Climate Change and the Countercultures

Rev. Robert Francis Murphy | Sample Sermon

My comments about religion and climate change are very simple.

First: If you want to know how the natural world works, talk with the scientists and the environmentalists. Study physics, and biology, and botany, and learn what you can learn from the Weather Channel. Ask questions at your local nature center.

If you want to save planet Earth, get involved with organized religion. If you don't like organized religion, try to understand why religion is important, in an age of climate change. In their best moments, religious organizations offer real solutions to real problems. In the Americas, the big religious organizations know how to work with each other. If you've missed these points, watch the Weather Channel during a major disaster. Keep asking, "Who cares for high-risk groups? Who provides support today, and who are preparing for the future?

Years ago, I went to an environmental conference in New Orleans. We reviewed some journal articles, and the articles told us that a Category 3 hurricane would do major damage to the city. Our tour guide showed us some of the weak spots in the levees. It was all very interesting, but we lacked passion, and our environmental group wasn't accountable to anybody, and we didn't have any influence with local government. So, we talked about climate change, and we had a nice dinner, and after that, I received a New Orleans tee shirt for my collection.

You know the rest of the story. Hurricane Katrina arrived in the year 2005. At that point, the saints, and the bodhisattvas, and the righteous came marching in. Many of the religious buildings in New Orleans were damaged or destroyed by the floodwaters, but many of the congregations rallied, and many became active in community organizing. The big emergency services organizations came to town, and they were helpful for a few months, and, then, the visitors departed. Religious leaders stayed in their neighborhoods, and many of the local clergy are still active as community advocates. The goal is to create healthy communities that are accessible, resilient, and sustainable, with justice for all.

I made several trips to New Orleans, to help with relief efforts. I didn't go to any football games, but I spent some time at the Superdome with emergency services crews. The Superdome was "the shelter of last resort," for thousands of people who couldn't evacuate the city during and after Hurricane Katrina. Maybe I met with some saints at the Superdome, or in other places. It's possible. Who can say?

Second point: We need a green revolution in religion.

It's not necessary to be a saint, in order to enlist in the green revolution. Everybody can serve. The proposal for a green revolution in religion was first heard in the Catholic Workers Movement back in the 1930s. Dorothy Day was prominent in the Catholic Workers Movement, and she was very enthusiastic about proposals for a green revolution. Dorothy died in 1980. In recent years, the Vatican has discussed the possibility of recognizing Dorothy Day as being a saint. Maybe it will happen. Maybe not.

One writer has joked, "If Dorothy Day becomes a saint, she'll be the saint for homeless people and troublemakers." She was a joiner, and she was accountable, and she was also the best kind of critic. Like many of the religious leaders in New Orleans, she stayed behind to help in the places where she was needed. She was a political activist and she also chopped vegetables in community soup kitchens.

The idea of a green revolution in religion continues. Start with a bit of humility, although a green revolution in religion will require more than a sense of awe. Something has gone wrong in the world, and hard work will be needed. Reflection and spiritual growth will be required. Humanity is not at the center of the universe, and there are limits to what people should attempt, even in the name of "progress."

I'll offer some comments, to support the green revolution in religion.

First: Dorothy Day was an agrarian. She dreamed about moving millions of families into rural areas. When Dorothy was a young woman during the 1920s, the world had two billion people. Most people lived in the countryside. Nowadays, the world's population is over seven billion, and the population is still growing. In the industrialized nations, the population is aging. Most people live in cities, close to the ocean.

How do we create healthy communities that are accessible, resilient, and sustainable, with justice for all?

If you can develop an agrarian lifestyle that you can enjoy, you will be blessed in many ways. For the rest of us, the green revolution will have to develop in the city and in the suburbs, with rare visits to wilderness areas. Trying to move millions of people into rural areas will be extremely difficult. It may happen if the urban systems collapse, but the hardships involved will be traumatic, for decades. Many children, many of the elderly, and many of the people with disabilities will be abused and abandoned, and life will be difficult for the folks who survive.

Second: Dorothy Day was a Roman Catholic. Maybe that's important. Maybe not.

In the green revolution, speak for freedom and pluralism, in religion. The climate change problem is a global problem and it's complicated. Nature won't be saved by one nation, one race, one gender, one age group, or even one great narrative. Respect for multiculturalism is important in the green revolution. In the global environment, human beings will be saved together or not at all.

Keep in mind that there are people in China and in the Amazon, and in India and in other places, who are concerned about climate change. We need each other, in order to help each other. Proceed with caution, if you're trying to pull everybody into the same prayer tent. What's needed is an ecological way of thinking that celebrates diversity and the great network of mutuality.

Next: What did Dorothy Day do? She worked with homeless people, and with other marginalized individuals. These are the folks who suffer the most in the existing economy. The poorest of the poor are at high risk during extreme weather. They need our attention and our love.

The climate change discussion is often a conversation about the production and the use of energy. I've been to dozens of environmental meetings where speakers have talked about energy. Seldom, very seldom, is it acknowledged that people need energy in order to survive.

Some people waste a lot of energy, while others will be fortunate if they have shelter and a hot meal at the end of the day. In order to solve the climate change problem in a moral way, it will be necessary to provide all people, in all places, with an adequate supply of energy that is safe, affordable, and sustainable. Energy conservation is vital, but per capita, energy consumption needs to rise in the developing nations, in order to bring families out of poverty. The climate change problem will increase the global need for energy. Pumps will be needed during floods, and air conditioning and cooling stations will be needed, during future heat waves. And, meanwhile, the population continues to grow.

Sad to say, the climate change discussion has given little attention to human rights and dignity. For some environmentalists, energy use is a silly habit, like cigarette smoking, and punitive taxes have been proposed, in order to raise consumer energy prices. Caring for a growing population will be a challenge, but one point is certain. If you want environmental peace, work for environmental justice. The poor may nod their heads in sympathy during climate change lectures, but they'll burn whatever they can get, to cook their meals and light their homes. In France, the 2018 carbon tax raised the consumer price of gasoline, and forces on the political left and on the political right united to make one protest.

In California, when Pacific Gas and Electric failed to deliver power, the poor were told to purchase their own generators and solar panels. I've heard that suggestion in other places, after major storms, and it may be close to a Marie Antoinette suggestion. If the poor can't find bread, why don't they buy a bakery? It may happen, in some places, although the tenants in low-income housing may have their doubts. Many people would like to leave the grid.

However, it won't be easy, for some families. Try to be helpful. The highways are filled with automobiles, and some vehicles may be fuel-efficient, but the young and the old still ask for transportation. It's a problem. Try to be helpful.

Last: If you're active in organized religion, you're part of a counterculture.

If you're actively involved with any kind of religion, you're in the minority. In some ways, it doesn't matter if you've joined a Quaker commune or if you're prominent in the Church of the Latter Day Saints. If you're active in organized religion, you're part of a counterculture. If you feel alienated from others, and if you can't find a purpose and your next stop is nihilism, you're close to the modern mainstream. The world can be a rough place, and not just because of wildfires and extreme weather. In the midst of plenty, many people live and die feeling forsaken.

Dorothy Day was part of the Greenwich Village scene during the 1920s, and she lived to see the beatniks, the hippies, and the Me Generation crowd during the 1970s. She knew that millions of people were alienated from their neighbors, with each generation rejecting the one before it in the name of "freedom." In some ways, Ms. Day was sympathetic, as one group of rebels followed another. Still, she wanted something more. Dorothy saw a parade of fashion that moved around like the arrow on a weathervane. She went in search of a better way of living

A green revolution in religion is needed, for an age of climate change. Walls are being raised, against climate change refugees. Moral callousness prevails in politics and in big business. A live-for-today attitude has developed, even in some religious circles. A sense of place may be helpful, but we need more than that, and it's good to know that we're part of something big, but we'll need more than that when the lights go out and the computer fails. Support for human rights is essential, to secure a moral future, but a simple humanism, with its emphasis on personal needs and wants and experience, won't be enough, to save the whole world. Mutual aid will be useful, and it will do some good, as an alternative to extreme individualism. And, still, there will be a need for something more, for an era of climate change.

Some people believe that humanity will be saved by the government. If we can amend the Constitution, and if we can elect some new officials, and if they can pass some new laws, perhaps life will improve in the United States. It may happen. Others place their faith in science and technology. If genetic engineers can develop better animals, and if climate engineers can manage solar radiation, why worry?

There's a need for better government, and scientists and engineers will continue to produce new wonders, and some of the new products will be helpful and appreciated. Still, there's a need for something else, in an era of climate change. We need a tender, touching revolution that will ask, "How do we practice kindness?" How do voluntary, participatory organizations, in a multicultural world, encourage the right relationships and a sense of personal responsibility? Dorothy Day looked for the answers in organized religion. She was a troublemaker.

- END -

(Sermon by Rev. Bob Murphy. Presented to Spirit of Life Unitarian Universalist, in Odessa, Florida, for November 3, 2019.)