Eco-Theology as Climate Change Adaptation

The Apollo Project harkens back to an era when we put our mind to big tasks and worked together to accomplish it — such an attitude is needed to confront the climate crisis we all face. Religious communities play an important role and they must change too, perhaps by adopting an ecologically centered theology. This sermon was delivered to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Susquehanna Valley in Northumberland, PA in July 2019.

This sermon is about the excellence of dreaming big and meeting the moment.

50 years ago, amidst the challenges of the Cold War, the Vietnam War, student protests, nuclear proliferation, and so many more moments of uncertainty and upheaval, the first humans walked on the moon. While clearly a nationalist project, this was a technological achievement worthy of great celebration and full of promise for all humankind. Can you imagine the audacity of that intrepid crew rocketing towards a distant point in spacetime in a little metal satellite? Looking down as home disappeared, shrinking smaller and smaller? There was no turning back. They were on the high wire with no net. On a mission they couldn’t abort. Rocketing towards an end to the space-race and the ushering in of a time of human advancement through technological achievement. This one project, to me at least, encapsulated all the optimism of a generation. We will wage a war on poverty! With technological achievement, we can wipe out diseases and human misery!

During the summer of 2019, my friends and I commemorated the 50th anniversary of that moon landing with a pool party. We ate moonpies and drank tang. As the stars came out on a clear dark night, we stretched out a sheet and projected For All Mankind (1989) for swimmers to watch. Brian Eno’s nebulous and intoxicating soundtrack played and we heard President Kennedy’s call action: “ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country!” I felt weightless as I bobbed in the pool and looked up at the stars and glanced back to the footage of Earth from space.

Many astronauts report a euphoric and profound sense of connection between all beings when they see the Earth alone in space — conflicts and borders become obsolete and protecting our shared planet becomes ones ultimate concern. Astronaut Michael Collins of the Apollo 11 mission stated “the thing that really surprised me was that [The Earth] projected an air of fragility…I had a feeling: it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.” Being surrounded by an infinite vacuum of nothing must really must put things into perspective. Seeing it all, alone and self-contained, with nothing around it or dividing it, brings forth an urgency to resolve conflict and treat the earth as our very own, one and only, celestial home.

That summer, I was home from school where I was pursuing my Master’s degree in Disaster Risk Management and Climate Change Adaptation at Lunds University in Sweden. I had spent all academic year thinking deeply about how we can both adapt to the wicked consequences of a changing climate and limit warming to livable levels. I took classes on capacity development, climate smart adaptation, disaster response, and learned about the myriad of opportunities we have to decarbonize our economy and make our planet more livable for all people. I studied this while I lived in a country, Sweden, that clearly understood the problem and worked diligently to reduce their emissions and improve the lives of all of its citizens, especially those most vulnerable.

Perhaps all this was on my mind or, like Michael Collins, I experienced the weightless euphoria of seeing the earth in space…from my pool. Either way, it was hard not to think of the challenge we faced together as a planet — how do we limit warming to 1.5 degree’s celsius? I’ll spare you the science and engineering — this is a sermon after all, not a seminar. But, the answer to this question is actually quite simple — reduce emissions by 50% over the next ten years and completely by 2050. We have the technology to do it too, we just seem to be stuck in a time of complacency and indecision. Socially, culturally, politically, our predictable alliances and nemeses are too familiar to cast aside. We like to recycle the same old nauseating arguments and bicker about the same culture wars over and over again, happy with no progress. We even seem to be stuck in a never ending cycle of super-hero movies, remakes, and series reboots, where the characters, plot lines, and endings are unfathomably predictable. As I thought about our stagnation, lack of imagination, and big global problems, I shrunk a little deeper in the pool.

However, this sermon isn’t about despair. This sermon is about the excellence of dreaming big and meeting the moment. And to be totally honest, I’m not all ‘doom and gloom’ about climate change. We are being presented with an opportunity to break out of our alienation from God’s creation, right some awful wrong’s, repair our planet, and create a more livable and liberated future. Stopping the climate crisis by decarbonizing our economy will be our moonlanding. To carry this out, we need enormous, structural change, but this is easier said than done. Wholesale revolution is a bridge too far, yet introducing bamboo coffee stirrers seems about as helpful as giving a cancer patient Tylenol.

As a man of faith, I know that this is also a spiritual crisis. I know that where there is no vision, the people will perish. And I know that right now, spiritual community is needed to dream the dreams we need to dream, build the communities we need to thrive, and care for the vulnerable.

We are not on our death bed, we are in a painful labor, out of which something beautiful will be born.

Let me offer such a dream of how we can lead the way in shifting in how we perceive of ourselves as individuals, of justice within our communities, and of our Planet Earth.

Theologian, Sally McFague, calls us to consider the Earth as God’s body. The whole Earth, all creation, a joyous, living, groaning, crowing, chirping, writhing, slinking, shouting, slurping, howling, embodiment of God itself! The ocean is holy. The salmon is holy. The poison ivy is holy. The deer tick is holy. The swimming pool is holy. The brick and the mortar are holy. Every pulsating being is a sacrament to Divine Love and every moment on Earth is a consecration to our infinite passion, our passion of the infinite.

Let’s consider some consequences of this theology:

We eliminate the false dichotomy dictating that our wild places are sacred (where we commune with nature and God) and our built-environment is profane, places where we have to ‘deal with people’ and ‘survive in the concrete jungle.’

On the fragile Earth our astronauts reported, even slight changes in temperature, rainfall extremes, and sea level mean cascading effects throughout the web of life, of which we are all a part of. Humans mourn the destruction of God’s body and act accordingly, righting their wrongs.

In this eco-theology, we will choose to invest in and advance technologies that co-operate alongside nature, like the windmill which turn with the wind, adding, not subtracting. We will not invest in extractive technologies that diminish and exploit God’s body.

People will become offended by strip mining, mountain top removal, fracking on religious grounds — this destruction impedes our right to worship in the church of our choice.

This theology is a climate change adaptation measure that religious communities should adopt. Adaptation measures that don’t radically transform our society won’t cut it. We need system change, not lightbulb change. We need to change our very conception of God to get through this crisis. This theology places every single person in the drivers seat and simplifies our task. We are all, without exception, called to honor ourselves, our values, and God. Living in harmony with the Earth will be our unceasing prayer. Perhaps this is what the Apostle Paul meant in his letter to the parishioners in Thessolonica when he told them to pray without ceasing. One need not have a degree in science to understand how to honor the body of god. The question is not how will this act effect my carbon footprint, but, will my actions honor the body of God?

We are looking at ten years that must be consequential and I feel hopeful.

Let me speak the truth, plainly. We are in a small satellite hurling through space. Our spaceship is Earth. Our fellow passengers are all the people and oceans, sea creatures, elephants, ants, owls, and tree’s. There is no net. We cannot abort the mission. We are excellent. We are the dreamers. We are the doers.

Taylor Lightman earned his M.S. from Lunds University in 2020 and his B.A. in Politics and Religion from St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He currently lives in Sweden but is thinking of making the move back to PA soon for work.

Born in Pennsylvania. Politics, Climate Change Adaptation, and Disaster. More at taylorlightman.com & barnstormingPA.org