The year was 1970. Richard Nixon was in the White House, Simon and Garfunkel was on the radio, Archie Bunker was on the television, and I was in kindergarten… but let’s not fixate on that, shall we?
The United States was embroiled – fighting over a controversial war, grappling with the effects of various human rights movements, still mourning significant losses of notable figures.
And meanwhile, we had landed on the moon and got the first glimpse of this incredible planet we live on – the big blue marble. In the distance, it was stunning – pristine, almost. And yet, smog and smoke was choking our cities, trash was piling up everywhere, and water was dangerously imperiled. But any conversation about the environment served only as background noise.
And then, Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin had an idea.
As he writes in Beyond Earth Day: Fulfilling the Promise, “I was satisfied that if we could tap into the environmental concerns of the general public, we could generate a demonstration that would force this issue onto the national political agenda.”
The idea of Earth Day began as a “national teach-in on the environment” and was held on April 22 to maximize the number of students that could be reached on university campuses. By raising public awareness of air and water pollution, Nelson hoped to bring environmental causes into the national spotlight.
And it was effective. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Public opinion polls indicate that a permanent change in national priorities followed Earth Day 1970. When polled in May 1971, 25 percent of the U.S. public declared protecting the environment to be an important goal, a 2,500 percent increase over 1969.” Earth Day kicked off the “Environmental decade with a bang,” as Senator Nelson later put it.
During the 1970s, important environmental legislation passed, including the Clean Air Act, / the Water Quality Improvement Act, / the Endangered Species Act, / the Toxic Substances Control Act / and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. In December 1970, the Environmental Protection Agency was established to protect human health and safeguard the natural environment.
Since 1970, Earth Day celebrations have grown. But it’s never been about the celebration; as Nelson writes, “contrary to what some Earth Day critics today might say, my thinking was not that a one-day demonstration would convince people of the need to protect the environment. I envisioned a continuing national drive to clean up our environment and set new priorities for a livable America. Earth Day was to be the catalyst.”
It was not even founded to be a day of penance for all the bad things we’ve done to the earth. It was, as Nelson wrote, “founded on a spirit of desire and a sense of duty – as a means to an end, not as an end.”
And yes – good things have happened. I remember the concern over the ozone layer in the 1980s; fast action and new regulations on CFCs has meant that the atmosphere’s protective layer is actually repairing itself now. There is less trash on the sides of the road. Smog – at least in the US – is greatly reduced. Water is – in most places in the US – much cleaner.
But a lot of bad things have happened too.
I mean, here it is, 2016…
Every month now is the hottest month on record, and extreme weather events cascade into our seasons, with devastating floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes.
In March, the National Academy of Sciences concluded it is now “often possible” to describe how human-induced climate change altered the likelihood and/or intensity of a specific extreme weather event.
The Arctic and Antarctic ice caps are melting faster than anyone predicted – so quickly that there’s a belief we’re at the tipping point, meaning sea levels will rise; the organization Climate Central estimates that over 28,000 square miles, home to over 23.3 million people – including Long Island, Cape Cod, the Outer Banks, Key West and most of South Florida – will become a scuba diver’s paradise.
And just in the first quarter of this year, we have seen multiple oil spills around the world, caused by a variety of seismic events and shifts that have caused pipes to burst and millions of gallons of oil to poison the water and land around them. Earthquakes are more frequent in places that never had earthquakes, thanks to fracking.
Many of the environmental protections put into place in the 1970s, thanks to Senator Nelson’s call to focus, have been swept aside in favor of deregulation. And while the world signed on to the Kyoto Accord, the US did not, essentially killing the first international environmental protection treaty.
The earth is in peril. Natural resources are becoming harder and harder to find. Climate change offers scary prospects for our continued survival. And let us be clear: The earth didn’t do this on its own. We did this.
There are lots of humans who act like we don’t belong to the earth. As though we’re visitors from another planet looking for resources, planning to strip this one and move on to the next.
And there are lots of humans who don’t believe that anything we do the earth could possibly cause the earth’s climate to change – after all, doesn’t climate naturally change? And heck, we won’t even be alive to see it. Climate change is such anathema to Florida Governor Rick Scott, the phrase was banned from governmental use last March. To which I say “climate change, climate change, climate change.”
Some of the presidential candidates would like to do away with the Environmental Protection Agency altogether… as though if we didn’t have the department – or the words – it wouldn’t exist.
And with that washing of the hands, it becomes someone else’s problem. A problem for future generations to solve.
Of course, it’s not a future problem anymore. It is our problem, today. Fortunately, there are people all over the world who agree that we need to do something now.
Last December (as reported in the Economic Times), “representatives of 195 nations gathered in Paris to seal the world’s first global climate deal– and diplomats gathered again in Paris on Friday to start translating good intentions into reality. The informal two-day meeting of negotiators from about 50 countries kicks off a flurry of diplomatic activity, including a formal signing of the Paris Agreement at the UN headquarters in New York next week”…yes, with fingers crossed, on April 22nd.
A lot still needs to be worked out, but the US and China, which together account for nearly 40 per cent of global carbon pollution, continued their G2 climate leadership by promising to ratify the accord quickly after the signing ceremony.
But agreements aren’t enough.
Because we are not visitors on this planet – and environmental concerns don’t just affect the weather and the polar bears. It effects us.
In fact, it is a human justice issue.
According to UU climate organization Commit2Respond we must not be about environmentalism, but about climate justice. On their site, they explain that
- Justice means recognizing that the peoples who contribute the least to climate change are the ones suffering the most because of it, and that climate change mitigation is an essential component to reduce the suffering of vulnerable peoples.
- Justice means understanding that oppressions are inextricably linked and the values that have resulted in the degradation of human groups through slavery, colonization, genocide, and mass incarceration are the same values that are leading to the destruction of Earth.
- Justice means grounding our work in the needs and leadership of marginalized peoples who are impacted by and fighting climate change—Native peoples, island peoples, poor and low-income peoples whose livelihood and lives depend on the land, and others.
- Justice means working for intergenerational equity, honoring the leadership of youth and elders, recognizing that today’s children will carry the burdens of climate change forward.
- Justice means honoring the interdependent web of all life by recognizing that destruction visited on one part of the web—whether one person, species, or ecosystem—impacts all, and working to combat species extinction and ecosystem destruction.
- Justice means working in relationship and partnership, always seeking out community-based solutions that challenge the status quo rather than individual actions that only uphold the power structures and values that are destroying our world.
Some of you may remember a few months ago when I talked about our principles working in a wheel – at the center is the inherent worth and dignity of every person – the next five principles acting as spokes – and our seventh, the interconnected web of which we are all a part, being the outer wheel. None of them can work without the other – as the hymn says, “what touches one affects us all”. We are not isolated aliens dropping in on this pretty planet, it is home.
Eco-theologian Sallie McFeague reminds us that we must “understand human beings as earthlings… and God as immanently present in the process of the universe.” Thus, in saving the earth, we are saving ourselves.
So what does this mean for us, in this room today?
A lot of this we already know and do. We recycle. We drive hybrid vehicles. We garden, often growing food to eat. We don’t waste water. Even as we head into the church building process, we are looking at ways to use ecologically sound green materials and other environmentally positive technologies to reduce waste and our carbon footprint.
But if we are to save the earth, and ourselves, we must see that the perilous state of our planet is directly tied to the perilous state of others, and tied back to ourselves. We must work for justice – justice for the land so it is treated with respect; justice for the oppressed so they can be treated with dignity; justice for those who make their livelihood on the earth so they can be treated fairly; justice for all so all may live. Because really, it’s about the planet and it’s about me and it’s about you and it’s about them, none of which can stand alone, so it becomes about us. As Frederick Buechner says, “It’s the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”
This isn’t easy. It’s certainly not easy to do on our own. Yet if we are live into our Unitarian Universalism with its call to love the Hell out of this World, we cannot sit idly by. Action is the inextricable consequence of our faith.
So how shall we meet this challenge?
For some clues, I turn to theologian Rebecca Parker and her book Blessing the World: What Can Save Us Now:
First, she says, “our times demand that we exercise our capacity of prophetic witness.” In other words, we must see what is happening, say what is happening, and act in accord with what we know.
Second, Parker calls us to “the preservation of endangered knowledge.” In other words, access – and talk about – the knowledge that is outside of what the dominant economic system tells us about who we are.” The dominant system tells us many things about financial mobility, race, education, gender, sexuality. But we have knowledge that we can and must share about a world that is not tied to hierarchies and winner take all but rather a just and equitable world where all boats are lifted, all lifted hearts are free, and all souls grow into harmony with the Divine and each other.
She then reminds us to keep the Sabbath – choose one day to unplug. To not go to work – or bring work home. To not shop. To take time to feel what we can’t feel when we’re too busy running around. To notice the world around us – and not just the people, but the plants and animals and things that we share this planet with, and the very planet earth itself.
And then, of course, we must bless the world with what we know, what we’ve seen, what we’ve felt. As Parker says,
“more is asked of us than we could imagine. The beauty of life is such that it will not let us go until we have offered the blessing we have to give. So let the beauty we have seen become the good that we do, and let us not wrest ourselves free from the claim that life places upon us until we, in faith with all those who have gone before us, place ourselves among those who bless the world.”
Let us bless the world – the whole world – this beautiful blue boat we call home.