What Can We Do | Rev. Jane Dwinell

A Sermon Given at the First Universalist Parish in Chester, Vermont, May 28, 2017

A month ago, I was with 200,000 other concerned citizens at the People’s March for Climate, Jobs, Justice on a sweltering 93 degree day in Washington, DC. There was not enough water — or porta-potties — for all of us, but we survived. A New Orleans-style brass band kept our spirits up, along with the cheering people on the sidewalk. Afterwards, my husband and I (along with a lot of other people) gratefully collapsed at a sidewalk cafe for cold drinks, then made our way to our hotel for a cool shower and a nap in air-conditioned comfort.

Some day, before too long, if nothing changes, we will no longer have the gift of sidewalk cafes selling imported wine and beer, hotels with showers and air conditioning, or transportation to get us there. 

James Howard Kuntsler has written a series of novels that take place in such a future. Set in New York state on the Vermont border, he envisions a world without fossil fuels, transportation only by foot or horse, available food only what is grown in the area, and health care provided by the last remaining doctor without many supplies, and an herbalist. Luckily, there is enough hard cider to keep people happy, but the world is ugly and without hope. There is conflict, and people are struggling.

We don’t have to have that future. I believe we can create a world where everyone will have enough. Enough won’t include Mexican strawberries in January, Chilean grapes, New Zealand beef, or French wine. Enough won’t include a car for everyone, a 5,000 square foot home for a family of three, or open heart surgery and hip replacements for everyone who wants one. But, I think a world can be created where we will all have enough to survive — and thrive — but we must start work on it now. We have no time to lose.

As Bill McKibben said in an article in this week’s Seven Days: 

“In the long run, the damage that [President Trump]’s doing on environmental stuff is the stuff that we’ll never get back. The thing that he’s costing us on climate change is the thing we have the least of, which is time. He’s president during an absolutely critical four years, and it’s obviously going to be a wasted four years. We don’t have four years to spare.”

Winona Laduke, Native American activist, put it this way:

“In our prophecies as Anishinaabe people, we are told that there is a choice between two paths. This is known as the time of the Seventh Fire. And in the time of the Seventh Fire, we are told that we, as Anishinaabe people, would have a choice between two paths. One path, they say, would be well worn, but scorched. The other path, they say, would be not well worn, and it would be green. And it would be our choice upon which path to embark.

“So this is the scorched path. This is what fracking looks like from the air. It is what is known as extreme extraction. Extreme extraction is what occurs when you have consumed as much of the fossil fuels resources of this world as we have. In my life and your life, we’ve consumed about half the world’s known fossil fuel resources, right? … I had a good time. Did you all have a good time? Let’s be honest. It’s been a blast. We’ve had a really good time consuming at this level. … did you guys all get your flowers from Colombia this week? You know what I’m saying. Sometimes I just like to order that Fiji water—you know what I’m talking about?—because I feel like I should have water from the furthest part of the planet. You understand what I’m saying. This is like—it is absurdity, the level of the fossil fuels economy and our level of consumption and entitlement associated with that. We are complicit. That is the fact.”

It’s time to choose the second path, the green one, the not-well-worn one.

But, how do we do that?

Bill McKibben has one answer, one that I agree with:

We can do three things —

We can lobby our elected officials, attend marches and rallies, and speak up whenever we can.

We can live “smaller.”

And, mostly importantly, we can create community.

We are lucky here in Vermont that our Congressmen are smart guys, and on the right side of this issue. I don’t know about you, but I have spent more time in the last five months contacting them than I have in all the years they’ve been in office. Even though Leahy, Sanders and Welch are right on the climate change issue, I believe they still need support and praise for what they do do. I’ve contacted my representatives in Montpelier as well. As citizens, I believe it is our duty to stay engaged with the political process — no matter how challenging it feels right now.

I attend every march I can. Luckily, I am physically able, and financially stable that I can do that. If marches aren’t your thing, or there are other reasons why you can’t go, consider supporting others in your community who do want to go, but for some reason can’t — if you have the money, you can pay their way to the march, or at least pack them a lunch and a bag of cookies for the trip. When the Standing Rock Sioux put out a call last fall for clergy to go to North Dakota for a prayer vigil in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline, I was not in a position to be able to go. So I checked what I would have spent on transportation and lodging, and sent that money to other UU clergy who could go, but didn’t have the funds.

It can feel frustrating to lobby (or not) our elected officials — clearly, many of them do not listen to their constituents about this and many other issues.  But, living smaller — that I can do. I have spent the last 35 years living smaller, and teaching others how to do it.

The culmination of living smaller for me was when my husband and I designed and built a tiny house on wheels, and lived in it for two years. If you need to put your life and your possessions into 160 square feet, you learn quickly what you actually need, and what you don’t need. We downsized (after already living in a 700 square foot house) for the tiny house, only leaving four boxes of photo albums and memorabilia behind in a friend’s basement. We’re back to living in a 700 square foot house now, but we maintain our “tiny house” lifestyle. 

For me, living smaller means I think about every need or want I have, every decision I make, in terms of the planetary and financial resources it will take to get or do that thing. There are many ways to the same end, but the planetary and financial cost will differ, depending on your choice.

An example — coffee. Never mind that climate change is affecting the coffee trees, and we may not be able to enjoy this great beverage that much longer. Think of all the different ways there are to buy coffee, and to prepare it. You can buy it organically and fair trade raised, or you can buy the store brand at your favorite grocer’s. You can buy it ground or whole bean. You can buy the raw beans, and roast them yourself. You can prepare the coffee in an old fashioned percolator, with a Keurig machine, in a Mr Coffee-type electric machine, with a French press, with an espresso machine, in an old aluminum pot over a campfire, or with boiling water poured through a reusable filter. Or buy it already made at your favorite coffee shop, Dunkin’ Donuts or mini-mart.

Didn’t think coffee could be so complicated, did you?

I choose to make coffee with organic, free trade beans that I buy in bulk and grind myself, with a simple, reusable filter and boiling water from my electric kettle powered by my solar panels. This is the choice I have made, the one I think has the least impact to the planet.

How about drying clothes? Do you just toss them in the dryer, or do you take the time to hang them up on a clothesline or drying rack? Or eating leftovers? (You do eat leftovers, right?) Do you eat them cold, heat them in a microwave, on the top of the stove, or in a solar oven?

We are privileged enough to have choices, but not all of them are equal. Al Gore was right when he talked about An Inconvenient Truth. The time will come when things may get inconvenient — never mind the extra time it takes to hang our clothes on the line, we may be washing them by hand. We make think that our appliances of convenience save us time, but they also consume a vast amount of planetary resources — in the metals and minerals needed for manufacture, in the manufacturing process itself, in the packaging and transportation costs to get the product to us, to the electricity needed to run it, and finally our money that has to pay for the whole thing.

The next time you’re about to hop in the car to go to the store, stop and ask yourself, “Do I really need what I’m about to buy?” “Is there another way to get what I want?” “Is there another way to get to the store?” — riding with a friend, walking, riding a bike, waiting until you have to go to town for something else. I expect y’all live in the country — or at least out of walking and biking distance to stores and services — I did that for many years myself — but that’s one reason my husband and I left the Northeast Kingdom to move to Montpelier and then Burlington — we now walk or bike or take public transportation to almost everything, unless we are leaving town. Saves money, saves the planet — just another example of living smaller.

But, finally, and most importantly, there is creating, building and sustaining community. That’s what a congregation is for — to create a community where everyone can rely on one another in good times and bad. As the planet heats up and resources become scarcer and/or more expensive, we will need one another even more than we do now. The gardeners and farmers among us will need to share food with those who aren’t able to grow it themselves. The strong ones will need to cut, split and stack firewood for those who can’t. We will need handy-people to repair and maintain our homes and community buildings. We will need health care professionals to do house calls, and provide basic advice and care when our health care system implodes. We will need to look in on one another when extreme weather hits, as scientists tell us it will with increasing frequency. 

But climate change is not just about us. We need to care for those that we will never even meet — those who are already being seriously affected by climate change right now — those in drought-stricken areas of Africa, those living on islands rapidly going underwater in the South Pacific, those dying of tropical diseases that are now moving rapidly north and south away from their home at equator.

Paul Hawken, in his latest book, Drawdown, offers 100 things to do that will most likely help to prevent or slow serious climate change. He assembled a team of scientists to look into solutions and rate them in terms of efficiency and cost, and ranked them in order. Several in the top ten will not surprise you — an increase in onshore wind development, solar farms, and rooftop solar, and an increase in forests by reclaiming our tropical rainforests and encouraging “silvopasturing” — raising livestock in the woods.

But the others were more surprising to me.

The number one most helpful thing we can do — which will reduce CO2 emissions by 90 gigatons — is to stop the production of HFCs for refrigerators and, in particular, air conditioners. You may remember the bruhaha about CFCs destroying the ozone layer in the 1908s? The industry went to work on that problem and developed HFCs to take their place. The ozone hole healed — all was well, right? Nope. Turns out the HFCs contribute incredibly to increasing the CO2 in the atmosphere. And, as the climate continues to heat, people living in places like India and the Middle East will need AC simply to survive. There are new, safer technologies to provide cooling, but they are much more expensive, and poor countries like India may simply not be able to afford them. One more reason to have a fairer distribution of wealth in the world — and for our country to its part to help poorer countries.

Two more solutions in the top ten had to do with food. Many of us already know about the destructive practices of conventional agriculture — whether it is raising plants or animals. We are lucky here in Vermont to have a strong agricultural base, and much of it organic. You will probably not be surprised to know that choosing a plant-based diet is of significant help in slowing climate change — 66 gigatons of CO2 removed if we ate more plants and less meat. This doesn’t mean giving up meat altogether, but having plants become a central part of a meal, with meat as a condiment, while being sure to choose meat that has been raised sustainably and not from factory farms. Sure, it’s more expensive, but if you’re eating less, the cost should balance out. You can do as chef and cookbook author, Mark Bittman, does — be vegan until 6 — when you can then add animal food to your meal. Or join the “Meatless Mondays” movement. Or become vegan or vegetarian if that suits you. Once again, we have many choices.

However, the other food-based solution in the top ten is to reduce food waste. If all the agricultural land used to grow food that is later thrown away — either at the farm, at the processing plant, at the store, or in your own kitchen — was a country, it would be the third largest country in the world!  Not only does rotting food produce methane, another greenhouse gas — we need that food to feed the world’s hungry people, of which there will be many more because of climate-change-caused droughts and floods. Think of that the next time to you forget to eat your leftovers!

But, the final top-ten solutions surprised me the most — educating girls and women, and provide free family planning services. There are simply too many people on our planet, and if girls and women can understand their choices, and choose smaller families, we could reduce 120 gigatons of CO2! So, perhaps the most significant thing you can do to slow climate change is to donate to Planned Parenthood and other organizations that provide family planning services world wide and/or organizations that support education for girls around the world.

Knowing that climate change is not just about us hit home for me in January 2016 when I went to Lesvos, Greece as part of a medical team that received the refugees as they came ashore on flimsy life rafts with inadequate lifejackets. As many of you may know, the Syrian War started partly because of climate change. For many years, Syria suffered a climate change-induced drought that caused many farmers to move into the cities to find work to support their families. Crowded conditions and a lack of enough food caused unrest, and a civil war was born.

The refugees seeking safe harbor in Greece came from Syria, and from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North Africa. They came with nothing but the clothes on their backs, their passports and papers tied around their necks in plastic bags. They came with the elderly in wheelchairs, with the family dog or cat, with babes tucked inside their father’s coats, and with many, many scared and wet children. These refugees were not terrorists, but people simply seeking safety, food, shelter, and peace for their families.

Day after day, in January, with freezing seas and cold winds, these refugees arrived after paying exorbitant prices to smugglers who piled them into boats with small outboard motors and enough gas, hopefully, to get them across the five miles of open Aegean Sea. Some poor man was given a brief lesson in running the motor — most of whom had never even been in a boat — and told to drive. They arrived sopping wet, hypothermic, hungry and cold. We helped them into dry clothes, warmed them with tea and wood fires, cared for their injuries and fears, and sent them off to a UN-run refugee camp. Boat after boat, day after day, sometimes as many as 500 people arriving per day.

These are the faces of climate change. These are the people that I see when I am making a decision about what to buy, what to do, and where to send my money. These are the people I see when I contact my legislators, when I plant my garden, when I work to build community.

They remind me that we are not alone on this journey. They remind me that we truly are connected in the interdependent web of life.They remind me that it is up to all of us, working together, to solve this greatest challenge of our time.