River Road Unitarian Universalist Congregation

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The Very Bad News About Our Wonderfully Early Spring

River Road Unitarian Church
Sunday, April 16, 2000

Rev. Scott W. Alexander

I have a rather obvious - and decidedly friendly -- suggestion for the organizers of Washington's famous Cherry Blossom Festival. In future years, dear flower loving folks, if you want there to be any of those stunningly beautiful and serene cheery blossoms still gracing the tidal basin when you ceremoniously open the festival with the lighting of the Japanese lantern, you had better move the starting date AT LEAST a-week-to-ten-days earlier in the Spring. I make this suggestion not only because (for the two years I have lived here, and I understand several other recent years as well) the blossoms have all been gone by the time your festival begins...but because now horticultural scientists have determined that due to global climatic shifts, spring will be coming earlier and earlier to Washington. I quote from a recent Washington Post article:

Washington's fabled cherry trees, along with scores of other flowering plants in the region, are blooming, on average, a week earlier now than they did 30 years ago. The reason, according to a new study from Smithsonian Institution scientists, is "global warming"...The researchers...found that 89 species representing dozens of different kinds of plants had begun to bloom much earlier over the past three decades. The smallest advance was 3 days, the longest was 46 days.
What makes the scientist's hypothesis that this is due to global warming all the more likely is that similar research half way around the globe - at the Royal Botanic Gardens located near London - reveals almost identical results. The Post article goes on to report,
Other recent research has shown that the growing season is lengthening in...the Northern Hemisphere. By one estimate, it has increased by 11 days in the 20th Century, during which average global temperatures have risen about 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit.
As a result, Vernon Kousky, a research meteorologist at the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center validates my suggestion, "Maybe [he writes] we should move up the date of the Cherry Blossom Festival."

Now, in the grand sweep of human events it may seem a trivial matter whether or not Washington's Cherry Blossom Festival is timed precisely right each year. Who really cares, after all, if we are able most years to cleverly and accurately predict the timing of the delicate pink flowers? But underlying this "trivial matter" is an issue of profound (and, I believe, for all those who are not in denial) pressing concern for all of humanity... the now-unmistakable reality of substantial climactic changes now happening all across our planet earth as a cumulative result of ever increasing human population and activity.

I believe that as our global human family moves together into the new millenium, how we as the dominant species respond (or, put negatively, fail to respond) to these dramatic and cumulative global environmental changes is perhaps THE MOST SIGNIFICANT MORAL ISSUE WE FACE...or have ever faced. There are (to be sure) so many painful and persistent moral issues facing humanity on every continent in our time - the persistence of warfare and terrorism, the prevalence of political tyranny and oppression, the specter of poverty, homelessness and hunger, the scourge of racism, religious hatreds and genocide, the acceptance of violence and sexual abuse (especially against women and children), the horror of communicable diseases and other preventable degradations of body and spirit - to name just a few. But if humanity, all together, cannot learn (and learn quickly) how to act in RATIONAL GLOBAL COOPERATION to protect and preserve our earth's fragile eco-system, then all our other efforts to solve the rest of humanity's painful problems will not (in the end matter a whit).

With this well-informed and thoughtful congregation, I need not (I think), argue (at great length) the science of global warming and our earth's systematic and accelerating ecological degradation. If you have read as widely on this subject as I have you know that an overwhelming majority of the world's researchers in the relevant scientific fields have reached the same alarming conclusion: our planet's interdependent ecology is reeling beneath the pressure of ever-increasing human numbers and activity, and much must be done and done quickly ON A GLOBAL BASIS if humanity is to succeed in maintaining a quality of earthy life worth having. Here is what we know is happening to our Mother Earth: both the atmosphere and the planet itself are warming at ever more alarming rates...one group of leading scientists have determined that if humanity continues to do its global "business as usual," (including the rapid population growth which is occurring all across the face of the earth) the warming in the next hundred years will be as much as 6.5 degrees Fahrenheit, which would have many catastrophic repercussions upon climate, food production and quality of life for all! The twin phenomenon of 1) increasingly rapid stratospheric ozone depletion (which weakens our planet's shield against the insistent effects of the sun), and 2) the accumulation of atmospheric greenhouse gas emissions including CO2 (from cars, power plants, and other consumer-orientated human activity which trap heat and slowly warm the planet) -- are causing a whole host of dangerous and interrelated ecological upheavals. All around the globe glaciers and polar ice caps are melting evermore rapidly...the permafrost of the arctic is similarly melting and releasing vast quantities of methane gas, one of the most dangerous of greenhouse gases. Ice core samples in Greenland inform us that there has been no warming like this for 250,000 years, and the sea ice around Antarctica is regularly now regularly breaking off (just last month a piece twice the size of Delaware drifted free to move and melt, and last week another massive chunk broke off). Sea waters are gradually rising on every continent, and coral reefs everywhere are dying because of the resulting temperature rises, human abuse and pollution. Add to these dangerous phenomenon humanity's deforestation of the earth's remaining rain forests and wilderness areas (which, of course, in the past have produced a substantial portion of our atmosphere's oxygen which is so desperately needed to naturally offset and neutralize the greenhouse gases we now produce at ever-accelerating rates)...not to mention the extinction of hundreds of thousands of animal and insect species, many of which provide vital environmental checks-and-balances to keep our global system balanced and healthy. Climatologists tell us that these environmental changes have further led to an increasing frequency, all around the globe of drought, deadly heat waves, floods and hurricanes. If I were a scientist (which I most certainly am not) I could add much more persuasive detail and indisputable data to verify these massive phenomenon which are all regularly reported in the popular global media. Suffice it to say, there is little need for rational, reasonable, and educated citizens of our planet to waste much time arguing with the ideological likes of radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh (and other social, political and economic conservatives) who seem hell bent - for God knows what reasons -- on refusing and refuting the clear and overwhelming evidence which points to the immediate and systematic environmental dangers which our fragile planet now faces.

Again...surely there is no need to argue the overwhelming science here. First of all because to all reasonable and informed people the question is NOT is our global environment in danger, but only precisely HOW DIRE AND IMMEDIATE is our ecological crisis, and is there sufficient time (with the interrelated aspects of this situation) for humanity to safely reverse the disastrous course we are on? But more importantly for this morning's purposes I am not going to defend the science here because this is not an earth science lecture hall (American University down the road is where you can hear people who really know what they're talking about elucidate the scientific dangers we face), THIS IS A RELIGIOUS GATHERING PLACE, and what I really want and need to address today is not the scientific implications and imperatives of the situation humanity now finds itself in, but the SPIRITUAL and MORAL ones. As a Unitarian Universalist religious congregation devoted to the worth and well-being of all of humanity, it is our primary business here to explore the spiritual and moral dimensions of this crisis, so that we will be able to more passionately and effectively lend our hearts and hands to the great struggle for human survival and quality of life on this planet which surely lies ahead.

Ours is a religious tradition which fully understands the spiritual and moral dimensions of what is happening to our earth. Some of you may not know that it was back in the early 70s when Unitarian Universalism first incorporated a global ecological (spiritual and moral) consciousness into its core beliefs and principles.

Some of you may not know that this statement of the 7 principles (which now guides our religious tradition) is the product of a slow-but-steady evolution of liberal religious thought over the nearly 3 centuries that Unitarianism, Universalism, and Unitarian Universalism have existed as organized American faith traditions. At every point in our long and noble history, we have drafted statements of our religious principles and perspectives, which now serve historians as a kind of spiritual snapshot of various periods of our movement, and (much more importantly) have provided Unitarian Universalists of every time with useful moral, theological, and spiritual guideposts as they have striven to live out their faith in the world. It was in the early 1970s that Unitarian Universalists from all across the North American continent participated in years-long democratic process of updating and improving our statement of religious principles - to reflect our ever-evolving religious and human sensibilities. There were two significant changes made. First, the old statement of UU principles was re-written in gender-inclusive language (to reflect our vastly improved UU sensitivities to women's issues) and (and this is what's important for this morning's topic) we added an entirely new principle (the seventh and last one you see there) to the 6 which had long been a part of Unitarian Universalist spiritual sensibility (since our transcendentalist beginnings in colonial new England)...we promised RESPECT FOR THE INTERDEPENDENT WEB OF ALL EXISTENCE FO WHICH WE ARE A PART. While many world religions express gratitude and praise for earth and nature, as far as I know, Unitarian Universalism is the first significant religious tradition in the world to explicitly add concern for our earth's ecology to their core statement of religious aspirations and imperatives.

So...as far as Unitarian Universalists are concerned...the global ecological crisis that is now breaking over humanity like a swelling and ominous tsunami hitting the beach is not just a scientific concern (or economic or geo-political...all of which it certainly is), it is also (indeed first and foremost) a spiritual and moral one. Ours is a religious tradition which rightly understands that humanity has an obligation to find a RIGHT AND REVERENTIAL RELATIONSHIP with all of earth and creation. The old dualistic, mechanistic worldview that has for so long dominated Western religious thinking (the worldview which imagined humanity and humanity's spirituality and life concerns separate from nature and our Mother Earth) is understood as a false, failed (not to mention dangerous) one. We now understand that if we and the rest of humanity are ever to be in RIGHT RELATION with our planet earth (and thereby discipline ourselves to make the right kinds of SUSTAINABLE economic, political and scientific decisions that will enable us to find the right reverence for and balance with our planet Earth) it will be because we understand OUR IRRETRIEVABLE CONNECTION TO and COMMUNION WITH our precious Mother Earth (and all the interrelated creatures which populate her - much as today's opening words from Chief Seattle suggest). Only if our human hearts and hands are informed by such a GLOBAL SPIRITUAL CONSCIOUSNESS will we ever learn to begin to treat all that is "the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part&qout; with the wisdom and respect required to sustain human life on this planet. Many other faith traditions, thank God, are now beginning to spiritually address humanity's need to see (and then act on) its proper, interdependent role in the grand scheme of our earth's fragile, interwoven ecology...but Unitarian Universalists (who have been working on this for at least a generation) are (frankly) in a unique position to show leadership in this vital area of humanity's spiritual and moral development...not to mention out-and-out physical survival.

It seems to me that all of us in this congregation (both individually and collectively) are responsible to do whatever we can (as our UU principles demand) to "affirm and promote the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." First, of course, there is so much we can do as individual citizens of this planet to establish right and caring relation with all that ecologically is. We can diligently recycle and do the best we can to not waste material things...we can use mass transit, buy energy efficient automobiles, furnaces and appliances...we can practice voluntary simplicity and make everyday decisions to keep our consumption down to reasonable levels...we can plant trees, lobby for more parkland, vote for politicians who are environmentally concerned, and generally be a vocal citizen advocate for our planet Earth where it locally touches us. As you all know, we in America make up only 5% of the world's population, yet we consume nearly 40% of its material assets...it is the moral responsibility of every American to begin doing what they individually can to bring this disparity into some sort of more reasonable balance. I believe that all of us in this affluent, consumer-orientated society have a profound moral responsibility to begin RELINQUISHING (in a fairly systematic way across the landscapes of our lives) some of what we materially take, consume and use - as a way of relieving pressure on the limited resources of our planet. Our individual moral and lifestyle choices can make a profound (and cumulative) difference...and we should never doubt the power and rightness of our individual actions.

But it is also starkly and stunningly clear (to me as I'm sure it is to you) that such individual efforts (on the part of well-meaning, spiritually attuned individuals who care about the ecological and human future of our planet) will not ultimately be enough to save our earth and its atmosphere, and help humanity to create responsible, sustainable economies of scale for the long run. Human communities (at every level from the local to the global) must now begin to learn to work in concert and collaboration if we are to successfully address the great ecological challenges that so threaten the quality of earthly life for all. More than the scientific challenges we face, it is these human challenges of cooperation, collaboration and community-building which will prove to be the greatest. Humanity simply must learn (and this will be at least as much "heart work" as it will be intellectual and scientific effort) to work together on these problems in ways which we have heretofore NOT been able (as a disparate and often suspicious species) to sustain across national and cultural boundaries.

Do you all remember the fanciful Hollywood movie (it came out a few years back) "Independence Day," which tells the heroic story about how all the nations and militaries of the earth (led by the Americans of course - but, hey, it was our movie after all) in any case, how in "Independence Day," all the nations and militaries of the earth work together to destroy these vast and evil alien spaceships that suddenly appeared over all the great cities of the world, threatening life as we know it? The movie ends with the victorious pilots (Arabs and Jews...Russians and Americans...Indian and Pakistani...all the sworn and non-communicating enemies of our planet) cheering each other for their great and humanity-saving victory. Well, skeptical as I am of Hollywood thinking, I believe we need NO LESS SPECTACULAR AND COOPERATIVE INTER-HUMANITY GLOBAL EFFORTS NOW...as we struggle against little less dramatic ecological threat (with subtle manifestations like cherry blossoms simply coming too early each spring) but no less a real and present danger to all. Humanity, all together, across every boundary and border (from economic systems to agricultural to cultural and political) is going to have to communicate, cooperate, AND COMPRIMISE FOR THE GOOD OF ALL if any are to survive with a quality of life on this planet worth having. It is people, communities and nations of goodwill and wisdom that must lead the way for humanity to first SEE and then ACT ON a new GLOBAL PARADIGM of ecological and economic sanity and restraint. As I have already suggested, this will not be easy, and one reason this will be difficult is that not all religious groups understand (this new spiritual need for interdependence and global cooperation) as the great moral imperative of the new millennium.

Do you know why conservative Christian Bob Jones University opposes interracial dating amongst its students? (No go with me here, believe it or not, I'm still on point!) They oppose interracial dating because (you're not gonna believe this) they are afraid it would lead to the creation of one-world community (precisely what I am suggesting we desperately must create if we are survive as a human family. I quote directly from Bob Jones University's web-site:

At the tower of Babel, God uses language to disrupt man's plans for a one-world government. As a result of this disruption, the people were scattered and the races were polarized. One thing is clear God wanted a divided world, not a federalized world. Based on this biblical account...the University wishes to give God the benefit of any doubt and avoid pursuing any direction that would give assistance to the renewed efforts of man to create one world community...The biblical account of Babel and God's response to it are historical fact. This Christian institution merely seeks to live and function under its best understanding of what God is teaching us...about His purposes for the world.
What stuns me about this is how absolutely I (as a Unitarian Universalist passionately committed to helping to ensure human dignity and survival on this fragile planet) disagree with this spiritual perspective. I believe, in fact, the EXACT OPPOSITE...that diverse people and cultures and economies around the globe MUST LEARN AND LEARN QUICKLY AND SYSTEMATICALLY how to speak to and work with one another in harmony and cooperation (in mutual common sense and self-interest). UNDOING THE TOWER OF BABEL (ENDING HUMANITY'S IMAGINED SEPARATENESS FROM ONE ANOTHER AND NATURE) IS THE GREATEST MORAL IMPERATIVE OF OUR TIME! I'm not sure we need "one world government" or some sort of formal "global political confederation" to survive all together in sustainable cooperation. But we certainly need (at every level of human organization and culture) a new moral and spiritual awareness of our global interconnectedness...and our necessity to talk and work and share together for the self-interest of all (much as the Buddhist teacher, the Dalai Lama suggested in his important book Ethics for the New Millennium which I preached on earlier this year - look it up on our website if you missed it).

This Unitarian Universalist (optimistic as I am about the human potential for reason, wisdom and compassion) has no illusion about how difficult this moral and spiritual journey will be - HEY THERE'S MORE THAN ONE BOB JONES UNIVERSITY OUT THERE...many are the human harts and voices that have not yet even begun to imagine the kind of global human cooperation we envision that will be required save this planet, the human family, and everything else that so blessedly and miraculously lives upon it. But you and I (with all our hearts...and with all our collective minds and good will) simply must (with fierce passion and persistence born of our Unitarian Universalist faith) proclaim to all who will listen that this is the only human path that will do.

Again, because Unitarian Universalists are not afraid to face facts, we must tell ourselves the full and stark truth about our global situation. There is some very bad news about the wonderfully early Spring we have had. The cherry blossoms coming earlier and earlier each year in all their pleasing delicacy are a deceptive harbinger of much death, despair, and degradation that is coming unless (together...as a human family riding a fragile orb in the great darkness) we create a NEW SPRITUAL (AND PRACTICAL) PARADIGM OF COOPERATION AND COMMONALITY IN OUR HEARTS...and begin to act, hand in hand, government to government, economy to economy, culture to culture...for the survival and dignity of all. Yes...it will not come easily to the vast and various human family (separated and suspicious as we so often are as cantankerous cousins). But there is also some very good news afoot, dear friends, and that good news is that it is not too late for humanity to do what is required...as a species we have the flexibility of mind and wisdom of heart to successfully face these global dangers. So, let us each do our INDIVIDUAL parts in this great moral struggle, dear friends, right here at home -- by recycling, and practicing responsible consumption, and respecting and defending our planet home however and wherever we can. And let us never lose our faith (our Unitarian Universalist faith) that humanity IS CAPABLE of the new SPIRITUAL THINKING and the new GLOBAL BEHAVIOR that will be required to save life on this tender planet as we know it. Together -- as wise and engaged and respectful children of the same great, green Mother - we can make it. Believe nothing less, dear friends...and work in your lives to make it so.