2014-01-31

The New Earth

Because of climbing CO2 level, and the consequent climate change, the Earth of our ancestors and of our youth is gone. We now face the prospect of developing community on this new Earth -- which Bill McKibben calls "Eaarth," with an extra "a." (SEE HERE.)

The new Earth will rely much more on local food, and on organic farming that doesn't use huge quantities of fossil fuel for its fertilizers, its pesticides, it’s machinery, or its product transportation. Food will cost more -- which is not a big problem since food has for many years now been ridiculously cheap, partly because of agriculture subsidies and fossil fuel industry subsidies (which also subsidize the type of agriculture that intensively relies on fossil fuels).

The new Earth will rely more on locally-produced energy -- solar panels and solar water heating on your own house, and windmills in your yard -- because transmission across power lines loses efficiency over many miles. We'll also use the internet and connecting tools like Skype instead of flying and driving places.

To sustain us in the new Earth we need the very thing that sustained many of us on the old Earth: a spirituality of connectedness with this earth, of reclaiming a way of living lightly, carefully, gracefully on this delicate home, rituals and practices and ways of thinking that nurture attention, and calm delight in the simple beauties of life. Wanting stuff makes us stressed, and being stressed makes it harder to step back from our desires for a larger perspective.

So what I’m talking about really is not impending grim necessity – but emerging wholeness, joy, and delight. We may make for ourselves a materially sparer and spiritually fuller life on our tough new planet.

Getting there won’t be easy. It takes being focused and intentional, and it takes a lot of us paying attention together.

When Hildegard of Bingen experienced unity with the divine, she gave the experience these words:
“I am the breeze that nurtures all things green.... I am the rain coming from the dew that causes the grasses to laugh with the joy of life.”
In riding a bicycle or driving a car we can quickly come to feel the vehicle as an extension of our own bodies. In the same way, the whole world is an extension of your own body. Yes, sometimes it does things you don’t want it to and can’t control, but the same is true of your joints and organs (increasingly so as the years go by). Truly, everything in the world is your joints and organs, sinews and bones, glands, skin, and hair. And brain and mind.

Says Joanna Macy:
"We are our world knowing itself. We can relinquish our separateness. We can come home again – and participate in our world in a richer, more responsible and poignantly beautiful way."
I have no idea – not even a conjecture – but I like to imagine that if it’s true that there are or have been billions of other civilizations in our galaxy, the reason we haven’t heard from them isn’t that they destroy themselves. It’s that they don’t need to go colonizing for more resources. It’s that the natural development of civilization usually leads eventually to the emergence of a peaceful, sustainable way of life in which the beings delight in the home they have – and are.

* * *
This is part 4 of 4 of "The Ecospiritual Challenge."
Previous: Part 3: "Reality is Never Depressing"
Beginning: Part 1: "Fermi and the Nature of Intelligent Life"

2014-01-30

Reality is Never Depressing

According to Mark Serreze of the National Sea Ice Data Center, the Arctic ice is in its death spiral. Within a decade or two, a summertime spacecraft pointing its camera at the North Pole would see nothing but open ocean.

When we speak of climate change and the long list of planetary damages it wreaks, it’s common to invoke grandchildren. "Preserve the planet for the sake of our grandchildren," we say. Or, "Let’s not let our grandchildren have to deal with the problem with which we should be dealing." Bill McKibben, however, says:
"Forget the grandkids. It turns out this was a problem for our parents." (16)
Faced with what we now know, some remain in denial, their fingers stuck firmly in their ears. Others, seeing the collapse coming, amass stockpiles of canned goods, bottled water, and they're down in their basements oiling their guns.

At this point, maybe you’re thinking: “Oh, such gloom and doom! It’s depressing. It’s stressful. Tell me something uplifting and inspiring, not this litany of disaster scenarios."

Gentle reader, I’m not going to tell you soothing lies in the interest of being “inspirational.” I’m going to tell you the truth as best I can discern it. And here’s a truth that I think happens to also be inspiring:

Reality is never depressing.

Being in denial, being out of touch with reality, pushing it out of consciousness, so that it has to sneak around, come at you from behind, and crawl up your back (for reality eventually finds a way to get through to us), that's the source of depression. Struggling to resist irresistible reality – that's what triggers depression and stress. Reality is never depressing.

Mindful attention to exactly what is is a practice of cultivating joy. Even if what is is pain. Literally. If you’ve got a throbbing knee pain or headache, bring all your attention to the pain itself, minutely noticing every detail of its sensation. This doesn’t make the pain go away, but it does make the pain bother you less, for as long as you sustain attention.

Reality presents us with challenges, and those challenges become depressing or stressful problems only when we want to push them away, push them out of mind. Instead, engage, and connect.

The good news is: you and I are going to die. That’s great news because it means we don’t have to figure out how to live forever – get everything solved, all threats removed, so that we can then relax into our immortality. We don't have that responsibility. We only have this short time -- a day, a year, a few decades -- and all we have to do is show up for just this decade or two, this year, this day. That's all. Hallelujah, we do not bear the the burden of eternity. Knowing I am blessed with an ironclad exit strategy, knowing the divine takes form only temporarily in the body and set of ego defenses called "me," I am liberated. My task is no more (and no less) than to manifest this transience that I am. We are, each of us, called upon only to manifest -- and in our manifesting engage with the challenges that happen to arise for the few years we happen to be here.

OK, so we, as a species, did not adopt the Ecospiritual Imperative to connect spiritually to nature in a way that would have empowered us, in joy, to preserve the Earth we knew. As a result, now we face the Ecospiritual Challenge to fashion what life we can on the new Earth.

The Ecospiritual Challenge is to walk a third way: not denying the reality we face, and nor retreating into everyone-for-herself survivalism. It is the path of open-eyed and open-eared awareness, and also the path of connection to both nature and neighbor -- not afraid to face reality, not avoiding needed knowledge because it's "depressing" and you’d rather not think about it. And at the same time not bunkering protectively.

The Ecospiritual Challenge is to choose neither despair nor defense, but new community.

This is a spiritual challenge because the courage to face reality exactly as it is comes from spiritual discipline. Our capacity to hold our world in love, whatever may come -- and I do mean whatever may come -- is developed in spiritual practice and in spiritual community. And where love is, fear and sadness are not.

* * *
This is part 3 of 4 of "The Ecospiritual Challenge."
Next: Part 4: "The New Earth"
Previous: Part 2: "The Climates They Have A-Changed"
Beginning: Part 1: "Fermi and the Nature of Intelligent Life"

2014-01-29

The Climates They Have A-Changed

Environmental writer Bill McKibben argues that the planet we knew, that our great-grandparents and their great-grandparents knew, is gone. Old Earth was great, but it is gone. Yes, the old Earth had occasional disasters, too. It’s the pace of them now that is the fact of life on our new planet.

350 is the important number. 350 is the number of parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere that is the upper limit of what is safe.

When I was growing up, we worried about carbon monoxide, and were told that carbon dioxide was perfectly harmless. Which, for breathing, it basically is. But it traps heat in our atmosphere.

At 350 ppm, the planet survives. If we get above 350 for very long, or if we get very far above 350, then we will trigger tipping points and irreversible impacts. A lead article in the journal Nature [2009 Sep] said that above 350 "we threaten the ecological life-support systems that have developed in the late Quaternary environment, and severly challenge the viability of contemporary human societies." (McKibben 16)

Carbon dioxide levels were 275 ppm for all of human history up until 200 years ago. By 1960, CO2 was up to 315 ppm, steadily climbing. In 1960, we were blithely, blissfully oblivious to what rising CO2 would mean. By 2007, we had actually passed the 350 safety-line and were at 382 ppm. Today we are at 400 ppm, and adding two more ppm every year. And the planet of our ancestors -- and of our youth -- is gone.

In fact, scientist Kevin Anderson projects that even if rich countries adopt draconian emissions reductions within a decade, it is improbable that we will be able to stop short of 650 ppm of CO2.

As Bill McKibben notes,
"Even if you erred on the side of insane optimism, the world in 2100 would have about 600 parts per million carbon dioxide. That is, we’d live if not in hell, then in some place with a very similar temperature."
McKibben's website, 350.org, summarizes:
“So far, we’ve experienced about 1 degree (Celsius) of warming, and the impacts are frightening. Glaciers everywhere are melting and disappearing fast, threatening the primary source of clean water for millions of people. Mosquitoes, who like a warmer world, are spreading into lots of new places, and bringing malaria and dengue fever with them. Drought is becoming much more common, making food harder to grow in many places. Sea levels have begun to rise, and scientists warn that they could go up as much as several meters this century. If that happens, many of the world’s cities, island nations, and farmland will be underwater. Meanwhile, the oceans are growing more acidic because of the CO2 they are absorbing, which makes it harder for animals like corals and clams to build their shells and exoskeletons. All around the globe, we’re stacking the deck for extreme weather — like hurricanes, typhoons, blizzards, and droughts — which exacerbates conflicts and security issues in regions that are already strapped for resources. The Arctic is sending us perhaps the clearest message that climate change is occurring much more rapidly than scientists had previously thought. In the summer of 2012, roughly half of the Arctic’s sea ice went missing (some scientists estimate that the total volume of summer sea ice loss may be as high as 80%). The entire Arctic region is undergoing drastic changes, threatening vital habitat for countless species (yes, including polar bears) and the livelihoods of many indigenous communities. This is also bringing us closer to dangerous tipping points, like the breakdown of the Greenland ice sheet and major methane releases from quickening permafrost melt.” (www.350.org/about/science)
And methane is four time more powerful than CO2 at trapping heat.


* * *
This is part 2 of 4 of "The Ecospiritual Challenge"
Next: Part 3: "Reality Is Never Depressing"
Beginning: Part 1: "Fermi and the Nature of Intelligent Life"

2014-01-28

Fermi and the Nature of Intelligent Life

The brilliant Italian physicist Enrico Fermi reasoned as follows:
  1. Our Sun is a young star. There are billions of stars in the galaxy that are billions of years older;
  2. There is a high probability that some of these stars have Earth-like planets which, if the Earth is typical, may develop intelligent life;
  3. These older stars with Earth-like planets would be way ahead of us in developing interstellar travel.
  4. At any practical pace of interstellar travel, the galaxy can be completely colonized in a few tens of millions of years. Given billions of stars that have billions of years of head start on us, a few tens of millions of years is nothing.
It follows, concluded Fermi, that the Earth should already have been colonized, or at least visited. But Fermi did not think there was any convincing evidence that we had been. Moreover, not only have we not been visited, we haven’t even spotted a sign of intelligence elsewhere in our galaxy.

Hence Fermi's question, "Where is everybody?" This question has come to be known as the Fermi paradox.

One theory that has been proposed as an explanation of why we haven’t encountered or seen other intelligent life is this:
It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself.
The theory is that, on any planet that evolved species that developed civilization and then technological civilization, those species will “usually or invariably destroy themselves before or shortly after developing radio or space flight technology. Possible means of annihilation include nuclear war, biological warfare or accidental contamination, climate change.”

It is the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself.

It’s a conjecture some scientists have offered – just one of many possible answers to the Fermi paradox. Do you think this is plausible? Is it inherent in the way that intelligence emerges that a species will arrive at enough intelligence to be able to destroy itself before it arrives at enough intelligence not to?

Intelligence emerges in response to competition for scarce resources. As long as resources are plentiful, species don’t need to outsmart other species, and all species remain comparative simpletons. So wherever intelligence emerges, it necessarily comes with aggressive, instinctual drives. When that ancient competitive aggression and drive to consume resources, extend longevity, and reproduce suddenly becomes paired with powerful new technology: boom. That “boom” need not mean that the civilization entirely self-destructs, only that it becomes once again non-technological.

That’s the theory: the conjecture, according to which this has already happened on billions of other planets and is now happening here. What do you think? Is it happening here? A recent NASA-funded study, due for publication in 2014, concludes that industrial society is, indeed, headed for "irreversible collapse" (CLICK HERE). There are a number of factors: unsustainable resource depletion and unequal wealth distribution among them. In what follows, The Liberal Pulpit will look at the climate change piece of the picture.

We've had some unusually cold snaps this winter. Much of the US has seen the coldest air it’s had since 1994 or ’96. One explanation is that climate change is disrupting the jet stream, breaking up the polar vortex, and chunks of that vortex are now susceptible to breaking off and drifting south. So while we had some cold down here, the arctic itself is warmer.

It has also been pointed out, as weather historian Christopher Burt said:
“Prior to 1996, cold waves of this intensity occurred pretty much every 5-10 years. In the 19th century, they occurred every year or two (since 1835).”
So we used to have more frequent intense cold – and it seems not to have come from the breaking off a chunk of the polar vortex – which is to say, intense cold snaps over the great plains did NOT used to correspond with ongoing warming at the pole.

Average weather-related disasters per year between 1975 and 2005 was 10 times the average number of annual disasters, 1900 to 1975. What used to be measured as years-per-disaster is now measured in disasters-per-year.

Are we following the cosmic pattern of intelligent life destroying itself?

* * *
This is part 1 of 4 of "The Ecospiritual Challenge."
Next: Part 2: "The Climates They Have A-Changed"

2014-01-23

The Institution of Dark Green

Dark green religion has no institutional home: no physical building, membership list, meetings, committees, or mission statement. These trappings of institutionalization may be off-putting, but only people who commit to working together, using the tools of purpose and organization that constitute an institution, have a chance of effecting transformation -- of themselves or of the world.

I had the chance to ask Bron Taylor about institutions: do we need there to be places – buildings and memberships – where people gather for ceremonies to express and affirm the sacredness of nature?

Does dark green religion need a dark green headquarters?
Prof. Taylor said dark green religion is infusing a variety of institutions, various church denominations are beginning to embrace it, environmental organizations are increasingly speaking a spiritual kind of language about the earth they seek to protect, and dark green religion is expressed in all manner of ways in books and movies and theme parks where people are jazzed up, or awed by the majesty and sacredness of our blue-boat home, and sent out into the world without ever taking the step of being a member of an organization.

That’s rather encouraging, really – this trend all around us toward dark green religion. But we will need institutions if we are going to make it through the hard times that are coming. We will need people organizing, committing to each other to be members together of a place that will be there for them week after week to support them in remembering what is divine, and in practicing it, and in worshipping that honors this blue-green home on which we live and breath and have our being. We will need:
  • a place that will call us, over and over, to practice what we preach, because Gaia knows we are prone to forget and to lapse;
  • a place that doesn’t just give us an experience like a book or a movie or a speech or a theme park but that provides community support for a way of life;
  • an institution (which is to say: an ongoing pattern of being together) through which there is awakening of the spirit and encouragement to action in line with our spiritual values.
Unitarian Universalism has always been about living our religion, and religioning our lives. Awaken to the sacred depths of nature. Express your worship also through acts of care for our mother, for Earth, for Gaia. Re-commit to this faith of awe and wonder and openness to whatever this universe may bring us. Re-commit to actions of care, of compassion for our planet home.

It is a new year – and like the trees outside, we are in bud with possibilities of transformation. In this time of resolution making, what bud of change – for the sake of healing, wholeness, and our planet home – will you bring forth to burst into new life? What commitment will you make as an act of love and an act of worship that will reduce your footprint in 2014?

Take some action, rise to whatever for you is the next challenge in living more wholesomely, not because you actually expect it to do any good. Do it because it might. Do it because it’s sure to do this good: you will be more whole, more spiritually alive, the more you replace mindless consumption with mindful consumption.

And begin, as Joanna Macy says, with gratitude.
“We have received an inestimable gift. To be alive in this beautiful self-organizing universe – to participate in the dance of life with senses to perceive it, lungs that breathe it, organs that draw nourishment from it – is a wonder beyond words. And it is, moreover, an extraordinary privilege to be accorded a human life, to possess this self-reflexive consciousness, which brings awareness of our own actions and the ability to make choices. It lets us choose to take part in the healing of our world.”
That’s a soteriology for our time.

* * *
This is part 5 of 5 of "The Ecospiritual Imperative"
Previous: Part 4: "Dark Green Religion: Everywhere and Nowhere"
Beginning: Part 1: "Soteriology and Ecology"

2014-01-22

Dark Green Religion: Everywhere and Nowhere

Dark green religion is popping up in a lot of places that aren’t in churches.

Christopher Hitchens was, in his time, I would say the crankiest of the cranky denouncers of religion. He seemed to have cultivated an image of being joyless and permanently annoyed. Yet even Christopher Hitchens, it turns out, had religion. It took a Unitarian Universalist minister to coax it out of him, but he had it. My colleague Rev. Marilyn Sewell interviewed Christopher Hitchens, and in the course of their conversation Hitchens declared:
“It's innate in us to be overawed by certain moments, say, at evening on a mountaintop or sunset on the boundaries of the ocean. Or, in my case, looking through the Hubble telescope at those extraordinary pictures. We have a sense of awe and wonder at something beyond ourselves, and so we should, because our own lives are very transient and insignificant. That's the numinous, and there's enough wonder in the natural world without any resort to the supernatural being required. . . . I know it's not enough for us to eat and so forth. We know how to think. We know how to laugh. We know we're going to die, which gives us a lot to think about, and we have a need for, what I would call, ‘the transcendent’ or ‘the numinous’ or even ‘the ecstatic’ that comes out in love and music, poetry, and landscape.”
Christopher Hitchens said that! Who knew he had it in him?

At least one politician, Al Gore, seems to have dark green religion. Way back in 1992, his book, Earth in the Balance, says:
“We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle of civilization. . . . As a politician, I know full well the special hazards of using ‘spiritual’ to describe a problem like this one . . . . But what other word describes the collection of values and assumptions that determine our basic understanding of how we fit into the universe?”
Disney cartoon movies from the mid-1990s express dark green religion. "The Lion King" sung to us of the "Circle of Life" that had to be respected and balanced, and in "Pocahontas," Grandmother Willow teaches of belonging to nature and of the sacred interconnections within the web of life. Pocahontas sings,
“You think you own whatever land you land on; the earth is just a dead thing you can claim.
But I know every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name.”
The 2009 film, Avatar, asked “us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other, and us to the Earth.”

There may be more religion, more spirituality, in movies these days than there is in some churches.

If you are a subscriber to Surfing magazine (as most readers of this blog naturally would be!), then you might recall the July 2008 issue which proclaims in large letters on the cover, “Surfing is a religion,” and in letters twice as big above that, it says, “Nature = God.” The article inside -- by Bron Taylor – analyzes surfing as aquatic nature religion and quotes from a number of surfers who understand their practice as spiritual. As one surfer put it:
“The ocean has a powerful energy and it connects you to the earth.”
Dude!

Dark green religion is, indeed, popping up all over the place these days! At the same time that it is everywhere, it is also nowhere. Dark green religion has no institutional home: no physical building, membership list, meetings, committees, or mission statement. As much as the apparatus of institutions elicits a semi-involuntary "ugh" reaction, only people who commit to working together, using the tools of purpose and organization that constitute an institution, have a chance of effecting transformation -- of themselves or of the world.

Next: Does dark green religion need institutionalization?

* * *
This is part 4 of 5 of "The Ecospiritual Imperative"
Next: Part 5: "The Institution of Dark Green"
Previous: Part 3: "Green Religion and Dark Green Religion"
Beginning: Part 1: "Soteriology and Ecology"

2014-01-21

Green Religion and Dark Green Religion

I am a Unitarian Universalist. One thing that means is that I'm in a sacred covenant with every other Unitarian Universalist in this world, to, among other things, affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part. That is a spiritual statement and a spiritual act. Environmental action is spiritual practice, and environmental protection is a spiritual mandate. Our relationship to our planet is as much a religious issue as our relationship to our soul is; as much a religious issue as our relationship to God is. Indeed, for many of us, our relationship to our planet is both our relationship to our soul and our relationship to God.

Every religious tradition on the planet includes a deep belief-tradition of respect and honor for our planet. Indeed, “deeply embedded in our human consciousness is a primal awe and gratitude for the air, water, solid ground, sunlight, and nourishing life forms that sustain” us. Our ancestors have “stood in awe of these at our most sacred ceremonies” for maybe a million years. Our awareness of being bound in a relationship of responsibility with our planet is religious awareness. Acting responsibly within that relationship is religious practice.

We may ignore what is happening to our home, break our connection to the holy whole, break faith with the ground of our being. We might do so out of hubris. We might do so out of despair. Either would be a form of faithlessness.

So if environmental protection is not a religious issue, then there are no religious issues.

Amidst the many trends – the resource depletion, the pollution, the greenhouse gases, there is this hopeful trend: religion is greening.

There’s green religion – and there’s also what Bron Taylor calls dark green religion. Bron Taylor is a professor of religion at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I met Bron during my time in Gainesville.

Green religion, he says, “posits that environmentally friendly behavior is a religious obligation.” A number of Christian, Jewish, or Muslim groups have in recent years shifted away from the idea that humans have been granted dominion over the earth and toward the idea that God calls us to stewardship, and that this stewardship is measured by health ecosystems and sustainable, responsible consumption.

That’s an important shift.

There are also an increasing number of people who are going beyond green religion to dark green religion. For dark green religion, it’s not merely that we have a religious obligation to protect ecosystems, reduce consumption, and in general be responsible stewards of our environment. Rather, in dark green religion nature itself is sacred, has intrinsic value, and is due reverent care – not simply because it is God’s creation and God tells us to, but because nature tells us to, and nature has that authority based on being sacred in itself.

Dark green religion is popping up in a lot of places that aren’t in churches.

Next: Where dark green religion is popping up!

* * *
This is part 3 of 5 of "The Ecospiritual Imperative"
Next: Part 4: "Dark Green Religion: Everywhere and Nowhere"
Previous: Part 2: "Sustainability: A Spiritual Problem"
Beginning: Part 1: "Soteriology and Ecology"

2014-01-20

Sustainability: A Spiritual Problem

Personally, I know I don’t live sustainably. I took a quiz online. Try it yourself:

www.footprintnetwork.org.

It asks such questions as:
  • How often do you eat meat or diary?
  • How much clothing, footwear, sporting goods purchases do you make in a year?
  • How often do you buy new appliances?
  • How much paper and plastic waste do you recycle?
  • How many people live in your household?
  • What’s the size of your home?
  • How far do you travel each week by car, motorcycle, bus, train, airplane?
My results? LoraKim and I are doing better than the average US resident. Being vegetarian counted for most of that: the meat industry generates tremendous pollution and greenhouse gases. In fact, a vegetarian driving a hummer is contributing less to climate change than a meat-eater driving a prius. And I am lucky enough to be able to walk to work. So LoraKim and I are doing better than the average US residents – but even so, just barely. The average US resident lives in a way which, if everyone lived that way, would take 5 earths. If everyone in the world lived like LoraKim and I do, we’d need 4.5 planet earths to provide enough resources.

If everyone lived like the average Canadian, we’d need 4.3 earths. Canadians do a little bit better than we do, eh? Fortunately, a lot of countries do a lot better than we do and many are living within the planet’s resource means -- the average US resident consumes over four times the resources consumed by the average of everybody else. US consumption rates are awfully high. Still, the US population is only 1/20 of the world population. If the US average were reduced to what the average of the other 19/20ths is now, then we'd need 1.2 earths.

Biocapacity Debtor Nations in red. Biocapacity Creditor Nations in green.
.

As it is right now, in total, we need 1.4 earths. In other words: every year humans use up 40% more resources than the earth created that year. Eventually, at this rate, we will use it all up. And that’s a problem.

It’s an economic problem. I’m not an economist.

It’s a political problem. I’m not a politician. I do have, as you do, political opinions, but I don’t have the kind of political connections to begin bringing world governments to the kinds of agreements we need.

It's a technological problem because modern technology burns huge quantities of resources. At the same time, some technological advances help other technological advances use less. It’s a technological problem. I’m not an engineer.

It’s a spiritual problem. Ah. Now we can talk. Can we talk? A spiritual problem? Oh, yes, indeed.
“Our environmental problems will not be fully addressed,” says Steven Rockefeller, “until we come to terms with the moral and spiritual dimensions of these problems, and we will not find ourselves religiously until we fully address our environmental problems.”
Connecting to the sacredness of the earth is what saves us – and it’s also what will save the Earth, if it will be saved. Ecospirituality -- which “means that our experience of the divine comes through the natural world.” (Jeanne Mackey) – is the path of salvation.

Ecospiritual literature began to take off about 25 years ago. One of its most prominent voices was that of Thomas Berry, Catholic priest, cultural historian and ecotheologian. Wrote Thomas Berry:
“The universe is the primary revelation of the divine, the primary scripture, the primary locus of divine-human communion.”
For Berry,
“a deep understanding of the history and functioning of the evolving universe is a necessary inspiration and guide for our own effective functioning as individuals and as a species.”
As a recent campaign from the Sierra Club put it:
“This is not about getting back to nature.
It is about understanding we've never left.”

* * *
This is part 2 of 5 of "The Ecospiritual Imperative"
Next: Part 3: "Green Religion and Dark Green Religion"
Previous: Part 1: "Soteriology and Ecology"

2014-01-18

Soteriology and Ecology

It's winter in New York. The trees outside look bare to a casual glance. Upon inspection, I notice they are not bare – not bare in the way a dead tree would be. There are buds on them: little buds. I never noticed the buds on the trees before until late winter or early spring, but here I have noticed that even before the last leaf had fallen, or turned completely whithered-brown on the branch, already there were tiny buds. They’ll stay tiny until spring. But they’re already there: the promise that this beauty of white will give way again to a beauty of green.

There’s a salvific power in this reliable rhythm. Salvific.

There’s a traditional branch of theology that deals with the study of what salvation is and how it is obtained. It’s called “Soteriology,” from the Greek “soteria” meaning “salvation.” “Salvation,” in turn, comes from the Latin “salvare”, to save, and it is from that root that we also get our word, “salve.” What, then, is the healing ointment for our hearts and spirits, the salve for our brokenness that will help us heal into wholeness? Which is to say: what saves us? And what does being saved, salved, salvation look like? What makes us whole? What sources are available to us for meaning and hope -- peace? For mystery, awe, and wonder before the fullness of reality? For equanimity, awareness of the beauty of each moment, and the one-ness of all things? For loving-kindness, compassion, and a trust of our own intuitive wisdom?

Let me ask you, then: what is your soteriology? What is your account of what it is that can save a person, salve woundedness, engender wholeness?

Salvation lies, I believe, in our connection with this world of ours. The salve for our woundedness, our fragmentation, lies in nature, in an ecological spirituality.

And, oh, we are feeling the wound. A sense of doom permeates the zeitgeist of our age. On the right-wing this manifests in the Left Behind series of books and all the talk about a rapture. On the left-wing it manifests as urgent warnings from environmentalists who describe impending catastrophe: climate change, melting icecaps, species extinctions from loss of habitat, impending shortages leading to resource wars.

Maybe those environmentalists are right. Indeed, much of what they say almost certainly is right. What they don’t tell us with any authority or consensus, though, is how much time we've got. Certain factors the models have overlooked might buy us a few more years. We might make some behavior changes that will buy us some more. Or not. Many of the environmentalists giving speeches on the first Earth Day back in 1970 didn't expect our planet would last 44 years without ecological collapse. The good work of the environmental movement since the 1970s helped buy us some time. How much, we don’t know.

What I do believe the evidence is clear about is that we will eventually need to change our ways. Hard times are coming – we don’t know when, or how hard. We as a species are going to have to develop and adopt sustainable ways of living if we are to survive – and our present ways, particularly in the US, are not sustainable. Nowhere close. Salvation for ourselves and salvation for the planet are inextricably linked.

* * *
This is part 1 of 5 of "The Ecospiritual Imperative"
Next: Part 2: "Sustainability: A Spiritual Problem"

2014-01-17

Does "Appeal to Nature" Justify Eating Meat?

Perhaps you’ve heard the joke about a woman driving down the highway with moonshine equipment in the back of her flatbed?
A cop pulled her over and said he’d have to arrest her for making liquor.
"But I wasn't making liquor!" said the woman.
"You've got all the equipment for it!" the cop snapped back.
"Yeah, but that doesn't mean I'm making it."
"Well, I have to take you in."
“In that case,” said the woman, “I’ll have to charge you with sexual assault.”
“But I haven’t touched you,” exclaimed the officer.
The woman replied, “You’ve got all the equipment for it.”
Just because we've got the equipment for it doesn't mean we have, or ought, to do it.

We have the equipment for eating meat. We have incisors for biting into meat and a digestive tract that can process and use nutrients from the flesh of other animals.

We evolved to eat meat. But we didn't evolve for there to be seven billion of us. More precisely, evolution equipped us fairly well for survival in the world of a million years ago but not for living sustainably in a world headed toward nine billion humans by 2055 consuming resources at the rate we do. Indeed, because genetic evolution inherently rewards higher reproduction, it is unsuited for the adaptation now required. If we're all going to be fed, and fed sustainably, our social and moral evolution, rather than our genetic evolution, will have to do the adapting. We will have to decide to forgo the resource waste, greenhouse-gas emissions, and pollution of meat production.

The argument that "it's natural for us to eat meat" is a form of the "appeal to nature" fallacy, which takes the form “X is natural; therefore, X is good.” The premise invokes a term, "natural," that is highly ambiguous and equivocal: we don’t have any agreement on how to distinguish “natural” from “unnatural,” and even if we did, nature is in a constant process of producing aberrations, some of which eventually become norms. The natural/unnatural divide is constantly shifting. Moreover, the conclusion simply doesn’t follow: even if we unequivocally agreed that something was “natural” that would tell us nothing about acceptable or unacceptable behavior.

Yet “appeal to nature” arguments do keep popping up. Perhaps this is because -- psychologically, if not logically -- we are attracted to pattern our social and moral reasoning after patterns we (think we) see in nature. Norms play a role, if not a determinative role, in our moral reasoning, and nature, in one way or another, does generate a lot of norms. It will not suffice for vegetarians to simply wave the "fallacy" flag. If we can't help ourselves from looking to nature as a teacher, then let us look more carefully at what nature really teaches.

Appropriating a structure that served one purpose and putting it to a very different purpose is a common maneuver in evolution's playbook. Mammalian forelimbs get turned into bat wings – or dolphin fins. Antennae get turned into mandibles. A jaw bone in dinosaurs, fish, and reptiles got appropriated and made into an auditory bone in mammals. An ancestor of wasps and bees had an ovipositor that got appropriated and made into a stinger.

Before there were land animals, certain fish developed a swim bladder, which they could fill with gas, usually air. This allowed the fish to stay at a given depth without expending energy on swimming. The swim bladder probably was, in some species, also helpful for stability, and maybe also as a resonating chamber to produce or receive sound. The swim bladder evolved into the lung of the earliest lungfish – and from there into the lungs of land animals. Something that evolved for one purpose or set of purposes (buoyancy, stability, sonic resonance) was appropriated for a very different purpose (breathing air). A device for staying at a given depth in water turned into the essential step for moving onto land!

Structures that served one purpose get put to very different purposes. Happens all the time. The fact that we have a given structure does not obligate us to continue the purpose for which that structure evolved. Genetic evolution is under no such constraint; if it were, then swim bladders would never have turned into lungs, and we’d all still be fishes.

As genetic evolution appropriates structures and puts them to new purposes, so, too, can our social and moral evolution. We can choose to put our body's meat-processing apparatus to vegetarian purposes. This is every bit as “natural” as eating meat is. It's also, in fact, healthier.

“Nature” gave us a lot of “equipment.” It’s up to us how, and whether, to use it. It's "natural" for men to sexually assault women: rape occurs in every culture throughout history. That doesn't make it OK. Morality trumps male predisposition toward violently aggressive sexual expression. We would never stand for an appeal to nature argument attempting to justify rape.

Sexuality, of course, can also be used in loving, healing ways. Those ways are often nonreproductive, which further illustrates the point. While our reproductive organs evolved to serve the purpose of reproduction, we use them, with less and less guilt and shame these days, for intimacy and connection in ways that do not lead to reproduction. We appropriate what evolution provided and put it to purposes other than the function for which it evolved. Our reproductive system can reproduce -- but it's just fine if it doesn't. Our digestive system can handle meat -- but it's just fine if it doesn't.

With the fallacious “appeal to nature” out of the way, we are free to use our moral capacity to reflect on the level of suffering, and the level of environmental damage, our dietary choices may inflict.

2014-01-07

How Unitarians Invented Christmas

Christmas is, after all, you know, our holiday. Unitarians made this season what it is.

Consider: what does Christmas mean? It means, of course, the mass of Christ, the celebration of the birth of a Palestinian prophet named Yeshua, or Jesus. But what exactly does that mean? Historians have no idea what time of year Yeshua was actually born. The early Christian church celebrated his birthday in April at first, and then in June for a while, before settling on a strategy of co-opting yule and solstice. The first December Christmas wasn't celebrated until around 380 CE. Then, for about the next 14 and a half centuries, Christmas was a reverent and austere occasion -- far from the celebratory and commercial bonanza it is today. In the US, prior to 1850, Christmas celebration was "culturally and legally suppressed and thus, virtually non-existent. The Puritan community found no Scriptural justification for celebrating Christmas, and associated such celebrations with paganism and idolatry." All that began to change around the middle of the 19th century, when a radical transformation of Christmas began. And Unitarians were at the forefront in most of the transforming.

Christmas now means we put a tree indoors, and we decorate it. It was a practice in Germany, brought to the United States in the early 1800s by Charles Follen. Charles Follen was a Unitarian.

Christmas means dashing through the snow, one-horse open sleighs. It means bells that jingle, and it means laughing, all the way. That’s the song “Jingle Bells,” by the James Pierpont. James Pierpont was a Unitarian.

Christmas means music. Besides Pierpont's "Jingle Bells," there's "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Watchman Tell Us of the Night," by John Bowring, and "Do You Hear What I Hear?" by Noel Regney. Longgellow, Bowring, and Regney were all Unitarians. "It Came Upon a Midnight Clear," is by a Unitarian minister. More about that one later.

Christmas means Old Ebenezeer Scrooge’s heart opens up to compassion and joy. A Unitarian named Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843, and Christmas has never been the same. In Dickens' tale, Scrooge confronts his past, when as a young man, his need for money, security and status caused him to lose his fiancee. He is shown the present reality of joy in gatherings of families, whether they are poor like Bob Cratchit's or relatively well off like Scrooge's nephew Fred. Then he is brought to an awareness of his own impending death. Scrooge had pushed the fact that life is temporary out of his mind. In pushing away death, he had pushed away life.

Dickens' novella received immediate popular and critical acclaim, and almost as immediately shifted the way that Victorians celebrated Christmas. Over the next years, Dickens received hundreds of letters from complete strangers "writing all manner of letters about their homes and hearths, and how the Carol is read aloud there, and kept on a little shelf by itself."

A Christmas Carol was regarded as a new gospel. Critics noted that the book was, in their experience, unique in that it actually made readers behave better.

A Christmas Carol remains the most widely read-aloud novel in the English-speaking world. It is theatrically performed in hundreds of venues around the country every year. It has been made into numerous movie versions. Other popular Christmas tales such as "It's a Wonderful Life" and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" are but re-workings of Charles Dickens' Unitarian gospel.

“According to historian Ronald Hutton, the current state of observance of Christmas is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by A Christmas Carol." The Christmas gospel of generosity, gratitude, and the joy of family gathering is fundamentally Unitarian.

The Christmas social gospel is also Unitarian. Christmas means the message of Peace on Earth, to all goodwill. In 1849, just six years after Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol, a Unitarian minister, Edmund Hamilton Sears, wrote the words to "It Came Upon the Midnight Clear." With the war in Europe and the US war with Mexico weighing on his mind, Rev. Sears wrote a carol that urges us to hear the angels sing of peace on earth, to all goodwill.

The Gospel of Luke tells of angels proclaiming Peace on Earth -- but for most of the history of Christendom, that has been taken as referring to a private, personal peace. Few imagined that peace on earth actually meant we should stop killing each other. Rev. Edmund Hamilton Sears, however, called us to task for not heeding the angels’ call to peace.
"Beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong, and man at war with man hears not the love song which they bring,"
Sears decried.

His lyrics raised objections from a number of Christian conservatives of the time. Many people said, contemptuously, that Sears’ hymn was just the sort of thing you would expect of a Unitarian.

Yes, it is.

If Christmas season today is a time when our hopes turn to ending war and truly bringing peace on earth, it is because a Unitarian minister wrote a song inviting us to imagine the day:
"when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling, and the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing."
This is our holiday. From the Christmas tree, to the jingling bells, to the Scrooge story, to the message of peace on earth, Unitarians made Christmas what it is today.