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Archive for the 'spiritual activism' Category

Joy in the New Year - The Politics of Reverence and Restraint

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2008

A version of this essay was first published in the Mountain Xpress on December 19, 2007.

A few weeks ago I was privileged to attend Duke Divinity School’s Convocation called Our Daily Bread. Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, two of the most insightful and respected thinkers and authors on a proper earth economy, were inspiring in their presentations and conversations. Wes Jackson used the word restraint to describe the relationship humanity should have towards earth’s bounty. We hardly ever hear this word in civil discourse anymore. Restraint calls on us to reflect on the consequences of our simple everyday actions, to determine if harm, whether intended or not, could come to others. 

Wes Jackson called restraint the forgotten virtue. Virtue is another word scarcely used in public dialogue. So it was a shock to me when I heard John Edward’s comments in a recent forum on Global Warming. Calling climate change the moral challenge of our generation he said “…the American people are ready for a President who calls on them to sacrifice, and asks them to be patriotic about something other than war.” 

The final International Panel on Climate Change reports that climate change is “unequivocal.” We are warned that we must begin to cap and reduce our CO2 output within several years. We are told we must develop renewable energy technologies and efficiency programs. Investment in research is needed. All of this is correct, but unfortunately quite insufficient for the crisis we face. 

We know in our hearts that sacrifice and restraint are virtues. Efficiency shouldn’t be conflated with conservation.  In order to achieve a meaningful cap on CO2 emissions, and then reduce them to levels that will ensure a stable climate for healthy human communities in an ecologically diverse and beautiful world, we must conserve. We will be required to limit economic and population growth. Yes there are limits to growth; it’s a fact of biological life. There is no getting around it. No amount of wishful thinking (delusion is a better word) can create an earth economy that could support 6-9 billion people the way North Americans, Japanese, or Europeans live.  

We must use restraint in travel, useless and frivolous purchases, and our extravagant use of fossil fuel energy. The most prosperous of us will need to sacrifice the pleasure of a raspberry or asparagus in winter, another toy for our child or the vacation by air. For a great majority of Americans the extravagances mentioned above are beyond their reach 

For those who value justice that means the more comfortable among us must work to change the structural imbalances in our economy that keeps the poor and struggling middle class in or near poverty. We must create jobs that provide a living wage, affordable housing, and reliable convenient transportation within an energy infrastructure that is based on renewable energy.  J

ustice means we live more simply so that others may simply live. The “American way of life” – the automobile culture, urban sprawl, throwaway consumerism, chemical agriculture or a meat based food system - is incompatible with justice, worldwide democracy, and ecological survival. For developing and undeveloped nations to live anywhere near the level of consumption that we enjoy, we would need 4 to 5 more planets worth of water and other material resources. Technology alone won’t provide us a healthy, stable, and beautiful earth as a legacy to our children. Only restraint, cooperation and sharing the gifts of creation will deliver us to that awesome world. 

We need a politics and economy based on reverence for life. Our current actions need to help protect, preserve, and restore a damaged earth. Albert Einstein once said “…the world that we have made as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far creates problems that we cannot solve at the same level at which we created them.”  The problems we created are based on the idea that human progress and happiness are satisfied by material consumption and accumulation. But no wisdom tradition, religion, or human psychology can confirm this as true. 

We know in our hearts that once our basic human needs for food, shelter, safety, and health are met, we are happiest when we are engaged in meaningful work and living within loving families and communities.  

Einstein even in his brilliance missed the point. We will not get to the level of thinking that will get us out of the political, social, economic, and environmental mess at which we arrived until we learn to love life again and revere it as a sacred trust. 

Reverence is seeing the beauty and inherent worth of all people and all creatures. Reverence is the recognition of life as a fragile and delicate gift of the mystery of Creation. Reverence is a willingness to live a life of compassion, and the determination to leave our communities and world a more beautiful and healthier place than we found them.

  Reverence requires restraint. It’s a political and economic choice, and one that will bring joy to your life throughout 2008.

An Alter Call for Coal

Monday, October 22nd, 2007

The essay below appeared today in the Raleigh News & Observer.

At a Convocation at Duke Divinity School a couple of weeks ago, I was one of the lucky 600 or so folks who were privileged to witness author Wendell Berry in conversation about the relation of religion or spirituality and the economy and politics. His wisdom is profound. A short quote from an essay called “The Burden of the Gospels”:

“If we take the Gospels seriously, we are left with a dire predicament, facing a humbling question: How must we live and work so as not to be estranged from God’s presence in His work and all His creatures? The answer, we may say, is given is Jesus’s teaching about love. But that answer raises another question that plunges us into the abyss of our ignorance, which is both human and peculiarly modern: How are we to make of that love an economic practice?”

Whether you are a Christian or Jew, pagan or Buddhist, spiritual but not religious, an agnostic or atheist, the question Berry posses is at the heart of our cultural and ecologic crisis.

Duke Energy: An Altar Call for Coal - published in Raleigh News & Observer, Oct. 22, 2007

The “Amen’s” startled at first! But then as person after person came to the podium and microphone it became clear that what I was experiencing was like an altar call in church or at a revival. People were testifying to their faith - their faith not in God or Jesus, but to Duke Energy (DE) as a “good corporate citizen” and provider of energy and jobs for their community.

The event was a Department of Air Quality (DAQ) Public Hearing on Duke’s request to build a new coal-fired power plant at their Cliffside facility in Rutherfordton, N.C.

The hearing was the ONLY public hearing that the DAQ scheduled in the entire state for public input despite repeated requests for statewide hearings at more convenient times and locations for the N.C. public. This decision was basically a sacrifice of democracy at the altar of DE. This hearing was in the high school auditorium inForest
City, the heart of Duke’s circle of influence. DAQ made it nearly impossible for a truly representative sample of public comment to be heard, because the auditorium was packed with people beholden to Duke.
County Commissioner after Commissioner and Mayor after Mayor of the communities around Cliffside in Rutherford and Polk Counties testified to the community benefits that the new power plant would allegedly provide.

Paul Hawken in his new book Blessed Unrest phrased it well when he wrote:

“We live in a faith based economy, and by that I do not refer to religious practice. People are asked to place their faith in economic systems and political systems that have polluted water, air, and sea; that have despoiled communities…and created a stratosphere sufficiently permeated with industrial gases that we are, in effect, playing dice with the planet.”

What the good people of Rutherford and Polk counties don’t understand are the broader implications of the DE proposal. The new Cliffside will cost an estimated $3 billion dollars and generate only 20-30 new full time jobs. A more prudent investment of those dollars in efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy facilities will generate 100’s of middle class wage earner jobs for their local economy. In The Power to Choose, North Carolina’s Clean Energy Future, Tellus Institute’s analysis reveals close to 40,000 jobs statewide could be generated by investing in efficiency and renewable energy.  

The new Cliffside boiler, if allowed to be built, will produce over 300 million tons of CO2 during its 50 year lifespan. This will occur at a time when climate scientists are telling us that we need to immediately cap CO2 production and begin to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases over the next 20-40 years if we are to avert the most damaging effects of global warming.

Professor Martin Parry, co-chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently said, “Ten years ago we were talking about these impacts affecting our children and our grandchildren. Now it is happening to us…Even if we achieve a cap at two degrees, there is a stock of major impacts out there already and that means adaptation. You cannot mitigate your way out of this problem… The choice is between a damaged world or a future with a severely damaged world.”

Jim Hansen, the USA’s pre-eminent climate scientist wrote in his written testimony to the DAQ:

“The upshot is that the scientific community realizes that we are much closer to the dangerous level of atmospheric greenhouse gases than would have been estimated even 3-5 years ago.  In turn the implication is that humanity must find some way to stabilize atmospheric carbon dioxide at a level of, at most, 450 parts per million, and perhaps even significantly less. Based on the amounts of carbon in the different fossil fuels, coal being the largest, an inevitable conclusion is that coal use must be phased out over the next few decades except at truly clean coal power plants that capture and store the carbon dioxide.

In blunter language, it has become clear that in order to avoid creating a different planet with disastrous consequences for humanity and other species, over the next few decades we will need to “bulldoze” old-style power plants that do not capture and store CO2.  The new Cliffside, although better than most coal burning plants, is one of those old-style plants not designed to capture and store CO2.”

 The members of DAQ are public servants and are required, according to Section 2 of the NC Constitution, to act on behalf of the “good of the whole.” The “good of the whole” includes both the human community and a climate that supports planetary integrity and stability. We need more democracy, not less. We need an altar call to life, not to a “severely damaged world.”

September 11, 2007 A Vision of a Green World

Sunday, September 9th, 2007

Speech for Peace on Earth, Peace with Earth Day: -Be the Change!, a celebration of the 101st anniversary of Gandhi’s first public demonstration of non-violent, non-cooperation in
South Africa.
 I was asked to describe a vision of a Greener world. And VISION is the key!   

Daniel Quinn, in his novel The Story of B, writes “If the world is to be saved, it will be saved by people with changed minds, people with a new vision. It will not be changed by people with old minds and new programs.” Folks, tinkering & technology alone will not preserve this beautiful Earth nor save the human community from cultural suicide! Each one of us must start to dream up a greener world - it is a marvelous task and  one that will provide all of us years of joyful community life. 

Of course this dream includes an earth free of runaway global heating, a world where there is no air or water pollution, and our children are able to play in and even drink the waters of our rivers and streams. A world in which the topsoil is accumulating instead of washing out to sea, - where the forests are maturing and not being clear-cut, - a world in which the coral reefs are not dying but teaming with life. And a greener world would be one in which all violence of human against human, both in the form of war and economic exploitation, have disappeared as the norm in human culture. A world in which all humans would have a right to meaningful work, and in which their needs for food, shelter, healthcare, recreation, and spiritual fulfillment would be considered basic rights and guaranteed by the community. 

Yes – a greener world would be one in which life – human and other than human – would be valued for itself, in which all beings would have a right to life, habitat, and the fulfillment of their biological nature and destiny without mistreatment BY humans FOR human use alone. The time has long passed when humanity can just settle for being a benign presence on the Earth, when we think in terms of dominion or stewardhip. Our spiritual and practical task is, in the words of Thomas Berry’s, to transform our evolutionary destiny into one that is mutually enhancing to all life on Earth. 

Well, - what would such a world look like, or better yet, - feel like – when each of us lived so that our actions would actually enhance the life of all of our fellow creatures.  Fundamentally, we would need to undergo a change of heart, a transformation of consciousness, in which each of us re-imagined our life’s work in terms of service to the common good. Our economy would evolve into a right and truthful service economy. Maybe Dylan’s You Gotta Serve Somebody would become a world anthem. 

The possibilities for unleashing our creative and moral imaginations are unlimited when we begin to envision of serving the greater good.  And of course, in very practical terms, this will demand much real and hard work  - wetlands, prairies, rivers, degraded farmlands, deserts would need to be restored, - degraded urban and inner city slums and industrial areas would need to be revitalized, - superfund sites would need to be cleaned up and be re-established as productive parts of healthy ecosystems. And very importantly, children would need to be educated not to become cogs in a global consumerist culture, but so that they could discover their gifts and talents and be able to express them in service to the common welfare.  Imagine each one of us living our lives in gratitude for the beauty of the Earth - and in celebration of the awe, wonder, and diversity life. What a joyful world this would be! 

When each of us dreams a destiny as the change we want to be, we will create a greener world where peace with earth will become peace on earth.  Blessings and thanks for showing up!

Sacrifice and the American Dream

Monday, April 30th, 2007

I get so much grief whenever I use the “S” word (sacrifice) in dialogue about how to begin mitigating climate change and transforming our consumer culture into a sustainable culture, that I seldom use this word anymore. Folks just don’t want to hear about cutting back, doing without, or austerity in any form. It is both un-American and bad political strategy. Their approach mandates that we must frame our approach to averting the worst consequences of climate change in economic terms. They want us to believe that the creation of a renewable energy economy will allow us to grow the general economy like it has grown historically. It seems that few people want to acknowledge that we passed the limits of one planet earth about 1984, and that all industrialized countries will need to use less if we are to avoid ecological collapse. Check out the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report at for comprehensive reading on our ecological overshoot. Using less when we are habituated to using more means sacrifice for most of us who are just accustomed to more is better. 

President Bush declared a War on Terrorism. We should be fighting the same war on climate change and environmental destruction. The last time we as a nation faced the probability of such catastrophic destruction was in World War II. At that time there was a human Holocaust against Jews, Poles and Gypsies. President Franklin Roosevelt called on all Americans to make sacrifices which our parents and grandparents were willing to embrace for the greater good of humanity.  Today, do we not need to sacrifice to prevent a planet wide environmental holocaust from happening? Freedom requires sacrifice. It entails responsibility and obligation to the whole, to the commons. John F. Kennedy said it well with his admonition to “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  

We need a new personal sense of responsibility to the greater good. We won’t get the kind of leadership we need if each of us is unwilling to do our share. The story is often told about Gandhi. Once a woman walked for 2 days to see Gandhi with her son. When given the audience, she asked Gandhi to tell her son to stop eating sugar, as it was not good for him. Gandhi thought for a few moments, and then told her to come back in a month with the child. The woman was furious and left in a very angry frame of mind. She did return in a month however, and after Gandhi met with her and her son, and told him not to eat sugar, she asked why he couldn’t just have said that on her first visit. Gandhi replied, “I couldn’t ask your son to stop eating sugar while I still was eating sugar. Now I can.”  Once we begin to change our personal habits of destructive violence to the planet and its life giving ecosystems, we will be able to find politicians who will be capable of leading our governmental and corporate institutions into a sustainable society.  For an interesting essay on leadership and democracy check out an interview with Oron Lyons in Orion Magazine

Step It Up Asheville!

Saturday, April 7th, 2007

The End of Nature, a book by Bill McKibben published in 1989, changed my life. This was the first popular press, widely read book on climate change and other ecological catastrophes written for the American public, and it really altered my world view. Since then McKibben has continued writing on the same themes, which I’ll call a spiritually based critique of human culture that encompasses both traditional ecological concerns and social ecology. The Age of Missing Information, Enough, Hope - Human and Wild, The Comforting Whirlwind - God, Job, and the Scale of Creation, and his latest Deep Economy - The Wealth of Communities and The Durable Future grace my bookshelf. Hope I can find the time to write a review of this book for you, or maybe you want to go to your favorite local bookseller, read it, and write a review. Let me know, and I’ll publish on this website.

Last fall in Vermont McKibben led 1000 people, at the time the largest public demonstration in the USA, to demand action from the Vt. legislature for a sane policy in regards to the climate crisis.

A few months ago he began organizing STEP IT UP 2007! (, a nation wide public demonstration to ask the US Congress to Step it Up and cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. There are over 1300 demonstrations organized in all 50 states where tens of thousands of Americans will gather all across the country at meaningful, iconic places to call for action on climate change. They will hike, bike, climb, walk, swim, kayak, canoe, or simply sit or stand with banners, sing and shout for our call to action.

In Asheville, we will meet at City-County Plaza this coming Saturday at 1 p.m. Mayor Bellamy and Sandy Pfeiffer, the President of Warren Wilson College (a world leader in sustainability education), plus others will speak. Check out our local event at

Better yet, check out Phillip Gibson’s (our regional organizer) blog,  at

More importanyly please show up and become part of the dynamic Western North Carolina Community that is taking democracy back and helping to create a sustainable bio-region.

for Earth Peace, Richard


Saturday, March 31st, 2007

Last post I spoke of the importance of the earth’s economy as the foundation of sustainable human economy. Ecology teaches us about whole systems, how they function, how each part is interdependent with each other part in a dynamic and, in living systems, a creative evolutionary manner.

In this season of Easter and Passover, of death, resurrection and liberation, of the two seminal holidays in the Judeo-Christian tradition, I want to speak of a new tradition. Thomas Berry, the renown Geologian, speaks of the revelatory power of the Universe. Creation, in its beauty, awe, and mystery,  is in itself revelation.

Pre-literate cultures have known this. But with modern science we are blessed to understand the Universe Story in a deeper fashion. Destruction, death, transformation, we are all part of this evolutionary cycle. Our challenge is to participate in this journey as deeply as our moral courage and spiritual imagination allows.

To honor this season of budding trees, hummingbirds on the wing back to our gardens, and the opening of trillium outside my bedroom window, may we all be inspired to participate in the transformation and liberation of human culture into a life-sustaining adventure.

From Thomas Berry:


We cannot have well humans on a sick planet.

We cannot have a viable human economy by devastating earth’s economy.

We cannot survive if the conditions of life itself are not protected.

Not only our physical being, but our souls, our minds, imagination and emotions depend on our immediate experience of the natural world.

There is in the industrial process no poetry, no elevation or fulfillment of mind or emotion comparable to that experience of the magnificence of the sea, the mountains, the sky, the stars at night, the flowers blooming in the meadows, the flight and song of birds.

As the natural world diminishes in its splendor, so human life diminishes in its fulfillment of both the physical and the spiritual aspects of our being.

Not only is the the case with humans, but with every mode of being.

The well-being of each member of the earth community is dependent on the well-being of the earth itself.