Our covenant with the interdependent web of existence
A sermon by the Rev. Dawn Cooley
Delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY on February 10, 2013.
Listen to the sermon here.
The book that Linette read this morning in our Moment for All Ages is one of my favorites: Winston of Churchilli, written by Jean Davies Okimoto and illustrated by Jeremiah Trammell. And did you know that it is based on a true story? Well, sort of. The town of Churchill, in Manitoba, Canada is considered to be “ground zero for everything having to do with polar bears. Every fall the town is overrun with bears waiting for Hudson Bay to freeze. The bears, in turn, are trailed by herds of tourists, tour guides, scientists, green-leaning types and B-list celebrities”
All these folks are following the polar bears around because Polar Bears are to Arctic Ice what Canaries are to coal mines: the warning bells that something is dangerously wrong.
Sixty years ago, Polar Bears were over-hunted. Intense conservation efforts were put in place, which helped them begin to flourish. This is part of what makes the disappearing ice so heart-breaking: this is a species that conservation efforts were saving, but now, with the disappearing ice, these efforts may feel like they were for naught.
“Ice is nice!” the polar bears all declared in the book. But ice, some of which polar bears live on, is disappearing…fast. In the documentary “Chasing Ice,” filmmakers Adam LeWinter and Jeff Orlowski point out that “It took 100 years [for the Ilulissat Glacier in Western Greenland] to retreat 8 miles, from 1900 – 2000. From 2000-2010, it retreated 9 miles. So in 10 years it retreated more than it had in the previous 100.”
The ice is melting due to rising temperatures around the world: June 2012 broke or tied over 3000 high-temperature records in the United States, and came on the heals of the warmest May ever recorded for the Northern Hemisphere. In an article in Rolling Stone in August 2012, Bill McKibben points out that May was the “327th consecutive month in which the temperature of the entire globe exceeded the 20th-century average, the odds of which occurring by simple chance were 3.7×10-99, a number considerably larger than the number of stars in the universe.” (which is approximately 10×10-24)
Rising temperatures cause ice to melt and cause the amount of water in the air to increase, which causes larger storms, like Nemo, which just hit New England.
The major contributor to these rising temperatures is our use of fossil fuels as energy sources. Fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas) contain high levels of carbon, formed over millions of years of decomposition. When we use them as energy sources, that carbon is released into the air as carbon dioxide, and the carbon dioxide, traps heat in the air, creating what is called the “greenhouse effect.” The more carbon dioxide in the air, the larger the greenhouse effect.
Lets take a look at one of these processes to see how it works, and to see how, even beyond the greenhouse effect, these non-renewable energy sources are killing the planet. Let’s look at the coal cycle, because it has direct effects on us here in Louisville, here at First Unitarian, and because carbon emissions from burning coal are one of the leading causes of global warming. The Coal Cycle is also the focus of our public witness event at General Assembly here in June, when several thousand Unitarian Universalists from all around the country will be here in Louisville, many learning about and demonstrating against the devastating effects at each level of the coal cycle.
Coal is extracted from the ground through a mining process. In recent years, mining companies have been under pressure to produce more coal, in a safer and cheaper manner. The solution was MountainTop removal, wherein large portions of mountains in Appalachia are blown away, granting access to the coal buried within, and devastating the environment in the process. Not only unsightly, the mountaintop removal process dumps millions of tons of rubble and toxic waste into the streams and valleys below the mining sites. It poisons drinking water, destroys forests (which help regulate the amount of carbon dioxide in the air), destroys wildlife habitat, increases the risk of flooding, and wipes out entire communities.
The mined coal, is then transported to a location (often using some sort of oil-based fuel to get there, thus emiting more carbon into the air) where it is burned to create energy.
The Sierra Club reports that burning coal is responsible for one third of US carbon emissions. In addition, acid rain, from sulfur emissions, is almost entirely due to coal burning. And it is making us sick: the pollutants from burning coal are directly responsible for as many as 13,000 premature deaths every year and more than $100 billion in annual health costs.
The Louisville area is home to several coal burning power plants, but two stand out from the crowd. The Cane Run plant in South Louisville emits 202 pounds of mercury into the air each year, and has generated a 15-foot-tall mountain of toxic coal ash. Residents who live nearby are sicker than average Louisvillians due to the amount of toxic waste discharged by the plant. And the R. Gallagher plant, just downstream from New Albany, was the dirtiest major power station in the US in 2006 in terms of sulphur dioxide gas emission rate.
From mining to transportation to burning, coal has more environmental impacts than any other energy source and is the source of close to 95% of both Kentucky’s and Indiana’s energy.
What a mess. I believe we can’t help but wonder how we got here: how did we allow the environmental crisis to get so bad? Certainly we can point to a lot of symptomatic factors: we like cheap energy, we have subsidized the oil industry, we have allowed our government to turn a blind eye to corporate polluting. These are all true. And they happened, I believe, because deep down, at our core, we have fallen out of covenant with the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part. We have fallen out of covenant with the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.
Let me unpack that for you.
First, notice I did not say the interdependent web of life. The 7th principle of the Unitarian Universalist Association says that in our congregations, we covenant to affirm and promote “respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.” We understand that it is not just life that is interconnected on this planet, it is all of existence that is interconnected. We are part and parcel with the earth itself and what we do to our planet – including the rocks and waters and air – we do to ourselves.
So then, what do I mean by covenant? A covenant is a spiritual contract that rests in relationship. Rather than a simple exchange of goods or services, a covenant is a promise or set of promises held within the relationship of those who engage in the covenant. Marriage is a covenant. The Hebrew God had a covenant with Abraham. Our faith tradition as Unitarian Universalists is covenantal rather than creedal – based on promises we make to one another and to ourselves rather than on a required set of beliefs.
What, then, do I mean when I refer to our covenant with the interdependent web of existence, our covenant with the earth? Virtually every world religion, including our own, has something to say about how human beings are supposed to be in relationship with our planet. Underlying these instructions, specific to each religious tradition, is what I believe to be a shared covenant that goes something like: If we are good stewards of the earth, then the earth will support and sustain us.
If this is, indeed, our covenant with the Earth, then we are not holding up our end. In part, perhaps because the covenant is worded and focused a bit differently in each tradition. And there may also be another reason. There are actually two different types of covenant: conditional and unconditional. A conditional covenant means that both participants have to agree to something – like the vows in a marriage covenant. However, an unconditional covenant requires only one participant to do something; nothing is required of the other participant. The covenant that the Hebrew God had with Abraham was an unconditional covenant – God promised to do all these things and Abraham didn’t have to do anything.
I believe we have too often thought of our covenant with the earth as an unconditional covenant: the earth will continue to support and sustain us, with no regard to how we treat it. And we know now that this is not true – what we have is instead a very conditional covenant with the earth, and we have broken our promises, we have fallen out of covenant.
How badly have we broken our covenant? Is it beyond repair? Bill McKibben says we are close to the point of no return. He cites what he calls “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math” and it boils down to this: we have five times more oil and coal and gas available to us than climate scientists think is safe to burn. And we are not slowing down on its consumption – even changing out incandescent bulbs for twisty compact florescents or LEDs, American energy consumption is increasing, and more and more of the developing world is jumping on board. I wish it were as easy as what Winston of Churchill said, that all we need to do is “burn less gas, make less garbage, and plant more trees” but that is not enough at this point.
I believe our first step in repairing our relationship with the interdependent web of existence, the first step in restoring our covenant with our beloved planet Earth, is to own our guilt and ask for forgiveness. Because asking for forgiveness is always the first step in reconcilliation. In this spirit, I invite you to open your hymnals and read with me #478, a Prayer of Sorrow from the U.N. Environmental Sabbath Program. Rather than as a responsive reading, I invite us all to read it together:
We have forgotten who we are. We have alienated ourselves from the unfolding of the cosmos.
We have become estranged from the movements of the earth. We have turned our backs on the cycles of life.
We have sought only our own security, we have exploited simply for our own ends, we have distorted our knowledge, we have abused our power.
Now the land is barren, and the waters are poisoned, and the air is polluted.
Now the forests are dying, and the creatures are disappearing, and the humans are despairing.
We ask forgiveness. We ask for the gift of remembering. We ask for the strength to change.
The strength to change, it says. Because changing ourselves, our culture, the world, is hard.
Change starts with continuing the smaller, easier actions. Continuing to change out light bulbs is not enough, but it is an important step. Making sure you turn off the lights when you leave a room, or, for example, here at church please make sure you switch the thermostats to “night” – whether you were the one who switched them to “day” or not. Our LG&E bill was 3x as high for January as it was for December. That is not good stewardship – of our financial or environmental resources. Flip the thermostat switch to “night” when you leave a room to save energy and money. Like Winston’s wife implored him, we need to walk the talk. “How can you convince people to stop doing what they’re doing unless you can show that every little bit helps?” she asked.
We can also participate in actions such as the one this Thursday: I love Mountains Day at the Kentucky State Legislature. Join me and my kids and others from Louisville on the Kentucky Interfaith Power and Light bus as we go to Frankfort to rally in support of efforts to stop mountaintop removal. This is an annual event – someday, perhaps, it won’t be necessary, but that day has not come.
We must also be willing to put our money where our values are. We can do this in little ways, and in big.
For as little as $5 per month from LG&E, we can buy renewable energy certificates for our home energy usage. This investment ensures “that renewable energy is delivered onto the regional electric grid from new renewable energy sources, such as wind power, biomass and low impact hydro electric.
On the larger scale, we can make sure that our home and institutional investments are not in the fossil fuel industry. This divestment campaign harkens back to the campaign in the 1980s demanding divestment from companies doing business in South Africa due to the country’s system of enforced racial segregation, called apartheid. Historians argue about whether the campaign had an economic effect, but it definitely “required prominent people to grapple with the morality of apartheid, altering the politics of the issue. Economic pressure from many countries ultimately helped to force the whites-only South African government to the bargaining table” and, ultimately, to change.
Why would we attempt this same pressure on the fossil-fuel industry? McKibben says that it has become abundently clear that “we need to view the fossil-fuel industry in a new light.” He writes “It has become a rogue industry, reckless like no other force on Earth. It is Public Enemy Number One to the survival of our planetary civilization.”
Not only does the fossil-fuel industry continue to look for more sources of fuel, though they already have more 5 times more than can be safely burned, they also have prevented renewable energy sources from getting the kind of subsidies they themselves have enjoyed over the decades – last year over half a trillion in US dollars from countries around the world. Energy prices on coal in KY, for instance, are kept ridiculously low through these subsidies, while wind-energy subsidies are only sporadically renewed and are not dependable or durable enough for many to make the investment in creating wind farms. The International Energy Agencies chief economist recently said “In the presence of these fossil fuel subsidies… we have no chance whatsoever to meet these climate change targets and provide room for renewable energies to compete with coal, oil and gas as they are artificially cheap as a result of those subsidies.”
Dozens of college campuses are beginning to withdraw their endowments from fossil-fuel investment. More and more are forcing the conversation with their administration every week.
We can do this with our own investments if we have them. I was surprised to learn that some of my own retirement investments are in the fossil fuel industry. Not much, but some. I am filling out the paperwork to change that. We can also ensure that our First Unitarian Church Endowment is invested in socially conscious funds that do not include the fossil fuel industry. It may be that divesting of funds in the fossil fuel industry means that the investments do not make quite as much money, but that is a price that I believe we must be willing to make, knowing why the fossil fuel industry is so lucrative.
And there are things we can do locally, as well. I would like to invite Thomas Pearce from the Sierra Club up to tell us a bit about their work here in the Louisville area, and ways we can support our local community efforts at renewing our covenant with the earth and with each other.
…Thomas speaks and tells his story, why it matters to him, what some local ways of getting involved are …
Thank you, Thomas. It is good to know what is going on in our surrounding community, and to have multiple ways that we can work to repair and renew our covenant with the interdependent web of existence.
We have forgotten who we are and have become estranged from the movements of the earth. We ask for forgiveness, we ask for the strength to change – to make difficult decisions, to live our principles and values. We must work to renew our covenant with the earth, for ourselves, for our children, for the sake of all that exist on this beloved planet. As Winston of Churchill reminds us, we must “never, never, never give up.”