Monday, March 22, 2010

Paganism and U (March 21, 2010)

I feel pretty confident that if you had asked the members of this church at their centennial celebration whether the children’s lesson one Sunday a hundred years hence would involve casting a circle in celebration of the Spring Equinox they would have looked at you like you had lobsters crawling out of your ears. A lot has changed in just one generation.

In our tradition, Paganism traces its roots back to the feminist movement. A growing feminist awareness illuminated the fact that the imagery of Woman in our denomination was actually rather conservative, that our history and tradition were full of “unexamined patriarchal norms”. Back in 1977, the UUA General Assembly responded by passing the “Women and Religion” Resolution. calling “all individual UUs and UU organizations to examine and put aside sexist assumptions, attitudes, and language and to explore and eliminate religious roots of sexism in myths, traditions and beliefs.”

After the passage of the Women and Religion resolution, the Continental Women and Religion Committee was formed, and sponsored a Feminist Theology Convocation, for UUs from across the country in 1980. It was at this convocation that UUs celebrated their first Water communion, now a standard ingathering service in many UU churches. It also at this event was the earliest known organized UU Pagan worship, along with much discussion about the Goddess traditions and Wicca.

An Adult Religions Education curriculum called “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven” (whose title comes from a reference to the Goddess in Hebrew scriptures) was introduced in 1986, which deconstructed the role of patriarchy in western religion, and sought out female images of God both in the Judeo Christian tradition and in ancient religions from around the world. UUs around the country, including me, were transformed by the realization that God did not have to be male. Finding our own tradition stingy when it came to images of women in sacred text and story, we turned to ancient stories in which the feminine played a more dynamic role.

UUs drawn to the Neo Pagan tradition began organizing. What would later be the “Coven of UU Pagans” or “CUUPS” began organizing at the 1985 GA. Two years later in 1987 Margot Adler (a Beacon Press Author) gave a keynote speech called "A Pagan Spiritual View" at the General Assembly, bringing the dialogue into the mainstream consciousness of our movement. The following year (1988) at the GA in Palm Springs CUUPs received UUA independent affiliate status.

During the same time, there was a movement to manifest more fully our 7th principle, “respect for the interconnected web of life of which we are all a part.” In 1989 the “7th principle project” was formed, and in 1991 they created a “Green Sanctuary Handbook” which laid out a process by which congregations could incorporate environmental sustainability into the life of their community. [The 7th principle project changed it's name in recent years to "UU Ministry for the Earth."]

In 1993, when the silver hymnal “Sing the Living Tradition” was published, the changing face of our UU theology was represented. If you look in the index you will find both hymns and readings under the topics, under "Earth, “God, Goddess and Spirit” and Pagan."

In 1995 A Sixth Source became adopted by the General Assembly in Spokane, Washington after 6 years of work by proponents. It reads: "Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature." I was at the GA that year, and the debate was lively. Proponents wanted to bring earth-centered religion to the same institutional level as the other religious roots of Unitarian Universalism. The general argument against seemed to be fear that the addition of this source would change our identity too radically. I remember several speakers offered the argument that “isn’t this covered by the 7th principle already?” I was not sure how I felt about it at the time. But now I see that it is really quite powerful to say that along with our Judeo Christian tradition, along with humanism and science, along with the major world religions, we affirm as sources of our faith those traditions that are based not on the written word, but on the rhythms and cycles of nature. This includes the wisdom of the Iroquois who lived on this land long before the Europeans arrived, the wisdom of the Japanese Shinto tradition, or the contemporary American Neo-Pagan tradition. Most communities around the world historically have had local religions traditions based in their local ecosystems and these indigenous, populist religions were often marginalized by government sanctioned and centralized traditions. Not only are these traditions more earth-centered than the major world’s religions, but they also tend to be more inclusive of women and female imagery.

That summer the Youth Caucus of the GA stood in those long lines waiting for a turn at the microphone to come out in favor of the amendment to our sources. In fact, the youth were already using several pagan chants in worship, and if you stayed up until 10:00 at night to see the youth worship at GA, you would witness a style called “circle worship” where there is de-centralized leadership, and no sermons. It probably looks a lot more like Pagan ritual than like a UU Sunday morning service. UUA president John Burehns said later that “whatever the Youth Caucus officially supports always seems to pass.” And pass it did, in the only major amendment to our principles and purposes in the last 25 years.

My own acquaintance with neo-paganism followed a similar path as that of our UU tradition. After studying a feminist hermeneutic of the Hebrew scriptures in College, and signing up for Cakes for the Queen of Heaven at a local UU church, I began to free myself from those cartoon images of a male god with a long white beard, a God which had never reached me in a deep way. I too grew up in the UU Youth movement, accustomed to circle worship and ritual. I also tend to be a kinesthetic learner, so I was drawn to a ritual tradition which allows one to interact with objects and motion instead of just words on a page. I also was feeling a call to live in greater harmony with the earth, and a spirituality that would support more sustainable living, and so was attracted to the work of Starhawk who co-founded the reclaiming tradition of Wicca.

Starhawk was a professor at “Holy Names” College, which had open enrollment with my seminary Starr King School. She was living and teaching in the Bay Area while I was there, and has an understanding of the world that resonates well with a UU sensibility. She believes that paganism calls her to action on behalf of the earth, and in fact her career has turned more and more towards teaching permaculture and earth activism. She writes a blog about her activism, which is full of stories about using grounding techniques (like the one we did in our ritual this morning) at a protest of international farm policy or doing ritual on the front lines of a protest the treatment of Palestinians as an occupied people. This is my kind of witch. She co-wrote a beautiful and handy book called “Circle Round” which gives practical advice on doing ritual with children. The first time I sat down to use it to create a ritual with the kids at my church, encountered a description of a winter solstice ritual in which the children could bring all their favorite stuffed animals and action figures to the altar and set them around an image of the sun “in joy and amazement at the birth of the year.” (p. 97). Plastic dinosaurs on a solstice altar? This spoke to me in a deep way. It resonated with my growing sense that everyday things were sacred, and that I wanted worship and spiritual practices to reflected the sacred in the every day, and that was ritual was not something that could only be done by certified professionals using approved gear on Sunday mornings.

As we started our Paganism 101 class here a the church, I was a little nervous. Sure I’d been reading everything StarHawk had written for years, had made altars in my home and office had created rituals in celebration of the 8 Wiccan Sabbaths, but I felt I lacked the authority of an established tradition. Also, I lacked gear. I didn’t have an athame or a pentacle. As I prepared each moth for our class, I urgently set out to find altar cloths in the right colors, the right objects to use in worship. Finally I confessed at one class that I usually use objects from my own life which are special to me when I do ritual. Mary, who has done a lot more reading about these things then me, and has followed traditional proscriptions more closely, said “oh, you’re a kitchen witch.” And I felt much better. It turns out there are about as many kinds of Pagans and Witches as there are Christians. Some folks like High ritual, and follow tradition closely, and some folks use eclectic ritual. Some traditions have intense periods of training and initiation. Other traditions are more open and democratic.

As our little Pagan group here at the church began to meet, we learned about the broader context of Neo-Paganism. We learned about the archeological ambiguity of goddess worship through history, and read articles which suggested that there is very little proof that today’s pagans are in a direct lineage from pre-Christian pagans. We were challenged to ask ourselves- do these traditions and rituals mean less to us if we cannot prove through archeology and scholarship their direct link to ancient times? Can rituals that were created in the last generation or 2 have real power?

When I read articles and rituals of various pagan traditions, sometimes it feels very foreign to me. But when I was reading Starhawk’s most recent book “Earth Spirit” I wonder “what is the difference between what she is saying and Unitarian Universalism?” her belief system was so like mine. Then I realized- it is the practice that is different. The practice and goals of worship are different from our usual Sunday morning worship. Almost all pagan worship shares some elements with our ritual this morning. There is centering and grounding- preparing your mind to be fully present. Then the circle is cast, which is a way of defining the space for the ritual, a way of setting aside the time as special. We usually worship in this room, and so each time we come in the door we know we are here in a time and a place set aside for worship. But pagan rituals are often outside, and can be in a great variety of locations, so by drawing a circle, it helps keep focus and attention on what is happening inside that sacred space.

The 4 directions are called, each direction representing one of the 4 elements common in western ritual. Earth, Air, Fire and Water represent body, emotion, intellect and the ego. The reason the 4 elements are invoked, and present on these 4 altars in a very concrete way, is to represent the different aspects of our lives, of our psyches, of our world. Having all 4 elements present in ritual encourages us to notice which elements are missing or challenging in our lives, and invites us to create a harmonious balance of all the elements. Then the goddess and or gods of the season are invited into worship. Because this is a UU worship, we light a chalice today instead of making those invocations. Some Neo-Pagan traditions are explicitly feminist, like those of Z. Budapest or StarHawk. They focus explicitly on the female aspect of the divine because western religion has been focused on male images of the divine for so long. As Starhawk says “you can’t change the balance on a teeter-totter by standing in the middle.” Those pagans who call both goddess and god are wanting to embody that balance, believing with the Juingians that all people have aspects of male and female in themselves, and we want to encourage balance and harmony between them.

Then, after some good energy has been raised, magic can be done. Now what do I mean by magic? Dion Fortune defines it as "the art of changing consciousness at will." In Spiral Dance Starhawk writes “ A spell in a symbolic act done … in order to cause a desired change. To cast a spell is to project energy through a symbol. But the symbols are too often mistake for the spell. ‘Burn a green candle to attract money,’ we are told. The candle itself, however, does nothing. It is merely a lens, an object of focus, a mnemonic devise, the ‘thing’ that embodies our idea. Props may be useful but it is the mind that works magic.” or as Louise Bunn, the author of our Paganism 101 curriculum says “Magic is the art of manipulating symbols in order to affect a change in consciousness – to achieve results that are substantially psychological in nature.” We did that with our bulbs this morning, using them as a concrete reminder of change we want to see in our lives. Now not every time a pagan casts a circle are they planning to do magic. Some Pagans only do ritual to celebrate Pagans also celebrate the cycles and seasons. They celebrate the cycles of the moon, the cycles of life and the changing of the seasons marked by the 8 Sabbaths.

The pagan calendar focuses on the cycles of the sun. The winter and summer solstice, the fall and spring equinox, and the 4 holidays that celebrate the halfway points between solstice and equinox called the “cross-quarters” Halloween is one such cross-quarter holiday. When I wanted to explore paganism more deeply, the first thing I did was to put all the Sabbaths on my calendar, and make an attempt to have a seasonal altar for each of the 8 holidays, and to observe each even if at was only in a minor way. StarHawk, in her newest book “The Earth Path” recommends a practice I love- just carefully noticing the change of the seasons, and noticing how the seasons vary year to year. So, for example, each of us could take a moment today outside to look, listen, smell, feel all the changes spring equinox has brought this year. This is a wonderful way to celebrate the Sabbath. As a person who comes to paganism through a desire to feel closer to the earth, this has been a powerful practice to me. Each year as the cycle comes round again, I feel like I learn something new about the seasons. We celebrated Spring Equinox with crocuses and bulbs, because this is the reality of this place, this season; there are crocuses splashing color all over our dismal landscape right at this very moment. And now is the time of first planting, so we will plant these Gladiola bulbs which can go into the ground while it is still cold and not be destroyed by a late frost and which we hope will bring color to our church as the seasons change.

After the central celebration of the ritual is finished, pagans ground the extra energy they have raised back into the earth. You can do this by touching the ground to send it back, or some do it by eating and drinking together. Then very carefully you say a respectful goodbye to all those you have invited into your circle, so there is a lovely symmetry to the ritual.

Now it warns on the CUUPS website, that UU pagans are not quite like other pagans. We are, at the heart, Unitarian Universalists. And within this movement, Pagans are a minority tradition. Some UU churches are open to paganism, and some UUs are afraid that Paganism seems superstitious. We are a movement that is so based in reason, so grounded in science and logic, that some have trouble imaging how paganism could harmonize with our tradition. But all our UU congregations have as a source of our living tradition the "Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature." There are many sources of wisdom that we can call upon in our search for truth and meaning, that we call on to help us lead lives of justice equity and compassion, and we are “grateful for the religious pluralism which enriches and ennobles our faith, we are inspired to deepen our understating and expand our vision.” May we be open to all the earth centered traditions that offer some new insight or balance in our own lives, or some new inspiration for living in right relationship with our world.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Precautionary Principle (March 7, 2010)

In 1945 the first studies came out about the danger of cigarettes. By 1954 we had epidemiological information linking smoking to cancer, we knew that the more you smoke, the more your chance of getting cancer increases, but we didn’t know how it was that smoking caused cancer. It wasn’t until the 1990s when science figured out that mechanism by which smoking causes cancer, that we had enough science necessary to effect law. 45 years passed there between when we had our first evidence that cigarettes probably were dangerous and when science could prove it for sure. In that time 2 generations of Americans got hooked on cigarettes, and too many died.

The precautionary principle is the radical idea that if you have some early warning signs something might be dangerous, you should act with caution. It sounds like something your grandmother might say, doesn’t it? “Better Safe than sorry” or “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” And, in fact, it comes from an old German word “Vorsorgeprinzip” or “Forecaring” It was first used in environmental law in Germany in the 1970s when the Black Forest was dying, and folks were concerned it might be connected to acid rain caused by power plant emissions. Germany developed environmental law and policy which could help prevent further sickening of the forests, and which encouraged development of new alternatives which would be safer. This principle of forecaring (or as it came to be known in English, “The Precautionary Principle”) was part of the dialogue in the "Earth Summit" of 1992, and is one of the principles of the Rio Declaration. It came to be used in the legal code of many countries, including the European Union.

The Wingspread conference of 1998 was convened by the Science and Environmental Health Network (SEHN) specifically to formalize the precautionary principle, and imagine how it could be applied. Their statement of the principle is as follows:

"When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically.

"In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof.

"The process of applying the Precautionary Principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action."

That all sounds kind of like common sense, doesn’t it? So what is the context in which a principle like “better safe than sorry” is cutting edge environmental thinking? Because current environmental laws are set up with a “risk assessment” premise, which became standard practice in the United States in the mid-1980s and was institutionalized in the global trade agreements of the 1990s. When the San Francisco City and county was researching the Precautionary Principle, they wrote a white paper which summed up Risk assessment in this way:

“Risk assessments present numbers that purport to show how much harm might occur. In a second step, policy makers attempt to decide how much harm is acceptable… however, risk assessment…does not prompt decision makers to ask whether alternatives exist that would substantially reduce risk.”

“For example, a risk assessment may attempt to define how many children will suffer developmental disorders or cancer after playing with a plastic toy that leaches chemicals of poorly understood toxicity. With this risk assessment in hand, policy makers may then attempt to define how many diseased children (one in 10,000? 100,000?) would be acceptable. This process provides no opportunity to examine an alternative option, in which toys are only made from materials known to be safe for children.”

So the precautionary principle creates a different paradigm for handling materials or processes that might be risky. It can be boiled down to 3 elements: uncertainty, harm, and precautionary action Whenever there is a threat of harm, but there is still scientific uncertainty, we can act with precaution. The principle also has something to say about the nature of that action- and this is an important change as well. It’s not the public who should bear the burden of proof, it’s the “proponent of the activity,” say the company which produces the plastic toy or the chemicals in question, to prove that the products really are safe.

Opponents of the Precautionary principle say that it will bring progress to a standstill. But the principle itself doesn’t tell us that we can’t act, only that caution is advised. The Envrinomental Research Foundation recommends a few steps for applying precaution that is, infact, action oriented. IT starts with setting goals, then look at all the reasonable ways of achieving those goals. They say “ Assume that all projects or activities will be harmful, and therefore seek the least-harmful alternative”...and further that we should “Expect reasonable assurances of safety for products before they can be marketed -- just as the Food and Drug Administration expects reasonable assurances of safety before new pharmaceutical products can be marketed.” And during this process, we need to make sure that all of us who are effected will be part of the process. So if you are building a power plant or a sewage treatment plant in my neighborhood, we would make sure you are using the safest processes, and that my neighbors and I get to be involved in an open democratic process.

As UUs, we like a good open, informed, democratic process, it’s right there in our 5th principle “use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” We like to protect our world, that’s in our principles too “Respect for the interdependent web of all existence, of which we are a part.” The Precautionary Principle also sounds like part of a “Free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” It is a principle that would seem to resonate with our own values. I think the part that might be hard for UUs is the idea that we can act (or choose not to act) before the science is conclusive. After all, the 5th sources of our living tradition is “the guidance of reason and the results of science” and here I am saying that “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” should have legal precedence over conclusive scientific data?

Well, one thing about science is that new things are learned and proven and dis-proven every day. Theologically speaking, science is part of our Unitarian Universalist belief that revelation is ongoing. We believe new truth is constantly coming into our awareness, and that it will go on being revealed forever. We don’t want to act as if we know everything now, because we believe we will know more later.

A 2001 report written by the European Environment Agency recalled some of the worst examples of misplaced certainty about the safety of certain risks, a certainty which caused us to overlook early warning signs. They include such examples as radiation, ozone depletion, asbestos, and Mad Cow disease, concluding that: “Misplaced ‘certainty’ about the absence of harm played a key role in delaying preventive actions.”

So why can’t we be more certain about the effects of such tings? Because “serious, evident effects such as endocrine disruption, climate change, cancer, and the disappearance of species can seldom be linked decisively to a single cause. Scientific standards of certainty may be impossible to attain when causes and outcomes are multiple; latent periods are long; timing of exposure is crucial; unexposed, “control” populations do not exist; or confounding factors are unidentified.” So the precautionary principle doesn’t ask us to reject science, just acknowledges that the scientific process is time consuming and that as in the case of the dangers caused by cigarettes, complete proof may not be ready in time to prevent harm. So let’s take grandma’s advice and be “better safe than sorry.”

Right now our community and our neighbor’s communities are embarking on a great adventure- that of horizontal drilling in the Marcellus Shale. How could we use the precautionary principle in these last few moments before we leap? In Colorado, the City of Grand Junction and the nearby town of Palisade “were concerned about risks to surface water from construction of roads, well pads and pipelines, as well as storm water runoff and spills of drilling fluids, fracking chemicals and brine. They were also concerned about the potential for groundwater contamination.” After 2 years of talks, the towns were able to negotiation a watershed protection plan with Genesis Gas and Oil. “Not only does their watershed plan include baseline studies of sources water, it also requires closed-loop drilling, emergency response plans and a commitment to using “green” hydraulic fracturing procedures, processes and materials. This means that any chemicals used in the watershed area will be ‘biodegradable, nontoxic, neutral pH, residual free, non-corrosive, non-polluting and non-hazardous in the forms and concentrations being used.’”

I found this really heartening, to learn that less toxic alternatives are available – since some of the chemicals used in the hydro-fracking fluids, and in the flowback water from drilling are known carcinogens or endocrine disruptors, and more than 40,000 gallons of fracking fluids can be used in a single well. Companies like Frac Tech are using orange citrus to replace some solvents, and palm oil in place of a slicking agent that is prohibited in Europe but still allowed in the US. Beginning in 2003, many companies have replaced Diesel as a common ingredient in fracking fluid with mineral oil in response to pressure from the EPA. Apparently less toxic alternatives not only exist, but are required for the fracturing fluids used in offshore drilling. “Both European law and the regulations of the U.S. Minerals and Management Services dictate that chemicals used in the North Sea and the Gulf of Mexico must be safe enough that they won't kill fish and other organisms if they are dumped overboard. 'You can always do it,' said BJ Services' Dunlap, whose company has been a leader in innovating sustainable materials. But, Dunlap said, the chemistry costs more, and is justifiable to his shareholders only because the regulations for offshore drilling left no choice." (Pro Publica)

Let’s get back to the precautionary principle- if we had really taken a good look at the hydro-fracking process - if we had looked before we lept, and if finding the least harmful solution had been a goal, I wonder if some of the horror stories we hear from towns like Dimmick PA could have been prevented. If we had used the precautionary principle and sat down with all involved parties in an open democratic fashion and found the examined the full range of alternatives, I have to imagine that Dimmick residents would not be in litigation today, trying to prove that the chemicals now in there drinking water are there as a result of hydro fracking.
What if folks in our communities became as pro-active as those towns in Colorado? What if we sat down with neighbors and gas companies and discussed the alternatives? Currently Hydro-fracking is exempt from both clean air and clean water acts, so there is nothing in the law to require gas companies to use the least harmful methods. But what if now, at the start of the drilling in our region, we negotiated the least harmful way to do this drilling here in our eco-system, in our watershed, in our human community? Said Michael Freeman, an attorney for Earth Justice: “there is no escaping some damage from drilling. But if the best available precautions were routinely followed, environmental harm could be minimized and the industry may face less resistance from the public as it taps the vast new gas deposits that have been discovered in recent years”

Hydro-fracking is a complex process that will have many different impacts on the eco-systems and communities it inhabits. I have focused here only on fracking fluid, but there is also the flow back fluid, and the emissions that will effect our air. And while we have some information about each of these chemicals taken on their own, the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) on the drilling says there is not good information about long term non-lethal and interlocking effects. Current environmental law says that if science can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that hydro-fracking can be document to have caused harm, they can use these processes until it is proven conclusively. 50 years it took the cigarette industry. We can’t afford to wait that long to slow down a process that might be harmful, and that certainly involves chemicals that have been proven harmful in other situations. And of course there are effects beyond the toxins- How will the fracking impact the geology and seismic activity? How do new industries impact local economies, effect things like housing and municipal infrastructure? Our Shale Network group had 4 pages full of impacts we thought bore further exploration before we finally had to bring our list to a close when we ran out of paper and time.

Natural Gas drilling is a reality in Bradford County, but we are just at the beginning of what will current estimates project to be a 25-50 year process. Now is the time for the Precautionary Principle, for a little forecaring. Now is the time for an ounce of prevention. If we think there could be a risk of harm to the eco-system, to our drinking water, to our land, let’s slow down, bring together all the involved parties, and seek out the alternatives that will do the least harm. Like mom always said, “better safe than sorry.”


WHITE PAPER: The Precautionary Principle and the City and County of San Francisco March 2003.

“Science & Environmental Health: Carolyn Raffensperger”


Tompkins weekly, v. 4 No. 15 “Proposed Well Draws Concern” by Sue Smith-Heavenrich

"Underused Drilling Practices Could Avoid Pollution" by Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica - December 14, 2009 12:00 am EST

Rachel’s Environment & Health News #770 “Environmental Justice and Precaution” by Peter Montague