by Roger Kuhns
Presented at the UU Fellowship, Ephraim, Wisconsin
April 25, 2010
Earth is every day, every year, back to our beginnings, and before - a billion years and more, a trillion days and more…
… this blue and green and rocky Earth; these rich and fragrant lands and fathomless oceans.
The resonant musical honking of a Canada goose seems timeless to me.
Did you know the Great Lakes used to hear whale songs?
Back in those Earth Days.
There is always a before,
and there is always an after.
On this day - this year - where are we? Before - there is time; after - there is not.
My children ask me this question: "Where are we, Dad? Are we before or after?"
Their future depends on… the right answer.
As a boy I walked the dolomite fencerows outside Baileys Harbor. My gaze always cast downward to find that glimpse of the very long ago. That subtle proof of sustained life in the hardened gray cast of a Halysites coral. There was an ocean here - warm, and rich with life.
Way back in those Earth Days.
I actually remember thinking: "What would I look like as a fossil? Would some kid on a rocky fence in the distance future find my bones, pick them up and wonder about them? Maybe he'd take them to his science class.
The teacher might identify the species: Me extinct.
Way after in those Earth Days.
Now, though, on this day, are we before or after?
When I dove into the Earth I drank it up. Even now its vitality and diversity resonate. Its beauty is my lover. Its harshness is my teacher. I walked with it, and through it; I swam in it, I mined it - I found myself. I worship it now, in between.
This sustenance Earth: with its pages of longevity and brevity, and its stories of sudden and gradual transitions. The naivety of immortality, and the reality of mortality… the forests have ended before; so has life.
And I wonder what is sustainability.
If the Earth has seen profound changes, if it has watched species come and go - slowly or with haste - how are we then different to ask for a separate path? It seems we want some kind of immortality. Is that our idea of sustainability?
I remember seeing the oldest forest on Earth. It had a scar, a clear cut - and we showed the Earth that we could take it. And the Earth gave.
I remember seeing the largest copper deposit on Earth. We had dug a great gaping pit to take it. The Earth gave again.
I remember smelling the pungency of petroleum in tar sands shoveled such that we could put it in a pipe and convey it to our homes and cars. The Earth bled.
And on, and on, and on…
I wrote this down. I catalogued these resources and what I saw was the absence of sustainability. Had I really become drunk on the ease of harvesting and mining all these resources? Yes - before I understood their limits, their scarcity - really - their rarity. Do we want to be immortal or sustainable? Maybe we are neither.
I have a choice.
We know that the sun and the wind and the tides and the fumeroles and the water are energy. How and when we use these resources may answer the question: "Are we before, or are we after?"
We look out our windows, and wonder who will fix this… this lack of sustainability. But I have a choice - to walk through my door, and answer the question on this Earth Day.
We have war heroes for our freedom.
We have political heroes for our civil rights and just laws.
We have ethical heroes for our clear sight and proper path.
And we have our environmental heroes for our Earth Days.
But what about those who grow our organic foods - are these not our farmer heroes; or the scientists and engineers that protect our water?
We need more sustainability heroes that bring together our communities and economies and environments so close this often dreamed of, sometimes glimpsed, holistic circle. Thank you Aldo Leopold, Gaylord Nelson, Jane Goodall, Robert Kennedy Jr., Wangari Maathai, Judi Bari, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, and Peter Garrett…
Thank you Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, who said, "Our breath plays a very important role in our life. The breath is the connecting link between the inner world of the mind and the outer world of the body and environment."
And thank you Rachel Carson, who said, "It is a wholesome and necessary thing for us to turn again to the Earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know of wonder and humility."
What did we forget? Or, perhaps, what did we not know?
The Dalai Lama said, "Wealth is not necessarily a bad thing when it has been earned in an honest manner and neither other individuals nor the environment suffered for it."
And Al Gore: "As more and more people understand what's at stake, they become a part of the solution, and share both in the challenges and opportunities presented by the climate crisis."
But I contend it's even bigger… it's the discovery of sustainability, and we can't just high-tech ourselves out of this one!
Remember what Pete Seeger said, "Technology will save us if it doesn't wipe us out first."
So what can you do? Another carbon off set website? Or, maybe you really dive in this time.
Theodore Roosevelt said, "Do what you can, with what you have, where you can."
I say - do so urgently!
And thank you David Suzuki, who said, "What the hell are we going to leave for our kids? What are they going to remember? And that, quite simply, is the issue. We live in a finite world with finite resources. Although it may sometimes seem quite big, Earth is really very small - a tiny blue and green oasis in a cold universe!"
But now, these decades of effort and progress are within our experience, and these heroes and the unsung tireless soldiers, are passing the torch to the younger generations. Oh man… aren't we handing over a mess? And maybe shame?
I did the math. If you're a pessimist then the numbers suggest we're going to run short of oil by 2032 - what I mean is that we won't have enough to run our civilization the way we are operating at present. If you're an optimist, well you can add about 20 years to that up to about 2050. We'll be short of a lot of metals by then too.
One gentleman with an intriguing name, Dr. Mathais Wackernagel, created the Eco-Footprint. He summed up all the useable land on Earth that could provide a sustainable life for humans. The Earth, it seems, can provide just less than five acres per person for a sustainable existence. But on average the world population is using 5.7 acres per person - and those of us in the United States are using the equivalent of 23.7 acres per person to live as we live. This means we ran out of the Earth's ability to sustainably support the human population in the early 1980s. So says Dr. Wackernagle. Not great news. We need a second Earth!
I wonder if they've got that in a Super Store?
This is one of those lead-by-example moments. I can ask my kids to practice sustainability in their lives, but only if I do it first. My hypocrisy meter would go off the charts otherwise! And besides, I don't want a knee-jerk catastrophic reaction to all of this; I am hoping logic and reason will prevail. I want our circle-and-arrow risk diagrams to reveal solutions, and lead to more open dialogue.
Think about oil again. Let me read you a list of petroleum products we use: Gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, heating oil, propane, natural gas, ethane, ethylene, naphtha, pavement, pharmaceuticals, preservatives, flavoring agents, pesticides, cosmetics, perfumes, plastics, sulfur, insulation, lubricants, adhesives, solvents, cleaners, detergents, paints, inks - just to name some of the main products and fuels.
So what on this list can we do without? Pick ten.
I have a choice.
Can we measure how we're doing on applying sustainable practices? Wait… what do we really mean by sustainability in the first place?
There is the philosophical definition, something like: "Meeting the needs of the present generation while improving the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."
But this doesn't tell us how to do it! I have a working definition: "The application of measurable and quantifiable practices which include the economic, social and environmental metrics that actively reduce energy and resources use, and improve habitats and communities, while working towards a zero carbon footprint."
Do you recall what author Nick Flynn said? "The ticking is the bomb."
And on this day the bomb is our own inaction… and our own slow-to-action. We are in a crisis - have no doubt about that.
Sustainability… Sustaining… Sustain. We learn how to do this if we mimic the Earth…
…on these Earth Days.
Let's think about the Earth - it's shape, a sphere, and call that sphere the environment. Now imagine another sphere, inside and fully encompassed by the environment sphere and call that "community". Now within the community sphere we find the economy sphere. The environment embraces the community, which in turn embraces the economic. This is how we can understand sustainability in the context of interrelationships and systems thinking. And voting! And actions!
Within the sphere of the environment we include all sciences, engineering, energy, resources and technology, all in our understanding of how the Earth and its ecosystems work. Within the sphere of community we include all community, social, equal rights, health and safety, and historical aspects of our lives. Within the sphere of the economic we include all the issues of our economy, financial, employment, investment and budgets that affect our lives.
Sustainability - the environment, the community, and the economic. We can't be sustainable unless we actively improve all three of these fundamentals.
There are naysayers" "It's a scam!" or "It's a communist plot!" or "I can find a scientist that says there is no such thing as global warming!"
Okay. Where are the great Pleistocene glaciers? Our industrial revolution has increased natural global warming by two orders of magnitude. What should have naturally taken another 10,000-years we've accelerated in 100-years.
But don't attack the person; challenge the veracity of the facts. And the facts stand up very well! There is a human induced acceleration of global warming. We must "go sustainable" not "go rogue"! Arguing with the naysayers and rogues is a Sisyphean pursuit. Don't attack the person; check the facts. Don't argue the emotion; check the facts. And don't back down. The ticking is the bomb, and the crisis is in the room, and the Earth is there as our teacher. Mimic her. Sustainability.
Remember Scotty from Star Trek: "Captain she's given us all she can give and she can't take anymore!"
It is our turn as a species to give.
Do you recall the writings of Shel Silverstein? He wrote the Giving Tree. The boy in the story, with no mean intent, used up the tree. Well, we're not quite as innocent as the boy, but imagine the Earth in the place of the tree. Are we before or are we after? It is our turn to give on these Earth Days; no wait…
It is my turn to give.
- RJK, Ephraim, WI