Message for the Future & What if Climate Change is a Big Hoax And We Build A Better World for Nothing?

2018 February 25
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

A Message for the Future

Elly Fong-Jones
February 25, 2018

I came up to the pulpit today to talk to you about climate change, because it is the most pressing and critical issue facing us today, but also to talk about what we can do about it, because this is a UU congregation and we believe in the power of action. First, though, I’m going to talk to you about sending messages to the future.

If you were to travel to the town of Carlsbad, in New Mexico, and hike thirty miles east through the desert, you would come to a cursed place. It’s called the WIPP – the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant – and it’s a coffin, dug deep into the bedrock, for nuclear waste. The radioactive leftovers entombed there are deathly poisonous, and will be so for millenia to come.

The people who built this place had to confront a difficult fact: it is not likely that our country or our culture will survive as long as our atomic poisons. It is not even a certain thing whether our species will last that long. At the time the design of the WIPP started, in the 1970s, these things were true – and things have since gotten far, far worse.

So, the engineers who built this place in the 1970s had to plan as though it would outlive not only their bodies but their language and their culture and their understanding of the world. They went off and studied and thought hard about it, and they came back with a simple idea. They would use words, yes, and pictures, but they would also make the very place itself imposing and hostile. They poured and set gigantic flat slabs of bare concrete, baking in the New Mexico sun – an ugly, almost hateful landscape to drive people away from the dangers hidden underneath. Amidst these slabs, they left a message in every language they knew, repeated over and over, and the message begins with these words:

This is not a place of honor.

Now, this sounds quite bleak, and in a sense it is, but there’s also something profoundly hopeful and, well, human there. Think again about those engineers: they were buildin a fortress to protect people who were not only strangers to them, but utterly unlike them in every imaginable way. They painstakingly built a cage in the desert for the toxic remnants of one of our worst inventions. They did this because it was the right thing to do, but in doing so, they left a message for the future: We cared about you. We did this to protect you.

Now, let’s talk about climate change a bit. These are the simple realities of climate change: the time for a gradual course correction has passed. The time for the long view, for incremental change and improvement, is behind us. We are now in a crisis – a society stumbling towards an abyss of its own making. Without drastic changes, from us as individuals, from our communities, and from our species, we will not live another handful of centuries.

Please sit with that for a moment. Our culture, our people – every dream ever dreamed, every song ever sung, every story ever told – will die out. The spark of our existence will be snuffed out. We are choking ourselves to death on our own dust and our own fumes.

But there is yet hope. It is not too late for us to change. We can still step back from the abyss, grit our teeth, and make the changes the future demands of us. We are too late for it to be easy, but we are in time for it to be possible. It will hurt – let there be no mistake about that – but we can do it and we must do it.

We will give up our cars. It will not be fun. It will simply become untenable for us to keep having them, and when that happens, either we’ll be ready with our bikes and our trains and our comfortable walking shoes, or we won’t. We can keep our cars for a time, but the price is breaths stolen from our grandchildren’s lungs.

We will give up meat, and cheese, and milk. It will not be fun. Either we will give it up voluntarily, or we will be forced to when the coming apocalypse of our own design drives livestock animals into extinction. Either we will be ready with our sustainable agriculture and our low-waste food economy and our delicious tofu recipes, or we won’t. We can keep our cows for a time, but the price is bread stolen from our grandchildren’s mouths.

We will give up our coal power and our oil power. It will not be fun. Either we will give them up voluntarily, or we will be forced to because these things do not grow back and we are burning through them fast. Either we will be ready with our solar panels and our efficient appliances and our newfound love of candles, or we won’t. We can keep the lights on for a time, but the price is poisons in the air and in the New Mexico desert.

This is a mess of our own making, and our parents’, and our grandparents’, and now we have to un-make it because the stakes are quite literally life and death – not for us, maybe, but for our grandchildren or even for our children.

I’ll admit up front that this is difficult. I’ve bought my morning coffee, even though it was in a paper cup, because I’d forgotten my travel mug and you know how it is with coffee. I’ve bought croissants with dairy butter and ice cream with dairy milk. I haven’t had meat in a while, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t tempted. I’ve been walking home from work, just passing our grocery store, when I realized my reusable bag was hanging on its hook at home – and I’ve gone in anyway, and come out laden with plastic bags, rather than walk home and back. I’ve failed, over and over, and I think that anyone who really tries at this will fail over and over too. Still, we have to try, because the alternative is awful.

So, here’s what we must do. We must change ourselves, and we must change our society. The time for us to stand shoulder to shoulder – to insist on a future, for ourselves and for our children – is now. We must demand from governments that they take the threat seriously. We must demand from companies that they produce less, and do it more efficiently. We must demand from ourselves that we give up things we like, even if they make our lives easier or more pleasant or more comfortable.

The truth is, we are struggling, each of us individually and all of us as a civilization, with our worst impulses. Our laziness, our greed, and our ignorance have lead us down this path. To save ourselves – to save our future – we have to start seeing, understanding, and fighting those things in ourselves and in our societies.

Though things seem bleak – and they are – there is still hope. There is still time for us to change. So let us change! Let us usher in a marvelous future. Let us step back from the abyss, trade in our cars for bikes and our meat for tofu and our coal plants for wind farms. Let us build the world we all dream of.

Let us leave our own message for the future. Let us write our message with solar panels and bicycles and clean skies and pure water, to our children and our children’s children and the children that will come after them: We cared about you. We did this to protect you.

The thing with concrete and with nuclear waste and even, yes, with plastic is that eventually it decays. Nature reclaims these things and recycles them into the web of existence. Some day, in the far far future, the concrete messages at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant will have crumbled away into dust – but if we do the right thing, here and now, well that… that message is forever.

What if Climate Change is a Big Hoax And We Build a Better World for Nothing?

Rev. Ana Levy-Lyons

Feb 25, 2018

Joel Pett, a once obscure cartoonist for USA Today, became famous after one particular cartoon of his became a sensation. It was published right before the 2009 Climate Summit in Copenhagen and it shows a presentation taking place at the conference. The guy on stage is showing a PowerPoint slide with the list of benefits of fighting climate change: “energy independence, preserve rainforests, sustainability, green jobs, livable cities, renewables, clean water and air, healthy children, etc.” – all bullet-pointed on the screen. And then there’s a guy in the audience, standing and asking a question: “What if it’s a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing?”

This cartoon spread like wildfire. The cartoonist had this to say about it: “I’ve had requests from all corners of the globe for signed copies, permission to reprint it in publications, post it on blogs, even blow it up onto protest signs. …Not a week has gone by … that I haven’t had a request for some kind of re-use. Recently I heard from a Canadian blogger who …remarked that someone in his town had a replica, get this, painted on their garage. … Somehow it seems like the highest compliment I’ve ever received.”

Humor with staying power like this is humor that speaks to a deep truth that we all recognize. In this case, it’s the truth that the things we would need to do to stop global warming are also the very things that would transform our world into the world we yearn for in so many ways. By its very nature, climate change is not something that can be siloed or surgically separated from everything else. What causes global warming is not just one policy or practice that needs a tweak, but a spiritual sickness that pervades every aspect of our life together. And by the same token, to heal our earth would require a healing so deep and so wide it would touch each and every one of us.

For decades if not centuries our movements – progressive and religious movements – have been working toward a world where we care for one another – where everyone has enough to eat, where everyone gets the health care that they need, where everyone has a safe place to call home; where the air and water are clean and the soil is free of toxins; where everyone is paid a living wage; where people are no longer ranked based on their gender, race, class, or sexual orientation; where cruelty to humans and other animals becomes an artifact of the past; where violence and war are washed from the face of the earth.

For the most part, these struggles have been understood as “issues,” that, while interconnected, were separate battles. These battles are still ongoing, still have to happen and still have to succeed. Climate change doesn’t diminish the necessity for us to do any of this work. But today we also need to think bigger. We have to change our culture at its root. We have to create a world where we no longer see other humans or the earth as “resources” for our use and disposal, but as irreducible miracles. We were always going to have to make this fundamental change eventually but, in the words of author and activist Naomi Klein, climate change “puts us on a deadline.” As Elly described so frighteningly in her homily, time is running out for us to send a message of love to the future.

We’re going to have to change everything. We’re going to have to change, not just our property laws, but the things that we value – and by things, I mean things. We’re going to have to start valuing people and time over things and money. We’re going to have to change, not just our environmental regulations, but our very relationship to the earth from one of domination and extraction to one of awe and stewardship. We’re going to have to change, not just our economic policies, but our entire economy such that corporations are accountable to everyone impacted by their business – to their employees, to their customers, to the people who live where they extract their natural materials and dispose of their waste.

We are going to have to get, not just campaign finance reform, but once and for all, money out of politics. The same ethic that allows corporate oil and gas executives to fill the halls of the EPA allows the NRA to buy politicians and prevent any real action on gun control. And so we have poor black and brown kids choking from air pollution, oil drilling on indigenous lands, and schools becoming sites of bloodshed and terror. It’s all the same root. A calculation has been made that certain people’s lives with certain colored skin in certain places in certain kinds of countries are just not worth much compared to corporate profits. We’re going to have to change that calculation.

We’re going to have to buy, not just different, “greener” stuff, but a lot less stuff. Every single thing that we buy, every bit of energy we use was at some point taken from the land, air, or oceans. The earth can’t regenerate anywhere near as fast as we’re taking from her. We’re going to have to shift our work into the caring professions – teaching, social work, service of all kinds, academics, and the arts.

We’re going to have to imagine outlandish possibilities: Maybe the most faithful thing we could do with this piece of land we’re sitting on right now would be to disassemble this building and turn it into a community garden to feed the hungry in Brooklyn, or a tiny patch of woods with carbon capturing trees and a rest stop for migrating birds and butterflies. I don’t say this to give anyone a heart attack – there are no imminent plans to do this as far as I know – but just to make the point that we’re going to need to really think out of the box and be prepared to make radical change in ways that we would think would be unthinkable.

The idea of this kind of profound, heart-level, values-focused transformation is terrifying to those in political and economic power right now. They do everything possible to stamp it out, to label it as naïve utopianism, impossible, unrealistic, and disastrous. The NY Times columnist Bret Stephens complains that it’s “quasi-religious,” as if that’s a bad thing. It’s not because people like him actually fear that if it happened, this scaling down to a simpler life would make us all miserable; it’s because they fear we might like it.

We might like it a lot. This transformation is more than quasi-religious; it’s absolutely religious and entirely spiritual. It’s about re-sacralizing our relationships. It’s about de-commodifying the other. It’s about reclaiming humility and admitting our utter dependence on our mother, the earth. Given a chance, we just might like this. We might find that we like unplugging from our screens and rediscovering our live friends, children, parents, and strangers on the subway. We might like getting dirt under our nails, growing food and sharing food. We might actually like giving up some creature comforts and conveniences when we find that when we’re not outsourcing our lives through screens and machines, we’re actually living them.

We will definitely like having clean air and water. We will like knowing that our lifestyles no longer come at the expense of the lives of poor people around the world. We will like knowing that we are protecting wild animals in all their diverse magnificence. We will like living in a country where racism and sexual violence aren’t killing our children, while our leaders stand by and do nothing. We will like reorienting around time with our families and building strong communities. We will like feeling healthier and stronger with our delectable plant-based diets. We will like our carbon-neutral play – walking, talking, running, reading, playing music, making art, and making love. We may even like having less stuff, when having less means having more of what matters.

And if it turns out long in the future that the climate change deniers were right, that all along climate change was a big hoax perpetuated by China or just another stunt of the liberal fake news media and the polar ice caps are perfectly fine, then, oh well. We built a better world for nothing.

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