I just received this sermon from one of our movement’s finest chaplains and co-founder of Religious Witness for the Earth, Reverend Fred Small. I wept when I read it.
The New Youth Climate Movement
A sermon by Rev. Fred Small
First Church Unitarian, Littleton, MA
November 11, 2007
“And now abide faith, hope, and love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.”
So wrote Paul the Apostle to close the thirteenth chapter of his famed letter to the Christian community at Corinth. It’s still my favorite passage in the Bible, no matter no how many weddings I hear it at. Love is the most important thing, the one essential thing, the most powerful force, I believe, in the universe.
And that’s a good thing, because my faith and hope have been taking quite a beating lately. If faith demands confidence in the outcome and hope optimism, then global warming can really do a number on faith and hope.
With accelerating certainty and alarm, the scientists are telling us we’re in for some very rocky times, our children even more so.
It’s really nice that Al Gore won the Oscar and the Nobel Peace Prize, but in the nearly two years since An Inconvenient Truth premiered, the United States government has done precisely nothing to stop global warming. Instead of inspiring international cooperation to change how we produce and use energy, the melting of the North Pole has incited an international race to see who can exploit its resources the fastest.
As Lily Tomlin likes to say, “Things are going to get worse before they get even worse.”
So I’m relieved and a little astonished by the news I bring you this morning. News of love, yes, always, but news as well of faith and hope, even in the same breath as global warming.
Last weekend I joined nearly six thousand young people at Power Shift 2007, the first national youth summit to address the climate crisis. One of a handful of middle-aged and elder guests, I sat on a panel on “Faith and Climate” and presented two workshops, “Spiritual Practice in Sustaining Activism” and “Songs and Song-leading for Activists.” I felt honored to have been invited, but I felt awed to be in the presence of these dedicated young people as they come into their power, and not a moment too soon.
The new youth climate movement is big, it’s diverse, it’s savvy, and it’s determined.
These young people know they’re the first generation ever to inherit a habitat globally damaged by their parents, and frankly they’re not thrilled about it. They’re not going to settle for political lip service or corporate greenwashing. These kids are dead serious, they’re wicked smart, and they’re fired up.
Thousands of teenagers, college students, and twenty-somethings streamed to the University of Maryland campus for Power Shift. They came from all fifty states, 300 congressional districts, and more than twenty countries. For three days they listened to speakers like Nancy Pelosi, Ed Markey, Bill McKibben, Winona LaDuke, George Lakoff, and Van Jones, as well as their own youth leaders. They attended panels on environmental justice, human rights, alternative energy, green jobs, communications, lobbying, and voter registration. They jammed classrooms for workshops with titles like “Strategic Tools for Movement Building,” “Non-Violent Direct Action 101,” “History & Principles of Environmental Justice,” “Ecofeminism,” “Wind Power on Campus”, “Digital Organizing,” “How to Be the most Persuasive Person in the Room,” and “Preparing for Bali: Effective Youth Engagement in Global Negotiations.”
The young people I encountered struck me as idealistic, pragmatic, and eager to learn.
Christians, Jews, and Muslims attending the “Faith and Climate” panel sought scriptural and religious grounding for climate stewardship. Others less religious were curious how faith might support and inform activism. A number were delighted to be introduced to Unitarian Universalism. At the workshop I led on spiritual practice, participants were looking for practical tools to sustain their commitment and avoid burnout. My workshop on songs and songleading, attended by over thirty singers, reviewed the powerful impact of singing in movements past and shared tricks of the trade. Misreading the schedule, I arrived ten minutes late to find the room already filled with song. They were teaching each other!
Power Shift was far and away the most racially diverse environmental gathering I’ve ever witnessed. Sure, white folks were in the majority, but people of color were everywhere-in the seats, on staff, as presenters, as performing artists, and as keynote speakers. African-American teenagers sported t-shirts emblazoned with the words “Green the Ghetto.” Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr. President of the Hip Hop Caucus, fulminated against global warming with the fervor of a Baptist preacher denouncing fornication. One African-American hip hop artist rhapsodized on “the energy between God, Mother Earth, and me”; another linked polar bears, the evacuees of New Orleans, and detainees at Guantanamo.
Faith Gemmill of the Gwich’in people of Alaska told us of the Porcupine River Caribou Herd, upon which the Gwich’in have depended for subsistence since the dawn of time. Each spring, the caribou cross the frozen Porcupine River to reach their calving grounds in the north. But in 2000, the river thawed early, blocking their migration. The pregnant caribou dropped their calves on the southern bank, but instinct demanded they reach the safe haven of their calving grounds or perish. The mothers plunged into the swollen river, calling their calves to follow. 45,000 calves drowned.
Majora Carter, Executive Director of Sustainable South Bronx, told us global warming is an issue transcending race. “Don’t all people want beauty in their lives?” she asked. “Don’t we want all of our people to be happy, healthy, and productive people? Everybody needs someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to. If people don’t feel that their life is contributing to something, they feel isolated, angry, and alone. Don’t we all want to be part of a larger movement to improve the society we share?”
The United States, she lamented, represents just 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s greenhouse emissions-and 25% of the world’s incarcerated. Her voice broke as she spoke of one in three African-American men facing imprisonment in their lifetime. “I am tired of looking at my brothers and sisters and praying they beat the odds. I am tired of thinking, ‘Which one is going to be doing time because of opportunities denied?’” She led thousands of us in a chant: “Green jobs, not jails! Green jobs, not jails!” “I need to hear you say it,” she entreated, and who could deny her?
With so many voters in one place, it didn’t take long for politicians to come calling. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Ed Markey both appeared unscheduled Saturday night on the main stage.
Congressman Markey spoke first. In full-throated Ted-Kennedy-style rhetoric, he had the crowd cheering his call for youth to lead in against global warming. They cheered again when he called for legislation to increase fuel economy and support renewable energy. But when he boasted the bill would reduce global warming pollution by 40%, the cheers turned into a chant: “We want more! We want more! We want more!” and then “80 by 50! 80 by 50! 80 by 50!” meaning 80% reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2050, which is what the scientists say we’ll need to stop global warming. It seemed to me a pretty sophisticated chant for five thousand kids.
Congressman Markey, figuring if he couldn’t beat ‘em, he’d better join ‘em, led a brief chant of “Hey, Hey, What do you say? Global warming stops today!” and swiftly surrendered the stage to Nancy Pelosi.
The Speaker of the House of Representatives immediately endorsed 80% by 2050. She compared the assembled youth to the “magnificent disrupters” who founded the United States of America. The crowd responded positively, although I noticed one young man standing silently throughout her speech holding aloft a human spine (whether real or replica, I couldn’t tell) as if in offering.
Later that evening, Bill McKibben, at age 46 the grand old man and reluctant rock star of the climate movement, ascended the stage flanked by the shock troops of the Step It Up campaign a generation younger. “I got to tell you what you guys look like out there,” McKibben began, leaning his gangly frame into the microphone. “You look like a movement. . . . This is the next great movement on this planet, and we better get it right or it will be the last great movement on this planet. You can’t just change your campus, you’ve got to change your world. My colleagues behind me in Step It Up have organized 2000 demonstrations in all fifty states of this country. You can see the impact of all this organizing tonight. A year ago 80/50 was a radical idea, and tonight the most powerful person in the US Congress was leading a chant with those numbers. In twenty years of working on this, in twenty years of fearing on this, tonight’s the most hopeful I’ve ever been.”
On Monday, thousands of young people energized by the conference and trained in lobbying descended on the Capitol, rallied on the steps, and visited hundreds of lawmakers. Many wore green hard hats to dramatize their demand for green jobs, They crammed the hearing of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming (chaired by Congressman Markey).
Among those testifying was Billy Parish, founder of Energy Action, which organized Power Shift. At 26, Billy is now an elder statesman of the youth climate movement. “In four months I will be a father,” he told the panel. “I urge you to consider what we say, not as politicians, but as fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters. This is our future. . . . We will solve this [crisis], but we cannot do it without you. And if you do not join us, then find yourself another job. We are in the millions, and we are organizing. We put you in office and we will take you out of office. This is our lives at stake.”
When Billy Parish says we solve this crisis, he doesn’t know when or at what cost. He doesn’t know how much damage already will have been inflicted on our precious earth. He doesn’t know how much suffering we will endure before we learn the lesson of ecological and spiritual interdependence.
Neither do I.
In my spiritual practice workshop, I reminded the young people that Mahatma Gandhi had persisted in more than a half-century of devoted activism by heeding the counsel of the Bhagavad Gita: “Action alone is in your control. It never extends to the fruits. Be not attached to the fruits of action nor be attached to inaction.”
Who knows what the future holds? Maybe the skeptics are right, and global warming will turn out to be vastly overestimated. Wouldn’t that be relief? Or maybe we’re already doomed and just don’t know it. All we can do is act with courage and integrity on the best knowledge we have.
“As for prophecies, they will come to an end. As for tongues, they will cease. As for knowledge, it will come to an end.” Only love never ends.
But like Bill McKibben, in the glow of Power Shift I find myself strangely hopeful. Thousands of young people are taking the information, skills, and contagious energy of Power Shift back to their schools, colleges, and communities, and the movement will multiply. However dire the threats we face, as these young people take up the watch, the earth is in good hands.
The day after Power Shift 2007, a second-year student at New College of Florida named Amy Ortiz posted a blog on itsgettinghotinhere.org, an online forum of the youth climate movement. She captures the spirit of this movement far better than I ever could.
“The whole experience at Power Shift 2007,” Amy writes, “was one of such incredible joy and optimism. Unlike most experiences I have had with climate change focused events, it didn’t feel like we were facing incredible, unsurmountable odds. Instead, I felt empowered, inspired and activated. This weekend, I realized more than ever before, that we CAN do it, and we WILL do it. As youth, we have the vision, passion and inspiration to lead our country towards the just, clean energy future we all dream of.”