for habitat against the lumberjack’s need for jobs. Or let’s think about hydrofracking. It often seems that the need of this depressed economy for economic input, and the need for energy independence is pitted against the need to protect clean drinking water and air. Instead why don’t we imagine together one future where economic needs, energy needs and environmental needs are all interwoven? Because anything less I believe is a catastrophic failure of imagination. As Julia Butterfly hill said in our opening reading this is all one movement.
Moreover within this great turning, we don’t need just ship captains or engineers, there are hundreds of thousands of local and personal ways for us to put our hands to shaping the future we dream. I was so lucky to have the chance to study with Buddhist teacher and activist Joanna Macy while on my sabbatical. She is one of the folks on the leading edge of thinking about how to create not just specific legislative changes, but a cultural shift that would take us in a sustainable direction. She enumerates 3 dimension of the great turning.
The first is “Actions to slow the damage to Earth and its beings.” This includes the things we usually think of as activism, ranging from direct action like Julia Butterfly Hill who lived in a tree for 738 days to protest against the clear-cutting of the last remaining trees in the ancient redwood forest, to legislative work like those volunteers for UUPlan who make sure there is a safety net for Pennsylvanians who are most at risk, but also includes everyday folks who reduce, reuse, recycle or folks who attend city council meetings in their own towns, or citizen scientists who monitor their local streams. These actions are important- each ton of carbon they keep out of the atmosphere, each endangered species they protect, the children they keep from hunger, they make a difference. But these actions in and of themselves are not enough to create a sustainable world.
Therefore the second path of the Great Turning is “Analysis of structural causes and the creation of structural alternatives.” We have learned the hard way that you can’t just say “pollution is bad” and expect the world to change. We all know that clean air and water are better than dirty air and water, I’ve never heard a politician campaign on the “polluted water is good because it has extra nutrients” platform. The question is what systems are in place now that create toxic water, and how do we change those systems? Everyone knows that not only do cars pollute the air and use up non-renewable fossil fuels but how else would a person get, say from Ithaca to Athens without a car? We need people who are doing really good science, really good systems thinking so that when we create solutions to one problem we are not creating another. And we need folks to try creating those systems in the real world to see if and how they are practical.
For Example, one of the problems folks see in our communities is that we don’t function as well in local communities as we used to. And instead of living in extended families, we tend to live only with our nuclear families. As families have fewer children, which we all agree is a net gain in our overpopulated world, families have to work harder to create social opportunities for their kids This creates a whole bunch of problems- when I was living in CA I had to drive 20 minutes one way just to get to my nearest friend’s house, and many of my friends lived an hour a way. Nick's grandparents all lived from 700 miles to 3000 miles away. This created several problem- first the carbon footprint of all that travel, second the social isolation that has been written about in books like “bowling alone.” When nick started kindergarten I was chatting with some of the other parents as we chaperoned together a class field trip and I would ask where they lived. They all lived within 3 blocks of my house with children my son’s age, but I had never met a one of them.
This same cluster of concerns led a bunch of folks to sit down together over many years to figure out what causes these problems, and then not only to propose solutions but to build them and live them in communities like Eco-Village. Eco-village now exists as a pedestrian community where families share common space and even common meals on certain nights of the week. Our own member, who raised her kids there, has tons of stories about her children running with a pack of multi-aged kids in a community where she knew the other families, and knew they would watch out for her kids as she watched out for hers. No long drives to friends houses, just a “be back in time for dinner” as her boys ran out the door to see their friends. This is a great example of the second facet of cultural turning -- analyzing the structural causes and creating structural solutions.
The third and final path is working toward a Shift in Consciousness. And really this is where we come in as a people of faith. When I had my first environmental awakening, surrounded by a mountain of plastic packaging after a shopping trip to the Target, I was motivated to start buying products that were low in packaging, and to bring my own canvas bags to the stores when I shopped. But it seemed like one more chore, that I could easily forget to do. The reason I did my first sabbatical at the Universality of Creation Spirituality was because I wanted to understand in a deeper way the importance of those actions. Think about how our consciousness has changed about smoking. There are movies and TV shows from a generation or 2 ago where we see pregnant women chain smoking, adults bouncing a baby on their knee with a cigarette or cigar in the other hand, and no one thought the better of it. Imagine the gasp of horror now if someone holding a baby lit a cigarette? That’s because we know what the effects are of second hand smoke on children, so as a society we have tried to limit their exposure.
Says David Korten: “To change the future, change the story… Fundamental social change begins with a discussion of unrealized possibility. Fortunately, that conversation is already underway in localities all over the world, spreading the good news that the world we must now create to secure the human future is the same as the world most all the world's people want." If the story we live inside of is that there will always be a few people who have most of the world’s resources, or that people are really only driven by greed, or that the earth is ours to use and even to use up, then our daily choices and actions will instinctively follow those stories. When Martin Luther King gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, he created in the minds of millions of Americans the story of a new future of racial equality. WE all know that there are still times when people are judged by the color of their skin rather than by the content of their character, but without that dream he held up before us, Could we even have imagined the tremendous changes we saw in the 20th century? “ I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.”
If we want a different future we must tell that story instead. A future where we live more simply so that our resources are more widely shared among the people of the earth is a story that needs to be told. A future where we better understand and respect eco-systems so that our actions as humans are sustainable not only for ourselves but on all the other beings linked to us in the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part, that is a story we need to tell. A future where we are resilient even in the face of disaster through our fore-siteful preparations, through learning and teaching one another practices like seed saving and bio-intensive farming, through teaching our children the skills useful in all ages like sewing and building fires and cooking.
Carpooling, recycling, lobbying your senator, creating a community garden, all these things seem less like chores and more like an organic response to deeply held beliefs if our consciousness has shifted so that we feel deeply the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part. The other night a group of us got together to talk about the history of our principles and purposes. We noticed that when the U and U first merged in 1961 there was no mention of the environment, but by the time the revised principles were proposed in 1981, there was a widespread cry in our movement for some acknowledgement of the environmental consciousness of our movement. And from that grew the 7th principle project, dedicated to living out the seventh principle in our lives and congregations. This evolved into the UU Ministry for earth, and the Green Sanctuary program we are part of today. And in 1995 it was added to our list of sources of our living tradition. Acknowledging and inspiring the inclusion of earth centered wisdom in our own religious education, worship, and spiritual lives. Be believe that universalism, the belief in universal salvation, can no longer be just the story of the saving of human souls, but that our salvation as a species is profoundly tied in to all the species and beings of our planet. Our salvation depends on the salvation of the eco-systems of which we are a part. So we can see a shift of consciousness, a turning, in our own movement. Says Macy: ”The realizations we make in the third dimension of the Great Turning save us from succumbing to either panic or paralysis. They help us resist the temptation to stick our heads in the sand, or to turn on each other, for scapegoats on whom to vent our fear and rage.”
The first turning that has to happen first is the turning in our own hearts and minds. We must write there a new story of our own lives. Most of us don’t believe the story that true end in life is to be the star of our own reality show. Most of us don’t believe the story that the one who dies with the most toys wins. So our job as people of faith is to shape a new story- maybe a story where each person is part of beloved community, and over time our capacity see our connections to one another grows stronger and brighter, so that we can see that we are never truly alone, and the everything we do effects a whole web of life. And in this new story, when it comes time to choose, when it comes time to act, we put our oar in the water with millions of others to turn our collective path towards life.