I have long thought that climate change is the most important, and most urgent issue facing us. As it has become less of a future threat and more of a present reality, I have worked on finding hope in this grim scenario.
When Rev. Michael Dowd spoke to us in the fall, he presented a time estimate for what is known as “the end of the world as we know it” that was much sooner than anything even I had imagined. In speaking with members of our congregation, I realized it was distressing to others as well.
Active Hope redux
I decided we needed to revisit the idea of Active Hope, something I preached on my first fall here.
Since childhood, I have been drawn to animals and trees, and nature in general. In terms of justice issues, these are the populations I have been most interested in advocating for, especially as they have no voice. I feel strongly that we need to treat all living beings as ends in themselves, and not as a human “environment” whose only value lies in how useful they are to us.
Ever since I’ve been in ministry, I’ve preached a sermon around Earth Day that focused on our relationship to the non-human world in some way. Increasingly, my sermons became about climate change, as it has become clear that it is the number one way we are harming the Earth. Climate change affects the future survival chances of every single species, humans included.
My sermons used to say, in effect, “Let’s change our ways before it is too late!”
Is it too late?
Then, in 2014, in researching my Earth Day sermon, I realized it was already too late. Too late to turn back the tide. Tipping points had been reached, feedback loops had been started that took on their own momentum, no matter what we do from now on.
Oh, the Earth will survive. Probably some forms of life as well. But complex organisms like human beings and polar bears will probably cease to exist. Life as we know it will cease to exist. And it’s coming soon. Just how soon is an open question.
Some refer to it as the Sixth Mass Extinction. Animal and plant species are dying out at a spectacular rate. There have been only five mass extinctions since life emerged, 3.5 billion years ago. Now human activity — greenhouse-gas emissions, urbanization, the global spread of invasive species — is driving the planet toward a sixth.
Where do we find hope?
Given this bleak outlook, where do we find hope?
Hope is the currency of religious life. It is what I attempt to bring to the pulpit week after week, despite the many ways our world is troubled—indeed, precisely because of the many ways our world is troubled.
I have had to reimagine what hope looks like in the face of the existential threat to life on this planet that we are now facing. I believe we need to face the truth of our situation, no matter how difficult, and still find hope, still find reasons to work for a better present and future for all.
In a September 8th article in The New Yorker, author Jonathan Franzen expresses it well:
“Today, the scientific evidence verges on irrefutable. If you’re younger than sixty, you have a good chance of witnessing the radical destabilization of life on earth—massive crop failures, apocalyptic fires, imploding economies, epic flooding, hundreds of millions of refugees fleeing regions made uninhabitable by extreme heat or permanent drought. If you’re under thirty, you’re all but guaranteed to witness it.
“If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.”
How to face the mess we are in
I have grounded my hope in the work of Joanna Macy, an environmental activist, author, scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. Macy’s book Active Hope, that we heard from in the reading has a subtitle: “How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy.”
That’s really what it’s all about, isn’t it? How to confront the conditions of our world without despair taking over? Not just climate change, but conditions like nuclear waste, resource depletion, mass extinction of species, increasing violence and so on, and so on. It’s so much easier for those of us with privilege to just go along with business as usual, trying to do what we can, but mostly trying not to think too much about it. It’s too scary to think about, and we may feel powerless to do much about it, so most of the time we avoid it—we keep busy, we distract ourselves, we don’t allow ourselves to feel the fear and the grief.
Coming to terms with climate change in particular is difficult because of the unique situation it poses. Macy says, “We need each other in ways we never have before. Because all through human history there was this tacit assumption that life would continue on this planet. Oh yeah, there were wars, there was poverty, there was plague and pestilence. Death, of course, and illness and old age and all of that. But always there was that tacit assumption that life would continue and that the work of our hands and hearts would go on for future generations. And that’s what’s lost now. And that loss of certainty for the ongoingness of life is the pivotal psychological reality of our time, I believe.” (from the DVD)
The loss of certainty for the ongoingness of life. That’s scary indeed. And yet, it’s the uncertainty that energizes us. If the world is going to end no matter what we do, then why do anything? And if we know everything is going to be OK, then where’s the motivation to act? It’s the not knowing that elicits our greatest creativity and courage. It’s the uncertainty that allows us to influence what happens, and helps us come most alive.
Or as the Czech dissident, writer and statesman Václav Havel said, “Hope is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something is worth doing no matter how it turns out.”
If we are to turn around this ship we’re on, we need to do it fast. Other shifts of the magnitude we’re looking at took centuries to achieve. We don’t have that much time. What alarmed many of us in Rev. Dowd’s presentations is the extremely short amount of time he predicts before we reach the end of the world as we know it.
One of the great gifts of hope I gained at the workshop I did with Joanna Macy is the concept of discontinuous change. It’s a sudden shift that can’t be predicted by what comes before. The analogy is to put a bottle of water in the freezer. As it cools down, there is a steady, continuous change in temperature, but the water doesn’t change much in appearance until it gets near the critical threshold of its freezing point. Then, all of a sudden, it happens and the water changes from liquid to solid. It’s like the concept of a tipping point, where the accumulated effects don’t show up until finally something puts it over the top and tips it in the new direction.
Imagine the World we wish for
Active Hope isn’t dependent on being able to see results, but merely on being able to imagine the world we wish for and then work to realize that vision of the world. As Macy says, “we can’t know how things will unfold. What we can do is make a choice about what we’d like to have happen, and then put ourselves fully behind that possibility.” (Active Hope, p. 191)
Active hope is finding hope precisely in our actions. Not a feeling, but a doing.
Greta Thunberg, the young Swedish climate activist, told world leaders recently:
“Our house is on fire… We are facing a disaster of unspoken sufferings for enormous amounts of people. And now is not the time for speaking politely or focusing on what we can or cannot say. Now is the time to speak clearly… You say nothing in life is black or white. But that is a lie. A very dangerous lie. Either we prevent 1.5C of warming or we don’t. Either we avoid setting off that irreversible chain reaction beyond human control or we don’t. Either we choose to go on as a civilization or we don’t. That is as black or white as it gets. There are no grey areas when it comes to survival …Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act like your house is on fire because it is.”
As my colleague Peggy Clarke says, “Our house is in fire and we are the firefighters.” She says:
We’re in a climate emergency. We have very little time left to address it. The experts told us [in 2018] we had 12 years after which there’s no reversing the worst effects. It’s the planetary equivalent to the house in flames. We’re already experiencing what they call the mild effects, the storms, the floods, the draughts, the disappearing of entire species.”
That 12-year warning, that was now four years ago. Four years have passed and nothing has happened. We now have 8 years.
Clarke continues, “How is it possible that we have created a crisis of such magnificent proportions? Our economic system, requiring growth every quarter failed to recognize that we live on a finite planet, that infinite growth is impossible. The political and financial systems on which our nation rests, the Industrial Growth Society, guaranteed this outcome as soon as it was created. And yet, here we are, taken by surprise as we teeter on the edge of ecological collapse.”
Macy’s workshops, which are now being led by facilitators around the world, are designed to help people open their hearts, face their pain for the world, and move beyond it. The title of the workshops and the underlying perspective is The Work that Reconnects.
The workshops start with gratitude. Gratitude builds trust and resilience, widens our perspective, and strengthens us to face difficulties.
The next phase is honoring our pain for the world. This allows us to break through the cultural taboos that we usually abide by. It allows a space for our feelings of sorrow, grief, and outrage to be expressed. As Macy says, this suffering with the world is the most natural thing in the world. It is wholesome and healthy. She says “don’t be afraid of your heart breaking open. The heart that breaks open can hold the whole universe. It’s that big.” (DVD)
This opens us up to be able to see with new eyes, the next phase in the process. A new perspective is offered that is empowering. It involves a wider sense of self, a different kind of power, a richer experience of community, and a larger view of time.
The final stage is going forth, which involves envisioning the future we hope for, and identifying practical steps to work toward that vision.
The basis of the Work that Reconnects starts with the description of three stories of our time:
Business as Usual—leading to disaster
The Great Unraveling—recognizes the disaster that Business as Usual is leading to. It lifts up things like economic decline, climate change, resource depletion, social division and war, mass extinction of species—and can feel overwhelming.
The Great Turning, aka the Ecological Revolution, the Sustainability Revolution—is embodied by those who know the first story is leading to catastrophe and refuse to let the second story have the last word. On a par with the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, it’s about transitioning from an industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society.
All three stories are happening. We all spend time in all three, even within a day. But we can choose where we want to put our energy.
Macy recognizes three dimensions of the Great Turning, many of which we are already doing:
- –Holding actions—actions that seek to stop the damage, like protests, boycotts, etc.
- –Life-sustaining systems and practices—like CSA’s and farmers markets, socially responsible investing, etc. new economic and social structures
- –Shift in consciousness—a deepened sense of belonging in the world, leading to a greater compassion
One of the key learnings I got from the workshop is that it is important, even crucial, to do this work in community. We need support, we need comrades to walk with us as we take on this tremendous task. Macy compares it to adventure stories, and talks of the hero having a team to help get to the goal. Think Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring.
After I took the workshop, I co-led monthly one-day workshops for a year, and have since led a few in different contexts. I would have led one here by now if it weren’t for the pandemic. I have a hard time figuring out how to modify the exercises for an online platform. But I’m attending a panel discussion for facilitators at the end of this month, and may get some ideas. I’m also encouraged by the downturn of Covid cases and hospitalizations nationally, that maybe soon we won’t need the restrictions we’ve been dealing with for so long.
Actions to find Hope
Meanwhile, may we be grateful for the challenges that call us to rise to our best selves. May we find or make safe spaces to honor our pain for our troubled world. May we see with new eyes and experience ourselves as part of a greater whole, and may we go forth to do what we can to keep our beloved Earth sustainable for life far out into the future. For it is in our actions that we’ll find our hope.
May it be so. Blessed be. Amen. Rev. Jane