Not Our Own

 

OPENING WORDS           (Attributed to Chief Noah Seattle)

This we know.  The earth does not belong to us; we belong to the earth
This we know.  All things are connected like the blood
which unites one family.
Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.
We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.                  

PART ONE
We live in frightening, fraught times.  Recent events – more of Trump’s racist, and hateful and lie-filled speech about immigrants hoping to find asylum among us, bomb threats to prominent leaders who are Trump critics, the mass killing at a Pittsburgh synagogue, followed by a Trump speech claiming outrage at the hatred and bigotry the killer expressed.  It’s a bad dream from which any sane person desperately wants to wake up.

Economic justice, racial equity, environmental justice, the effectiveness and protection of democracy – you can name a half dozen other issues the plague our country and our globe.  The issues and efforts overlap and intertwine.  How do we keep from becoming overwhelmed? 

The summer I turned thirteen I was part of a small summer school class that studied the history of Boston.  Half of us were white kids from the suburbs, the other half African American kids from Roxbury.  I remember a trip to the observation deck at the top of the Prudential Tower.  As we stared out at the city, the teachers explained about the movement of ethnic groups – and how it was that African Americans came to be segregated to the south – in Roxbury, and later Dorchester.  Roxbury was where Boston’s first factories were built – beer factories, thanks to 19th century German immigrants.  Other industries were added.  The Germans moved out.  The Irish came.  Then the Jews.  And as more black people came, in the middle part of the past century, they too moved out.  We learned about redlining.  Where public transportation did and didn’t go. 

Xenophobia and racism have overlapped with economic issues for a very long time. The story of the water crisis in Flint Michigan that erupted in 2014 is a textbook example of overlap.

In April 2014, as a cost-cutting measure, Flint switched its water source from Lake Huron to the Flint river.  Lead and other contaminants in the pipes leached into the water, which had not been treated with anti-corrosion materials.  Within six months of the changeover, the General Motors assembly plant in town stopped using Flint water because of the contamination.  (Incidentally, the corrosive materials and other contaminants in the river were the result of years of pollution that came from GM plants.)

As residents became alarmed and studies showed unsafe levels of lead in the water, officialdom doubled down on efforts to dismiss their concerns and assert that the water was safe.  It was not until January 2016 that the city’s water was officially declared undrinkable, and the federal government began to supply bottled water.

Reporter Anna Clark recently released a book about the crisis called “Poisoned City.”  In an interview on National Public Radio, she said:

The water crisis did not start with the switch to river water in April 2014. … Flint … was the most segregated city in the North and the third most segregated city nationwide.  Earlier it had become a destination for African-American migrants from the South, where its population was exploding, coming to work at the General Motors plants. 

There were only two neighborhoods where black people could live, and very explicitly they were denied access to other homes.  Later, once fair housing laws and school desegregation laws broke down that system, Flint's population started to decline, as a lot of white middle-class and upper-class folks left.

The infrastructure did not shrink along with the population. The pipes were built with large circumferences to support all the water that a larger city needed.  This directly relates to how unaffordable the water became.  And water that went over stretches of now abandoned neighborhoods in the large pipes had more time to absorb the corroding lead and iron and other contaminants from the pipes.

The reporter asked Clark what surprised her while working on this book. 

She said:
I really love Flint. I think so many times when we tell Flint's story nationally, we do this litany of loss — the people, the business, the industry, all these things, and it's real, and it's serious and we need to talk about it.

But this sometimes can erase what is there in Flint, which is nearly 100,000 amazing people, a lot of wonderful institutions that are doing great things in the community. For example, they have the largest planetarium in the state. Their art museum, which is amazing, just did this wonderful expansion. There are those volunteers who are taking care of the Flint River. There are neighborhood festivals all the time. It's just a great place to be.
[i]

PART 2
A task force commissioned by the state of Michigan reported:
The facts of the Flint water crisis lead us to the inescapable conclusion that this is a case of environmental injustice.  Flint residents, who are majority Black or African American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same protection from environmental hazards as those provided to those in other communities.  Moreover, by virtue of their being subject to emergency management (state control) Flint residents were not provided equal access to, and meaningful involvement in, the government decision-making process.[ii]

Economic justice, racial equity, environmental justice, the effectiveness and protection of democracy, the plight of immigrants and refugees, the rise of xenophobia and vitriol in public discourse – 

Overarching all this is the specter of climate change – with its inescapable evidence that modern human consumption of fossil fuels has radically and most likely irrevocably destabilized the earth’s environment. 

But reasons for climate change, and the resistance to the kinds of changes necessary to combat it, are all related to issues of economic justice and racial equity, the effectiveness and protection of democracy, and the plight of immigrants and refugees.

We have entered an age geologists are calling the Anthropocene -

The theologian Michael Hogue teaches at Meadville Lombard, the Unitarian Universalist seminary in Chicago.  His most recent book, American Immanence, develops what he calls a political theology in which he argues (I’m quoting the publisher’s blurb here) “the vulnerability of life in the Anthropocene calls us to build radically democratic communities of responsibility, resistance, and resilience.”  Hogue writes:

We live in the time of the Anthropocene, literally a human age in the history of the Earth in which the human and the nonhuman, the political and the planetary, the economic and the ecological, and the human present and the future of life have become vividly and inextricably entangled.  …

Quoting another scholar, Jedediah Purdy: “There is no place or living thing that we haven’t changed.  Our mark is on the cycle of weather and seasons, the global map of bioregions, and the DNA that organises matter into life.” 

But to say that there is no more nature apart from human is also to say that there is no more human apart from nature.  …[iii]

No more nature apart from human and no more human apart from nature. 

Or, as chief Seattle is believed to have said
Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.
We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.                 

Questions frequently pivot around the appropriateness of the name “Anthropocene’ for this new geological epoch.  Michael Hogue writes:

Every member of the human species is NOT equally responsible for the CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions that are driving the climate crisis. The most affluent and industrialized nations in the global North have not only generated far more than their share; they have also capitalized the most on the economic and technological systems that drive those emissions.    [iv]

“Capitalocene” has been suggested as a more apt moniker, directly implicating the ideology and class of homo sapiens responsible for the fix we are in.  When we look at the origins of the crisis – we see industrialization, colonization and the exploitation of the resources and native peoples of non-European nations from the 16th century through the present day.

Environmental justice intersects everywhere with issues of racial and economic justice. 

The sociologist Eileen Crist is also critical of what she refers to as the “shadowy repercussions of naming an epoch after ourselves……” 

(The name Anthropocene, she says,) “delivers a Promethean self-portrait of a genius if unruly species, distinguishing itself from the backdrop of merely-living life,…whose unstoppable and in many ways glorious history has risen to the level of ‘Nature’s own tremendous forces.’  [v]

This is hubris, the blindness and arrogance that the writers of Greek tragedy saw as a fatal flaw.

Whatever befalls the earth befalls the children of the earth.
We did not weave the web of life; we are merely a strand in it.
Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves.                  

We are not our own. 

PART 3
Economic justice, racial equity, environmental justice, the effectiveness of democracy, refugees and immigrants displaced by violence, hunger and governmental oppression, xenophobia and hatred, and more, and more. 

And overarching all, the specter and threat of climate change.

The issues overlap and intertwine.  The assumptions many of us grew up with about the basic goodness and soundness of our social and economic systems are subject to serious questions and revision.  How do we keep from becoming overwhelmed?  What are we called to do?

A few weeks ago Judy Hyde gave me an article by a sociologist in Great Britain named Jem Bendell.  It’s a comprehensive analysis in which he argues, even pleads, for experts in “sustainability fields” to directly address the seriousness of not-so-long term implications of climate change.  In addition to reviewing the climate science data, he cites projections of massive loss of agricultural land, an escalation of refugee crises around the globe, more frequent catastrophic weather events, disruption or collapse of social, economic and political systems, and a breakdown of infrastructure on which hundreds of millions depend for heat, transportation, and communication. 

And he addresses the issue of denial – why and how so many people, including experts in “sustainability,” choose it.

Last Tuesday I participated in one of the meetings in Northampton organized by groups working on the city’s climate adaptation and sustainability plans. 

The consultants presented findings about the major sources of CO2 emissions in Northampton.  Commercial and larger apartment buildings led the list at just over 50%.  Other residential buildings were next, at 26%.  Transportation was third, and waste removal and waste water a distant fourth. 

Most of the people in the room were more technically informed than I am. Other local clergy had been invited, but I was the only one there.  Most of the attendees were professional planners, or engineers, or people active in environmental work.

We were seated, at random, at four tables, where a facilitator encouraged us to brainstorm ideas to share ideas for reduction or mitigation.  After 20 minutes discussing buildings, my people at my table rotated to talk about waste removal, then to a catch-all category called “lifestyle and other sources,” and finally to transportation.  As people spoke, the ideas were written on sticky notes for later summary.

I don’t know if any brilliant new insights were inscribed on those sticky notes.  I do know that the participants were impassioned and engaged.  In my group there were debates about what was worth doing – someone saying, “It’s too late to waste time on individual efforts and education,” others disagreeing. 

Some reminded people who were passionate about new taxes or carbon pricing about equity considerations – remembering the differential impact on citizens based on their level of income and cultural context.  For me, the process of engaging community members in tackling complex problems – stood in stark contrast to what I had been learning about what happened in Flint. 

Margaret Wheatley is a management consultant and writer who looks at systems, leadership, and how people make decisions.   In her latest book, called Who Do We Choose to Be? she writes,

Everywhere there are communities, programs, and organizations that are learning, adapting, and creating effective responses that are making a true and positive contribution.  …

These leaders cannot prevent the unraveling of our civilization and that is not their ambition.  They aspire to make a profound difference locally, in the lives of people in their communities and organizations.

They also know that their successful initiatives that have taken such dedicatdion and endurance to create are vulnerable.  There are no assurances that they will achieve long-term impact or be rewarded for success.

And yet they persevere because they are committed to doing the best they can for people.  … In full awareness of the trials and tribulations that will not cease, they offer leadership skills to create islands of sanity, places of possibility and sanctuary where the destructive dynamics of collapse are kept at bay.[vi]

How do we keep from becoming overwhelmed by the magnitude and complexity of the issues that keep us awake at night?  What are we called to do?  Or, as Margaret Wheatley asks, who do we choose to be?

Like the animals in this morning’s story – who try to encourage Taylor when his beautiful project is ruined – we have different answers, different ways of responding.  Sometimes that’s helpful, sometimes not.  But no one can answer the questions or do the work alone.

Who do we choose to be and what are we called to do? 

We can try to be leaders who commit to creating islands of sanity, democratic communities of responsibility, resistance, and resilience.

We might even think of our congregation as one of those places of sanity.  We can comfort, listen to, walk and work with one another.  We can ask ourselves what that means for what we do together.

We can do more of what many of you are already doing.  Plant trees.  Equip a bicycle-powered wagon with a large water tank, print colorful t-shirts, work with local organizations and schools – all in support of re-usable water bottles.  Go door to door or join a phone bank in support of progressive candidates.  Join vigils and protests.  Engage in community conversations.  Support policies that promote clean energy.  Take steps to understand what is meant by white supremacy culture, and what we all can do to begin to challenge it.

And – this may seem odd – but we can spend time away from our screens and insist that our children do the same.  Let their minds and our own minds continue to develop – to give ourselves space, to help lower the levels of stress hormones coursing through our systems, perhaps even to engage in the deep questions and challenges that scholars like Michael Hogue are posing and exploring. 

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We can be overwhelmed and even, at times, in despair, but continue to act anyway. 

We can (we must) as UU minister Adam Robersmith has said, “choose faith and hope and deep, abiding love over fear – and act from the knowledge that we will save what is of great worth and sacredness.”[vii]

And we can and must, for ourselves and for one another, remember to be grateful for and celebrate the joy, beauty and goodness that despite all, surrounds and sustains us.

 

[i] Jeremy Hobson, interview with Anna Clark, author of The Poisoned City,” http://www.wbur.org/hereandnow/2018/07/10/flint-water-crisis-poisoned-city

[ii] Flint Water Advisor Task Force, “Final Report,” March 2016

[iii] Michael Hogue, American Immanence, Columbia University Press, 2018, page 55, and citing Purdy in After Nature, 2015

[iv] Hogue, page 63 and footnote 25 to that chapter

[v] Hogue, page 61 citing Crist .”On the Poverty of our Nomenclature” 2016

[vi] Margaret Wheatley, Who Do We Choose to Be?  BK Publishers 2017, page 47-49

[vii] Adam Robersmith in Justice on Earth, Manish Mishra-Marzetti and Jennifer Nordstrom, eds.  Skinner 2018