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[Chalice] Too Many Americans and Other Environmental Problems: [Chalice]
Changing the Ways We Think and Live

Presented March 14, 2010, by Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

Listen to a recording of "Too Many Americans and Other Environmental Problems: Changing the Ways We Think and Live"
37:19 minutes - 14.9 MB - Too Many Americans and Other Environmental Problems: Changing the Ways We Think and Live .mp3 file.

Opening Words

There are all too many people who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands. There is nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution. There can be no gainsaying of the fact that a great revolution is taking place in our world today.
. . . MLK "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution"


In 1965, right in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King gave a speech titled "Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution." He brought back the ghost of that great American literary figure Rip Wan Winkle, who not only slept for 20 years, but slept through the American Revolution. MLK was telling Americans that what was actually happening at that time, the 60s, was a revolution and that it was important for all Americans to ask themselves if they are participating in this revolution and awake for it or are sleeping through the revolution, like Rip Van Winkle.

Of course there can be no doubt that now we are living through another revolution, this time the much talked about Green Revolution. How do you feel about this Green Revolution and do you think we here and our country in general are awake for it or are we sleeping through it? Thom Friedman takes up this question in his own way in his book Hot, Flat, and Crowded when he contrasts participating in a green revolution vs. participating in a green party. A true green revolution involves really confronting head on the most serious environmental issues in a serious way, making a serious commitment to radically transform our lives and find new ways to transport ourselves, generate electricity, heat our homes. A real Green Revolution in Friedman's terms is pretty much the same thing as what Lester Brown calls Plan B, the radically new way of doing things we need to implement soon if we are going to avoid dire consequences for the planet. A green party, on the other hand, says Friedman, is where we talk a lot about environmental issues and we even do things for the environment, like change the type of lightbulb we use, recycle every week, take cloth bags to the grocery store. Friedman calls this a green party because in a certain way it is fun to participate in this and believe that we are changing the world. At the green party we get to talk about how green we are, how evolved our environmental consciousness is; we get to pat ourselves on the back and celebrate ourselves. While the green party is happening, of course, all the major problems and issues involving the environment are still getting worse.

So Friedman's question is at least in a certain sense even more fundamental than MLK's was. Friedman is not just asking us if we are asleep or awake in the revolution we all know is actually happening. Friedman is asking if we are really in our culture today living though a real green revolution or simply having a green party.

Friedman doesn't hold back his very critical views of Americans, our culture and its leaders. He thinks we talk about a green revolution but that what we are really living through is a green party. What do you think about this? When you look out over our American society today, do you see a revolutionary change in the way we do things or do you mostly same old same old with some recycling and Priuses added to the mix?

I taught an Environmental Ethics course this semester and we were talking about cars and gas mileage. One of the students said she was new car shopping recently and she was impressed that there was a wide selection of cars that got 25 miles a gallon. All the young people in the class seemed to agree that that was true and was pretty good. I said that if I'd gone new car shopping back in 1980 that I would had a good choice of cars getting 25 miles a gallon then too. Where's the revolution in that? Cars that get 25 miles a gallon are really just same old same old.

Tomorrow Dana, Sebastian and I are going to fly to Phoenix. Now here is a huge, sprawling metropolis across a flat desert and so much of it is new development, in the past 20 years or so. My brother will pick us up at the airport because there is no public transportation, no fancy, newfangled high speed train that zips everyone from the airport to Tempe, Chandler, Scottsdale, or out to the new developments in the west where my brother lives. No, what you have in this not just post-World War 2 but really this post Viet Nam War desert metropolis is nothing really new at all, just a lot of highways, cars, and trucks, gasoline stations, and air pollution. In the new upscale, gated community where my brother lives they don't even have recycling. They are wealthy enough to just throw everything away, in the same old way Americans have always done. You don't have to go to Phoenix to begin to doubt whether we really are having a Green Revolution. Whether you are out there in the desert or right here in Quincy or anywhere across this country and you go grocery shopping or department store shopping in the summertime, you better take a sweater along with you because all the stores crank the air conditioning like it is 1969. We have to be the only country on the planet where our stores actually freeze you, and how seriously are any of us taking greenhouse gases and global warming when that happens everywhere? What's revolutionary about that? When it comes to electrical power, as Friedman and Brown both say, all that most Americans care about is that it is reliable and cheap. Whether we get our electricity from clean and carbon free technology, like wind and solar, or whether we get it from traditional, carbon adding sources like coal, most Americans don't know and they don't really care. I'm just as ignorant as anyone else. I write my check to CIPS every month and my central concern is the amount. I know I heat my house through natural gas. How CIPS generates the electricity we use, to what extent through coal and to what extent through clean technology, I don't know anymore than most people.

But I do recycle religiously, have the new light bulbs throughout the house, try to remember to bring the cloth bags to the grocery store so I guess I can come to the green party where we get to celebrate our greenness, but are we really living in the midst of a revolution? Is there really a green revolution going on in our culture, and is our country leading the way in green technology and serving as a great environmentally conscious country for all other countries to model themselves after us?

When it comes to this great green revolution and whether our country is in the forefront of it, we have to as Americans look ourselves and our recent history, our past, our present, and our political leadership and ourselves squarely in the mirror and look at failure. You know I love that Kierkegaardian quote: "When a monkey looks in the mirror no apostle looks back." When America looks in the mirror, no great green revolutionary technological leader looks back.

Here's one personal, political, and irritating example. Last year we had a new roof put on the house. Oddly enough, Dana didn't think that rain water occasionally falling into the baby's room was an interesting architectural feature of our old house. Now I would love to have turned my house into a carbon neutral zone by using solar panels to generate all our electric and heat. You have all been in my house. You know how ridiculously big it is for a small family. My carbon footprint is a dinosaur track. But when I went to redo the roof, was I given any options about solar panels and new technology? I was just given various bids about shingles. That's all I knew about, that is all I was told about, and that's is all my insurance company was interested in. Shingles, just like it was 1979.

It could have been and should have been different. Speaking of 1979, did you know that in that year when I graduated from high school President Carter installed solar panels on the roof of the White House as an example to all of us about how to free ourselves on our reliance upon imported gas and oil. Now it is perfectly reasonable to believe that this symbolic presidential action 30 years ago would lead directly to me and you and lots of other Americans putting solar panels on all of our roofs 30 years later, but here we are still putting shingles on the roof and at our best insulating the attic so we use less of the oil and gas that heats our homes the same old same old way.

Those solar panels on the White House could have been a symbol to all Americans to join a true green revolution and be leaders and good green examples for the world. But that didn't happen. As soon as Carter lost the election in 1980 and the Reagans moved into the White House, President Reagan had those symbolic solar panels taken off. I imagine Ronnie and Nancy probably turned the White House thermostat up too in the winter and down in the summer, and most other Americans followed the Reagan's decidedly non-Green lead.

Sometimes when the monkey looks in the mirror you see mistakes, and stupidities, and you feel deep regret, and you know you live in the aftermath of stupidities and mistakes. We could by now be living in a world where of course we have solar panels that provide our power, of course we generate clean electricity, of course we drive electric cars and no longer give billions of our dollars every day to despotic regimes where the majority of people have reasons to hate us. We could live in that world by now. We should live in that world by now, but we don't.

Sometimes when the monkey looks in the mirror the monkey can see key times when he made the major mistakes and the key failures come into clear view. Imagine it's a couple weeks after September 11th, 2001. The president comes on TV and everyone is watching. He says we are all shocked by this attack and we are all wondering who did this and why. Then he says we know that the leader and chief financier of the attack was a Saudi named Osama bin Laden and that there were 19 Muslim fanatics on those planes that day and that 15 of the 19 were Saudis. Then the president just tells the people how dependent our entire economy has been and is on cheap oil, mostly from Saudi Arabia, and then he tells us how the Saudi ruling family for years has been trying to bribe the poor people of that country by funding fundamentalist Muslim schools and mosques which preach hatred of us and our way of living so really it is our own money that has funded this hatred of us, and all because of our dependence on oil. Then the president says in addition to pinpoint attack on terrorist camps we are really going to confront this head on and change the way we live. The great America government is going to fund new technologies, going to give money to companies who are working in wind and solar technology, new, clean power plants, here's a lot of money to American automobile makers to produce hybrids and electric cars, here are tax breaks for all Americans to buy a fuel efficient furnace, put solar panels on your roof, buy a new electric car. The president argues that this is the patriotic thing for all of us to do. And by, say 2010, we will no longer be pumping millions of dollars every day into the same people who attacked us and we will be the world's leader in new technologies and prove ourselves a good example to all those developing economies and lead the environmental revolution and combat global warming. I believe that the American people would have responded very well to that, and that that would have given us a very different 2010 than the one we actually have.

Of course nothing like that happened after September 11th. And so when the monkey looks in the mirror now we don't see this brave new world, this American moral leadership of the globe, this green revolution led by our country. We do see in the mirror that those almost ten years now since September 11th were spent not by leading the world in a new revolution but by doing something very old, same old same old, the same old thing MLK said in that speech back in 65 that we all have to see as obsolete, fighting a war in a far away country, arguing about it, trying to get out of it, having it divide us, just like it was 1969 all over again. Sometimes the monkey looks in the mirror and all he sees reflected back is failure, and stupidity, and lost opportunity.

Friedman takes an honest look in the mirror and he doesn't see America as the great green revolutionary country. He sees an America where the leaders of the country and so many of the people say "We don't have to change our society and the way we live. We are Americans and we will live the way we want to. If we can't get the Saudis to sell us cheap oil, then drill baby drill. Global warming is a myth anyway." Friedman refers to this attitude as "our right to be as dumb as we want to be." Our country and our world need radical revolutionary change. America is still the giant on the earth when it comes to dirty energy consumption and producing green house gases but China is definitely the up and coming giant who will soon overtake us. The fate of the planet may well depend upon whether these 2 giant industrialized countries become the world's leaders in the green revolution If 10 years from now China looks in the mirror and sees another America, another dumb as I want to be, pollute as much as I want to, everyone has a car, get our electricity from coal type of country, that will be disastrous for every human on the planet.

Friedman says the good news that is starting to happen is that China is beginning to take environmental crises seriously and acting upon it. Because of China's nondemocratic and autocratic system, the Chinese leadership can simply impose policies and standards, the same necessary measures the corporate interests in our country would prevent from happening entirely or would at least slow down or minimize. For example, the Chinese leadership decided that no public buildings or businesses could set their air conditioning lower than 79 degrees. They also decreed that cars had to get more than 40 miles a gallon, that stores were not permitted to give out free plastic bags but had to charge for them. Such real leadership on when it comes to the environment makes Friedman wish we could be China just for one day. On that one day we could implement the same sensible environmental policies, and then go back to our democratic system the next day.

Somehow or other, we have got to get serious and make this revolution that Friedman and Lester Brown and Al Gore and lots of others have been talking about happen. Certainly the Obama administration is trying but their efforts are so restricted by what the monkey sees in the mirror, the past failures and mistakes and stupidities. It would be great if our government had so much money that they could really help our industries and our people to go green in what we drive and how we heat our homes and get our electricity, but so much of the money we would now like to have for that was already been spent on Iraq. And even the policies the Obama administration can put in place still have to go through the meat grinder of our corporate funded political system and still has to deal with the reality of the fact of where we are now, not where we should be, politically, socially, ethically. The Cash for Clunkers program, for example, was very successful, but to qualify for it you had to trade in a vehicle that got 18 miles a gallon or less. If you had an old vehicle like that you could get as much as $4,500.00 from the government. All you had to do to get that much money was improve your gas mileage a mere 10 miles a gallon. So you got all that money for buying a car that got all of 28 or 30 miles a gallon. In other words, the American government gave you a lot of money in 2009 for putting cars with 1979 car mileage back on the road. I'm sure the Obama administration would have preferred to dole out that money to people who were really putting cars out there on the road that were getting 45 and 50 miles a gallon. It's just that, thanks to all that stupidity and failure that stares back at us in the mirror, those cars don't exist yet, except for the Prius. There wasn't much chance the Congress would pass a bill that basically said that the only way to get the money was to put a real fuel efficient car out there, meaning everyone had to buy a Prius.

If we could be China for a day, or better yet, if we had some real, not imaginary way, to make intelligent social policy that would force us to really be in this green revolution and lead it, what would those policies be? I don't see anything wrong with a law that makes it illegal to have the air conditioning cranked in public buildings because global warming is real and we have to get serious about it. I'd like to see a law that says that within a few years you have to pay more if you don't have a car that is electric or a hybrid. I'd like to see a law that outlaws free plastic bags in stores.

All that is in the future, a future that may never be because the same old stupidities still look back at us in the mirror. But what about the present. What can we do in the present. As the saying goes, Think globally and act locally. We can write letters encouraging our community to develop wind, solar, and hydropower for the future. We could also propose to the Quincy City Council that the free distribution of plastic bags is outlawed. San Francisco, Seattle and some other cities have already done that. San Francisco, Seattle, and Quincy. Why not? Perhaps we need to make this revolution happen locally, and if the Unitarians aren't going to do that in this town, who will?

Closing Words:

"All mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be - this is the interrelated structure of reality. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms: No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main... And then he goes on toward the end to say: any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee. And by believing this, by living out this fact, we will be able to remain awake through a great revolution."

2010 Rev. Dr. Rob Manning

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
{speakerreverse} 2010. Too Many Americans and Other Environmental Problems: Changing the Ways We Think and Live, /talks/20100314.shtml (accessed July 4, 2020).

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