Jan 042023

Below is a piece I wrote for my Unitarian Universalist group

The observable universe is 93 billion light years across. It’s estimated to have around 2 trillion galaxies, with each galaxy a home to 100 trillion stars and planets. And of all those planets we’ve been searching for signs of life since we first looked up at the skies – only to find that so far, our humble earth is the only planet with Goldilocks-perfect conditions to sustain biology.

The only planet that has the rare distance from a star to allow for liquid water – yet also has plentiful reserves of the basic elements of life  – and – a magnetic core and atmosphere that repels life-destroying cosmic radiation that is constantly thrown our way.

How lucky are we??? Seriously – we’ve won the cosmic lottery!

And we don’t just have ‘life’ here. It’s not just some bacteria or amoebas floating around in some soup. No, our earth is home to 8.7 million species of life. Incredible life ranging from colorful peacocks to electric eels. Metamorphosing butterflies to humongous humpback whales. Fragrant roses to giant sequoias. The earth is beautiful, right?

In fact, I’d love to hear what some of you are most impressed by. What do you find most beautiful on this earth – go ahead, shout it out….

(calla lilies, rainbows, horses…I agree)

This life has learned to carefully balance itself with all of earth’s resources, ensuring that the food chain, the water cycle, the seasons – all work together to ensure generation after generation of life for over 3 billion years.

This is a gift. An awesome gift that we receive from the earth every single day. Today I’m going to challenge us to examine our relationship with the earth. She is always giving, always providing. Are we returning the favor? Are we thanking her, and giving back to her? Or is this a one-sided relationship?

Here are a few points to consider.

In the last 100 years 64% of our wetlands have been lost.

Since 1970 our forests have been decreasing in size, at a rate of over 2000 trees per minute.

In the last 15 years the number of species listed as ‘threatened with extinction’ has tripled.

David Attenbourough, who many of you may recognize as the voice on almost all nature documentaries, sums it up by saying, “1 million species on earth is threatened by 1 species”. Who is that 1 species?  (us!)

We’re a species that too commonly makes short-sighted decisions, not caring about the impact on our future. We’re living in a world of instant gratification, of towering debt, of me vs you. And it has a real cost.

Let’s ponder the argument that we are the only species that makes trash. Every other animal on this earth has a cycle for its waste – it eventually becomes something else.  Sometimes it even becomes something beneficial to other species, such as the dung beetle, or mushrooms. But our waste – our take-out containers that don’t decompose, our diapers that fill up landfills, our discarded furniture or mattresses that no one wants. These are things we create that still stick around possibly forever. Our modern trash hauling system is both a blessing and a curse – it conveniently takes these items away from our focus as if they magically no longer exist, but it removes us from the impact of our trash.

Our annual greenhouse gas emissions – the exhaust from our cars, the methane from factory farming, the byproduct of burning natural gas – has reached 51 billion tons. Let me pause right there, because it’s hard to comprehend that a gas (something as light as air) has weight, but it does. If you were to take a balloon of CO2 about the size of a refrigerator, that weighs 1 pound. Every year we are emitting 112 trillion refrigerators of greenhouse gas.

Many scientists argue that with all this waste we’re making drastic changes to our planet. Some even say the damage we’ve done is irreversible – we’ve crossed a tipping point and we better buckle up. Environmental activist Greta Thunberg refers to this not as climate change, but as a “climate emergency”, and that if we don’t treat this as an immediate crisis then we’ll have no way to avoid a climate- and ecological disaster​.

Back in December Netflix released a movie called “Don’t Look Up” – anyone see it? Raise your hand if you saw it…Did you like it?

In this movie, two astronomers – played by Leonardo Dicaprio and Jennifer Lawrence go on a giant media tour to warn the planet of an approaching comet that will destroy all life on Earth. They have the telescopic photos and the orbital calculations and all the scientific evidence to prove that the earth will be demolished at an exact time – but almost everyone ignores them. They go on TV, they go to the white house, they try to get anyone’s attention, and they’re always met with resistance. In fact there’s even an opposition group that forms called “Don’t look up” – the name of the movie – persuading people to ignore these astronomers because they’re spreading ‘fake news’ – yet as the comet gets closer all anyone has to do is “just look up” and they’ll see it.

While this is an entertaining film, it’s also a wake-up call – an analogy to the current issues we’re facing on earth that no one is acting seriously enough on.

As UU’s we already have enough on our plate to care about – do we really need to be concerned about the earth too?! Let’s take a look at our 7 principles that guide Unitarian Universalism. 

Our 1st principle – remembering the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Every person that lives on this earth deserves to enjoy this earth. To me, this means people of fortune should not be able to trash the earth at the expense of those less fortunate. The reality is that those that are most affected by a degraded earth are usually people without privilege. Areas in developing countries are going to be the first to experience heat waves, droughts, lack of food, way before it reaches developed nations. The un-housed will feel its effects harder than those living in multi-million dollar homes.

Our 6th principle – The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Unfortunately many scholars predict that a changing, unstable climate will result in more famine, more conflict over natural resources, more wars. Dr. Sean Anderson, an ecologist and chair of environmental science at CSUCI was a speaker at a recent community forum where he stated that the Syrian Civil War was 100% caused by climate change – that with massive drought and crops failing people started to rise up and protest and eventually conflict led to war. The better we treat our earth, the less we compete for limited resources, the more peaceful this world will be.

And most relevant, our 7th principle – Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. Our relationship with all species is to be considered. Are we sharing the earth with them? Or are we taking more than our fair share? The earth is so vast that it’s easy to think of it as infinite. But the opposite is true. There’s a limited set of resources on earth, and in time they will run out. Earth is finite. Are we using its resources wisely and well? Are we considering the interdependent web and how individual actions can affect entire ecosystems?

With all that in mind, I feel like as UU’s it’s our responsibility to act, to thank this earth, to appreciate it and take care of it.

I think this starts with a specific mindset. One that views the earth and all its fragile parts as equals with ourselves. One that honors the connection we have with the earth. How do we do that?

We could begin the day with an intention to respect the earth. We could go on more hikes. We could name the plants in our garden. Take a moment every day to admire the sunset. Stop and listen to the birds. Dig your bare feet into the grass and soak up the soil. Smell the flowers. Native Americans looked up to animals as teachers, and they had no word for owning land. They had an earthly relationship that is hard to find today. Let’s find that lost relationship and rekindle it. I propose if we awaken this connection we will naturally perform actions that thank our earth.

For those of you (like myself) that need some concrete instructions on how to thank the earth-  I have 3 ideas I’d like us to consider.

Number 1: Reduce Consumption. Whatever you can do to use less is a step in the right direction. Shave 5 minutes off your morning shower to use less water. Put on a jacket instead of turning on the heater to use less energy. Think twice about buying that new TV when your current one works just fine. The less resources you consume, the happier the earth will be.

Less is more.

I recently read a book called “101 ways to go zero waste,” and in the opening chapter it said “By the end of this book if you follow my advice you’ll be recycling less.” What? I thought recycling is good for the environment? Well, it’s better than the landfill, but what the author was trying to convey is that it’s best to not consume in the first place. Kathryn Kellog writes, “Consider all the resources that go into producing the products we buy and all of the packaging and transportation that comes with them. When we truly think about all of the stuff we interact with, it becomes clear that some of the best things we can do are buy less, buy consciously, and produce as little waste as possible.”

Remember ‘recycle’ is only 1 of the 3 R’s in the iconic green triangle, the others are: Reduce and Reuse. Ask yourself if you can fix something instead of getting another. Can you buy used instead of new? Craigslist and Ebay are your friends! If you receive a product with a cosmetic blemish can you live with that, or must you return it where it will most likely be thrown in the garbage? I know this sounds silly but I’ve started to pick where I eat out based on the materials they serve their food on – do they have dishes that they wash and reuse, or will I have to throw out the plastic container it came in?

In fact one of the arguments for eating plants over meat stems from this reasoning. Raising animals for food is an incredibly inefficient use of resources. Growing crops to feed animals introduces a major extra step of waste relative to just eating the plant foods directly. If you just eat the plants, you cut out the middleman. For example, it takes 39 gallons of water to grow a pound of vegetables, yet that same pound of beef takes 1,847 gallons.

So – overall, the less you use, the better for the earth. And – as an added bonus, the less you consume, the more money you save! That’s a win-win situation!

The 2nd way you can thank the earth, is to utilize green technology, but carefully. Over the last decade we’ve had a boom in solar panels, electric cars, and energy efficient appliances. Rooftop solar has allowed the average homeowner to produce their own clean energy, and if you pair that with charging your new electric vehicle, then you’re essentially saving the world, right? 

Well, it’s tricky. We need to be careful here to make sure that we’re really upgrading our stuff for the right reasons. Believe it or not, but there are cases where your old gas-car is better than buying a brand new Tesla. Think about all the resources that go into building a new car – from the factory energy to mining the raw materials themselves. Its cost to the environment is considerable. So when you do upgrade your car, make sure that it’s because your current car has no more life in it. Same with appliances – it’s rarely helpful to switch out your functioning fridge for a new energy-efficient model if your old fridge was working fine and it’s just going to end up in the landfill. 

Some of this new green tech is incredibly expensive, so consider that being green is a privilege. If you have the means and your clunker is falling apart then awesome! But there’s no shame in not being able to afford it. The good news is that some of these green solutions don’t require upfront investment. For example, did you know that your home can be powered by renewable sources without installing expensive rooftop solar? Give your electricity provider a call and ask to be put on their ‘green rate’. It does cost about 10-15% more than your current rate, but they’ll be sure to buy your energy expenditure from local solar or wind farms, without you having to front the cost at all.

I have to be careful of “greenwashing,” where a company promotes a new product of theirs that they claim is green, but really isn’t deep down. I just recently heard an ad for a “Green” credit card that promises to plant trees correlated with your spending. Sounds great, right? But doesn’t that just promote/rationalize more consumption? A true ‘green’ credit card would reward you when you don’t buy anything new. But that’s not profitable…so I don’t expect to see that anytime soon.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not discouraging new green tech. There’s been a ton of progress in making typical consumer products more efficient and green, and I’m very excited about them – We just replaced our dying water heater with a tankless one, and I know my wife is sick of hearing me talk about the energy savings. What I am saying is that when we purchase new green tech we need to look at the whole picture from a resource lifecycle point of view.

I saved the most important point for last, even though it’s the most boring. The 3rd thing we can do to thank the earth is to support regulations. This means voting for carbon pricing, higher efficiency standards, recycling laws, and democratic power grids. I know this is getting political and increasing the government’s hand which I admit can be scary. But the truth is that while individual actions are helpful, they’re not going to solve the crisis alone. Most of the biggest offenders are companies who are just looking at their profits and aren’t going to change unless they’re mandated to. We could all go get solar panels, switch to induction heating, grow our own gardens, become vegan, and live within our means, but if corporations are not doing the same it’s barely going to move the needle.

We must vote. We must talk to others about this. We must get involved in collective action. Our very own Clint Fultz, reminded me of the many groups we can participate in. From national organizations such as 350.org (named after the safe amount of CO2 in the atmosphere – we’re currently at 419 btw) to local groups such as the Ventura County chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby. These groups stand up to the fossil fuel industry aiming to build a clean energy future for all. Even more local than that is our Chalice Climate Action Team, who meet monthly and according to their mission statement “educates and connects with others to advocate for a just and sustainable future for life on Earth.” They’re a very welcoming bunch and would be thrilled to see some new faces.

I know I’ve dumped a lot of dread on you here today…but I want to emphasize how important it is to not give up. It’s easy to say “If the world is ruined then I might as well enjoy it while it lasts.” – and if you think that way you’re actually doing exactly what the fossil fuel industry wants you to do. They thrive on hopelessness and apathy. 

Some think “It’s fine, we have plans to colonize Mars so we have a backup planet.” But let me tell you what it would be like to live on mars, where the average temperature is -80 degrees, the atmosphere is not breathable, and dust storms are commonly shrouding the entire planet from the sun. You won’t ever be sunbathing on a beach on Mars. There is no planet B. Planet A is amazing and we’d be in a world of hurt trying to start over on a new planet.

I want to remind us about the ozone layer crisis back in the 90’s. Scientists had discovered that a critical part of our atmosphere was being destroyed by our actions and we needed to change. Countries got together, they collectively researched, decided to ban CFCs, and fast forward to now the ozone hole has stopped progressing and there’s evidence it’s starting to shrink.

We do have hope.

Back when climate change was first discovered we were on track to warm the earth by 4-8 degrees. Based on our current projections we’re now at 3 degrees. That’s still scary, but it’s no longer an apocalyptic human extinction event. The coal industry is dying because it’s now cheaper to get electricity from sun and wind. Climate awareness is at an all-time high – I can’t look at the news without seeing a climate-related headline. There are a lot of things trending in the right direction.

We can take better care of the earth. We’ve done it before and we can do it again. It starts by reducing our consumption, using green tech (carefully!), and supporting climate regulations.

[Media – https://content.thriveglobal.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Blue-Dot.png]

I close with words by astronomer Carl Sagan, who when looking at a photo of a distant earth taking up a single pixel in a sea of black, remarked: 

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, … every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, … every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

He continues:

this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

In the last scene of “Don’t Look Up,” the characters get together for one last feast, to enjoy each other, and indulge in their favorite food. As the Earth’s doom approaches, Leonardo DiCaprio’s character turns to his loved ones around the room and says: “We really did have everything, didn’t we?”

My friends, we really do have everything. Right? We’ve won the lottery. This pale blue dot is our fortune. Let’s cherish it. Let’s thank it. Let’s connect with it, honor it. Let’s awaken our relationship with the earth and ensure it can be cherished by others, for many, many generations to come.

It can start with you. And it can start today.

May it be so.

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