Sermon: Climate Change in Mythical Time

February 17, 2019

I was hesitant to address Climate Change in a sermon, as it’s something I personally have a hard time finding hope around. I warn you, there will be some rough moments in this sermon, but I invite you to stay with me so that we may sit together with the fear and uncertainty, and begin to find a way to move forward.

No one really wants to talk about Climate Change. This is actually something liberals and conservatives have in common. They might use it as a talking point to trash people on the other side, but I don’t see many discussing it in depth.

Generally, conservatives don’t want to hear it because they want to think it can’t be true. Human beings cannot be both so powerful that they could cause, and so powerless that they could be killed by a change in Earth’s chemistry. On the other hand, many liberals I know look at the dire projections of Climate Scientists with despairing fatalism. It’s too late to do anything, they say, and even if it weren’t, human beings are too selfish to change their ways. The way these fatalists see it, we’re doomed. We may as well Netflix and chill till the End comes.

Climate Change seems too big, too horrifying, and in a sense, too fantastic to deal with the way we deal with say, healthcare or queer rights. These are issues that we see and feel in our own bodies, and ones that we can imagine improving for us personally, or for individuals like us. It’s much harder to conceive of shifts in the rhythms of the earth that will kill hundreds of thousands or more, which will drown cities and burn mile after mile of farmland.

When I read scientific predictions about Climate Change, the splitting glaciers and the poison ocean and the sun that can cook a human body from the inside out, it doesn’t sound like something from the real world. It sounds like a myth.

This is from “The Uninhabitable Earth” in New York Magazine: David Wallace-Wells notes that the Indian novelist, Amitav Ghosh, wondered if Climate Change would work its way into popular fiction. He concluded, “Probably not, because the dilemmas and dramas of climate change are simply incompatible with the kinds of stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, especially in novels, which tend to emphasize the journey of an individual conscience rather than the poisonous miasma of social fate.”

This may be true about the modern novel, but the rise in the modern novel’s relevance has correlated to the rise of the Industrial Revolution. This may be a coincidence, or the popular narrative of the modern individual might very well be an enabler of suicidal industrialism. Who can say.

Myth, on the other hand, has never had a hard time portraying large consequences for the actions of large groups of people. In fact, the Hebrew Scriptures are very much concerned with the “poisonous miasma of social fate,” as Wallace-Wells puts it.

Now, I don’t use myth in the way they do on TV. A myth is not something to be “busted,” and it is not a lie. Myth in the sense that I’m using it here is a cultural or religious story that is bigger than what we might call “reality.” A Myth might have historical content, but it is not tied to the rules of history. It might contain facts, but it’s not contained by them. A Myth is more important than that.

In this sense, as I see it, the Bible is full of Myth. And indeed, a lot of the apocalyptic content in the Bible might provide us with the closest literary parallels we have to the prophesies of the climate scientists.

Many people focus on Revelations, with its floods and fires and moons of blood. Revelations’ placement at the end of the New Testament sets stage for the popular idea that the Bible, and also, therefore, History, must have a dramatic, apocalyptic end. What I find interesting, however, is that the story of the Flood, which we heard part of near the beginning of service, appears only seven chapters into Genesis, the very first Scripture in the Hebrew canon.

The Bible starts with the End of the World.

I think about the vast swaths of time and generational repercussions represented in mythologies and scriptures when I read modern writers argue that it’s simply “not human nature” to plan for the future. In another New York Magazine article, Losing Earth: The Decade We Almost Stopped Climate Change by Nathaniel Rich, the author says

“that human beings, whether in global organizations, democracies, industries, political parties or as individuals, are incapable of sacrificing present convenience to forestall a penalty imposed on future generations. “

Again, when I read the stories in the Bible with their preoccupation with offspring and family lines and the importance of the survival of the people above all, I find this human nature argument hard to swallow.

But Rich goes on to detail how imagining the future might be particularly damaging to the modern idea of the individual.

“If human beings really were able to take the long view — to consider seriously the fate of civilization decades or centuries after our deaths — we would be forced to grapple with the transience of all we know and love in the great sweep of time. So we have trained ourselves, whether culturally or evolutionarily, to obsess over the present, worry about the medium term and cast the long term out of our minds, as we might spit out a poison.”

What has been trained can be untrained. We can again be a part of that vast and connected and mythical time.

The age of Noah, like many of the characters in Genesis, raises modern realist-eyebrows. Six-hundred years old, you say? One individual can’t live that long. That’s true, but I don’t think we’re meant to process Noah’s age as if he were a character in a modern novel.

In the early prehistoric stories in Genesis, the super-human ages of the named characters specifically draw the reader or listener away from the individual conscience and into the realm of myth. The farther back from history the Bible goes, the longer these lifespans get. Mythical ancestors such as Noah, their one lifetime of six hundred years could be understood as whole communities or civilizations over generations.

Human beings understand large-scale consequences. The notion is inherent in our mythology. Noah the mythic individual suffered and worked to save what he could because of the deeds of human society on a grand scale. In the story, humanity had overstepped their bounds. They had grown too large, taken up too much space. They had disrespected nature.

And so, the ocean rose.

We have the capacity to comprehend and deal with what is happening. We just need to think Mythically.

Noah was a prophet. Noah had the gift of knowing what was coming. We all have that gift. Science has allowed us all to be, in some small sense, prophets. But knowing is only part of the work.

When God told Noah that he was going to flood the whole world, and Noah needed to build a great ark if he wanted to save his family and life on the planet, Noah listened. He didn’t plug his ears and say he didn’t believe in the Flood. He also didn’t gnash his teeth in despair and cuddle up with whatever the antediluvian equivalent of Netflix was and wait for the waters to rise. He built the boat.

Sometimes all you can do is build a boat.

But we’re not there yet.

You might have recognized our second reading today from the Lord of the Rings. In case you haven’t read it or seen the movies, Frodo is a hobbit, a nondescript member of relatively powerless people. He comes to possess the One Ring, which imbues its owner with Ultimate, Unmitigated Power. Because of this, the Ring is intoxicating, and it turns almost anyone who holds in into a power of destruction. Frodo must resist its temptations and find a way to destroy the ring, because if it’s allowed to exist, its raw power will destroy the world.

One more quote from The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells New York Magazine: “In the aftermath of the 2008 crash, a growing number of historians studying what they call “fossil capitalism” have begun to suggest that the entire history of swift economic growth, which began somewhat suddenly in the 18th century, is not the result of innovation or trade or the dynamics of global capitalism but simply our discovery of fossil fuels and all their raw power.”

The only fitting analogy to the One Ring I think that truly makes sense in this age is fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are literally, as Wallace-Wells says, “raw power.”

I think about Frodo often when I think of Climate Change. “I wish it need not have happened in my lifetime.” I want so badly to give that Ring of Power to someone else. But it has come to me. For no reason, it has come to me, and I must therefore use such strength and heart and wits as I have. And what I can do is be loud, be persistent, and demand that the course of humanity, our people, veers toward hope.

Sometimes all you can do is build a boat. But we’re not there yet. There is still time for us to stop the most severe effects of climate change. This will not be easy. But there are things we insignificant little hobbits can do right now. After all, we all hold a piece of the Ring of Power.

As a helpful starter guide, I’ve come up with three things you can do to get started. To make it more whimsical, I’ve made them alliterative. So it’s 3 “Ds.”

1. Divestment

2. Disobedience

3. Decibels

So let’s talk about them.

1.    Divestment

Visit 350.org/ for information about fossil fuel divestment. A large part of this movement involves pressuring large organizations to divest their money away from fossil fuels, and you can get involved in those efforts.

Also, even smaller investments shifting away from fossil fuels sends a message. If you have investments, you can make sure that none of your investments are directly supporting fossil fuel. Instead you can invest in renewable energy, such as wind. If you are close with others who hold investments, tell them what their money might be supporting, and what it could be supporting instead.

2.    Disobedience

Civil disobedience, that is. Honestly, I think a general, nation-wide strike might get the attention of some of the richest beneficiaries of the One Ring I mean fossil fuels, but before we can organize that, we can resist in other ways. We can take cues from climate protectors in indigenous communities and put our bodies on the line to stop new pipelines. We can protest outside of government offices until they drag us away.

Now, it is not fair to ask everyone to put themselves in physical contact with law enforcement. Different bodies carry different risk levels, so I’m specifically speaking to the white, able-bodied community. This is one way we can use our privilege mythically. This is one way we can use whatever power we have to shift the course of humanity for the better.

3.    Decibels

Maybe the most important thing every single one of us can do from here on out is don’t NOT talk about it. And don’t let the people around you NOT talk about it either.

First, you can learn more about the real science of Climate Change, and about what can be done. It’s scary, yes, but I promise it’s less scary to learn about it and take action than to shut it out and wait for the worst. You can buy the book Drawdown right now, in paper or electronically. This book lays out comprehensive and realistic plans that could reverse global warming. For instance, Project Drawdown estimates that an increase to 21.6 percent in the global production of onshore wind electricity by 2050 would reduce CO2 emissions by 84.6 gigatons. This type of information is available. All we need to do is amplify it.

Learn this stuff. Take the time to explain it to others in person and on social media. Share what you’re doing to decrease your carbon footprint with your friends and family. Make it a discussion, a purpose we can all work toward together. We have the ability to get this information and hope out there, even if the government would prefer it remain hidden.

Talk about it. Be annoying about it. Prophets are nothing if not annoying. Amplify and support Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s motion for a Green New Deal. Push other politicians to make this a central issue. Don’t let them ignore you. Ignorance kills.

I charge you to be prophets. Forget that modern individualistic narrative that tells you there’s no hope, that the human machine is too selfish, that the One Ring is too powerful, that you are too small, too powerless and hobbitlike to make any difference. We are living in mythical time, and each one of us is a piece of all of us.

We can start moving our collective selves toward hope. We can destroy the Ring. We can build the Ark. We can find another solution that hasn’t even been written yet. We can still create a future in collaboration with this planet. I know we can.

Let’s do this.

Starting now.

Copyright 2019 Jade Sylvan