The Mayan long calendar ended on Dec 21st, 2012, which had some predicting that the world would end. Well, we have made it well into the New Year, and it would appear that wasn't the case. In fact the future continues to be available to us, now <pause>, and now <pause>, and now again.
For Unitarians, this may not be a surprise. While our religion may have largely Christian roots, we do not tend to believe in the second coming, whereby a series of worldwide catastrophes will bring an end to life here on Earth, punctuated by the return of the Saviour, Jesus Christ.
Now many of us believe that we are heading towards some serious trouble, when considering problems such as global climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity, pillaging of our oceans, and deforestation. All of these are problems that especially grab my attention, given that the environment is a particular concern of mine. And of course there are also other important problems like poverty, unemployment, hunger and malnutrition, homelessness, disease, war, prejudice and hate crimes, and child abuse and neglect, which are arguably equally important and in need of our attention. For are we not, as our Unitarian Principles remind us, all interconnected?
Even worse, many of these issues appear to be on the rise and are not just seen safely through our televisions or iPads, but are actually affecting us around here. To put it in terms that my one-plus year old may soon understand, from the news lately, it would seem that we are all, Canadians included, getting into some pretty deep doo-doo.
In reflecting on this situation, it is probably safe to say that Unitarians for the most part feel, to use the popular saying, "We have made our bed, and now we must lie in it". There is no "Easy" button that we can push to fix these problems, nor (for you Star-Trek fans) a tech-savvy Scotty to "beam us up" out of this mess.
Interestingly, to suggest this to much of Western culture may seem like sheer madness. Because many, even in this secular age, still believe fervently that there will be a Messiah coming down from the clouds to save us and so therefore what happens here does not really matter that much.
These beliefs may be driving a lot of “end-of-the-world” type thinking. According to a recent global survey by Ipsos Reid, one in ten people worldwide — including 9% of Canadians — thought the world would end in December, 2012. And according to Reuters, one in seven around the world thought the end of world was coming with 10% thinking the year the Mayan calendar ends would be it.. Thankfully, it would appear that those people were wrong, assuming they weren’t just off by a few months.
I should pause to add that being Christian does not necessitate having such laissez-faire sentiments. The popular Christian saying of "God helps those who help themselves" rejects the idea that believers can simply wait around for things to improve until the trumpet sounds at the pearly gates. But these stats do suggest a great deal of pessimistic thinking about the future and by logical extension the need to prepare for it.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying everything is coming up roses and that we have nothing to worry about. To be honest, I think that the world, at least in terms of being a habitable place for humanity, may indeed be coming to an end, the way things are headed. But by our own hands, not by divine intervention. And what if this is right and also that we really aren't going to be saved by divine intervention. Then what???
The only options are to
1. continue allowing things to get worse,
2. further contribute to the situation by throwing our hat into the foray and deciding we might as well join the party and fiddle while Rome burns,
3. change things so that the situation actually WILL improve, or
4. at least try to make things better and know that we have done our best.
I have no doubt that as a congregation, you largely seek to work against just letting things get worse, or joining in on the party so that happens. Indeed, Unitarians have worked hard to make things better, even in the face of possible failure or limited success. For instance, the Canadian Unitarian Council has called for signing and implementing a binding international agreement to address global climate change, and strives to support the LGBTQ community. In your congregation, you help children through children’s aid, assist women in addictions rehabilitation, have supported migrant workers and farmers in developing countries, and installed solar panels in your sanctuary. And I am sure there is much that I have missed.
But, well, THERE IS MORE WORK TO BE DONE. In Canada, poverty and homelessness remain on the rise, all the while that more austerity measures are being introduced. Countries like Uganda continue to mistreat those who have same-sex relations. Biodiversity loss is compounding. And experts are telling us that we really only have five years to begin taking serious action on climate change.
To be honest, I really feel the time has come for us Unitarians to UP OUR GAME. It is not enough for us to say that we have done our part, or that we will just leave things for "other" people to solve. Because who are those other people? And do they really have our interests in mind? Do we for instance want to leave things just for corporations to solve, when they are generally so focused on the bottom-line? Or do we want to put our problems in the government’s hands, when political games so often result in the will-of-the-people not being heard and unhelpful decisions being made? I suspect that many of us wouldn’t.
So how can we “up our game”? Well, the answer is ... I don't know. I don’t know what all the answers are and I am not alone. Recently I attended an event for David Suzuki and economist Jeff Rubin. During question period, the first person at the mic introduced herself as a researcher who studies resistance to change. She asked Suzuki how we can get people to change. Suzuki turned the question back at her and said, "I don't know. You're the expert -- you tell me!"
WOW! Think about it. Suzuki, the God of the green movement, at least here in Canada, does not know the answer. In Canada, a place which supposedly has democratic institutions, advanced education, and (at least until recently) progressive policies that can help us bring about needed change. If we don't know what to do, what hope is there for the rest of the world?
This leads me to asking the all important question, are we capable of saving ourselves? Are we willing, as we are challenged by our Unitarian principles, to both recognize the inherent worth and dignity of every person and respect the interdependent web of all existence, by trying to stop the growth of suffering and devistation? Or at least are we willing to do our best in trying?
The feisty side of my nature leads me to say, "Well, if we truly ARE the dominant species, then this is the time to prove it!" Except this time, not so much by dominating nature, but in larger-than-life Avatar Na'vi-like fashion, working with, and alongside it. This is a challenge that is both frightening and exhilarating. For it can take us places that we are not comfortable in going. Like this podium for example.
Of course, it is one thing to become willing to rise to the challenge and another to figure out what actually to do. To help, a pile of books, papers and theories have been written on this very subject. But (you may be happy to know) I will not even attempt to go through them all for you today. Rather, I will only briefly touch on a few key takeaways that I have gathered in my environmental rovings, ravings, and reflections.
My suggestions for bringing about more of needed change in the world include:
1. (and this first one is going to sound ironic), slowing down <pause>, slowing down to REALLY THINK about what we're doing and whether it will get us to where we want to go,
2. considering how we can, in a Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris ninja like fashion, where the hero takes out dozens of opponents in a single motion, figure out how to maximize the effect of our efforts, and most importantly,
3. connecting with others to help bring about the change we want.
I say all this while recognizing that we are a part of a larger, long-used and strongly entrenched system, a system that, using the widespread obsession with materialistic accumulation as an example, impedes us from getting to where we truly need to go. Changing the system, sort of like adjusting the sails in a boat, can take some doing. Like the rocking of the boat, the tightness of the knots, and the force of the wind, there will be some resistance.
All the more reason for putting, as with my first suggestion, careful thought into what we do. For instance, does it make sense to increase our recycling efforts, when we can reduce our waste instead? What is the point of putting solar panels on one's house if better energy savings could be achieved by installing a heat pump? Even more, as an Urban Planner I ask, (and here I reveal my true colours as a crunchy-granola hippy-type,) what is the point of renovating a home or redesigning a community, if it might make better sense to reconsider the fundamental way we are living? And so follow co-housing or Eco-village models instead?
I am not suggesting these are or are not the exact ideas and activities we must pursue. I am suggesting that we need to remain open to different options if we are to be as nimble and flexible as possible to bringing about the change we want and need.
And essential to this mindset is a consideration of what we really do want. What sorts of values do we want to be driving our decision-making? For instance, is it enough to localize the food-supply so as to minimize food-miles and greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere? Or do we also want a fair, safe, and just food system, that ensures a living wage for food workers; minimizes or eliminates harmful pesticides and herbicides; and cycles that money back into the community through small, democratically run and managed farms and markets?
Asking what type of changes we want is very important, considering the amount of time that making needed change can take. Giving careful thought to these questions can produce results we truly desire much faster. Not to mention giving us time to have a little fun along the way.
Even better is if you can, as with my second suggestion, accomplish a number of things at once. A prime example is the seemingly small act of changing one’s own behaviour to help your community or the environment. Not only can your actions have a direct and useful impact, those small actions can inspire others to follow suit. Who knows? One tiny act could lead you to being at the epicenter of a social or environmental revolution!
Also, the specific actions you choose can have multiple effects. For instance, driving less both addresses global climate change and childhood asthma. Or making less garbage, both slows down the amount of waste filling landfills and prevents harmful leachate from getting into our drinking water.
Of course, these are only some examples. You probably know of others...
There is one more critical way that we can greatly increase the impact of our efforts. As mentioned in my third suggestion, we can connect and work together with others. No longer do we have to play the hero and try to solve all the world's problems on our own. While noble, it is also foolish in a world whose population is now over 7 billion, and headed to possibly over 9 billion by 2050.
We are seeing the importance of working together recently with controversial, yet important movements like “Idle No More”, which seeks to honor native sovereignty, and “Occupy,” which aims to advance the cause of the 99%. But there are other groups which have been quietly working away, like La Via Campensina, a peasant movement in South America that is focused on advancing food sovereignty, and the worldwide ”Transition Town" movement, of which I am a part, that hopes to address peak oil and climate change. And of course there is the good work of your congregation and the Unitarian Religion as a whole, some of which I have already mentioned.
But beyond just joining a group or community, there is the real work of building quality relationships amongst those involved. I say this, I confess, from personal experience. Following a renewed commitment to bring about environmental change, I have been busily attending community meetings, going to potlucks, participating in or running workshops, been involved with my Church's playgroup, and working in a community garden, to name a few things. In the process, something happened that I was not expecting: the quality of my relationships with those individuals involved has deepened and I have come to count many new people, from all walks of life, as friends.
Cultivating quality relationships I believe can truly bring about needed change. Because we will have worked out the kinks in our synaptic operating systems that prevent us from working together on problems. In the process, we become much more prepared to undertake, as my dear friend Jean Robertson likes to say, the business of advancing the survival and thrival of humanity. To which I add that such efforts make possible the survival and thrival of the planet as a whole.
That is the wonderful thing about congregations like yours, that you have each other to share your ideas about how you would like to shape the unfolding of the future. And, at the same time, you can use this congregation as support as you go out into the world, to seek out and develop other relationships that can also be important, meaningful, and impactful.
Let me repeat my three suggestions about how we can shape the future in a helpful way:
1. slow down to make time to REALLY THINK about what we're doing and whether it will get us to where we want to go -- no point rushing around trying to get to the wrong destination,
2. consider how we can maximize, like a Ninja, the effect of our efforts, and perhaps most importantly,
3. connect with others in a meaningful way to help bring about the change we want.
So, let us take the time to think together and talk together about the future we want. Rather than await divine intervention to whisk us away and solve all our problems, let's work effectively together to make the world a better place. This will put us in a position -- whether bestowed upon by some divine force or simply due to a logical progression of the unfolding universe -- to celebrate the continuation of the future for as long as, and as merrily as, we can.
This talk was given by Alisa McClurg to the Unitarian Universalist Church of Olinda on Sunday, May 19, 2013. Alisa is a committed environmental planner and passionate community activist, her wide-ranging interests include collaborative planning, planning for the commons, permaculture and sustainable food systems, responsible aggregate management, and global climate change. Aware of, but not deterred by the challenges of bringing about real change, she is constantly seeking and applying new ideas and perspectives gained from her various pursuits. A delighted new mom, she is also fascinated by how the lessons we learn through daily living can scale up to the larger issues we face. Of late, she has been engaged in a speaking circuit, delivering the above talk about her own personal journey and learnings with various Unitarian audiences in Ontario. You can learn more about her by going to http://ecovoca.com .