Michael Creal’s homily on September 8, 2019
Readings: Deut 30:15-20 Psalm 1 Philemon 1-21 Lk 14:25-33
At the time when Lee, in a moment of some desperation, asked me to do the homily for this Sunday, I just happened to be brooding over the climate change crisis. I looked at the readings for today and these words from the Deuteronomy passage jumped out: “This day I have set before you life and death, therefore choose life that you and your descendents may live” – those words provided a sharp focus for what I was thinking about. In the case of today’s reading from Deuteronomy that choice for the Israelites – between life and death – was a question of honouring or not honouring the covenant that Moses put before the people. Honouring it meant choosing life and living in accordance with the Law, or rejecting it with the destructive consequences that could follow. Renewing the Covenant and confronting that choice was something that the Jewish people faced repeatedly in the course of their history . Today, the stark choice of choosing life is something we face. What I think that means for us, I’ll come to in a moment.
Peter Turner’s recent email about climate change touched a nerve ending and generated an important discussion on the Holy Trinity list. So the issue is clearly alive and urgent in this community. Three weeks ago, Jennifer used this same text from Deuteronomy – it wasn’t one of the readings that day but that’s alright, it’s a great text – in her excellent homily reflecting, among other things, on the importance of water and the ocean in the Bible – that, on the one hand, and, on the other, our mindless and reckless pollution of the world’s waters, including the world’s oceans. And so we confront an intersection of different, important but related concerns.
In passing, I’ll just mention the epistle in which Paul pleads on behalf of a fugitive slave whom he refers to as “a beloved brother.” To think of a person as marginalized as a slave in the ancient world as a “brother” is pretty remarkable if not revolutionary. It can remind us that today, in the face of the climate crisis, every person on earth is our brother or sister. We are all in this together. Climate refugees are already a reality, and in the future there may be millions more. Will we see such refugees as our brothers and sisters? We have to begin thinking about that.
And while I am very briefly mentioning today’s readings, I can’t escape those very demanding words in the gospel “Whoever does not renounce all that he has, cannot be my disciple.” What that means for us takes a whole lot of pondering! – maybe renouncing or transforming our current way of life? However we interpret it, it certainly relates to the question of what it means to choose life.
OK, on to the climate change crisis. There is a lot of current literature on this, most of it very depressing. For instance, there is David Wallace Wells’ book “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming.” The book is designed to scare the hell out of us!
As Wallace Wells emphasizes in the course of his book, GROWTH is a very big word in our society. Economic growth is the way we measure progress, right? Every politician promises to grow the economy. Wallace Wells writes, and I quote, “The entire history of swift economic growth, which began somewhat suddenly in the eighteenth century, is not the result of innovation or trade or the dynamics of free trade, but simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power.” Well, is it time to cut back on the use of fossil fuels? Today’s world burns 80% more coal than in the year 2000 even though solar energy costs fell 80% in that period. Wallace –Wells disturbing conclusion? “Solar isn’t eating away at fossil fuel … use, it’s just buttressing it. To the market, this is growth; to human civilization, it’s almost suicide.” Well I won’t say more about Wallace-Wells. You might want to read the book yourself – or you might not!
I’ll turn instead to another writer whom many of you probably have read: Bill McKibben. He has been writing on climate change for over twenty years, in books, in periodicals like the New Yorker and the New York Review. His recent book is “Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play itself Out?” It’s not exactly a fun read but it’s extremely important. With clarity, uncontestable evidence and passion he outlines how the climate crisis has progressed. But he concludes his introductory note with these words: “I want those who pick up this volume to know that its author lives in a state of engagement, not despair. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have written what follows.”
I’ll just indicate one or two things that follow because the book covers a lot of territory and I know that most people in this congregation are already aware of many aspects of the climate crisis.
So, just one story from Part I of his book, a story from the world of big oil. McKibben has a lot to say about the powerful petroleum industry and they are not kind words.
In July of 1977 – that’s over 50 years ago – James Black, a senior scientist at Exxon, gave a slide presentation to Exxon’s leaders on what was then called the greenhouse effect. He concluded his remarks with these words: “There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the climate is through carbon dioxide released from the burning of fossil fuels.” A year later, he spoke to an even larger gathering of company officials and said independent researchers estimated that a doubling of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would increase global temperatures by 2 to 3 degrees. That’s bordering on the calamitous. And that’s what we are moving towards today with our pitiful response to the Paris climate accord.
Exxon decided to do more research. In 1982, in a document marked not to be distributed externally, the company’s scientists concluded that heading off global warming “would require major reductions in fossil fuel consumption.” Otherwise it concluded “there were some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered.” (Falter, p.74) So in 1988 when James Hansen the NASA official made global warming a public issue, the oil companies knew he was right. In fact they used Hansen’s models to plan for new drilling in the arctic which, because of global warming, was now cheaper! Is there a name for that kind of duplicity which puts the fate of the world at risk?
Well, I come back to the question: what does choosing “life” mean for us? I suggest that it means choosing to resist anything that contributes to the destruction of planet earth, its inhabitants, our island home, what we call God’s creation.
We can respond on two levels. At the personal level we can make small choices. How many pairs of jeans do we need . Susan Watson sent an article on the HT list that describes how much water it takes to make one pair of jeans. And the CBC’s Passionate Eye did a whole program on it. The Aral sea in Kazakstan, once the fourth largest lake in the world has now dried up. It’s desert, in no small part because its waters were used for years in the making of millions of jeans.
Do we think twice about boarding an aircraft which sends huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? I know this is a difficult practical point – we can’t all resort to sailboats like Greta Thumberg but still, the reality can’t be escaped. Or, what about driving a car when we could use public transportation? Or using hand sanitizers when we could use bar soap as Jennifer suggested three weeks ago. Lee and I are in the process of making a list of the small things that we could do which, at the very least, would remind us that the climate crisis is staring us in the face.
The second level that calls for resistance is the larger institutional level, the world of corporations, governments, banks and so on. Think that nothing can be done on this level? A piece in last week’s Star was headlined “corporate boards are on the hot seat as the climate crisis escalates.” Ontario’s Superintendent of Financial Institutions has recognized climate liability as a growing concern in the corporate world. Currently, world wide, there are around 1200 climate related cases before the courts. Corporations pay attention when the issue is liability. Remember what happened to big tobacco? So let’s make sure our voices are heard publicly and politically on climate change. The Canadian election is next month. The U.N climate summit is later THIS month. Polls say that the majority of Canadians feel action needs to be taken. But the same polls say most Canadians don’t want that action to cost anything. That attitude has to change….
I come back to Bill McKibben. He suggests that on the institutional level there are two technologies we can turn to in the current situation. The first is solar panels. On this, he is not pessimistic like Wallace Wells. He describes the use of solar panels in parts of Africa which have been revolutionary, providing electrical power without the need for the vast power grids we have in North America and elsewhere. And a related story, not from McKibben: maybe some of you have seen the documentary “Harnessing the Wind” which tells the story of a young boy in Malawi who constructed a windmill using, for starters, the generator from his father’s bicycle. To the astonishment of his parents and fellow villagers, he used it, in a complicated apparatus that he put together, to power a pump which drew water out of a well to provide irrigation in the midst of a drought. His family and villagers were amazed and, of course, thrilled; they could now grow crops again to stave off starvation. McKibben does talk positively about wind turbines but the technology he happens to focus on is solar panels. Mary Jo uses solar panels at her cottage where she writes her books. Well, it’s a start.
The second technology McKibben talks about is non violence. “Non violence” he suggests “is one of the signal inventions of our time.” He cites Ghandi and Martin Luther King and suggests that at the core of non violence is a spiritual insight “that traces at least back to the sermon on the mount. That’s the idea of turning the other cheek, taking on unearned suffering, engaging our sympathy for the weak instead of our truckling admiration for the strong.” “Given that industry has most of the money and hence most of the power, it usually wins – unless, of course, a movement arises, one capable of changing hearts as well as minds.” (p 220)
One example of such a movement (and today there are increasing numbers): a while ago, McKibben took leave of his position at Middlebury College and together with seven undergraduates formed something called 350.org. (350 is the number of CO2 particles per thousand in the atrmosphere that could contain global warming). Their first attempt to rally the globe saw 5200 rallies in 181 countries. CNN called it the “most widespread day of political action in the planet’s history.”
I won’t elaborate further – I’ll just say that this is no time to be passive. I totally agree with Bill McKibben: in a non violent fashion, we have tofind compelling ways to demonstrate our concerns publically and politically. We have to join with others who share those concerns and become part of a movement. That would be choosing life.