Thanks to generous donations from members of the Climate Change Task Force and the fundraising efforts of Unitarian Universalist Justice Florida, the Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office's (UU-UNO) Climate Change program intern, Caroline Achstatter, was able to attend the second annual Healing our World and Ourselves conference in Vero Beach Florida. By connecting with other UUs involved in environmental justice, her participation strengthened the UU-UNO's commitment to the fight against human-caused climate change.
At 9:30 AM on February 21st, attendees gathered in the lobby of the UU Fellowship of Vero Beach. Coffee cups in hand, we wandered though display tables and connected with other environmental justice advocates. The Audubon society, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (UUSC),Treasure Coast Progressive Alliance, Ministry for Earth, and many other great organizations had displays throughout the lobby. Once the gong rang, everyone made their way into the sanctuary. Aaron Hoopes started the day with a opening meditation. With clear minds, we were ready to get the day started.
Keynote speaker, Sister Pat Siemen, kicked off the seminar and her presentation about "Earth Rights" with an important question: What is the world asking of us? She went on to explain that just as all humans are entitled to Human Rights - simply because we are human - the Earth has inherit rights simply due to its existence. Furthermore, we as humans belong to this Earth. Sister Pat urged us all to identify as members of the greater web of existence. We are all a part of the evolutionary, global, and ecological community. Opening my eyes to a new perspective, it prepared me for the variety of speakers in the upcoming panels.The day went on with panel discussions contributing a unique perspective to climate change. These views were formed as a result of both their personal and professional lenses. While different components of this cross-cutting issue of climate change were discussed one thing was clear: climate change impacts everything and everyone. The overriding theme continued to point out the relationship connecting these varying perspectives. As was stated during the final panel discussion of the day, we must remember each component creates "The soul of the whole".
Unitarian Universalist United Nations Office Director, Bruce Knotts, brought this theme even further during the question and answer portion of the second panel discussion. Providing examples from his work with the LGBTQ movement, he stressed the importance of forming alliances with those involved in other social movements. From his experience, he spoke of the benefits of such alliances saying, "in their times of need we support them. When we need help, they will be by our side".
In addition to the round of applause in support of Knotts's statements, it brought me back to earlier discussions about the atrocities faced by many indigenous tribes today. As several speakers pointed out, corporations and governments often exploit indigenous communities in order to advance their own initiatives. As a result of unscrupulous business transactions, many of these communities have lost sacred land, hunting ground, and both cultural and life sustaining resources though land exploitation. I realized the importance of standing with them in solidarity and working towards our collective goal together. With greater understanding, I am looking forward to the UU-UNO intergenerational 2014 spring seminar even more! With a special panel discussion during the seminar around the environment and its impact on indigenous peoples, we all will learn more and connect with key players in this arena.As we peel back the layers of climate change, we can recognize it as the cross-cutting issue that it is. We have the power to address this. As was stated in the first panel discussion "we can change the story we live out of." As noted by speakers throughout the day, 82% percent of Americans say climate change is an issue that the government should allocate money towards. We need to remember that WE are the government. It is our constitutional duty to participate, act, and throw out a government that does not represent the values of 82% of our population. This is our money. These are our elected officials. This is our world to which we belong and which we are obligated to protect. We have the power. Don't sit quietly.
With enthusiasm running strong from the previous day, climate change advocates were ready for the final day of the conference. Zeal filled the lobby and sanctuary. Those who had traveled from all over mingled amongst coffee and environmentally conscious food choices. As I sipped on my organic tea and munched my vegan muffin, I reflected on keynote speaker Will Allen's presentation the previous day. Our food choices not only impact our bodies, they impact the future of our planet. This important presentation opened my eyes to the devastating impacts that fertilizer, pesticides, and meat-centered diets have on all forms of life. Armed with this information, I realized that the vegan muffin wasn't that scary after all...actually...it was pretty delicious!
As the conference started up for day two, again Aaron Hoopes helped us center ourselves with a much needed guided meditation. While the energy in the room was driven and passionate, channelling it in a productive and affective manner was ncessary for the panel discussion that followed.
Rev. Gregroy Wilson started off the day by introducing the "panel of trouble makers", as they came to be known. Many panelists had been arrested and even imprisoned in the name of social justice. As it turned out, these panelists weren't alone. Rev. Gregory had audience members raise their hands if they too had faced the justice system in the name of activism. I looked around at all the hands that went up around me. Along with the audience, I clapped and cheered for their collective sacrifices. A part of me was inclined to join them on the front lines of the social movement. I mean hey, if so many UUs pulled together to get me to this conference, perhaps the community will raise me enough money to make bail...
Members represented many different aspects of justice including: Move to Amen, UUSC, and the green agricultural movement. On the surface, one might struggle to see the connection between these groups. Yet, as demonstrated the during the first day of the conference, the web of existence connects all. As was noted during the discussion, "we don't put issues into silos, we look at how they link".As the panel discussion moved along, the audience itself was discussed as a topic of interest. While conferences such as these are very important, we are preaching to the choir. While there is no doubt that the choir needs to hear the sermon, it is our duty to take the sermon to the streets. As panelist Jeff Wolfe mentioned the previous day, "we need to take this information to the NASCAR community." Not only do we need to take it there, we need to learn how to take it there respectfully and affectively. We need to recognize that doing so is more about changing ourselves, and less about changing everyone else.
This theme created a smooth transition into keynote speaker Bruce Alexander's presentation. A Canadian psychologist focused on the study of addiction, he provided insight into how we all in fact are addicts in some form. For some, this might be in the form of consumerism, gluttony, or over-work. Substance abusers are not the only ones who struggle with addiction. Despite my interest in the presentation, the low battery light from my iPad took me away for a moment. As I frantically scanned the room for an outlet, my own addiction became apparent to me.
As humans in modern day society, we are constantly exposed to unnatural things. As youth activist Leah Booher discussed in a panel the previous day, our generation has grown up with modern technology. Even our language and culture is evolving as a result lol :-P. While we all enjoy the benefits of modern day life, what has it cost us? Have we lost our connection to the earth and ourselves? What has been the environmental cost of charging my laptop, iPod, iPad, and cell phone over the years? What is the carbon footprint of the shoe collection in my closet!?
As my mind wound down from this mini-existential crisis, I was comforted to hear that I'll be okay...phew!!! And well, I guess I was on the first step to recovery anyway: admitting I have a problem. Thankfully, Dr. Alexander even took us beyond this step. He cautioned us to be mindful of about balancing our lives. Furthermore, he pointed out that the world is not black and white. We must embrace the dialectic and live in our own unique shade of grey.
Taking the Sermon to the Streets
As beings of this planet, we must all walk the tight-rope of life. We all have the opportunity to be a part of the solution. By employing our own skills, talents, and unique perspectives, we create our future.
As I left the conference, I reflected on all the information I learned, the amazing people I met, and the energy of a community committed to environmental justice. As I turned on the car and thought of the emissions I was spilling into the atmosphere, an overwhelming sense of guilt came over me. As it turned out, I had not fully recovered from my existential-crisis earlier that day.
Driving away from the conference, the guilt lingered. A quote from the final panel discussion rang in my head: "you gotta crack some eggs to make an omelet." As I grappled with the dialectic, I thought of the benefits of being amongst "the choir" for the past two days. While only time will tell, I know one thing for sure: from now on, I will only be cracking cage free eggs and cooking it up with locally grown organic vegetables.
While I don't see myself running off to be a hermit any time soon (kudos to those of you that do!) I will learn to find my own balance between being a contributor and fighter of climate change. I will continue to take my sermon to the streets and play my part in combating environmental degradation. I am lucky to be with the UU-UNO to even have the ability to take the sermon to the international arena! But I won't stop there. I will take the sermon to my apartment, workplace, congregation, school, elected officials, and kitchen table!