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There Is Always A Reckoning

The theme for this second week of Commit2Respond's Climate Justice Month is reckoning.  Reckoning, as in being held accountable.  Each time as I've read the word I think of another, karma.  Not karma as it is popularly known in the West – a system of punishment and reward meted out for good and bad behavior respectively – but karma as I learned it from the Dharmic perspective – the consequences of one's actions.  Karma is as natural and as inescapable as Newtonian laws (at the macro level).  For every action, there is a reaction.  For every action, there is karma, which is the consequences of action.

 

Karma is the ultimate accountability.  Sooner or later, the consequences of our actions must be faced.  There is no supernatural exemption, no way out of a mess except through.

 

This is in stark contrast to the traditional Christian view of sin and salvation, in which we are born guilty (of original sin) even before we've done anything, and yet we can escape the consequences of our guilt (even extreme guilt) via the sacrifice of another.  This second week of Climate Justice Month also coincides with Holy Week in the (Western) Christian tradition.  Today, Good Friday, we remember that Jesus was brutally tortured to death. Whether one believes that the ultimate cause was the Roman empire squashing an insurrection or a wrathful God demanding appeasement, Jesus too faced consequences for past actions.

 

The traditional (Protestant) Christian view is that because Jesus died for you, you do not have to face what would otherwise be the consequences of your sins.  Even though many people have since rejected the theology, I think that a version of it continues to permeate the Western world.  That is, people widely hold the belief that it's possible to avoid the consequences of actions, even if they no longer believe in God(s).  Somehow, no matter how dire the situation seems to be, there can be some seemingly miraculous way out, such that we don't have to make a sacrifice ourselves.  Our movies feed us this message over and over again.  A supporting character takes the bullet for the main protagonist so that the latter can drive off into the sunset. Advertisements perpetuate the same message.  A diet pill where “the pounds just melt off” rather than us having to exercise.  Is it any wonder that we hope, somehow science will find ways to magically sequester carbon, or generate unlimited energy, or take us to another planet?  We hope that something will save us so that we won't have to do it ourselves, won't have to change our ways.  Indeed, the task of addressing climate change seems too big, too daunting to accomplish ourselves.  And thus even in the undeniable face of the urgent need to act, we continue as we've been doing, simultaneously feeling hopeless and clinging to hope for miraculous salvation.

 

In the Buddhist view, however, there can be no miraculous salvation because there is karma, the consequences of our actions.  There may be seeming temporary reprieves, but such measures only delay the inevitable. For example, finding a new place to dump garbage doesn't clean up the previous place; it only means there is now one more polluted place that we'll eventually have to clean.  The use of extreme forms of fossil fuels - mountaintop removal coal, deep sea oil, fracked gas, tar sands oil - may seem like a reprieve from having to find alternative, renewable forms energy, but all these practices wreak even greater ecological havoc that we will have to address. Putting coal-burning plants in poorer neighborhoods and communities of color may seem like a way for those of us who are not living in those areas to avoid the consequences, but eventually they catch up with all of us, as they are doing now, AND we'll also have to make amends for systemic racism and classism.

 

We have cut down and burned forests that would clean our air. We have sent tons of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  We have filled the seas with oil spills, and the rivers with mountaintop debris. Our glaciers are melting. Our seas are rising.  And weather patterns that we've relied on for millennia and built our civilizations around have drastically changed. Our collective karma has caught up with us ad we are in the reckoning. There is no way out of our situation except through it.

 

The good news, however, is that karma goes both ways. If we dug the hole we're currently in, we can also climb back out and fill it in.  Our salvation, our liberation, is in our own hands, by our actions. And just as it was possible for us to do something as big as change the climate of our Earth, it's just as possible to do something as big as to repair it.  "Drop by drop is the water pot filled.But it will require different action on our part.

California Water Policies Show Priorities

Lake Oroville in Butte County, CA

The headline screamed across the page: "NASA Scientist Predicts California Has One Year of Water Left!" Famiglietti later said he was misquoted and that he was talking about our reservoirs, only part of our overall water supply. But it doesn't take a NASA scientist to know that, four years into record drought, California is in bad shape. The before and after pictures of lakes and snow caps show a state that is drying up.

Given the urgent need for effective action, it was alarming to see the online comments in response to the article. People blamed green lawns, swimming pools, and ultimately overpopulation. This thinking mirrors the messages from our state officials: don't water your lawn, take shorter showers, put a brick in your toilet tank. While I am entirely in favor of xeriscaping and other personal practices that lessen our impact on Mother Earth, the reality is that it isn't the number of residents nor our “water-wasteful ways” that are taxing California resources. Estimates vary widely yet still tell a similar story:

  • Depending on whom you believe, between 6-14% of California's water goes to residential use. All the toilets, showers, bathtubs, washing machines, dishwashers, lawns, and yes, even swimming pools, in residential properties amounts to about 10% of total water use.

  • Depending on whom you believe, between 40-85% of California's water goes to agriculture. (Most estimates say about 80%.) Just the amount of water needed for the miles of almond orchards alone is the same as domestic water use for the state's entire 38.8 million residents.  Residents are fined $500 for over-watering lawns but corporate farmers are not required to use the most water-efficient irrigation techniques.

  • Despite dire drought, California continues to allow fracking, which uses billions of gallons of water per year. But that isn't the only strain that fracking poses on California's water supply. Once the water has been used and irreversibly contaminated with chemicals and heavy metals, it's disposed of underground, where it has contaminated potable ground water.

  • Despite dire drought, California continues to allow private companies to bottle our water and sell it for their profit. While residential water use is increasingly monitored, companies like Nestlé, under its Arrowhead and Pure Life brands, extract water without any regulation from local agencies.

California's water crisis is so severe that Gov Brown declared a state of emergency last year and recently signed a $1 billion emergency spending bill to address the situation. But if you look at the bill, it leaves corporate interests intact while putting ever more pressure on residential “water wasters.”  Telling residents, who collectively comprise just 10% of our annual water usage that we need to cut back, while placing no restrictions on corporate interests that make up more than 80% of water usage does not make sense. 

Some might argue that we need to support farms because of the economy and jobs.  However, Gov Brown supports diverting essential water from the smaller, family-owned farms and fisheries of the Sacramento River Delta in order to bolster the larger, corporate-owned farms of the Central Valley. These same corporate farms use chemical pesticides that have poisoned the local water supplies of the people who live near and work for them.

Some might argue that we need to allow fracking for the oil and for jobs. However, federal officials have cut their estimate of the amount of recoverable oil in the Monterey Shale deposits by 96%. (That's right, less than 1/20th of original estimates.) Yet we would poison precious water so that fossil fuel companies can squeeze out what little profits they can.

One can only conclude that despite the urgent need for change, state officials continue to favor the profits of corporations over the best interests of the people.  And in that respect, what is happening in California is instructive to the rest of the country. 

On a spiritual level, these policies also hint at the pervasive, destructive belief that humans are somehow inherently bad for the environment (ie - "overpopulation", "too many of us").  This forces us into a false choice between caring for our own welfare and that of our Earth and sibling species.  (No wonder so many people decide not to care!)  In reality, the problems caused by bad environmental policies could be remedied if we had the will to change. 

Do not accept the lie that it's California residents who are responsible for the water crisis.  Do not let corporate interests off the hook.  Please sign one, two or all of the following petitions:

 

Awe in Response to Beauty

A friend posted this video on Facebook this morning and one of his friends explained that it was created by a Russian missile gone awry.  (Soyuz-u vehicle Oct 15, 2009)  Watching it, two things came to mind:

1.  Wednesday evening I attended the second in a three-week course on Process Theology at UUSF, taught by Rev John Buehrens.  At one point, Rev. Buehrens explained how Alfred Whitehead felt that Western philosophy with its emphasis on "Truth" had veered too intellectual, and thus Whitehead tried to bring us back by focusing on aesthetics, our sense of awe in response to encountering Beauty.  The thing that engenders humilty and recognition that there is something bigger than us.

2.  Years ago I was talking with a young man sitting next to me on an airplane, and he said that nothing human-made was beautiful, that he only recognized beauty in "natural" things.  I asked him whether he'd ever seen the view of Los Angeles (which we were flying into) at night from the top of Mulholland Drive.  He repeated more adamantly that nothing human-made could ever be beautiful.  And I wondered how strong one's ideology had to be in order to not see beauty in the view from Mulholland Drive at night.

You can't get more human-made than a missile.  All metal and electronics and explosives, its very purpose is ugly, to kill.  If you asked me before I saw this video whether a missile could ever be beautiful, I probably would have said 'No.'  Yet here is this mesmerizingly beautiful video.  (Which is not to say that it might not also have created some real ugliness at the same time.)  And I am watching the video via a laptop connected to the internet.  More human-made metal, plastic, and electronics.  And it's still beautiful.

One of the main points that I see in process theology (or process thought) is that humans are not separate from the rest of existence.  We are part of the interdependent web, impacting it and being impacted by it, no different than any other part.  Together - all the parts of the web together - we co-create reality.   So if nature creates beauty, then how can humans who are an integral part of nature not also create beauty?  (And ugliness and everything in between.)  To claim otherwise is to set humans apart from nature.  It's to claim a special, exalted place, even if we claim that all we do is ugly and harmful.   Ironically, true humility recognizes both the "good" and "bad", both the beauty and the ugliness.

Dear Darkening Ground

Author: 
Rainer Maria Rilke

Dear darkening ground,
you've endured so patiently the walls we've built,
perhaps you'll give the cities one more hour

and grant the churches and cloisters two.
And those that labor—let their work
grip them another five hours, or seven,

before you become forest again, and water, and widening wilderness
in that hour of inconceivable terror
when you take back your name
from all things.

Just give me a little more time!

I want to love the things
as no one has thought to love them,
until they're worthy of you and real.

Book of Hours, I 61

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