Friday, April 22, 2011

Sustainability Matters - Kurt Nelson

Delivered 4/21/11
Dartmouth's "Sustainability and Social Justice" Dinner, 
part of Earth Week 2011.  
Collis Common Ground.

Many thanks to our organizer, Rosi Kerr, my fellow speakers, Stephanie Crocker '12, Michael Dorsey, Marcus Welker, and Jerome Whitington, and all those who attended.

Sustainability Matters.  4/21/11
I'm the religious one this evening.
So if you need to get more food or check your blitz (note: blitz = email).
this might be the best time.

My name is Kurt.
I'm a chaplain and an educator.
I use reusable mugs,
and carry around cloth napkins.
I compost.
I'm a vegetarian (most of the time).
I take the bus to work.
I turn my heat way down.
I'm an ecological activist.
An inter-faith activist.
And I'm a Christian.
And for me, those things go all together.

It's holy week.
And it's Passover.
And I'm sure there's someplace I'm supposed to be this evening.
But instead I'm here,
with you all.
Because I think sustainability matters.
And I presume you do too,
or else you wouldn't be here.
And I've been asked,
like the others tonight,
to speak to why sustainability matters.
But that seems fairly evident to me.
If something is good,
it should be sustained.

And so instead, I think the essential question becomes,
sustainability of what,
and sustainability for whom?

And that's where I think things get interesting, and tricky, and wonderful.
Because it becomes not essentially a question of technology,
or economy,
but a question of our basic values.
A question of what we hold to be really and truly good.

And I fear that we've gotten really bad at talking about such things.
Especially when we disagree.
And into that void has stepped our tacit, increasingly-universal values,
of wealth, economic growth, power, and comfort.

And that's why I think the conversation has to happen with religious folks of all kinds,
and non-religious folks, and naturalists, and pragmatists,
so that we can paint a brighter, deeper, more vivid,
and more multivalent picture of the good.

So for me, the conversation about sustainability must involve three things:
social justice.
(I am indebted to the Rev. Fletcher Harper for this tripartite construction, executive director

These are big, unwieldy ideas,
but here's what I think I mean:

Stewardship means management.
It means taking care of things that we have some control over,
but not ownership of.
It seems obvious to me that we have issues with control.
We act as if we believe that there's an endless supply of
clean air and water.  Of gas and coal and oil.
Of food and arable land.
And thus we have the right to do what we want.
To do what's easiest and cheapest.
Often we trace these issues,
rightly, to the idea of "Dominion" that we find in the book of Genesis.
You know, "be fruitful and multiply…have dominion over the birds of the air and the fish of the sea.."  (Genesis 1:28)
It's a problem, no doubt.

And good-hearted people respond to me all the time,
that we ought not have "Dominion"
we should just be another animal
like ants, or birds or beavers or whatever.
We are, after all, evolved of the same stuff.
And while I appreciate that, and think it's partially true,
I think it misses the self-evident fact,
that we are not like ants and birds and beavers.
Because we're clearly far more capable of destruction.
The problem isn't Dominion,
I don't think,
It's bad dominion.
We do have some control.
And thus we're capable of destruction.
but also, I hope, more capable of preservation,
 of renewal.
Of stewardship.
We are certainly evolved of the same stuff,
but we are immensely powerful beings.
And thus, we must be more responsible stewards..
With great power, comes great responsibility.
Yes, Spiderman said that.  And so did Jesus (Luke 12:48)
That's stewardship.

#2.  Spirituality.
This word might not resonate with all of you,
but it's, I think, the easiest to see of these three
in these bucolic green hills we call home.
Spirituality, for me, means a deep love and connection
in this case, to the land,
to the mountains and trees.
Spirituality is rooted in the basic experience,
I pray we've all had,
where we behold a vista,
or a stream,
or a flower pushing up through the snow,
and have simply thought, "wow."
Spirituality means treating food, and natural landscape,
and birth and life,
as the miracle that it is.
And loving it for that.

And finally justice.
Justice means reminding ourselves,
that sustainability isn't only,
and perhaps isn't even mostly,
about mountains and trees,
but about other people.
And about their and our connection to land and food
and clean air and water.
And it's especially about the poor,
the disenfranchised.
The widows and orphans.
about native populations,
and kids and urban landscapes, and the list goes on.

Each year I've taken a group of students to the tenderloin district of San Francisco
to work and explore issues of poverty and homelessness.
And after spending about 10 minutes in the tenderloin,
full as it is, with homelessness,
you realize that you can find cigarettes and lottery tickets,
processed foods, and booze,
and indeed crack pretty much everywhere you turn.
But that you have to walk blocks and blocks toward affluence,
to find a stick of green,
or a piece of fresh healthy food.
It's a food desert,
amidst the wealthiest city,
of a state that exports 12% of its food
And you can't find a thing to eat,
other than alcohol, chips, or sugar.
And you realize that growing,
or even selling real food in such a place,
is an act of disobedience.
Of justice.
And it's as simple as that.

fresh foods in the tenderloin,
that's eco-justice.
Kids with asthma and heart disease from diesel Trucks.
That's eco-justice.
blowing up mountains in Appalachia to get at coal more cheaply?
That's eco-justice.
Finding work for all the people whose livelihood depends on blowing up those mountains?
That's eco-justice.
And Justice is essential to sustainability.
Lest it become the purview only of the affluent.

Stewardship, Spirituality and Social Justice,
point us to the good.

And we need to get far more in touch with our joy and with our sense of good,
when it comes to what and whom we're sustaining,
than with our guilt.

Now, religion has been setting the bar for ineffective guilt,
for at least 2 thousand years.
But I want to congratulate you environmentalists,
for raising that bar even higher.

Guilt has its place,
but it's ultimately a fairly weak motivator.
Guilt tells us what's wrong.
But joy, and hope, and love,
they tell us what's good and move us forward.

And sustainability is about the good.
It's about what we do.
But it’s also about what we learn and teach and talk about.
We're losing an ideological battle right now,
by ceding the ground of the good to the corporate state.
Which tells us that all value, is monetary value.
And we need to push back together.
Jews, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Agnostics, Spiritual Seekers, and the list goes on.
We need to paint a multi-faceted picture,
of the good.

I don't usually dispense advice,
but tonight, I have some.
If you're part of a religious organization that's not moving toward sustainability…
Pardon me, but get it together.
Preach about it, pray about it,
Pray about it outside.  talk about it.
Do scripture studies on it.
Compost, plant a garden, teach the youth.
Carpool, insulate,
Do your own waste audit.
Go paper free for a week.
Take small steps.
Demand it of your leaders.
Tell them it will save money.
Tell them it will attract young people.
Guilt them.
Tell them you will leave if they don't.
And then remind them that it's not about guilt,
it's about joy and the good.

If you're part of a religious organization that's doing well on this front,
then tell your story.
Blog it, preach it, tell your friends,
write op-eds,
gather with other religious communities.
Gather with non-religious folks.
The job is not done until the story is told.
It's part of the work, my friends,
and we're not doing it very well.

And if you're not part of a religious community,
It's time,
whatever your hang ups,
and I get them, believe me,
to get over it,
and reach out.
I'm not saying you have to be religious.
but build partnerships.
Talk and listen.
We are in this together,
and we need each other.
We all have things to learn,
and work to do.
And every step we take in congregations and communities,
even if small,
is a step for a hundred families, not just one.
So just, please, do it.

No matter why you care.
If it's about global warming or natural spaces,
or duty to the poor or native communities,
or Jesus or Muhammad,
Even, I guess, if you think it's the next great business venture,
(But I'm skeptical)

Ultimately, sustainability is about the good.
So let's talk about it,
do something about it,
and connect to it together.  Okay?
Thank you very much.

1 comment:

  1. Kurt, clearly you were in the place you were supposed to be! Good message complete with plenty of challenges that we'd best heed while there's still time.

    Here's a link to Tevy East's Good Friday and Earth Day message that's going in the same earth-healthy direction. Hope people will read this along with your great message.