John Erdevig on Head and Heart in "Saving" the Earth

John Erdevig is a good friend of mine, a lawyer, a Unitarian Universalist, and an environmental activist. This guest post gives his thoughts about religion, science and environmental activism. There is a depth to his thinking that I admire. See what you think. 

Let me begin by talking about Michael Dowd, who came to speak to our Unitarian-Universalist congregation. Dowd, for those of you unfamiliar with his bio, was raised Roman Catholic, ordained United Church of Christ (congregational), and later married a Unitarian who is my favorite science-and-religion author, Connie Barlow. I term Dowd a revisionist deist, as can be deduced from this book title, “Thank God for Evolution!” This is key: He weds the speaking style of an informed environmental activist with the extemporizing and inspiration of an old-school preacher walking the stage. He quotes cosmologist Carl Sagan and especially in front of non-UU audiences, updates the most relevant parts of the Hebrew Bible for believers. He is re-telling an ancient story, a sacred story. Why and what would it have to do with us?

His visit kindled a discussion among my friends. One flavor of our response to an impassioned environmentalist like Dowd… even Sagan… is, “Why do we need an emotional message?” Let me paraphrase the critique more explicitly: “We need science teachers. We need sound, tested, science-based technique e.g. when it comes to lowering emissions. Engineers and economists with cool heads and painstaking methods might not get too excited about communing with nature. We need well-thought-out economic policy, and that takes time. If we are going to the public at all, then we need to educate the public in the science, and in the currently-best technology, and in the good public policy options.”

I get it. My own intensity, my exploration of how to heighten the sense of urgency among my fellow citizens, doesn’t necessarily help the development of best technology and practices. Dowd and my favorite poets and essayists don’t necessarily inform the public debate about where the biggest “bang for the taxpayer buck” is. “Urgency” itself is insufficient, and sometimes harmful in the tool-making and decision-making process.

Any talk about moving a democracy and a consumer economy to adopt alternative technology and pass a carbon tax, say, inevitably turns to politics. Much is at stake with the politics of climate stabilization… to lose this political struggle is unthinkable to me. Now, politics runs in large part on emotion and identity, which I sum up in the questions, “How do you feel, and what’s your story?”

All advocates of reform need to keep our heads screwed on straight and encourage others not to flip out. But we need to understand that masses of voters and consumers –and we, admit it or not – are also moved by values and simplified, value-laden messages. Great change, especially under urgent circumstances, involves human head and heart, sometimes weighing in favor of one or the other.

When publishing emissions rules in the Code of Federal Regulations, head prevails. It starts with a statute and gets worked out in the lab. I would argue that when passing the enabling federal legislation, e.g. Clean Air Act, a quite sensible statute, heart prevailed. It was passed during a period of compassionate reform and counter-cultural ferment that took the slow deliberation of mainstream politics by storm. The politics of technical regulation promulgation is different from the politics of reform legislation. Preferably, regulation regularly transcends politics and focuses on data and optimizing sound objective functions

In the sphere of economic policy, Miles has argued in discussions with me that a carbon tax does much of the motivational heavy-lifting, while acknowledging that good old fashioned rhetoric helps passage of such a tax. The tax works mainly through market forces, which takes care of day-to-day motivations. Manufacturers and consumers weigh prices and reduce carbon, without a lot of hoopla and transcendent values. Miles also uses the language of political activism, which is of necessity simpler and more emotional than economics and emissions tech: “Demonize coal.” It is a means to an end. (Though I would argue that, in my value system and penchant for metaphor, coal is a fallen soul, perhaps a fallen angel, a human character, therefore a somewhat sympathetic character, but still deserving of a public ostracizing. It was once a miracle to humanity, a boon of artificial energy for masses once condemned to the more brutish manual labor and low standards of living. Just try not to use electricity from your nearest coal-fired plant for a week, and see if you don’t get cranky. Yet now it is a substance so harmful and out of control that I might call it a demon, if it weren’t for the fact that it takes our internal, worse angels – a veritable gluttony for cheap electricity – to make Demon Coal so demonic. We exorcise our failings in demonizing external things, and it might as well be mountain-removing coal.)

With such a nifty economic tool as a revenue-neutral carbon tax, possibly with some appeal to small-government fans, do we need the kind of mytho-poesis that Michael Dowd engages in? Here is a slippery slope: Do we need to get bogged down in whether any Christian or post-Christian concept of compassion and justice can be philosophically extended into the natural world? Chuck out Dowd and Sagan for a minute. Does the Earth need “saving?” or does it endure in indifference to any one species? What they regard as a sacred “right relationship” between Humanity and Nature… well, it boils down to survival of a few generations of our fallible and inevitably doomed species… so human-centric. There are intellectual problems to work out. So ok, let’s also leave aside the adjective “sacred” for now. So, let’s not capitalize Humanity and Nature as if they were singularities we can simply sum up and relate to one another.

On the other hand, I’m not sure that discussions of conservation, renewables and tax policy can bypass the psychology of great reform movements in this country. There, metaphor, simplified messages and religion have weighed in heavily: abolition, women’s vote, civil rights—and I would add in environmental legislation. Sure, there is something practical about the Clean Water and Clean Air Act. Air and water pollution was so bad in the 1970’s that legislation passed over Richard Nixon’s veto. Many saw it as a no-brainer. In my boyhood in the early 1960’s, the Milwaukee River was like the Cuyahoga, Cleveland’s “Burning River.” The black soot stuck in my nose after a trip to downtown Milwaukee. Even privileged people couldn’t escape the ugliness, stench and coughing. The U.S. has a political tradition of conservation going back to Teddy Roosevelt and that tradition is as much informed by romanticism – think charismatic megafauna like bison, and rugged outdoorsmen in wide open spaces – as by the calculus that if you chop all the trees down, a virgin forest cannot be restored and bad things happen downstream.

So don’t forget Joni Mitchell’s “They Paved Paradise” and don’t forget Earth Day. And it went beyond hippies and flower children, the children of nature. There was a revival of earth-centered Native American and Celtic spirituality. This spirituality was repeatedly reinterpreted by a rising New Age movement—a movement that was adopted even by the upper classes. Before the organized and well-funded reaction of the 1980’s, when Reagan triumphed and turned back much, but not all, of this far-reaching reform with the whole false dichotomy of economy versus ecology, jobs versus the environment, there was urgency, poetry, and inspiration. It takes all kinds to make an environmental movement. People willing to fill out Environmental Impact Statements, and people to march and sing. Happily, it perhaps didn’t take as much marching and singing, and nothing like a Civil War, to accomplish significant reform by getting landmark environmental legislation passed.

Let me illustrate both the need and danger for emotionally motivated allies in a challenging way. Have you ever felt embarrassed when a reporter wades into a demonstration whose goal you basically agree with, such as slowing climate change, and the reporter shoves a microphone in front of a sign-carrying participant, and asks something like, “So why are you here and want do you want?” And the participant is remarkably uninformed and says something like “we want to save the ozone.” Now, some greenhouse gases also harm the ozone layer. But the ozone layer is actually on the mend ever since the banning of chlorofluorocarbons. We’re trying to limit carbon dioxide and methane emissions to stabilize the climate. What to specially educated folks is a simple distinction is not so simple to many voters and allies. In this, I am not condescending. That participant can certainly absorb more science and policy. For whatever reason they haven’t yet, and maybe that’s on us. I can think of a lot of reasons they haven’t, which might not reflect well on their intellect or citizenship, but I don’t know that they are weaker in those categories compared to me. I do know this: We need that person to show up at demonstrations, and we need that person to vote. They would be even more useful allies if we could also get them to a class or a teach-in geared to whatever interest or education level they have. But the matter is urgent enough, that we need Creation-care Christians, and New Age folks who don’t know ozone from shinola, to join with temporary allies and opportunists (the gas drillers for now?), and then join with us. I’m maybe talking about the technocratic-minded and compassionate-enough who see the writing on the wall and personalize it as the writing on the wall for their existence and moral credibility (as at Belshazzar’s feast) and the existence of our children. I’m talking about people “whose heart is in the right place.” Reform politics is about both informing and moving people toward policy. The law once passed and in the implementation phase then doesn’t require quite as much mass education or altruism to sustain itself. But first, you have to get the enabling legislation passed. If you can get some non-legislative progress, e.g. people to pay a bit more, initially, for LEDs, and use less electricity in their home, so much the better. But mainly it is about legislation such as a carbon tax, or regulations inhibiting coal plants that need mass support, and not just demonstration projects (solar. hybrid and LED rebates) for first-adopters like me.

Mass support to effect reform legislation does not even require an electoral majority. It involves a motivated plurality, often just a little over a third. Nearly a third in opposition is tolerable. They can be surprised and rolled over briefly before they find an effective response and rebuild their coalition around some other issue that ascends in the voters’ consciousness more than climate change. To ride the very brief waves of change that lead to landmark legislation, you need to understand that there is another rough third of the populace that is indifferent on the issue, and they will mostly sit it out. You don’t want to annoy them, yet you must find language to motivate your one-third base.

So I would argue that even if you can’t relate to Dowd and Sagan, even if you shrink from divinizing, godifying (or demonizing) anything, religious rhetoric has a vital place in the movement–even if you don’t want to worship that way; even if you regard poetic metaphor as imprecise, too emotional, a revival of the kind of irrationality that got us into supernaturalism or wasteful technical experiments and ineffective policy. Perhaps denigration of poetry and God-talk is an argument meant to contain it by insisting that there should be more data and fewer metaphors in any public presentation. Perhaps that’s an argument that the world needs more scientists, technicians and academics – who insist on time, cool consideration and method – and fewer inspirational preachers and poets. I insist we need both. You have to see the political need for this aspect of rhetoric, at least. Dowd helps to fracture the right-wing coalition that previously counted on some large denominations to oppose environmental reform, to oppose science itself. Sagan brings along many atheists. Sagan and my guru, Connie Barlow, travel with the circle of scientists who are careful, have professional integrity, and use their prodigious frontal lobe, but nevertheless are touched deeply by curiosity—scientists who freely articulate a sense of awe at the phenomena they also coldly measure and interpret. Religious leaders share the stage now with scientists. To use imagery from neuroscience, like extreme altruists and expressive artists, their orbitofrontal cortex or amygdala lights up more on brain scans when they star-gaze or look at data on flood and drought trends.

That latter category would include me, except for the professional science or religious credentials or MFA – I’ll be leading considerably back from the charismatic pack. The project of keeping hand and heart in sync is intuitive, irresistible to me, and not just a political strategy. I get geeked about kilowatts and batteries, and how to put them to use to cut emissions in mowing. EPA data tells me that such landscaping activity contributes 1/5 of metropolitan area non-mobile source air pollution. To me, it is low-hanging fruit. Landscape activity happens to do other things for me. I find bliss in it, because there is an intersection between my personal joy and a human need. To keep my frontal lobe focused, I depend on the endorphin rush of outdoor physical exercise. Unlike law practice, where the product is ambiguous and day-to-day activities are a work-in-progress, I can look at a mown lawn and trail, with children are playing on the lawn and all ages hiking the trail, and get an immediate sense of accomplishment. Meanwhile, addressing the human need gives me a oxytocin dose, I’m sure. Hedonic and eudemonic happiness in one neat package. Most amateur gardeners or natural area preservationists would not long survive in a laboratory or academic setting where the actual and official historical “cure” to climate change will be “found.” We are however on another front line, or we articulate a different aspect of the united front. It has been called immersion or transcendent experience. Feeling, and then articulating a religious and poetic aspect to our experience of the more congenial sides of nature might be about hormones that influence emotion, and about group word-play and story-telling. Can this enthusiasm and imagery exaggerate and distract? Surely. But properly practiced, it puts what is important front and center and serves to properly focus emotional energy. It’s not like one can suppress or ignore enthusiasm. In general, our society’s emotional energies are poorly focused now, in relation to the existential and moral crisis of climate change.

There is a maxim attributed to the Iroquois or Seven Nations people: “In all council deliberations, we consider the effect of our decisions on The Seventh Generation.” Our best energies seem focused on the next quarter’s corporate profits, and how much money we’ve stuffed away for our retirement. The world and the generations, can take care of themselves, seems to be the dominant opinion, if the world and generations are mentioned at all. We were taught to believe in progress, in fact there has been astounding human progress, but it is now a long way to fall when we perceive a period of precipitous human and ecospheric degradation… polar environment gone, populous coasts underwater, oceans acidified and incapable of supporting a vast food chain base of calcium-excreting organisms. The dominant religious ideology of the West, post-Enlightenment, is that we are heir to a God that merely set the universe in motion. Or we are heir to a dead God. But we’d hoped for better. Humanists frequently fall back to the more realistic view that we cannot attain anything like god-like perfection. In the 21st century, we acknowledge the god-like aspect of our unprecedented control of the environment. With it there seems to come at least a heightened responsibility for more enlightened human self-preservation. It is all very depressing to see how we’ve botched the job, and the juggernaut of climate change will affect The Seventh Generation. (Are we “The Least Generation?”) Defining our success or failure aside, I find few total fatalists, and most in my circle look to soldering on. For me, that entails refocusing energies, dissenting from the dominant opinion, and challenging the impoverished, mass-suicidal emotional paradigm of individualism and infinite growth. But I would not start with religion; I would deliberately start with science, specifically natural history, on the way to religion in this reform. Connie Barlow suggests we must see humanity as also being in charge of its sacred narrative. We can witness and understand the universe, from a level our ancestors would’ve regarded as god-like. Barlow says, any religion of our time must be informed chiefly by natural science. To get up in the morning and face ourselves in the mirror without loathing, to face our finiteness without abject terror, and moreover, to do the right thing, we need religion, but not just any kind, obviously – the U.S. is already a uniquely church-attending society among developed nations. The conscious process of creating a narrative for religion (etymologically, “re-linking, re-binding”) is called mytho-poesis. Science must inform our sacred story. The cosmic and evolutionary epic, informed by natural history and that wonderful modeling of interdependence, ecology, is our sacred story. It is a story waiting for elaboration in your mind and in groups small and large.

As I sometimes deliberately think about my own death, in parallel I need to contemplate the full violence of actual world-endings. Because frankly various apocalypses are in the headlines and academic papers, if you connect the dots. And some are coming more into proximate view. I actually can’t say that we won’t live to see some of the worst that climate change has to offer, where enough storm surges in the Bay of Bengal force an unsustainable exodus, for example. As Jerod Diamond illustrates, one collapse, say an environmental one, tends to be followed by other collapses, and the sequence can progress with a speed that always astonishes those who live to tell the tale. I believe I might most likely pass peacefully into the timeless recycling that is the biosphere in the next 20 or 30 years. On the other hand, this is a plausible vision of my demise: the awe of personified fire and ice in the Icelandic saga version of Ragnarok. As Emerson said, our ancestors beheld God and nature face-to-face; we, merely through our ancestors. I’d like to be somewhat ready for the personal introduction. My own personal passage: into peaceful sleep, a tunnel with a light and smiling ancestors, or even the Pearly Gates, who can say?  Or will it be an undignified mass annihilation, whether in a “whimper” or “a bang?”  If Ragnarok is my fate, then I want to try to participate in its epic dimension. Search for Paul Kingsnorth for someone trying to salvage awe and beauty from a darker vision of our ecological future. Getting toasted or devoured, sword drawn against Fafnir, the sun-swallowing wolf, seems more dignified, at least more human, than passing in my sleep among weeping loved ones, in a way… if it must be so. Given a choice of passing peacefully on the eve of destruction, or witnessing and struggling in it, I think I’d try to hang on. It is not a happy ending (is any death?) but makes a unique and fulfilling story appropriate to the circumstances, as such stories go.

Why stories? Why poetry? Perhaps all these writers are like the blind men and the elephant, each with an accurate observation but limited sense of a whole. I can’t claim to see the elephant all by myself. And others can’t see it all by themselves either. That is why we need to talk about these things.

What’s your great story? When and to whom will you tell it? Isn’t it time?