Hope Amidst Climate Change
Guest Author: Rev. Doug Fritzsche
“What is mine to do?” Here’s one answer to the perennial contemplative query: In this era of anxiety and fear about climate change, you could be the voice of hope. That’s the missing melody line in the blaring cacophony of doom-sayers and saviors shrilling in our all-too-connected world.
This is your invitation to be that voice.
We’re living in Texas in the midst of one of the hottest summers on record. I can’t imagine that you need to be convinced that climate change is a thing. Instead, I want to mention one of the less-obvious effects of climate change.
Ezra Klein, who is a columnist with the New York Times, notes this: “Over the past few years, I’ve been asked one question more than any other. It comes up at speeches, at dinners, in conversation. It’s the most popular query when I open my podcast to suggestions, time and again. It comes in two forms.
The first: Should I have kids, given the climate crisis they will face?
The second: Should I have kids, knowing they will contribute to the climate crisis the world faces?”
Klein goes on to say, “And it’s not just me. A 2020 Morning Consult poll found that a quarter of adults without children say climate change is part of the reason they didn’t have children. A Morgan Stanley analysis found that the decision “to not have children owing to fears over climate change is growing and impacting fertility rates quicker than any preceding trend in the field of fertility decline.”
Those comments struck me deeply, and the fact that the column went on to put some perspective on climate change only served to heighten my awareness that we’re in a dark place indeed if our concerns about how life might be in the future is crippling our ability to live in the present. And certainly having children … being part of a family … taking our place in a continuing story of life and creation … is an important part of living in the present.
I came to ministry late in life. One of my first careers was as a journalist. In 1974, I was working for a paper in Orange County, California. Part of my beat was the University of California at Irvine. That was the year a professor named Sherwood Rowland published a paper linking chlorofluorocarbons – what we called Freon – to a growing hole in the ozone layer of our atmosphere. The ozone layer acts as a shield against UV radiation from the sun that is harmful to plants … animals … anything alive. The threat was that the hole would keep growing and a catastrophe would result.
Exciting material for a young journalist. Big science … Big industry … Big financial implications and a Big Battle for the welfare of life on earth.
The problems were huge. What about all the things that had to be refrigerated? Food? Pharmaceuticals? Air conditioning, for heaven’s sake!
And you know how that story came out. It took time, but the world got on board. Substitute technologies took the place of Freon. And today, we barely remember the whole thing.
A couple of years later, I decided that my family really needed more income, so I left newspapering for a big corporation, where I published a glossy magazine oriented to shareholders and stockbrokers. The first issue I worked on had been started by a previous editor. The title question was: “Are we headed for a new Ice Age?”
I grew up being taught to crawl under my plywood desk for shelter in the event of nuclear war. The communist peril threatened democracy.
There was Y2K … Do you remember Y2K? All the computers – and computers only ran a fraction of the things they do now – all the computers were going to have a seizure when the calendar flipped from 1999 to 2000 because they were all built on an old date system. Banking would screech to a halt. Power plants would shut down. Water would stop flowing. Hospitals would be unable to function. …. I had a close friend who was a programmer. He was so concerned he bought a garage full of emergency provisions and a half dozen 55-gallon barrels to store water.
You may not recall the disaster that ensued … probably because an army of programmers rewrote the software and … nothing happened.
These are only a few specimens from my treasure trove of a lifetime of ceaseless anxiety.
But I’ll also be the first to admit that there is something special about the present malaise. First, climate is ubiquitous. Literally the air we breathe … the water we drink. Next, it is insidious: Terrible weather events have always been a part of our lives, but how do we know which are climate-change related? Finally, the root causes – energy consumption … transportation — are so deeply ingrained that we feel powerless to stop this disaster-in-the-making.
If all that wasn’t enough. Sometimes it seems like the foundations of civilization are cracking. The pandemic is a global event for the same reason that economics know no national boundaries. Wacky conspiracy theories. Politics seems off the rails. The Economy. Inflation.
Change, it seems, is so all-encompassing that the term “climate change” might be too small in scope…. It is global change.
That’s not new. In fact the Buddhist in me keeps reminding myself that Change is the only constant in this vast universe. But in the course of a fairly long life, I have watched expectations for the future deteriorate. Where once we looked forward to boundless horizons to explore, Today, we worry that there will be no safe place to stay home and hide. … I have friends wondering whether to move to Oregon or Michigan and lamenting that their forebears ever left the old country.
But since I’m a retired minister and not a Buddhist monk, I’m going to look for my inspiration in a little more familiar territory. Part of my work and my life has been spent in 12 step activities – a process that constantly bumps up against anxieties and uncertainties. In the course of that, I came across an acronym made up of the word FEAR: Future Events Appearing Real …. FEAR.
There is also the matter of self-fulfilling prophesies … That is, acting as if an outcome was inevitable to such an extent that we live into our own worst nightmares.
It is almost like the words of one of my most reliable touchstones, the 23 Psalm, … “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadows” …. That’s the spirit. The zeitgeist, the Germans would say — the spirit of the times.
It is as if the repeated messages have been a process of brainwashing that leaves us responding to the world as if the worst had already happened. Future Events Appearing Real.
I am the last person to deny that climate change is in process and that it will have dramatic effects on the world we live in. I am also the last person to say we can just ignore the whole thing and everything will magically be okay.
So how can I resolve that with my very real conviction that my grandchildren will find a future – maybe a very different one than I remember or would prefer – but that will be exciting and full of promise and possibilities.
Part of it is in the next line of the 23rd Psalm … “Thou art with me…”
I take that “thou” to mean something like what Richard Rohr describes as the “Universal Christ”. It is a simple statement that … whatever the circumstances … I am not alone. … I am part of … call it what you will … a system of humanity … even bigger than that … the system of Being … and this Thou, then is what Paul Tillich often called the Ground of Being … That’s the THOU that is With Me.
This Book of Psalms is part of the Old Testament known as the Wisdom Books. The five books making up that group include Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs.
Wisdom is a funny word. It doesn’t mean “smart” or “clever” or “educated.” Instead, I think it is best characterized as an accurate understanding of things as they are – without pretense or self-delusion – You might call that “Acceptance”. — And an understanding of my place in it … You might call that “Surrender”.
Two of the Wisdom books – Job and Ecclesiastes – are ancient writings about what it means to be alive on earth. I realize that Job is usually discussed in the context of God letting bad things happen to good people. And Ecclesiastes is a book we think about at weddings and funerals or when the Byrds sing Pete Seeger’s song “Turn, Turn, Turn.”
But they have something to say about how we can live in uncertain times. Job, you might recall, is a story about a guy who has everything. Ecclesiastes, which is Greek for the Hebrew word Qoheleth, means “Teacher”. Tradition has it that it was written by Solomon, the wise king who ruled at the pinnacle of ancient Hebrew civilization. In other words, written BY a guy who has everything.
The worldviews offered in the wisdom books vary from one to another, but nowhere more than between these two guys who have it made in the shade.
I’ll skip the theology because I don’t want us to be bogged down in the issues of – essentially – putting God into some terms we can understand.
But the stories can be instructive to us recent vintage Americans – also people who have it made. … Otherwise, why would we be so sure change will be for the worse? … We have a lot to lose.
Job is probably the best known of the two. Job had thousands of sheep, camels, oxen and donkeys – not to mention 10 children. Now, according to the writers, this wasn’t all the result of a fluke. Job was a righteous man. That basically means that no one could find fault with what Job did or how he did it.
But one fateful day, it was all wiped out. The bible story talks about the background drama between God and an Adversary – that’s what the Hebrew word “Satan” means – an adversary like a prosecutor in court. But without getting involved in the theological complexities, the practical effect for Job was disaster.
Job’s friends gathered to preach to him about how he must have done something to trigger the events. But they are murky and the lesson is not well conveyed – especially to Job, who says: “No, I did all the right things!”
Finally, what clarity there is comes when he realizes that the vast complexities of time and the universe are beyond human comprehension.
Instead of the vast inexplicable complexity of it all, in Ecclesiastes, the Teacher comes across kind of like a jaded old roue who has seen it all and … well, listen to his own words: The words of the Teacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem. 2 Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity. 3 What do people gain from all the toil at which they toil under the sun? 4 A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. 5 The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises. 6 The wind blows to the south, and goes around to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. 7 All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they continue to flow. 8 All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, or the ear filled with hearing. 9 What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ec 1:1-9)
These two books, Job and Ecclesiastes, convey two different ideas about what it means to be a human being. The Book of Job eventually comes full circle and justice prevails in the end – in other words, his righteousness pays off. In Ecclesiastes, the Teacher finds a universe full of injustice and futility, offering this summary advice:
Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. 8 Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. 9 Enjoy life with the (spouse) whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. (Ec 9:7-9)
The people who assembled the books we call the Bible made no effort to resolve the differences between Job and Ecclesiastes. I don’t know how biblical literalists resolve that difference. For me, it is a reminder that we can hold two seemingly divergent ideas in mind at the same time.
It is possible to be aware of the dangers of a changing climate.
At the same time, it is possible to be aware that what we don’t know about the future far outweigh the things we know for sure, and that there is a common lesson from faith, from history, and from wisdom:…. Outcomes that are neither what I expect nor what I desire can still be good …. better even than my own imagining.
I look to Job as the guy who did everything right. And in many ways, WE modern people did everything right. We took resources we found. Invented and created and profited. What came from them is an endless array of products, pharmaceuticals, transportation, communication … Things we pursued with gusto.
And now we have to face our excesses.
A contemplative orientation involves two sides – like a coin. One side is the side of awareness…. Quiet recognition…. Sitting with…. Accepting that everything belongs and has a role…. Surrender to the truth of my place in all of it.
There is no place for Future Events Appearing Real – that acronym for FEAR – no room for that if our awareness of the here and now admits the good, the plenty, the possibilities that exist.
The other side might grow out of that place of peace. It is the side of action. And action is the remedy for anxiety. If you are moved, write the letter. Sign the petition. Send the email. Be part of a positive insistence of what might be.
Finally, Community. Yours may be small or large, but it is our relationships that make reality tangible and tolerable. Ask yourself how many of the zanier ideas promulgated by conspiracy theorists would have any plausibility without the echo chamber of the internet. Sanity, confidence and … Yes, even HOPE … are contagious, too.
Here’s what the Teacher, Qoheleth, has to say: “9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help. 11 Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? 12 And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
We began this journey to look at Hope in a time of Climate Change. So, I’ll leave you with this: I invite you to serve your community as an Ambassador of Hope.
Whether your trust lies in your faith, your experience, or simply the long and varied story of history, you can hold two ideas in mind. One that, yes, we need to be aware and alert – to take actions. And two that things often don’t come out how I planned or intended and that they can turn out good – maybe even better – anyway.
If you can carry – not a preachy message, but a life lived offering encouragement to those close to you, you will be the greatest agent of change – the good kind of change.
I’ll leave you with a brief reflection from David Whyte called “Loaves and Fishes”:
This is not
the age of information.
This is not
the age of information.
Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.
This is the time of loaves
People are hungry,
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.
About the Author:
Rev. Doug Fritzsche
Doug is a retired Presbyterian minister and serves on the Eremos Board of Directors. These remarks were taken from comments he made at a recent Eremos Summer Interlude.