Category Archives: Personal Reflections

Looking for Hope in a Hopeless World

by Jim Stephenson

Earth Day Sermon 2017, Unitarian Church of Vancouver

Earthly prospects seem less hopeful in 2017 than on previous Earth Days. The window of opportunity for an orderly transition off fossil fuels is rapidly closing, and recent election results offer little promise of timely action. The whole idea that our species has and uses rational decision making is now questionable. In the face of this, how does one find hope and live a life based on purpose, morality, and optimism?

Since the first Earth Day in 1970 environmental movements around the world have had many successes and many failures.

Ten years ago my friend Rex Weyler gave the Earth Day sermon from this pulpit. Things were still cautiously optimistic 10 years ago. Today, however, things have changed. A proposed budget reduction of 30% for the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. is but one of the many symptoms. The problems are not limited to what’s going on in the US; recall the recent reactions in Canada to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s suggestion of an eventual phase out of the oil sands.

How bad are things?

It’s been known for some time that the sooner humans started reducing their CO2 emissions the easier and less costly it would be to reduce the risk of global warming. One estimate was it would require only a 3% per year reduction if we started in 2005. Starting in 2015, on the other hand, would take a 6% per year reduction, while waiting another 10 years until 2025 would require a 15% per year reduction. This increasing cost of waiting is what we refer to as the closing window of opportunity.

Some are more hopeful. James Hansen, regarded as the father (or now perhaps grandfather) of the effort to recognize and stop global warming, was the first to testify before the US Congress about the problem. Hansen has a new plan calling for a 6% per year reduction in CO2 emissions starting in 2021 which, his calculations show, would keep us below a 2o C rise in global mean temperature, and perhaps even closer to 1.5oC. Why does his plan not start until 2021? That’s after the next US presidential election.

Regardless of which estimates are correct, there is a window and it is closing. Whether we can solve the problem with a 6% reduction rate or we really need a 10% reduction, the fact remains that in our world today emissions are still increasing.

We’ve known about the problem for quite a while. The basic science of climate change due to CO2 emissions was known in the 1800’s, demonstrated in the 1950’s, and reported to President Lyndon Johnson as far back as 1965. It was with the testimony of James Hansen before a congressional hearing on June 23, 1988 that global warming finally received international awareness. Hansen spoke of a “99% confidence” in “a real warming trend” linked to human activity. If humanity had acted on that warning at the time our prospects would have been much brighter at a lower cost. But instead many of our leaders either denied the facts on global warming outright, or simply expressed concern but took little action.

There is no rational basis for denying global warming

What is logically required to reject the science of global warming? One has to reject either (1) that humans, through burning fossil fuels and deforestation have emitted gigatons of CO2 into the atmosphere and oceans, or (2) that the measured buildup of this CO2 does not produce a greenhouse effect and warm the earth.

Have humans emitted CO2? We actually have a year-by-year accounting of human CO2 emissions. Between 1850 and 2007 emissions totalled 384 gigatons from fossil fuels and 160 gigatons from land-use changes. Of the fossil fuel emissions, 48% came from coal, 36% from oil, 13% from natural gas, 2% from cement production, and 1% from flaring. Of the total emissions 54% were absorbed by the oceans and soil, and the rest stayed in the atmosphere to raise the CO2 concentration from 280 ppm to 390 ppm by 2007. By 2016 mean global CO2 concentration had reached 405.1 ppm.

Does higher atmospheric carbon dioxide create warming? To me the most persuasive evidence of the effect of CO2 on the greenhouse effect is how the CO2 concentration is measured. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has been monitored daily at the top of Mona Loa in Hawaii since Charles Keeling started these measurements in 1953. To measure CO2 concentration, you pass an air sample through a tube with glass windows on each side. Through the windows, you shine infrared light radiation (like that radiated from the earth’s surface). You can precisely measure how much of the infrared light passes through and how much is absorbed by the CO2. If CO2 gas in the atmosphere didn’t absorb infrared light radiation, this measurement simply wouldn’t work. And yet, it’s been precisely calibrated under laboratory conditions.

Despite the closing window and the continuing denial we shouldn’t give up hope

First – we probably still have time to avoid the worst consequences as reflected in Jim Hansen’s latest plan.

Second – it is possible for political inaction to quickly change.

Think back to 1983 when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in accordance with Reagan’s guidelines, stopped all research on ozone depletion. On September 16, 1987, (just four years later, while Reagan was still president), 24 countries including the US, Japan, Canada and EEC nations signed the Montreal Protocol, pledging to phase out production of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) . One reason for the quick turn-around was that there was a ready technical fix in the form of an alternate, less damaging chemical (hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs)) to replace CFCs. Another factor was that a giant hole in the ozone had been discovered over Antarctica and it showed up on NASA satellite images. World citizens responded to the disturbing visual and factual evidence.

Third – a lot of good things are happening. Click here to learn why 2016 was a good year for humanity on a number of fronts.

But: humanity is behaving irrationally when it comes to global warming

Stopping global warming has never been a question of whether it was possible to do so, or even if it could be accomplished without unreasonable sacrifice of our modern lifestyle. It’s always been a question of whether humanity would recognize the science and organize internationally to make it happen. That is seemingly easy for a species which has developed modern medicine, transportation and communications. Perhaps its not so easy given the results of recent elections. Today it’s an election in France.

The failure to act on global warming has called into question the whole concept of humans being rational and having the ability to use foresight. As rational humanist Unitarian Universalists it seems so straightforward to recognize a problem, analyze options, and then implement a solution. It’s hard to understand how so many, particularly those in power, can deny the problem and reject any solution offered. What can they be thinking?

One plausible answer is related to the free-market dogma and a preference for reducing the role of government which has gained such ascendancy in some countries in recent decades. Addressing climate change requires greater government action, more regulation, and more government involvement in the market. Think carbon taxes to correct price signals, regulation of emissions, and promotion of green energy over fossil fuels. Is it any wonder that those opposed to increased government action will be tempted to deny a problem whose solution requires more government action?

If we’re going to understand and respond to this irrational behavior, we should turn to psychology

Jonathan Haidt is a psychology researcher who has scientifically studied how people arrive at their values. He has published a number of books and given some TED talks, which I highly recommend. Some of his research has examined the differences in values of liberals and conservatives.

Haidt has identified five foundations of morality: Preventing Harm, Ensuring Fairness, Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Purity or Sanctity. Everyone on the spectrum agrees about Harm and Fairness, but only conservatives value Loyalty, Respect for Authority, and Purity/Sanctity. Liberals are 2-channel, Conservatives are 5-channel.

Sometimes the difference is what we apply the value to. The political right may be criticized for its moralizing about sex, yet the political left moralizes about the purity of food.

Liberals speak for the weak and oppressed. They want change and justice, even at the risk of chaos. Conservatives speak for institutions and traditions. They want order, even at a cost to those at the bottom. Haidt postulates that righteous minds were “designed” to unite us into teams, divide us against other teams, and blind us to the truth.

We may not be so rational ourselves

What we want is a passionate commitment to the whole truth. Unitarian Universalists pride ourselves on possessing this commitment. But do we practice it?

James Hansen, in a recent address to the Vancouver Institute, suggested that speaking truth to power these days is pretty much a one-way street. He views nuclear power as playing an important role in the carbon-free economy. He thinks of the typical environmentalist opposition to 2nd and 3rd generation nuclear energy as “religious dogma”. Many of my Unitarian friends seem more willing to have an objective discussion of religion than of nuclear energy. Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, Fukushima: these were all shocks to our emotional systems which make rational analyses and discussions of nuclear power difficult for us.

There were various nuclear reactor designs proposed 30 years ago. While molten sodium and molten metal designs have some obvious advantages, boiling water reactors were chosen, apparently due to the US preference for this design in nuclear submarines. The safer designs shut themselves down if they overheat, produce much less and easier-to-manage waste, are less susceptible to proliferation and fuel theft, and would not require any additional uranium mining for more than 2 centuries. Bill Clinton shut down research into these designs under pressure from environmentalists.

Nuclear power might not be chosen in an unbiased, rational analysis, but it seems to me that it was not rationally considered by most environmentalists. Now Germany, the poster child of green energy, has closed its nuclear plants and replaced some of that capacity with coal, which has led to increasing CO2 emissions.

What Makes Us Happy?

Besides exploring the increasing divide between the political left and right, Jonathan Haidt has written a book titled The Happiness Hypothesis in which he examines the factors leading to greater happiness. One finding is that each person appears to have a happiness set-point. Some people tend to be happier than others independent of circumstances. He regards those with a high happiness set point as winners of the genetic lottery. While good or bad fortune may temporarily change one’s level of happiness, over time we return to our set points. If one person wins the lottery and another is paralyzed in an auto accident, within a year both will be back at their happiness set point.

The second main conclusion in The Happiness Hypothesis is that happiness comes from social connections with friends and family more that from material possessions. This is the wisdom we all seem to know rationally but keep forgetting as we pursue material success and go shopping. This point is relevant for preventing global warming, because the sources of true happiness are low carbon activities, while travel, shopping and status seeking, which do not lead to true happiness, are carbon intensive. We’re destroying the environment for all the wrong reasons.

So, where does this leave us in our hopeless world?

First – it’s probably not too late, but it will be before too long. So, this is a great time to work for a solution. If it is too late and we are destined for run-away global warming, we will need the teachings of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on the 5 stages of grief. In the meantime, we should follow the guidance of Joanna Macy. In her book Active Hope she is adamant that we should be realistic about how dire the situation is, but not allow despair to be incapacitating. Joanna Macy’s four-part spiral of the Work That Reconnects includes coming from gratitude, honoring our pain for the world, seeing with new eyes, and going forth.

Second – the enemy is not evil. They’re different, but they’re as rational as we are. Which isn’t saying much. If we’re going to stop global warming, they will have to be brought on board. Marveling at their stupidity isn’t a very effective way of getting them on board. We actually have to befriend them, respect them, and understand and acknowledge their concerns about loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity. We may well have to consider the purity of both sex and food. No one wants to destroy the future of their grandchildren, not even conservatives. This may be our most urgent need for befriending the “other”.

Third – we need to enhance our happiness by living simpler, more sustainable lives with lower carbon footprints. You will be happier, whether or not your simple lifestyle filled with meaningful human interaction leads to a successful world-wide effort to save our environment.

 

Kechika Wild

by Louise Goulet

 

The sun was sinking below the ragged mountain peaks,

bathing the valley below in a warm golden glow.

 

A light wind was drifting up the steep valley slopes,

caressing the shivering saffron grasses and the silvery willows

who were shimmering against a crimson sky.

 

Below the river was lazily meandering, sparkling in the dying light,

past dark spruces and emerald oxbows.

 

A moose was feeding mid-calf in a crescent-shaped slough,

water and green grassy ribbons dripping from its mouth.

 

Time had stopped as I stood entranced above the valley floor.

 

Mysterious chemicals pathways were engraving in my mind,

for decades to come, this time, this place where I had come to be

and where a part of me still is; all senses tingling, in awe,

overwhelmed by the beauty and wildness of this untamed world.

 

September 2009

Difference is the essence of humanity

by Jill Schroder

“Difference is the essence of humanity”.

This quote from John Hume seems to me an appropriate thing to remember on International Women’s Day. Hume carries on, “Difference is an accident of birth and it should therefore never be the source of hatred or conflict. The answer to difference is to respect it. Therein likes a most fundamental principle of peace: respect for diversity.”

What a soothing balm this message offers in the face of the xenophobic, misogynistic, hate and judgement-filled atmosphere of the current political arena. Difference is the essence of humanity. I feel my heart open and grow soft, as I reflect on the Syrian family we took into our home just over a year ago, on how they knew absolutely no English, but in a year have learned the language, and gained training and skills and are now contributing to the community and country. Difference and diversity go together like, what? Peace and good government?

John Kennedy writes, “If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity.“

Thomas Jefferson to William Hamilton, in 1800: “I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy as cause for withdrawing from a friend.” Ah, if only!

I like this one from Audre Lorde: “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

My husband has recently been enjoying a kaleidoscope as a toy, joy, and metaphor. I look through the viewer and see the multicoloured pieces. On the one hand they are distinct and separate, but they blend together, overlap, criss-cross, to create a truly beautiful, unique and unified image… When I turn the kaleidoscope ever so slightly there is a whole new arrangement of separate pieces, joining to make a remarkable, colourful whole. Cool metaphor for life, for diversity, for difference: the essence of humanity, eh?

As I go out about my day today, International Women’s Day, I will take this in my heart, the warmth, the unexpected challenges, the pleasures and opportunities for growth and connection that come when I respect and celebrate difference as the essence of humanity. I notice how different it is when I intentionally take this view, how differently I see people, how it affects my heart and my mind, what I see, and how I feel – on the bus, the sidewalk, in my building.

Churchill said, “Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.” Know it and love it!

 

Basic Decent Goodness

by Jill Schroder

Remembering “basic decent goodness” is turning out to be a big help for me in my ongoing struggle with the turmoil, both inside myself and that which I perceive in the world. Sound convoluted? Only sort of! Here’s a compendium of short notes in support of this approach.

Pablo Casals puts it this way: “Each person has inside a basic decency and goodness. If he/she listens to it and acts son it, he/she is giving a great deal of what it is the world needs most.

Eleanor Roosevelt wrote: “We have to face the fact that either all of us are going to die together or we are going to learn to live together and if we are to live together we have to talk.” It’s a whole lot easier to talk with each other if we assume that everyone has some positive values and motivations, even if they are very different from ours.

The Suzuki Elders are planning a forum for all generations, especially elders and youth, along these very lines – exploring how we can find areas of common ground, finding ways to say YES, even when there are significant disagreements.

Matthieu Ricard wrote a book called Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World. Mike and I have been moved to tears by some of the anecdotes and information. Ricard talks about the “banality of goodness”; he writes “We have to recognize that if we look at the vast majority of the behaviour of 7 billion human beings most of the time … we behave in benevolent, decent, kind, polite and … cooperative ways.”  Just think of how many drivers stop to let a pedestrian cross even when there is no one behind them for blocks — at least in Canada. Just because they want to be kind. There are so many ordinary, indeed banal, examples that come easily to mind. And this is not even counting the ways many of us come forward to offer help when there are real disasters. Basic decent goodness, indeed.

Rick Hanson, meditator, neuropsychologist, author of many books including Just One Thing, suggests in his most recent post that we “choose to love”, basically train ourselves in the art. Start by deliberately bringing warmheartedness to people who are easy to feel loving towards, and move on to adding those who are not. This is a deeply transformative practice, one that would serve us well right now.

A beloved Canadian writer Stuart McLean, who just died, at 68, is recognized this way. Stuart “always emphasized that the world is a good place, full of good people, trying to do their best. He believed in people’s extraordinary capacity for love and generosity. And he had faith in our ability to work together for the common good. He was, in other words, firmly committed to celebrating the positive, joyful and funny side of life. Stuart assured us that even in difficult times, we can find things to be grateful for and ways to laugh.” It would be a fitting memorial to Stuart for us to us to try hard to do just that! Basic decent goodness again.

This approach sets aside the unresolvable question of the existence of Evil and of whether there are inherently evil people. At one level, believing in widespread basic decent goodness is a choice which affects us inside and out. This choice applies and matters, quite emphatically, in the face of despotic, chaotic, or otherwise disastrous regimes, actions or situations.

I’d like to end on a related but different note, one which is on the bright side. Here’s an except from Thirty Thousand Days. I call it Treasure the Pleasures.

“That evening, as I watched the sunset’s pinwheels of apricot and mauve slowly explode into red ribbons, I thought: ‘it probably doesn’t matter if we try too hard, are awkward sometimes, care for one another too deeply, are excessively curious about nature, are too open to experience, enjoy a nonstop expense of the senses in an effort to know life intimately and lovingly. It probably doesn’t matter if, while trying to be modest and eager watchers of life’s many spectacles, we sometimes look clumsy or get dirty or ask stupid questions or reveal our ignorance or say the wrong thing or light up with wonder like the children we all are. It probably doesn’t matter if a passerby sees us dipping a finger into the moist pouches of dozens of lady’s slippers to find out what bugs tend to fall into them, and thinks us a bit eccentric. Or a neighbor, fetching her mail, sees us standing in the cold with our own letters in one hand and a seismically red autumn leaf in the other, its color hitting our sense like a blow from a stun gun, as we stand with a huge grin, too paralyzed by the intricately veined gaudiness of the leaf to move. ”

And finally, treasure the incredible photographs in Brightside.

WOW, eh?

 

Smile! You’ll be glad you did.

by Jill Schroder

I often feel like there is not much to smile about these days. I am doing what I can to manage my emotions, I respond rather than react. I try to hold a compassionate and caring vision rather than slip into fear, anger or helplessness.

I have just received a post from the DailyOm.com that suggests a smile. In my inbox this morning I discovered this: “If you’re having a good time, notify your face!” I smiled, actually laughed out loud, when I read it 🙂

It is well established that when we laugh, or even just smile, a whole range of neurological connections and associations are set loose in our minds and bodies that are nothing but healthy and which have a startling number of benefits. Let the smile sink in. Really feel and enjoy the moment. Savour the flavour! This deepens the good and takes it down to a cellular level.

Another vital piece of information is that we don’t have to have a reason to smile or laugh. Even if we don’t feel cheery we can smile anyway. It can actually become a practice – just smile for the heck of it; just laugh because it occurs to you, the benefits are the same. There is now such a thing as laughing yoga practice, even a laughter university!

One could say we are living in dark times. I have two offerings to help us through at this juncture. One is from my dear brother, a scientist and arealist. When he talks about hope, I like to listen. He says:

Here is my only real rational vision for how this can work out well! In the vernacular its called “unexpected consequences”, but the rigorous (provable) basis is in non-linear dynamics (= “chaos theory”). With complex systems composed of certain types of interactions – as the world certainly is – we know for certain that discrete actions in the present cause consequences that are entirely unpredictable in the future.

Even an action which seems certain to move something one way can surprisingly quickly turn it exactly the opposite way. This we know. This is always a mixed blessing, I hasten to add, since it also means that any of the things that we do that we think are good and will help, may not do so. As we have seen in the last year or two!

The emergence of Donald Trump can be seen as such a path. The response, however, is also hopeful, and is that a good and the only solution to controlling a trajectory in complex nonlinear dynamics is constant correction, and adjustments tend to keep trying to push things in the right direction. One can call it Adaptive Management. We are in one of these moments now, for sure!

The other is something I wrote last year, soon after the election. It was a reminder to myself and others that a lot is going on right now, and a great deal of it is heartwarming, encouraging, and downright thrilling! Another smile 🙂

“Even after the recent election, and in this dark time of our history as a species, this time of exploitation and greed, of great dying out and killing off, of excessive consumption and shameful waste, we can help ourselves and each other to remember the countless and deeply encouraging signs of compassion, sanity and balance — innumerable shifts toward more sustainable ways of being and making our way forward.

May these signs and actions swell to a tidal wave of change for the benefit of all beings, a veritable coming of the light. Let us all be part of this vital coming in any and all ways we can. I take courage and heart from Howard Zinn’s essay, On Getting Along. Bless him and all of those of us working to make the world a better place in ways large and small. ”

In closing, it is important to remember the interconnectedness of everything with everything. Our thoughts, intentions, actions, have a vibrational effect on the whole world. It really matters what we tell ourselves, including our face 🙂

Jill Schroder is the author of BECOMING: Journeying Toward Authenticity. BECOMING is an invitation for self-reflection, and to mine our memorable moments for insights, meaning, and growth.

 

 

Watching you Prime Minister

Dear Prime Minister Trudeau;

You will recall that at your book launch in Park Royal you graciously autographed below my comment ‘Watching You!

An autumn of sheer delight over your victory, boosted by a blossoming ’SunnyWays’ atmosphere across the land culminated in Canada’s strong and confident performance at COP21 where you and your team were instrumental in persuading the world of the imperative to hold global average temperature rise to no more than 1.5oC above pre-Industrial Revolution levels. Bravo! Elizabeth May was over the moon!

The letdown began during Spring Break with Cabinet’s nonchalant approval of Woodfibre LNG despite very strong opposition by the people of Howe Sound and in the face of outright rejection by every local government in the region. That was an unexpected kick in the face.

June brought the deeply contentious NEB approval of the Kinder Morgan Expansion. Your TMX Ministerial Panel, hastily assembled as a means of damage control, suffered blatant conflict of interest, professed no mandate but to listen, appeared listless and disinterested, was toothless, and achieved little if anything useful except, perhaps, furtherance of your agenda.

Over the summer I have been watching you with mounting unease as a flurry of MP-organized ‘Democracy Talks’ across BC gave every indication of having been rigged to distract our attention from the stark realities and colossal environmental risks posed by major fossil fuel-to-tidewater projects, aimed instead at softening us up for cabinet approval of one or more projects by year’s end.

As a British Columbian and retired mariner who lived through the 1964 bunker fuel spill in Howe Sound, I cannot overstate my concern regarding the risk of massively expanding diluted bitumen tanker traffic through Burrard Inlet and the Salish Sea. Reaction time, heavy tides, bad weather and human fallibility militate against significant spill recovery. Brave promises of a World Class oil spill clean-up capability become meaningless when dilbit sinks (according to a US National Academy of Sciences finding which was disallowed from evidence by the NEB).

Dilbit is exceedingly noxious stuff. A big spill near Vancouver could be catastrophic for the marine environment and precipitate a major health crisis across the Lower Mainland. Trans Mountain’s own experts have calculated a 10% probability of a dilbit spill of 8.25 million litres or more during a 50 year operating cycle. That’s 3000 times the size of the Marathassa spill (of mere fuel oil) in English Bay last year that caused so much fuss.

The Kinder Morgan expansion is incompatible with Canada meeting even our admittedly weak global climate commitment, yet the word is out that you are determined to approve an oil tanker project and Kinder Morgan is the favourite. Will you count that as a science-based decision?

What happened to your promise to overhaul the pipeline approval process? When are you going to step up and assume the climate action leadership role we saw in you? Most importantly, what will happen to our grandchildren if we fail to take the climate action so urgently needed right now?

Your father’s infamous middle finger salute to BC will be seen as nothing compared to your own hypocrisy if you, our climate savvy Prime Minister, – you, a grandson of Vancouver’s North Shore, – break faith with us who worked so hard, and with such good reason, to see you elected.

I beseech you, Prime Minister: do not approve Kinder Morgan Expansion!

Social licence not granted. British Columbia will not forget.

Watching You!

Regards

Roger Sweeny, Cdr RCN ret.

 

 

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