Earth Day Reflections presented Sunday, April 25, 2021, by Elaine Miller, Miriam Menzel, George Lin, Stephanie Stevens and Jim Musselman.
Who are among our great cloud of witnesses? Who are the ancestors in our memories, our spirit and our blood? My cloud of witnesses includes family, those gone before, AND representatives from the six kingdoms of life: Animals, plants, fungi and 3 distinct types of microorganisms. In other words, we were, and we are family with fish, redwoods, mushrooms, algae, and bacteria. We are all intimately connected and mutually reliant. We are all sacred.
Growing up we lived in a freshly minted neighborhood with two little lollipop trees in each brand-new front yard. Every Sunday we drove about 1/2 hour to a small Mennonite Church. I would spend that drive through central Ohio, looking out the window at the endless cornfields, scraped, plucked and tended by giant machines working non-stop except in Winter. The Ohio I knew was city, suburb and farmland with an occasional pocket of older trees.
Ohio wasn’t always like this: The Trees of Ohio Field Guide, published by the Division of Wildlife, states “prior to European settlement (I would say invasion) when Ohio’s forests covered 95% of the state, it was said that a squirrel could travel from one corner of the state to another without touching the ground.”
My Dad passed along his love of the wilderness to us. Every summer we left the suburbs and farmland behind and spent weeks camping, hiking and backpacking in wild places. One of our early trips was to Glacier National Park in Montana. Is it possible to fall in love with a glacier or two or 3? I think I kind of did: Gem Glacier, Salamander Glacier and the mighty Grinnell Glacier. I took it for granted that these glaciers would always be there for us. I was wrong. Climate change has vastly shrunk many of the glaciers and others have melted away completely. Grinnell Glacier is now mostly a lake.
The practices of recycling, reusing and limited consumption on which I was raised always made sense to me. It was comforting to think I was taking care of the earth by conserving energy, avoiding plastic and thrift shopping. I realize now, even more so after my involvement with the climate action group, that these individual actions are admirable but fall far short of what is needed. Working together in community across boundaries is the only way to enact significant change.
I feel connected to many representatives from the kingdom of life. My guts love their microbiomes and my microbiomes love me. While my heart opened when I first saw those glaciers, it ached when I saw a beloved jacaranda tree on my street chopped in a needless manner. I’ve kept an eye on that tree ever since, and this Spring felt joy to see light green feathery branches emerge from what I thought was surely a killing prune. The trees want to live. The microbiomes want to reproduce and do their work. The fish strive to swim upstream to spawn. All beings on our planet are in this with us and have much to teach if we listen and learn. They need Earth to thrive just as much as us and it is our responsibility to partner with them and with each other. Surely the multitudes in our cloud of witnesses are cheering us on in this sacred mission.
Miriam Menzel: Taking a Leap of Faith
Life on earth is on the verge of or in the midst of catastrophe. Various species are rapidly going extinct. The human population continues to explode, but we don’t see it because of Shifting Baseline Syndrome: we are not fully aware of things we have not personally experienced. Each generation believes that life during its upbringing was “normal,” and concerns itself only with changes that occur thereafter. However, when we look back at the bigger picture we may realize that in 1800, after 200,000 years of human existence, the earth’s population was one billion; yet in the 220 years since, it has increased to 7.7 billion. These 220 years of exponential growth are the exception, not the rule. The current pandemic is a result of humans exceeding the earth’s capacity: not having enough space, we intruded upon the habitat of other creatures, which allowed the coronavirus to jump species. This is one example of the many problems related to humans exceeding the earth’s carrying capacity. The burning of fossil fuel, which only started some 160 years ago, while causing pollution and climate change that threaten our continued existence, has also drastically changed how we live and what conveniences we expect to have at our disposal. These lifestyle changes have allowed us humans to live longer and more comfortably, and to multiply more. But fossil fuel is finite and will be gone within the next century under any circumstances. Renewables though a good step, cannot replace the huge quantities of energy currently being consumed, and these demands continue to increase by leaps and bounds even since the Paris Accords.
I mention all of this to pose the following questions. Will we be able to overcome these problems? Can humans decide to live with less—to abandon our ideals of constant economic growth? To require greater effort to get through a day? Can those who understand this situation possibly prevail over the powers that be—that is, the giant multinational corporations—to abandon their goal of ever-increasing profit in favor of making decisions for the good of all who exist on this planet? For that matter, can we stop fighting amongst ourselves and learn to live by kindness and caring?
It is impossible for anyone alive today to know what will ultimately happen. The meaning of faith is to take a chance without knowing the outcome. That is what we do when we enter into a relationship. It is what we do when we make difficult decisions. Rabbi Nachman, a Hasidic sage and great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, said that we must not despair. If we give up hope entirely, we will not work on our problems, and so they will not be solved. If we hang on to a shred of hope; if we trust in the possibility that humanity can resolve its problems before it’s too late, then there is a chance that we might. We can’t know the outcome in advance. But we can still take that leap of faith.
As far back as I can remember, I was fascinated and enchanted by animals, and had several pets (e.g. like lizards, frogs, fish, even ducks). I was convinced I wanted to become a zoologist if you asked me in elementary school.
Trying to take care of pets taught me some hard lessons about living things and the environment. When my tadpoles died, I learned that you needed to give them algae to eat. When my goldfish died, I learned that the water needed an air pump, to have the right pH balance, be the right temperature, and NOT entirely in direct sunlight.
At some point I gained enough self awareness to decide that maybe I should just leave the animals alone, and admire them from afar.
Speaking of not actively harming animals, I learned about resource scarcity & conservation through a memorable video clip on PBS for children about water conservation. The clip began with a little boy leaving the faucet on while he brushed his teeth. Then the image Panned outside to a lake where several fish were living, and as the water ran out of the faucet down the drain, the water in the lake decreased until the fish were all crowded on the bottom. One of the fish picks up a telephone and calls the boy, who realizes what’s happening and turns the faucet off. It’s kind of silly, but at the time I got the message.
Also around this time I was also taught in Sunday School that we humans had been given the responsibility of taking care of the Earth and all the plants and animals in it, and I remember this responsibility making a lot of sense and consistent with the PBS clip.
I did what I could think of as a kid to conserve energy and water at home. It wasn’t until later that I learned about greenhouse gases and their effect on climate change. I learned from the news that cars, and in particular big cars like SUVs, were big contributors, but I didn’t drive at the time, so it didn’t really apply to me.
One year in college, we had a big climate change event with some prominent climate scientists and researchers, and a lot of fanfare over the new Toyota Prius Hybrid which was featured prominently in some ads.
Now, I thought they were going to talk about how we’d figured it out with the Prius and greenhouse gases weren’t going to be a problem anymore as long as everyone just bought a Prius. Turns out that was just my consumerist fantasy…
To my dismay, the scientists explained that as long as humans are living in the world, they will be consuming resources, and the Prius isn’t going to make much of a difference if we don’t make more fundamental changes to our lifestyles. So the Prius kind of kicks the bucket down the road, but isn’t ultimately a solution, and we should really think deeper about all the ways we consume resources and how to minimize our impact on the environment.
Since then, for over a decade now, I have tried to minimize and become increasingly conscious of my consumption: buying things second-hand whenever possible so as not to contribute to the demand, minimizing travel, and even decreasing how much meat I consume. I haven’t done a perfect job, and there is plenty more that I can and will do to minimize my carbon footprint, as we all should, but at the end of the day the scale of the problem of global climate change is such that individual choices will make little difference unless certain major collective decisions are also taken and acted upon (and mean soon).
We are far from where scientists say we need to be.
Today, I am older than my father was when he became a parent, and my partner and I are in the midst of deciding whether or not to start a family of our own. I am struggling with the idea of bringing a new life into this world…where humans had been given the responsibility of taking care of the planet, but instead we (and America and Europe in particular) have selfishly treated the earth (and all the plants and animals in it) as our own personal plaything…. feeling entitled to use it up to maximize the benefit and enjoyment to ourselves and discarding it when we’re through with it…a problem for future generations to salvage.
I am struggling with the idea of bringing a new life into this…
Stephanie Stevens: My unexpected joy in switching to a new bank!
Switching to a new bank was one of the most exhilarating things I had done last year. (Of course that was before we brought home our sweet bundle of joy, Rowan :). I even sent out an email to my (closer) friends to let them know I was “ swooning” over this new bank I’d found. I never in my life dreamed I would have such a soaring feeling in my heart, or an expansive new experience of breathing room and recharged outlook in my life, related to shifting to a new bank! But I did, and I do. (Don’t worry – I’m already married to the love of my life, so this doesn’t mean I’m going to marry my new bank!)
Yes, this is how it has felt to me. I knew I wanted to switch to a new bank that was more aligned with my values and care for our planet. Though it was a long and disheartening experience to research and find a bank that could both meet our needs (both personal and business accounts, low fees), and was aligned with our values (not funding fossil fuel, deforestation, tenant eviction, speculative development, all while supporting diversity and the local community). This, as I knew, was a tall order, and I only half allowed myself to believe that it was possible. I ALMOST settled on another bank, but the bank representative didn’t really know what the money in the bank was actually funding. I took some time off the project and thought about other things for a bit (a critical step for me to avoid giving up altogether!) and just as I was about to give up, I did one last round of research and that is when I found them! In my close research of this new bank, with each new angle that I looked at, I was increasingly astonished by what appeared to be actual integrity! This bank, Community Bank of the Bay, was the first in California to sign on to a charter for community banks. I since learned that 80% of their money goes to local investments that actually serve the community.
And then on top of that, they created an option for customers to choose to put their funds toward a “green fund” that they created to go only toward green, local investments. They even signed a code of conduct to agree to not participate in funding speculative real estate deals that lead to eviction of disadvantaged or marginalized citizens! When I saw that this bank, who’s employees are diverse, actually seemed to be living and breathing their values – I was astonished. I think I cynically doubted whether a financial institution could ever be fully in integrity with my values, and remain solvent. And yet, here it was!
Now, let’s be clear. When I said I “switched” to a new bank, that makes it sound simple, like flipping on a light switch when you come home after a long day. Well, in the case of changing banks, the process was more like coming home in the evening during a power outage, feeling around where I thought a candle might be, and after much exploration in the dark, finally finding it to my delight and relief. Then, to light it, fumbling around for a little longer than expected to try to find the matches…and finally! Yes! The flame ignites on only the second match! I can see! Oops but now I see I need to go find a small tray to place under the candle to catch the wax. After some shuffling around in my cupboards, which I kind of had to straighten anyway, I find a good tray and place it under the candle. Ahhhh. Now my room feels luminous!
Since “switching”, I have experienced such joy and energy and pride that I had taken action toward this level of alignment with my money. And I found that the inconvenient obstacles along the way (they needed to see my signed articles of organization and official documentation from the Secretary of State for my business account, whereas Bank of America just needed my EIN number), made my crossing the finishing line with my new account set up that much more sweet in the end. I gained the insight that the conveniences I valued with the simpler set up at the big bank, was exactly the mechanism of an oppressive system to subtly wind into my daily life. And while things seemed to take a little longer, we also witnessed the employees of the bank, a socio-economically diverse crew, go to exceptional lengths, such as staying 30 minutes past closing in order to complete the account set up! I was able to see more clearly for myself that behind the convenience of the big brand was hiding an enormous cost to my energy and peace of mind that I was only dimly aware of before I got the challenge to “break up with Chase” to save the environment. Thanks Helen for bringing us this challenge!
Discovering this new energy is possible by aligning my actions with my values has given me fuel to further continue these small sweet steps, as I see the luminous impact of what is possible.
Winona LaDuke is an Anishinaabe Native American environmental writer living on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota. She founded an environmental nonprofit called “Honor the Earth”, she is a defender of tribal lands endangered by the proposed Line 3 Pipeline, and she is a former Vice-Presidential candidate of the Green Party. This presentation reflects her environmental philosophy.