Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Sermon: "The Death of Environmentalism and/or the Death of the Earth" (Delivered 9-16-07)

Every year at the Church Auction I offer to the highest bidder the right to assign me a sermon topic. The person who buys the sermon doesn’t buy my opinion or my voice; they purchase the right to assign me study in their field of interest and the challenge of creating a sermon out of it. At the last church auction, the sermon was purchased by a man with almost a half-century experience in the energy industry engineering coal-fired power plants. He wanted me to preach an environmentally-themed sermon and furnished me with an enormous pile of literature – everything from a book sub-titled “Saving the Planet from the Environmentalists” and a book claiming humans are not causing global warming to articles about creative developments in the field of clean energy including wind, solar, and even more ingenious new technologies. The sermon below represents my best effort at honesty, fairness, and provocation.

I have to thank Dr. John Herron, professor of Environmental History at UMKC who pointed out the wealth of articles available at the environmental web-site www.grist.org/ At this web-site, you can find the essay “The Death of Environmentalism” and a series of responses by leading environmentalists such as Bill McKibben.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to an anonymous engineer with 32 years experience building coal-fired power plants who generously allowed me to interview him and gave frank and forthcoming answers.

Finally, I thank Dick Rinehart for purchasing this sermon at the Church Auction. I hope you feel you got your money’s worth.

Sermon - Introduction
I am going to throw down the gauntlet. I am going to draw a line in the sand. Before you [waving folder in the air] I hold Exhibit A. Exhibit A consists of my home utility bills for electricity, gas, and water for the year 2006. My home utility bills for 2006 totaled $956.26. If we break that down on a month-by-month basis, that averages out to $79.94 per month.

So, [setting down the folder in front of the pulpit] this is the gauntlet I am throwing down. You may like this sermon. You may not. You may agree with me. You may not. But, if you want to disapprove, or argue, or dispute what I say you will need to step across this line in the sand. And when you do that, you should be prepared to tell me what your monthly home utility bills are. And, if they are, on average, higher than $79.94 per month, I will point out that you are criticizing me even though you consume more energy than I do. If, and only if, you spend (on average) less than eighty dollars a month on your electricity, gas, and water, are you free to criticize me.

In fact, I am interested in what your home utility bills are. I invite you to go home and calculate it out and send me the results. We can post the findings on the bulletin board. OK, maybe not. But, I do want to make the point that the religious life should lead us to a larger sense of integrity and authenticity, a correspondence between our words and deeds, what we say and how we live.

I will say just a few words about how I live: I do not believe in wasting energy. I run my utilities sparsely. I have top notch energy conserving windows. Every piece of plastic, glass, metal or paper that comes into my house gets recycled. Every scrap of food waste gets composted. (I actually bring it with me to church to throw onto our church compost piles behind the garage.) But I am not perfect. I should have my own portable mug to bring to the coffee shop, considering how frequently I frequent the coffee shop. I should have my own canvass shopping bag to bring to the grocery store. But nobody is perfect; we can all stand to get better.

But, I have thrown down the gauntlet. I’ve drawn a line in the sand. If you don’t like what I say this morning, I will point to the line in the sand, paraphrase Cuba Gooding, Jr. in Jerry Maguire, and say, “Show me the bills.” I will paraphrase Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, and ask, “Do you feel environmentally clean? Well, do ya?”

Part 1: “The Death of Environmentalism”
In 2005, authors Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus rocked the world of environmentalists with a provocative 37-page manifesto entitled, “The Death of Environmentalism.” Their criticism came from within the environmental movement – they each had a long history supporting environmental causes – and many environmentalists branded them traitors and turncoats. In this paper, they accused contemporary environmentalists of being ineffective at best, counterproductive at worst, out of touch, and strategically misguided. They wrote,
“Of the hundreds of millions of dollars Environmental groups have poured into the global warming issue, only a small fraction has gone to engage Americans as the proud moral people they are, willing to sacrifice for the right cause. It would be dishonest to lay all the blame on the media, politicians or the oil industry for the public's disengagement from the issue that, more than any other, will define our future. Those of us who call ourselves environmentalists have a responsibility to examine our role and close the gap between the problems we know and the solutions we propose.
“So long as the siren call of denial is met with the drone of policy expertise -- and the fantasy of technical fixes is left unchallenged -- the public is not just being misled, it's also being misread. Until we address Americans honestly, and with the respect they deserve, they can be expected to remain largely disengaged from the global transformation we need them to be a part of.”
They celebrate the early victories in the environmental movement – clean water and the banning of chemicals like DDT – but then claim that the last quarter-century of the environmental movement has little to show for itself. The authors point out that the average car on the American road gets worse gas-mileage today than it did in 1980 and that China(!) has stricter automobile fuel-emission standards than the United States. They point out that while virtually every Western European country has pledged to cut power plant emissions by 50-80% in the coming decades, the United States Senate voted 95 to zero against signing the Kyoto protocol in 1998.

The authors of this article continue by saying that environmentalists have failed to form the types of powerful alliances necessary for political change. They’ve either formed shallow allegiances or alienated potential allies (like auto unions, for example.) The authors claim that environmentalists have, by and large, been arrogant in seeking to enlist allies, asking allies what they can do for the environment but seldom reciprocating. To quote from their report once more:
"Even the question of alliances, which goes to the core of political strategy, is treated within environmental circles as a tactical question -- an opportunity to get this or that constituency -- religious leaders! business leaders! celebrities! youth! Latinos! -- to take up the fight against global warming. The implication is that if only X group were involved in the global warming fight then things would really start to happen.”
In effective organizing, environmentalists would begin by asking churches or minorities, unions or youth, what they need and how the environmental movement could help them with the problems that most concern them. They would begin by listening to the constituencies they court. Then, they would connect the concerns of their allies to the environmental agenda. The health of urban minorities would be framed as an environmental issue. The concerns of auto unions would be framed as an environmental issue. In doing this, environmentalists would shift back to thoughts expressed by Sierra Club founder John Muir, who wrote, “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

Finally, Nordhaus and Shellenberger point out how the American public has changed in recent years. In 1996, 17% of Americans agreed with the statement that “In order to preserve jobs, Americans must be willing to tolerate higher levels of pollution.” In 2000, 26% agreed. In 1996, 32% of Americans agreed with the statement that, “Most of the people actively engaged in environmental groups are extremists and not reasonable people.” In 2000, 41% agreed with that statement. When asked in a survey to name pressing issues that concerned them, environmental issues did not crack the top ten. Of course, this article came out a couple of years ago – before Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth and a variety of other movies featuring the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Alanis Morrisette, and Keanu Reeves. Perhaps the pendulum is swinging back.

Part 2: Coal: For your stocking or for your electricity?
But, I didn’t want to spend all my time this morning rehashing a provocative article by two dedicated environmentalists. I want to talk about coal-fired power plants. Well, sort of.

Currently, the effort to build more coal-fired power plants is an issue that environmental groups in the United States are strongly opposing. Coal-power was the big thing for decades in this country until came along and seemed to be the fossil fuel of the future. Natural gas, however, has since turned far more expensive and coal has made a comeback as the fossil fuel du jour. At this moment, coal power is booming, and not just in the United States.

A 2006 New York Times story reported that China is building a coal-fire power plant big enough to provide energy to a city of five million people at a rate of one plant every week. China burns more coal than the United States, the European Union, and Japan combined. And India, with a population expected to exceed China’s in two decades, is trying to keep pace with China’s energy production. Even more troubling, China and India are using power production technologies that are comparable to those used in the United States forty years ago. Pollution from Chinese coal-fire power plants has been discovered in Lake Tahoe, California and Yosemite National Park. The plants built in China and India are far more polluting than those built in the United States.

In the course of research for this sermon, I decided to have a conversation with a person who has designed coal-fired power plants for thirty two years. In the conversation, he may have been biased, but I found him to be frank. He explained to me, speaking in general terms, that burning coal has some advantages. For one thing, it is our most abundant resource. It is cheap. And, considering issues in global security, coal allows our country to move in the direction of being completely energy self-sufficient, not a bad thing if we could wean ourselves off dependence on Middle East oil. Finally, this engineer insists that we are about a decade away from having the technology to implement 100% capture of carbon emissions, technology we could implement in the United States even if it wouldn’t be used in China or India.

I asked the engineer, “So, tell me. If you were in charge of energy policy, what would you do?” He replied that he was completely in favor of expanding renewable energy sources including solar and wind power, but we are delusional if we think that those will be sufficient to feed our energy needs. He also replied that he considered the best solution to be nuclear power, even though it is unpopular and isn’t as cheap as coal. Nuclear power scares us though, and, like coal plants, nobody wants them close to where they live.

I had this experience when I lived in the Pacific Northwest. Politically, I was strongly in favor of clean energy, but I absolutely hated the series of hydro-electric dams that had been built along the Columbia River. They were eyesores. They disrupted the migration of the native salmon. I wished they had never been built. I wanted them gone… but I also didn’t want big fossil fuel power plants… or nuclear plants… but I wanted my lights to turn on.

I wanted plentiful energy, clean energy, and free-flowing rivers. And probably the most insightful thing that the engineer I spoke with told me was this: “People need to figure out what they want.” Do they want air-conditioning during the Summer and heat in the Winter? Do they want the lights to turn on when they flip the switch? And, how much are they willing to spend for this? Answer these questions, he said, and then we can explore the energy options. When I lived in the Pacific Northwest, I wanted things that were, ultimately, irreconcilable.

Part 3: Making Religious Sense of these Issues
And, now I’m going to say something marginally religious: that if we want these things (cars, air-conditioning, electricity, etc.) for ourselves, we have to want them for everybody. If we want to drive cars and turn on the air-conditioner, then we have to want these things for everybody else, including the populations of China and India. We can’t say, “I want to be able to drive and turn on my lights, but you do not get to.” And from the perspective of your person living in China or India or Indonesia or Brazil, they would say: “Well, you’ve been able to guzzle gas and heat your homes and so on for the last half-century. We only want what you’ve had all your life.”

There are some who would say, “Well, the world is over-populated. There are just too many people.” Which may be a factual statement, but it is a morally in-actionable one. The second you declare that there are too many people, you need to propose a solution: namely, who should there be less of and how should we make that happen? (The answers to that question are so often tinged with racism – the world is overpopulated and we need less black and brown and tan and yellow people.) And really, if you look at it honestly, shouldn’t there be less of those who are the biggest energy consumers, by which I mean, upper class and upper-middle class suburban Americans?

You can go ahead and propose that there should be less of us, but to propose that with any sincerity is ill. Imagine you are at your company holiday party, and you remarked, the environment would be better if half of us just disappeared. Most people would politely excuse themselves from your company and regard you warily. There used to be a nihilistic bumper-sticker about a decade ago that read, “Save the planet, kill yourself.” It was a witty sticker, because if you take the logic to its natural conclusion, you end up somewhere close to that.

Environmental activism is different than just about every other kind of activism. Suppose you are someone who is against homophobia. You can do all sorts of things to support GLAAD. You can vote for politicians that will stand up for Gay Rights. You can re-arrange your retirement investments so that you only own stock in companies that give same-sex partner benefits.

If you are a peace activist, you can march. You can vote for politicians who oppose the war. You can even refuse to pay your taxes as a statement against the war – of course you’ll go to jail for this. But you can move to a country that opposes the war. You can move to Switzerland.

If you are an environmentalist, even as you organize and vote and letter-write and educate and everything else you do, you will also consume natural resources. You will use energy. Even if you decide to move and live on the side of a mountain and eat berries and roots and twigs, you will still need to build yourself a campfire that adds carbon to the atmosphere.

What did John Muir say? “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” We are all hitched to everything else. We all consume. It is worthy to attempt to consume less and consume more wisely than our neighbors. Although, if you think for a second that I feel morally superior to only spend $79.94 per month on my utilities, I don’t. In the larger analysis, I still consume more than 95% of the world’s population. If everybody lived like me, the environment would be worse, not better.

But I also like how I live. I find my life has meaning… purpose, and worth, and love. It is worth living, albeit imperfectly. And maybe I can stand to live a little better. I wonder if I can lower my energy bills by ten dollars per month?