by Anneliese Schultz
An Earth Sunday 2016 homily given at the Vancouver Unitarian Church
Yes. We are a part of the interdependent web of all existence. Yes. We are destroying it.
That shocking juxtaposition of blessing and dishonour, gratitude and anger is probably the closest I can come to describing where I was left when the state of our planet truly hit me nine years ago.
I say ‘hit me’ rather than ‘became clear to me’ because it was like a blow. I (like all of us?) seem not to take blows well. I wanted to deny it, forget it, turn away, run from the guilt and cross to the other side of the road. And so I got very very busy or else became dull with lack of hope or overwhelmed to the point of incapacity. Madly reading and cutting out every ‘green’ article I saw, I ended up with binders and boxes and a hodgepodge of clippings, and thus I became overwhelmed. I gave up on the environmental bulletin board in my church hall, then censured myself for that neglect, then ended up losing both the impetus to complete the church’s energy audit and any hold I had on being the environmental steward. I was trying to dodge the realization of where we have brought creation, but it was getting at me through not-wanting-to-know, and in so doing it was causing me what felt like craters and sinkholes, hairline fractures of fear, despair and grief. This was not a fun place to live.
Nor, sadly, will the earth be if we refuse to change. Not fun, not healthy, quite possibly not even viable for man or beast. From the cliff edge of this thought, where does one go?
Backing away from the edge in 2007 I started to understand the imperative of taking some kind of action, of weaving my concern into both my life and my careers. ‘But I teach Italian. How the heck is that going to work?’ Incrementally. Soon all my courses were Green Italian, with students surprised to receive eco-points for their bus passes or reusable mugs, with field trips to the UBC Farm linking up to food security, eventually with essays pulling in Italy’s Slow Food movement, and group presentations on Wall-E or The Road (or the most innovative – Pocahontas puppet show in Italian!).
In 2008 I started working on a young adult novel set in 2022 in a climate-ravaged BC – post-carbon, dystopian, apocalyptic. I was going with Ursula LeGuin’s term – Future History.
The personal life-change part? I’d seen all the lists: CFL light bulbs, reusable water bottle, Energy Star appliances, use the car less, unplug the electronics, buy local. But something about the ‘10 Green Choices’ thing isn’t working for me. Where’s the buy-in?
And then I realized that climate change (= climate chaos = climate refugees) is just a bigger picture of one of my concerns – homelessness.
Sustainability, I realized, is considering the impacts of our every choice upon our earthly home. It is asking ourselves whether we will leave it in a livable state, whether there will be a home, for our children and grandchildren here and our brothers and sisters elsewhere, everywhere.
We all know that more than one type of response to homelessness is essential:
- the political response of addressing the issue,
- the personal response of letting ourselves be affected by the people affected, and
- the principled response of acting from our compassion, acting with love.
How, I wondered, does this apply to the environment? Fast forward to today. Slowly, at our behest, governments have started to address the issue. Sufficiently or not? We will see what translates to action.
But the jury is definitely out on our personal actions. We’ve all made a few changes, but it’s often as if we make them almost mechanically, reluctantly, without in fact letting ourselves be affected by the people who are affected. We modify our lives as though we’re in an It’s Easy to be Green commercial rather than transforming things from the heart outward and by placing justice and equity as the cornerstones.
“Failing to care about climate change is a failure to love,” says Christian and climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe. Perhaps the opposite is true as well. Failing to love is a failure to factor into our daily choices a concern for those whose desert or island lives are being destroyed by our status quo, and is in turn a failure to make any changes that will actually ensure anyone’s survival.
This neglect is stranger still when one realizes that the people now affected are not only figuratively but literally our very own selves. They are the poor on our streets or on the streets of New Orleans. Right now the first American climate refugees are about to be resettled from Isle de Jean Charles, Louisiana. South Florida will likely be next, as will be our children as they move into their teens or twenties. Then to follow will be the ‘others’ (who are not really other) in drought-stricken Somalia or fire-ravaged Greece or California, or who live on low-lying Pacific islands or in a no-Man’s-land of climate change exodus. After them will surely follow our Vancouver and Calgary grandchildren, our Somalian and Ugandan and Syrian grandchildren). If we continue to live as we have been living, they may all be skipping and hopscotching toward a tragically insurmountable brick wall, one undeniably of our making.
Why does this not galvanize us? Where, how and why are we so disconnected from the state of emergency we have wrought within Creation? We are blessed with reason, memory and skills. How did we come to the decision not to use these gifts to save what has already been placed in our safekeeping? Maybe we are back to that place of crossing to the other side of the road. ‘I don’t want to feel guilty!’ I do not want to inspire feelings of guilt, in fact let me state right here that I feel compassion for you, for us in this place of needful and perhaps unwelcome change.
It’s true, to some extent, that we didn’t know once what we were doing to the earth by paving over and gearing up, by upsizing meals and manufacturing houses and electronics and cars and vacations-by-air; by wanting and wasting; by seeking comfort in the external. But we know now. And still there seems to be no guilt, no benefit to blame, no use to shame, no time for them.
This conversation is, of course, underlain with FEAR. Fear can be just as useless as blame and all the rest, but through its connection with anger and in its transmutation through Love, fear can become righteous indignation and that can serve us well. We have seen the proof of that right here in Canada with recent political changes. We have the right to ask our new government for more change, but only if we are fulfilling our own personal responsibility to also make those big changes in our own lives. Let us think of it as Principled Action.
It really is a matter of rethinking and revising our lives. The active step-by-step process of deeply and earnestly caring for our earth and for each other is hugely exciting when we start to feel its momentum. One change links to another and then another and connects gracefully with a larger action which others, we find, are doing too! Suddenly it is like vinegar spreading through oil, like puzzle pieces becoming a picture – fascinating, satisfying and, in this case, life-saving.
Let’s turn back, just for a moment, to the not-really-wanting-to-know syndrome. Its human, understandable. Here in the First World we don’t like the concept of sacrifice. Is something really a sacrifice? Each of us chooses whether to perceive something fearful – be it our work, raising a child, changing any habits that are harming us or the world – as a sacrifice when we could, instead, choose to embrace it as a commitment or indeed a sacred trust.
Katherine Hayhoe writes “Those nations most vulnerable to climate change are the very nations whose inhabitants already suffer from malnutrition, food shortages, water scarcity and disease. Climate change is deepening the chasm between the “haves” and “have-nots” across the globe.” So therefore relating the state of the earth back to our responses to homelessness, the connection becomes clearer with every boatload, with every planeload of refugees. There is violence and politics, yes, but underlying this can be found lands and communities destabilized by climate change. So here we are back at that third response to homelessness―principled action – as opposed to an Entitlement To Which We Do Not Actually Hold Title.
We are at the Eleventh Hour. If the lifestyles and behaviours that this entitlement has fostered in everyone, from toddlers to 90-year-olds, are not reined in immediately there will be nothing left for our children and grandchildren, be it food or water or a livable planet. I emphasize reined in. We are called to step up to something we would rather (to be honest) sidestep. If it makes it any easier then call it simplifying your lifestyle, although it is much more. It is pure social justice; it decides the future.
This all sounds like a heck of a lot of bad news. Once, as I was writing my climate change lecture, a 5-year-old neighbour wandered over with a tiny plant pot. “Look! There’s a little thing!” she said. Sure enough the unknown seed she had planted days before was sprouting. Ah, there’s the hope!
What about my personal changes over the last 9 years? Did I end up doing anything?
First it was a compost bin and a tiny garden. Then beef was off the menu. Then followed a rain barrel and selling the car. As I read about air travel being the fastest-growing source of carbon emissions, I stopped flying for good. Of necessity I discovered the Coast Starlight and California Zephyr, and have never before found such tranquility and inspiration in my travels. But I need to do much more―downsizing from a 2-bedroom townhouse into a tiny home is going to be the big one.
There is another puzzle piece, another place for action – story and art. Speaking at a 2008 conference on Faith and the Environment, then-Premier Gordon Campbell said “To be able to say that we saved and preserved and put to brilliant use every bit of this extraordinary [UBC] Farm of ours” would be a story worth billions. For sure there were Green Italian students marching in the Farm Trek that indeed saved it the next year. “Evviva la Fattoria!” And the thriving Farm is indeed a wonderful story and reality.
Back in the classroom I had my students writing a no-holds-barred wish list for their future (all the stuff they have learned to want be damned): everything from career to home furnishings to vehicle to number of kids. Then we talked about climate change and the butterfly effect and basically ‘justice, equity & compassion’. That wish list, revisioned as a reality check, led to their Azioni Verdi, 3 Green Actions written about in Italian. I overheard some interesting conversations:
“Wow, I was going to have 4 or 5 kids like in our family. Now I’m thinking 1, but then…”
“Hey, I’m an only child. Nothing wrong with that.”
“I always just figured 2 cars when I get married, but I mean really… my wife’s just going to have to share mine!”
Their final essay was ‘Il Mio Piano Verde’, ‘My Greenprint for the Future’.
“Se non abbiamo un pianeta, abbiamo niente!” “If we don’t have a planet, we have nothing.”
“I finally got my parents to turn off all the electronics!”
“After 25 years at home, I can’t wait to move out! Thinking about the environment in my lifestyle will be good for the earth plus it’ll also save me money.”
‘I’m going to….ride my bike to work….take much shorter showers…..make my own lunch….be a responsible consumer….create a relaxing Earth Hour without electricity every week for myself.”
Anyone starting to wonder where this is going? Yes, of course there’s homework. Same parameters: no low-hanging fruit like turn the lights out or remember to turn the computer off. New-to-you actions: one to do with food. Push your boundaries.
There are pointers: think first to all those who are impacted by your actions. Make them a part of you. Then go into yourself. What small things do you love? What do you do best? Who are you really? From there, build your actions:
- gardening in community,
- a family project – making our diet earth-friendly,
- teaching someone to knit or sew or preserve,
- bringing your wisdom to Suzuki Elders,
- creating climate art,
- doing guerrilla gardening & seed bombing,
- no more straws and disposable cups,
- checking out the Soaring Eagle Nature School or http://www.greentechexchange.ca or slow money or becoming a citizen scientist or the thought of Exquisite Sufficiency,
- calculating that footprint & majorly reducing it,
- meeting with each other to talk through the despair and the hope,
- staying here on this Blessed Coast to explore and safeguard the beauty of where we live.…
The possibilities are as varied as we are. The constant is that it is incumbent upon us all to embrace them now. Joy is in your changes! Write them up and paper your walls here with them. Ramp it up. Stick with them. Add more.
Let yourself be guided. Guy Dauncey, author of Stormy Weather: 101 Solutions to Global Climate Change and the just-published novel Journey to the Future, proposes that instead of the law of attraction, which is about getting, we practice the law of guidance. How perfect, for guidance is unlimited and always there, waiting only on our welcome.
The more we accept the reality of climate crisis and strive for coherence of principles and impeccability in our actions, the more of a chance our next generation has for a livable future. As Rhea Wolf says, “Our responsibility is not to be taken lightly, for we are, simply and critically, the future’s ancestors.”
Anneliese Schultz is a 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee and a former Bread Loaf Scholar. In 2011-12 she was named one of six University of British Columbia Sustainability Teaching & Learning Fellows. She recently retired from teaching ‘Green Italian’ in order to write full-time.