Tuesday, May 24, 2011

American Warming: A new way to talk about Climate Change

In the past couple of days I’ve heard from two different members of my church about places they love that have been irrevocably changed by our warming climate.  In the first instance I was sitting in the living room of a man whose principal home is in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in Calaveras County.  At one time he had been successful as a wildflower photographer.  On the wall behind me was a brilliant close-up of a native Azalea, white and frilly, with serpentine streaks of lemon yellow.  He told me how the market for his work dried up after 9-11 and has never come back.  And then he said that the ecology of the Sierra foothills has changed so the flowers have also disappeared.  Mild springs and lingering snowmelt have given way to a pattern of abrupt transition from cold, wet winter to the withering heat of central California summer. 
The second conversation took place at the social hour after Sunday morning worship.  A few of us were talking about our children and exercise and what kids can do today to get away from the computer and the flat screen and go outside.  The topic of swimming came up, and our music leader started talking about the lake in Montana where her family has a cabin, and where she and her cousins swam as children.  She mentioned that when they go there now their children need to limit their time in the lake and shower afterward to prevent “swimmer’s itch.” This is a condition caused by parasites in the water that didn’t used to be there before the lake’s temperature began to rise.  
In neither of these conversations had we been talking about “global warming.” In fact, neither of the people I was talking used that term, or “climate change,” either.  They were not angry or argumentative, and weren’t trying to convince me to take a political position—they were simply telling me in a matter-of-fact kind of way about their own experience of places in the American landscape and how rising temperatures had changed them for the worse.   And this got me to wondering how many of us have stories like this about our country, stories that tell the truth about climate change. 
This “truth” has been presented to the public as a scientific fact.  It is attested to by experts, who can measure the effects of climate change, model future trends with sophisticated networks of computers, and tell us what concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere represents the threshold of irreversible and catastrophic global warming.  The impersonal objectivity of these facts, and the consensus in the international scientific community around them, is supposed to be the strength of the argument for drastic changes in public policy and collective behavior.
But maybe this way of talking about the problem is actually a weakness.  The climate change deniers in the oil industry and the US Chamber of Commerce have been very successful in exploiting the public’s resentment of experts and native skepticism about claims of absolute truth based on science.  The merest handful of mercenary “experts” are all that’s required to create the perception that the “truth” of global warming is inconclusive, that there are two equally-legitimate sides to the issue, and that reasonable people can disagree.
Which is why we need a new kind of public speech about climate change.  Instead of bludgeoning the people with facts produced by experts, it’s time to let them tell their own stories about the warming of America.  Instead of abstract talk about the concentration of gases in the atmosphere, let’s hear common people talk about their favorite places, and what is happening to them.  I’m imaging a national radio internet and television advertising campaign with each spot featuring a different story from someone like my friends from church--a backpacker, a park ranger, a farmer, a beekeeper, a lifeguard, a skier, and so on.  Each will be a true story told by someone whose livelihood or leisure activity brings them into intimate contact with a part of the United States where rising average temperatures are degrading the quality of life for humans as well as the ecosystem.  Each spot would end with the question “What’s your story?” and the campaign, called “American Warming” could have a companion website where people would be encouraged to upload video of their own stories of the impact of climate change on their lives. 
The current strategy for mobilizing public opinion on this issue is losing effectiveness, so another one is called for, one that represents a fundamentally different approach.  By making common people the experts, the American Warming campaign appeals to an aspect of the national character that has been skillfully used by the deniers—the determination to be one’s own authority on what really matters.  It will encourage people to become attentive to the real impacts of climate change on their own families and communities, and to become articulate, common-sense voices about a problem no expert is required to explain.   

Friday, May 20, 2011

Out into the wide open pastures

The reading from Acts this morning gives us an image of the first Christian community as a place where people live together in unity.  A spirit of brother- and sisterhood, of gladness and generosity fills every heart, and they are continually together, praising God in the temple, breaking bread at home.  The strength of their shared purpose and fervor for a radical revolution in social relationships is such that they hold all property in common, selling their privately-held goods and distributing the proceeds to all, according to their needs.  This image has inspired Christian reformers ever since, from the desert monks to the medieval Franciscans to the utopian communes of 19th and 20th century America, people have tried to recreate this ideal of unity, fellowship and sharing, with varying degrees of success. 
But we contemporary Americans are so shaped by the ideal of individual freedom that we tend to reaction to this vision with cynicism or even dread.  Many of us cannot imagine having this kind of unity with others without surrendering our precious privacy and autonomy.  It evokes thoughts of walled compounds and cultish gurus, of fanatical, brainwashed populations and power-mad dictators.   When we hear appeals for sacrifice, and the needs of the many that outweigh the convenience of the few, we sense the lurking presence of an authority that hides its true motives.   We’ve grown so suspicious of leaders, and those who claim to speak for the whole, that many openly question the very idea of a public interest or a common welfare. 
But is individual choice the only thing that matters in a complex and interdependent world?  Without some unity of purpose, some vision for the transformation of social relationships, some willingness to take risks and make sacrifices for the good of the whole, how can we adapt to the rapid and far-reaching changes in the world?   How will we ever create a society that is not doomed, like others before it, to social disintegration and ecological collapse?
Two weeks ago today I went home after church, wrote a few emails, did some packing for a trip and took a nap.  When I got up I went out in my back yard with a mattock and a spade, and began digging a garden bed.  It was slow going because of a thick mat of Bermuda grass and other noxious weeds, and the heavy adobe soil.  So I didn’t finish the job that day, but it felt like a symbolically significant first step.  I took that experience with me the next morning as I flew to Arizona for a week-long conference and retreat program for Episcopal clergy.  During the days that followed, as I worked with 20 other priests and deacons from around the country to assess the current state of our vocations and envision our futures, I kept thinking about digging in my back yard.
Last Sunday, on the final full day of the conference, we came together to share something about the working plan we had created for our lives.  One of the goals that I shared was something like this: “Root my life and practice deeply in one place, joining with others in fostering processes and institutions for the preservation and renewal of local society.”  I came up with a list of concrete time-specific objectives to motivate and measure my initial progress towards that goal.  One of them is to dig that garden in my back yard.  Another is to ride my bicycle to work at least once a week. 
I did that on Thursday, and I discovered it was Bike to Work Day, and I was rewarded for taking a step toward my goal with a free cup of coffee in Walnut Park, courtesy of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, and a tote bag full of Bike to Work swag. 
That afternoon in the space of about an hour I received three emails.  One was from Anna Eng, a community organizer with the North Bay Sponsoring Committee, a nascent group of local churches and synagogues that are forming relationships to research and address public policy on issues of mutual concern.  She invited me to attend a gathering at Novato High School next Sunday to talk about the structural paralysis in California’s state government, and what kind of coordinated local action might help bring about reform. 
The second email was from Kate Klarkowski, passing on an announcement about an event yesterday at Green String Farm, an organic farm and education center east of town.  The public was invited to visit the farm and to view a new documentary about the Greenhorns, a nationwide association supporting young men and women to pursue careers in sustainable agriculture.  The third email came from the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program, and it included a link to a conference that took place on Friday.   The 6th annual Sustainable Enterprise Conference brought together people from North Bay business, academic, government and non-profit organizations working for the transition to economic, environmental, and social sustainability.
I won’t actually be making it to any of these events, but the important thing was to glimpse the abundant pasture I’d find if I keep pursuing my goal.  Indeed, it is almost too much to take in, or it would be if I were trying to unify all these different strands under a single form of control.  A wise friend of mine, a Benedictine monk, says that the new paradigm for social change is not a unified mass movement, but “well-trodden paths from door-to-door.”   
This is a model that follows Jesus, basing all its power on our innate response to a relationship of freedom and trust with the world.  “When the Good Shepherd has brought out all his own,” says John’s Gospel, “he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice.”  We are moving into a historical moment when we find a new unity in our diverse callings, not because we all speak as one, but because each of us hears the voice of our own deepest instinct for life and relationship, and it calls us by our own true names.
Following the Good Shepherd, we leave behind the worship of power and consecrate ourselves to the service of Life.  Life, unlike power, can never be controlled or concentrated or systematized, but it can be given away by one person in the name of the collective.  For the Good Shepherd is also the gate for the sheep.  He is willing to empty himself and become merely the opening through whom God can enter and lead the sheep from the prison of fear.  The cross of Christ is that threshold where the unique life that is in each one of us, with its urge to create and flourish and manifest itself, must face the reality of limitation.  The gate of the cross is where our visions and hopes and intuitions run up against worldly power and the entrenched ways that it is organized.
But that open gate is also the empty tomb.  It is the birthplace of a new life, where the sheep lose forever their fear of the thieves and bandits.  It is the space through which the sheep burst out into the wide, free, pastures of the limitless life of God.  We don’t have to know ahead of time how it is all going to be organized.  We don’t have to be in charge.  In fact, nobody has to be in charge.  The Good Shepherd broke that paradigm forever when he became the gate for the sheep, leading them by the sound of his own voice, calling them each by their own true names, on the way that leads out into the open, where life is unbounded, and there is enough grass for everyone.

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.