My sermon on environmental & climate justice, the Golden Rule, & the Land Ethic

Today, I gave a sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County. Below are my words.  [While the include political ideas, they advocate for no party politics at all, just common-sense work we can do together.]


What do you think of when you think of justice? What does it require of us? The second Unitarian Universalist principle says that we recognize “Justice, equity and compassion in human relations” while the seventh says have “Respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are a part.” I think all of us gathered here today hold this dear. We revere those who’ve come before us, those Unitarians who fought for African American voting rights during Freedom Summer 50 years ago and those who continue to fight today in Baltimore and Charleston. And we should. And today, justice requires that we examine our roles in the world, the incredible power that we have through our technology, our consumption, and our decisions, and take a different path than we have been. We UUs should be seriously considering environmental justice.

Too easily, we comfortable people are ignorant of how our lives put others at risk. We don’t know or forget or even deliberately put out of mind those who suffer from environmental impacts. Today, James and I will speak to environmental justice. We will ask you to turn your eyes toward people from Pennsylvania to Louisiana to Nunavut and the Philippines, even unborn children, and our more-than-human cohabitants.

If we are to imagine environmental justice, I suggest that we must a) recognize individuals and their societies, b) find an equitable distribution of society’s risks, costs, and benefits, and c) ensure fair access to procedures for recognition and distribution of those rights and risks. Often, we think of the effects of justice as at a human-to-human level—voting, incarceration, access to good schools. But such is the reach of the human enterprise that justice and injustice come through “the environment.” Our pooled decisions to use cars, trucks, jets, and container ships has led to the massive use of oil for example. And from its point of extraction to its shipping via rail, pipeline, or ship, to its refining and use as fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides, or as fuel puts so many at risk. Our demand as “developed” people exerts a lot of power. And as Uncle Ben tells Peter Parker…aka Spider Man, “With great power comes great responsibility.” We could—and should—examine the different points along the path of our energy system and make it as just as we can. But with limited time today, I’ll ask you to think about climate change and climate justice from a very large-scale perspective.

For over 150 years, we’ve known that adding greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide to the atmosphere would raise global temperatures. Industrialized nations have thickened the atmospheric blanket of greenhouse gases by burning coal and natural gas for electricity, by flying and driving everywhere, by cutting down trees and replacing them with fertilizer-intensive crops, by raising too many cattle, and by putting a lot of strange chemicals into the atmosphere. We have warmed the planet about 1 degree C on average. Those temperatures are destabilizing ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland, making super-typhoons like Haiyan and hurricane like Patricia more violent, and transforming ecosystems so that reefs are bleaching and Lyme-disease carrying ticks are a fact of life for anyone going into the woods of the northeastern United States.

Sadly, Americans are the most to blame. The U.S. has emitted more greenhouse gases than any other nation. And the affluent among us who use and consume the most also do the most damage. The poor among us domestically and especially minorities and across the world have contributed little to climate change but by far suffer the most.

Some examples: Higher temperatures are from Niger to Somalia are increasing desertification and drought, driving people into conflicts for food, water and energy. People of the Maldives, Carterette, and other low-lying islands are already migrating as sea levels rise. In Bangladesh, rising seas push people inland while turning the water to brackish brine. In Nunavut in northern Canada, people whose ancestors have hunted seals, bears, and narwhals from the Arctic sea ice now travel farther than ever. Like polar bears, they face food stress. And this past year, American citizens from islands off the coast of Louisiana and Alaska who are losing their islands to rising tides are competing to become America’s first formal climate refugees. They aren’t the last.

Our principles tell us that we should not simply accept these situations; what is, is not what ought to be.

We believe in the Golden Rule.  In Matthew 7:12, Jesus Christ said, “Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” Confucius wrote, “What you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.” At its heart, the Golden Rule is built on reciprocity and recognition of another’s well-being, the knowledge that an injustice anywhere, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, is an injustice everywhere. When we collectively use power from a power plant with the situation we have now, we are participating in an unjust system that harms people from the point of extraction in a holler town in West Virginia to those most vulnerable to a hotter more violent atmosphere.

Though not a focus of the second principle, I’d be remiss to omit environmental justice’s sister, ecological justice. In “The Land Ethic” American conservationist Aldo Leopold recognized that “soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively: the land” are part of a greater community. We depend on the land to feed us, filter our water, provide us with beauty, sink and recycle carbon, and—perhaps—just be itself. Justice now requires us to grant animals and plants, rivers and forests rights—maybe even legal standing. As we would like done unto us, we should do unto the land. When we damage them, the land, we disrupt the climate which creates injustices almost everywhere. As generally affluent and able people, we UUs must recognize this injustice and act accordingly. And there is hope if there is right action.

I have three suggestions, all of which positively reinforce one another. First, we can all give our money to those who are affected by supporting organizations like Doctors Without Borders who help those in crisis or the women of the Green Belt movement in Africa who are planting millions of trees whose founder, Wangari Maathai said, “When we plant trees, we plant the seeds of hope.” Second, we live in a deregulated power market in Pennsylvania. You can switch your power to renewable energy. But you can also push your municipal government to do so. I say this as a township official. Get together and push your municipal government to do the same and more. Not only can governments purchase renewable energy, but they also have means to build onsite renewable energy, build better buildings, and conserve land that sinks carbon. And why stop at governments? Imagine if Lowe’s, Home Depot, WalMart, Wegman’s, Giant, and Penn State put up solar. Talk to the managers. Buy their stock and start a shareholder movement. Lobby the board of trustees. Third and finally, join, support, and work with organizations like Interfaith Power and Light, Citizens Climate Lobby, or the Natural Resources Defense Council who push for the changes we need.



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