From Despondency to Action and Hope

September 1, 2019

Richard Milne

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We could talk about Creation as the ‘Big Bang’ theory; but I shall leave that to the astrophysicists. OR we could talk about biological evolution, but I shall leave that to the biologists. OR we could marvel at all the creatures on land and sea and skies; but I shall leave that to David Attenborough.


Instead, I’m going to share a personal story.


Some people are fortunate enough to have had an epiphany.

Dr Google defines epiphany as: ‘a moment of sudden and great revelation or realization.’

I have had just two epiphanies in my life. The first one was when I was born, during a snowstorm, and I discovered what a magical world it was. Unfortunately, I don’t remember that epiphany very well. The second one was in 2005, that’s 14 years ago. I was starting to read scientific studies about environmental issues, when I suddenly realised that there was a black cloud on the horizon that would change everything.


Scientists were calling it ‘global warming’ which means an increase in the average surface temperature of planet Earth. The predicted consequences of this were frankly alarming. I realised that I could no longer assume that I would live out my life in relative comfort. And my children and grandchildren could suffer terribly, and might not even survive to my age. If the scientists were right, I would have to change my expectations and my comfortable lifestyle. That epiphany, I do remember.


After this Epiphany followed Despondency. I could not see any way ahead, and it felt like a heavy burden. Furthermore, hardly anybody was even talking about it, so I felt alone. The Swedish schoolgirl Greta Thunberg had a similar experience recently when she was just 15 years old. She became aware of climate change caused by global warming, and she realised that this was incredibly important; but nobody seemed to care. The leaders in her society were not even talking about it. Then she became depressed, stopped talking, and even stopped eating for a while.


After Epiphany and Despondency, came Action. Greta skipped school for three weeks and sat down outside the Swedish parliament to protest Government inaction on climate change. Then other people joined her; then the politicians started to listen. On 15 March this year, an estimated 1.4 million students in 112 countries around the world joined her call to protest Government inaction on climate change. Greta has become a world leader at 16 years old, influencing even the United Nations. So one determined person can make a difference. The students will be striking again next month, and they have invited us all to join them.


Closer to home: way back in August 2006 (13 years ago) a group of us ran a workshop in the Cathedral on climate change, with support from the Dean and the Royal Society. We had 5 expert speakers in the morning and practical workshops in the afternoon. It was well attended, although not everybody was up with the play. I met one person who came along to learn about weather forecasting.


The next year, a group of Anglicans came together and formed the ‘diocesan climate change action group.’ Our mission was to help Anglicans to reduce their carbon emissions in order to help to mitigate climate change. A few weeks later, the UN inter-governmental panel on climate change (IPCC) published a technical report called AR4. This collated a great deal of scientific evidence on climate change.


Since that time, our Anglican group has given educational workshops on climate change throughout the diocese; we have persuaded the 3 Tikanga church of Aotearoa NZ to divest from fossil fuels and to offset its carbon emissions from episcopal staff travel; we have provided energy audits of church buildings; and we have worked intensively within one rural parish to encourage sustainable living practices. In July we made submissions to the environmental select committee on the Zero Carbon Bill. This is just a very small start, and there is far more that needs to be done.


So we had Epiphany, Despondency and then Action.


But what about Hope? Is there really any hope that we can avoid climate catastrophe, or have we left it too late for our children and grandchildren; and many of us too?


I can see a number of hopeful signs, and I want to share these with you today.


  • The world is waking up, at last. Thousands of the world’s scientists who study the land, the oceans and the atmosphere have made it very clear that we have a climate crisis that is heading towards catastrophe if we don’t take drastic action now. There can be no doubt that we humans have caused this by burning coal, oil and gas and cutting down the forests that store carbon.


  • Many secular groups have sprung up, determined to spur governments into action. In New Zealand we have Generation Zero, a group of young people who initiated the Zero Carbon Bill that is now going through Parliament. We have another international youth organisation called 350. We have Coal Action, Forest and Bird, the Green Party, Greenpeace, Extinction Rebellion, Youth for Climate and other. Also, a large group of doctors and other health professionals.


  • So what about politics and business? Is anybody listening? Yes, there were about 1500 submissions to the Select Environmental Committee on the Zero Carbon Bill. There has been some understandable pushback from the agricultural sector and the fossil fuel and automobile industries, but it has cross-party support and I am fairly confident that it will go ahead. We already have incentives for public transport and for more efficient vehicles; and there is a growing interest in plant-based diets and corresponding changes in agriculture. Auckland Council and others have declared a ‘climate emergency.’ Some major institutions are trying to work more sustainably, and many of them have divested from fossil fuels.


  • But what about the church? Do we care enough about our world and about our future to take action? One of our mission statements is ‘care of creation’ and another one is ‘social justice’ but do we take these seriously? I have mentioned our Auckland group. In Wellington diocese, a young woman has been appointed by the Bishop to work on climate justice, and she has the energy and passion that are necessary. Throughout the country there is an ecumenical network of Christian churches learning from each other. General Synod is planning to appoint a Climate Commissioner for the church, with a focus on Tikanga Pasifika. After church next Sunday we shall be having a practical workshop here at St. Matthews, on the actions that we can take personally to reduce our carbon footprint. It will be informal and interactive, and I hope that many of you can come.


There is some Hope, and it comes about through commitment and action. We don’t have to despair, and we don’t have to carry the whole burden ourselves. But we have work to do.


SO: what can we do in practice? The scientists tell us that we must ‘put the world on a war footing’ in order to prevent climate catastrophe. It’s not too late; but we must take this very seriously, right now.


  • For Christians, the starting point is that old-fashioned biblical word: ‘repentance.’ This doesn’t mean getting depressed! Repentance is about changing our behaviour. The most important thing we can do is to reduce our consumption. As Quakers say: ‘live simply, so that others may simply live.’ The ‘others’ are our children and grandchildren.


  • In our workplaces and our places of leisure and our homes and churches, we can influence others by our words and our actions. Professor James Renwick, a well-known NZ climate scientist, says that we must talk about it. If it is swept under the carpet, nobody will do anything. Of course, we will have more credibility when we have started to make changes in our own lives.


  • We can support many of the secular groups that are working to change government policy. Prepare to be surprised and uplifted by the thousands of young people in our country who are working to preserve their future and ours. They need and welcome our support. If we show that we support them, they will take us more seriously.


  • At the local and regional level, we can get informed and vote for the candidates with policies that support our habitat. We have a great opportunity next month, with the local body elections.


  • At a national level, we need to stop oil and gas exploration immediately; phase out the burning of coal for electricity generation and for drying milk powder; stop dairy conversions; reduce the intensity of beef and dairy farming; and plant far more trees to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. We city people need to reduce our air travel; reconsider our local transport, our retail shopping habits, our food; our use of energy, our waste disposal, and our use of water. We shall be addressing some of these issues after church next Sunday.


  • We must also act collectively. Research tells us that transformational change comes about when networked individuals change. As Christians, we are already members of a community of people of goodwill. We are not alone, and as Wilf keeps reminding us: ‘the spirit of God is alive in the land.’


SO: from Epiphany to Despondency to Action to Hope and finally to Leadership.


Here is my challenge. Could we at St Matthew's lead the Auckland diocese in sustainable living practices? Could we become known as ‘the green church on the edge?’ Are we ready to change our personal and community behaviours? In 5 years from now, we could be known as the church that faced up to the existential challenges of our time. We could be known as Kiatiaki, custodians of the land and the oceans and the atmosphere. It’s up to us. Amine.

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