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Reflections on Earth Day, 2018

This post is based on a talk I gave recently at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Los Gatos: Learning from Our Losses, to Better Love Our World:

Kermit the frog was right. “It’s not easy being green.” Not on Earth Day, 2018, after all the setbacks suffered by the interdependent web of existence. And on this Earth Day I’m going to focus on the overall political and human context within which Unitarian Universalists try to better love our world. I want to talk about politics because environmental concerns have been swept away in an astonishing political hurricane. And all of this directly ties into our great human journey.

I myself tend to be politically progressive, but I also appreciate moderates and conservatives who support humanitarian values. Sometimes our country has made good progress from a creative tension between liberals and conservatives, as when liberals suggest new programs for helping disadvantaged Americans and conservatives warn us about ways that these programs are poorly designed or even counterproductive. But instead of a creative tension today, we have “my way or the highway.”

And even though I’ll be talking about party politics, I don’t presume to say how you should vote. For one thing, someone I criticize quite sharply might run against someone you think is even worse. But before we turn to that pleasant topic, let’s reflect upon the very big picture, our unique and challenging human condition.

In April of 2013 I preached a sermon here called Graduates of Eden, and it was about human nature. I stated that our mental and physical nature fitted us well for living in small bands of hunter-gatherers. When food was plentiful this was at times a sort of Eden. And we didn’t get kicked out of this Garden of Eden because we were naughty. We did so well in our prehistoric “Eden” that we graduated. We grew into larger, more complicated societies. Our human accomplishments transformed the human world, but human nature is still fitted to the old world that we lost. And I mentioned three crucial mismatches between human nature and the new world we have created. First, we are easily confused by complexity, and our lives are more and more complex. Second, we are tribal creatures, who love those who are on “our team,” but often ignore or attack outsiders. And third, we are generally oblivious to problems that develop slowly – such as climate change.

Today I’ll add one more item to this list: our obsession with dominance. One day while reading about dominance hierarchies among monkeys I had one of those AHA moments like a lightbulb over my head. I suddenly realized that a huge amount of human behavior is strongly shaped by our love of dominance. Dominance involves who wins and who loses, who’s “right” and who’s “wrong,” who’s “good” and who’s “bad.” Have you noticed how often people argue about issues that could be resolved without acrimony? But without an argument, how are we going to jockey for position on the ladder of domination?

So we try to oversimplify complexity, we divide ourselves into tribes, we ignore problems that develop slowly, and we make domination a great big deal. In all of these ways, we are being faithful to inner biological imperatives. We humans are not evil or stupid, by and large. But we are dangerously successful.

No wonder it’s not easy being green. No wonder, in 2018, we’re such a long way from Eden. But many of us are trying to correct the mismatch between our biological programming and today’s planetary crises. And we can carry out this good work with positive attitudes, so we don’t get discouraged and give up.

My first suggestion is that we should just assume that humans have huge challenges that we’re not good at solving. Let’s stop being so shocked that people are often clueless and destructive – sometimes including ourselves. OF COURSE we have big troubles. The modern world is too complicated for us. Of course we love it when our leaders feed us solutions that are charmingly simple and ridiculously wrong. And some leaders actually believe there are simple solutions. As one of them said in dismay, “Nobody knew health care could be so complicated.”

Recently I received an email mentioning a web site that advocates action to reduce global warming and climate change (https://skepticalscience.com/argument.php). The site lists 197 arguments by those who deny that the climate is changing catastrophically, and refutes each of them with factual information. I appreciate this information, but let’s be careful here. Getting into detailed discussions of issues like whether cosmic rays are warming the Earth may be the wrong approach – because most people either cannot or will not deal with complicated details.

It’s often possible to tell the truth by saying something that’s simple but significant. For example, if you were driving and came to a blind intersection, where buildings blocked your view to the right and to the left, would you zip through at 30 mph or would you slow down and look both ways? Obviously you’d slow down, even if you thought there wasn’t much cross traffic. Even if it’s a small risk, the cost of being wrong is too high. And with issues like global warming and rising sea levels, it takes a long time to “put on the brakes” and stop putting so massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. So even if there was only a small chance of disastrous warming, we should reduce these emissions just in case. And since most climate scientists say it is very likely that the Earth is warming, we’d be as foolish to ignore them as we would be to zoom through a blind intersection without slowing down.

By the way, people on both sides of the debate still argue with each other about whether climate change is mainly caused by human activity. That seems completely irrelevant. It’s another example of the way we frame things in terms of dominance. If we caused global warming that implies that we are bad. That brings up feelings we had when we were naughty children and some grownup scolded us. That makes us feel as if our status has gone down a few notches. That sets off our dominance alarms. Therefore we don’t want to face the possibility that we are to blame for climate change – so we deny that it’s happening. But I don’t much care if humans are the main cause. I mostly care about whether we can do something about it, whether human action can make a positive difference. And I’m sure it can.

I also want to suggest that we could stop being shocked that humans are so tribal. They are, they will always tend to be, and we will always have to help our children cope with this natural but often-counterproductive biological programming. Conservative columnist David Brooks recently reported a remarkable example: “As late as 2015, Republican voters overwhelmingly supported free trade.” Just three years later “they overwhelmingly oppose it. The shift didn’t happen because of some mass reappraisal of the evidence; it’s just that tribal orthodoxy shifted and everyone followed.” And no doubt this happens with Democrats too.

Cartoonist Dan Piraro lampooned our tribal tendencies in a Bizarro comic strip, in which a pollster asks: “OK last question: If you disagreed with all of your candidate’s positions, he spoke no known language, and he set fire to everything he touched, would you still vote for him?” Well, if he or she is on “our side,” maybe so.

So we can help ourselves stay positive by just assuming that people in general do not deal well with complicated modern problems, and stop being shocked at their ineptitude. I also want to explain how we can stay positive by welcoming painful truths that we have been avoiding. I want to explain how to do that, but I’m not sure I can. It’s tough to welcome disturbing realities, difficult to embrace disillusionment. It may help if we remember that we’ve all had to do that with various life issues, and we became stronger after losing illusions. And in politics, in the past couple of years, some veils of illusion have been ripped away. Certainly anyone who thought we have mostly overcome racism should lose that illusion now that we have elected a chief executive who makes statements that many people interpret as bigoted.

We have also become dis-illusioned about human gullibility. Political leaders have long known that they can get away with lying to the public, but now we see that a brash, confident candidate can lie a hundred times as much as we once thought possible and get away with it. Aleister Crowley:

Test the average man by asking him to listen to a simple sentence which contains one word with associations to excite his prejudices, fears or passions – he will fail to understand what you have said and reply by expressing his emotional reaction to the critical word.” I think this is also true of people who are far above “average.”

But here’s something hopeful. When the veil of illusion is ripped away so violently, people wake up and mobilize. Think of those bright, passionate, resourceful young people who led the March for Our Lives. Yes, humanitarian and environmental causes have suffered alarming losses, but that can be our alarm clock. It’s time to wake up, and “stay woke.”

We human beings are not inherently evil, but we are perilously successful. We are so good at creating complexity and so clueless about taming ancient tribal impulses and the drive toward domination. It’s not easy being green, but step by step we can become more skillful in loving Mother Earth. After all, there is no Planet B. I have no doubt that we have what it takes to move forward. Whether we will depends on each of us.