For my blog this month I'm posting the homily I gave at my Unitarian Universalist Zoom Earth Day service on April 19. I hope you enjoy it.
Covid and Climate and Justice
Good morning. I’m going to share some thoughts today about Covid and climate and justice. The novel coronavirus pandemic has laid bare some of the more glaring problems in our society that climate activists have been talking about for years, and the issues of justice and injustice have jumped out in sharp relief. There are even direct connections between Covid and climate, like the fact that the melting permafrost is releasing giant viruses as much as 30,000 years old. Needless to say humans have never been in contact with them before.
Experiencing the spring – the incredibly early spring we’ve had this year – is different in the age of Covid. We can still take walks, we can work in our gardens, but group activities are out.
What kind of a cosmic joke is it that we are marking the 50th anniversary of Earth Day during a global lock-down? Now, all the youth-led rallies full of love, hope, anger, near-despair and incredible energy have all been funneled on-line, where we know in the age of Zoom that we can do a lot, but we can’t be outside feeling the sun or rain or breeze on our faces, hugging our friends and standing together for a brighter tomorrow. That’s one thing that our strange new world has encouraged – lots of creativity and thinking outside the box. If you can’t march to the insurance companies in Hartford that are underwriting fossil fuel production, organize an on-line march and call-in, with music and graphics. If you can’t hold a sing-a-long for the climate in person, put everyone in front of their computers and combine your voices virtually.
Spoofs in the age of Covid and YouTube have led to a contagion of humor, and let’s face it, we desperately need to laugh. One of my favorites is a reworking of the beautiful we’re all in this together anthem – From a Distance – that gives it a whole new meaning. Another is a beloved Fiddler on the Roof tune, parodied as Mask Maker. “Mask Maker, Mask Maker, make me a mask, any design, please sew it fast…”
The pandemic has allowed many of us to slow down and really see our world more clearly – limited though our frame might be. While lying on the floor of my study doing some exercises trying to stay in shape with the gym closed, I observed, upside down, our wacky pear trees in full bloom. I say wacky because they’d lost so many limbs in past storms and they were so Ichabod Crane-looking that I’d actually suggested cutting them down and planting something else. My husband disagreed and he was right, as I marveled at their delicate beauty. You can see them behind me.
I’ve also heard people say that they sometimes resented having to take their dog for a walk, but now it’s the highlight of their day, as they pass others at the required physical distance and exchange the greetings that were often non-existent before the pandemic cast human interaction in a new light.
Seeing groups of people move individually or in pairs along a street reminds me of the choreography – although spread out – of that beloved move in contra dancing – the hay for 4, in which two couples switch places through an elaborate set of moves to the right, the left, the right.
I have a friend who sends me funny or moving photos, videos or poems every day. The most amazing was a collection of two dozen photos of trees growing in challenging circumstances to say the least – through rocks, on tiny outcroppings in the ocean, on a nurse log that birthed many more of its own kind, and more.
Trees might put us in touch with nature better than any other living thing. I know that’s true for me, and these days we don’t call them things anymore, but living beings who co-exist in supportive communities, communicate with each other and support each other when times are tough.
Sometimes that’s true of humans, too, though often, alas, it’s not.
The pandemic has revealed both the best and worst of humanity, as many others have already pointed out. It’s also revealed the terrible divisions in our societies, where low income folks and people of color are suffering disproportionately from Covid-19, in terms of illness and especially in the death counts. For example, several weeks into the pandemic, while ten percent of Nutmeggers are African American, they were 16 percent of the fatalities. And the situation was even worse in some other parts of the country. It’s like they have two strikes against them already.
And guess what?! You could say the exact same thing about the climate crisis. We know that the people who did the least to create the crisis are suffering first and worst from its impacts. That’s people in low-lying countries and island nations, and poor people generally.
And the generational crime is even more stark. I am so privileged to work on climate with young people, mostly college-age and 20-somethings, but high schoolers are passionately involved, too, and climate leaders have even emerged in the under-10 set. That’s one lesson for us older folks – don’t underestimate the youth. Climate scientists say we have until 2030 to reduce the emission of global warming gases by half -- enough to prevent irreversible climate chaos. Until this pandemic stopped the global economy cold, emissions were still going up. The young ones know they are facing a changed, diminished and very scary world. But they face it with a fierce resolve.
I love these young people with all my heart. I love their commitment, their love for each other, their welcoming elders like me into their bold, creative actions. But try as I might, being in my seventies, I can’t truly feel the terror they feel at what the future – the near future and then the extended future – will bring.
Sena Wazer is Connecticut’s own Greta Thunberg, the Swedish girl who kick-started the global youth movement. Both speak truth to power. In a speech last December in Hartford, Sena told political leaders, “I spend every day panicking about climate change, doing whatever I can to help combat it, but yet in your position of power, you continue to sit by and do nothing. But we're not waiting any longer: Stand up or step aside.” I can still hear hundreds of children and teenagers at the Capitol echoing that phrase, yelling “Stand up or step aside! Stand up or step aside!”
There’s a good lesson for our climate future in our current conditions, where we off-handedly say that we are “locked down.” Even though most of us have access to food, entertainment, communication with friends, family and co-workers, and even the outdoors, many of us are chafing at our confinement. Imagine how people feel who are truly locked down – in prisons and immigration detention centers around the country. I’ve been spending some time at honkathons lately – Covid-safe protests in our cars outside those facilities, or at the site of decision-makers’ homes or workplaces, such as the ICE office -- Immigration and Customs Enforcement – or the governor’s mansion. Protesters are calling for the release of almost all detainees, so that their confinement doesn’t become a death sentence. So many immigrants who have come or tried to come to the U.S. are climate refugees, and their numbers are pretty much guaranteed to balloon as we encounter climactic tipping points that will increase desertification, sea level rise and other disasters. How we treat the least among us now is a good indication of how we might treat our fellow humans in even more dire straits.
In Todd Miller’s book, Storming the Wall, he writes about the hundreds of millions of climate refugees this century will see, and he talks about the two main responses to the climate emergency. One is climate security – that is, security for the wealthy and well-connected, who will arm themselves with weapons and technology and build walls to keep out the hordes of desperate earth-dwellers seeking survival. The other response is climate justice, where humans do believe and act that we’re all in this together and take steps to protect us all. One person who exemplifies this is Scott Warren, a member of No More Deaths, who was arrested for providing aid to two desperate migrants in Arizona near the Mexican border and faced 20 years in prison. After a second trial, he was acquitted, which provided a glimmer of hope and joy in a very dark time. I was part of a group of ten women from Connecticut who spent time with a similar group, the Samaritans, providing aid to migrants in the Sonoran desert.
We’ve seen both of these responses to the pandemic. On the security side, people hoarding supplies, authorities cracking down on certain groups and politicians playing the blame game. And on the justice side, mutual aid groups have popped up all over the country, including in New Haven and several other CT cities. Volunteers are gathering and disbursing food, cleaning supplies and cloth masks made by the hundreds at dining room tables like mine, across the region. Supporters are sending cash to immigrant rights groups because their undocumented members are not eligible for unemployment or for any federal money in the stimulus package. California is the exception, where state and private funds totaling $125 million will provide cash grants to immigrant individuals and families in need. Gov. Gavin Newsom explained the rationale, saying, “We feel a deep sense of gratitude for people that are in fear of deportation but are still addressing the essential needs of tens of millions of Californians” in food production and other tasks. That’s an example of climate justice.
It’s hard not to notice another benefit of the pandemic: a 95% drop in air travel and a huge drop in earthbound vehicle traffic means the skies are the clearest they’ve been since 9.11, almost 20 years ago. And I can bike down Whitney Avenue any time of day and have the road practically to myself.
There’s a potential political benefit as well. Young people in the Sunrise Movement calling for a Green New Deal over the past year were told there’s no money to provide health care for all and good jobs in the green economy. These young activists always said we could do it – it’s just a matter of calling forth the political will. Now we see that playing out – trillions of dollars made available in just a month, so far, to address this pandemic. Why can’t we spend the trillions of dollars needed to address climate change? Now that we’ve seen what’s possible, we can fight with even more clarity for what we need. Some politicians are calling for just that, but others – the most powerful – have found ways to tuck in hundreds of billions of dollars in slush money for fossil fuel CEOs from the stimulus package, making a joke out of our previous attempts to cut off the comparatively puny subsidies to the industry.
These same powerful misleaders are demanding we go back to business as usual before health experts say we can do so safely. We have to be in this for the long haul, just like the fight for climate sanity and climate justice is ongoing.
Many of you know that Greta Thunberg became so depressed about the so-called leaders of the world not taking immediate and powerful action to address climate change that she stopped eating, putting her life at risk and likely permanently stunting her growth. She came out of it when she realized there was something she could do about it, and she began her solitary School Strike for Climate in 2018 outside the parliament building in Stockholm, Sweden, which has since spread to millions around the world.
Things sometimes seem so bleak that I could picture myself giving up, though I can’t picture myself giving up eating 😊. But here’s the thing: tilting at windmills may seem like a useless thing to do, but working for a sacred cause together with many other committed people with heart and mind and soul, isn’t a bad way to go. I think it’s definitely better than the alternative.
Our seventh UU principle is "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." That’s a spiritual take on climate writer and activist Naomi Klein’s famous dictum: To change everything, we need everyone. We need the trees, the frogs, the insects, and all the humans. Because even though some humans ignore this fact – and pursue climate security, not climate justice – we really are all in this together. Amen.