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Sermons at First Parish Church

Living With Less: The Path To Sustainability

Sunday, December 2, 2006
Patrick Hughes
First Parish Church of Groton

Reading — “Brower’s Sermon”

In his book, “Conversations with the Arch Druid” the Author John MacPhee presents the compelling story of David Brower, the most influential environmental advocate who most people have never heard of. I was privileged to hear Mr. Brower speak just before moving from California to New England and even in his late 80’s he was powerful and inspiring to listen to. His goal in the remaining years of his life was to focus on healing the planet but in every speech he had ever given he always included the following which came to be known as Brower’s Sermon:

I thought it would be useful to do an exercise in perspective relating to time. Squeeze the age of the Earth, four and a half billion years, into the Six Days of Creation for an instant replay. Creation begins Sunday midnight. No life until about Tuesday noon. Life comes aboard, with more and more species, more variety, more genetic variability. Millions upon millions of species come aboard, and millions leave. By Saturday morning at seven, there’s enough chlorophyll so that fossil fuels begin to form. At four o’clock in the afternoon, the great reptiles are onstage; at nine o’clock that night they’re hauled off. But they had a five hour run.

Nothing like us appears until three or four minutes before midnight, depending on whose facts you like better. No Homo sapiens until a half minute before midnight. We got along as hunter-gatherers pretty well, but the population couldn’t have been very big; for those of you concerned about how many hunter-gatherers the Earth can sustain, the range I’ve heard is between five and twenty-five million people. Then we got onto this big kick: we wanted more of us, we wanted to push forests out of the way so we could feed more people. We wanted to shift from hunting and gathering to starch and thereby start the first big energy crisis (because the greatest energy shortage on Earth is of fuel wood). So we got into agriculture one and a half seconds before midnight. That recently. By the next half-second, we had been so successful that the forests ringing the Mediterranean Sea, for example, were reduced to the pitiful fragments that are the Cedars of Lebanon. That was in one half-second. At about the end of that half-second-we’re now one second before midnight-after all this time of life being on Earth we began to invent religions.

If I could go back to a point in history to try to get things to come out differently, I would go back and tell Moses to go up the mountain again and get the other tablet. Because the Ten Commandments just tell us what we’re supposed to do with one another, not a word about our relationship with the Earth (at least not according to any of the translations I’ve seen so far). Genesis starts with these commands: multiply, replenish the Earth, and subdue it. We have multiplied very well, we have replenished our population very well, we have subdued all too well, and we don’t have any other instruction!

So here we are now, a third of a second before midnight: Buddha. A quarter of a second: Christ. A fortieth of a second: the industrial revolution. We began to change ecosystems a great deal with agriculture, but now we can do it with spades coal-powered, fossil-fuel-powered spades. We begin taking the Earth apart, getting ideas about what we can do, on and on, faster and faster. At one-eightieth of a second before midnight we discover oil, and we build a civilization that depends on it. Then, at two-hundredths of a second, we discover how to split the atom. At this point we are not liberating resources; we are exhausting resources and our global conditions are such that in the inequity quotient between humanity and our planet it is the earth that is losing.


In 1960 the writer John Steinbeck loaded up a Ford truck he had outfitted for a trip across our vast country and along with his dog Charlie set out to discover what America had become. Each Sunday Steinbeck had a ritual to attend church in whatever part of the country he was traveling through to get a flavor of the local religious beliefs. But as he recalls his most memorable experience took place in Vermont as follows:

“Sunday morning in a Vermont Town, my last day in New England, I shaved, dressed in a suit, polished my shoes, whited my sepulcher and looked for a church to attend. Several I eliminated for reason I do not now remember, but on seeing a John Knox church I drove to a side street and parked out of sight, gave Charlie his instructions about watching the truck and took my way with dignity to a church of blinding white ship lap. I took my seat in the rear of the spotless polished place of worship. The prayers were to the point, directing the attention of the Almighty to certain weakness and undivine tendencies I know to be mine and could only suppose were shared by others gathered there.

“The service did my heart and I hope my soul some good. It had been a long while since I had heard such an approach. It is our practice now, at least in the large cities, to find out from our psychiatric priesthood that our sins aren’t really sins at all but accidents that are set in motion by forces beyond our control. There was no such nonsense in this church. The minister, a man of iron will with tool steel eyes and a delivery like a pneumatic drill, opened up with prayer and reassured us the we were a pretty sorry lot. And he was right. We didn’t amount to much to start with and due to our own tawdry efforts had been slipping ever since. Then having softened us up, he went into a glorious sermon. A fire and brimstone sermon. Having proved that we, or perhaps only I, were no damn good, he painted with cool certainty what was likely to happen to us if we didn’t make some basic reorganization for which he didn’t hold out much hope. He spoke of hell as an expert and not the mush-mush hell of these soft days, but a well stoked, white hot hell served by technicians of the first order. This reverend brought it to a point where we could feel and understand it. A good coal fired plenty of draft hell and a squad of open hearth Devils who put their hearts into their work and their work was me. I began to feel good all over. For some years now God has been a pal to us, practicing togetherness and that causes the same emptiness a father does playing softball with his son. But this Vermont God cared enough about me to go to a lot of trouble kicking the hell out of me. He put my sins in a new perspective. Whereas they had been small and mean and nasty and best forgotten, this minister gave them some size and bloom and dignity. I hadn’t been thinking very well of myself for some years, but if my sins had this dimension there was some pride left. I wasn’t a naughty child but a first rate sinner and I was going to catch it.

“I felt so revived in the spirit that I put five dollars in the plate and afterwards in front of the church, shook the hands warmly with the minister and as many of the congregation as I could. It gave me a lovely feeling sense of evil doing that lasted clear through till Tuesday. All across the country I went to church on Sundays, a different denomination every week, but no where did I find the quality of that Vermont preacher. He forged a religion that was designed to last, not predigested obsolescence.”

While never his first choice of what road to travel on what made Steinbecks journey feasible was the completion of the Inter-state Highway system, the crowning jewel of the Eisenhower administration as it made travel from one end of the country to the other easier. This massive undertaking, fulfilling the politicians promise of each generation having more than the last carved it’s swath across the rural landscape. Forest and mountain were chopped down, dug up, blasted, bulldozed and paved with hot blacktop, with four-lane, six-lane, overpasses, cloverleaf exits and pulsating with the never -ending pounding of 18-wheeled behemoths carrying the commerce of the day. Rivers spanned, wetlands fill in, habitat disrupted so this maze of refined asphalt could wend and snake its way from the redwood forests to the New York Islands. But is this the land that was made for you and me? This system is our ground zero for the unfettered progress of unsustainably in that a tomato bred for shipping is picked before it is ripe in Florida, rushed into a truck, hurled down a highway, gassed in a warehouse in Chicago to ripen, steamed to waxy perfection and put out 2 dimensional and tasteless in some strip mall of a marketplace to echo the memory of a forgotten local farm. But besides the Red dye waxy perfection of this tasteless morsel is the carbon foot print it takes to delver it. The pesticides and chemical fertilizers it takes to grow it. The land filling waste of the packages needed to ship it. Multiply that times Grapes from South America and this is the global maze of unrelenting commerce. And tied to it all is the sucking sound of oil flowing out of the earth and out the tail pipe and energy plants into the atmosphere. Steinbeck’s Vermont preacher told of a well stocked hell of biblical proportions but I think human kind in our infinite drive towards progress is doing a fine job with out divine intervention.

At this point I imagine three things are possibly going through your mind: One, what does John Steinbeck and his dog have to do with sustainability? Two, what was the minister thinking when she let this hysterically ranting environmental fanatic into the pulpit? Or three, you have drifted off completely and your only concern is when this ranting will end so you can get downstairs and through the ministers greeting line before the Decaf coffee runs out.

Well for me to rant on as this arbitrary authority on the subject of sustainability with my sudo Fire and Brimstone Diatribe required introspection to see how I shaped up on the sustainability front. Since reduction of ones carbon foot print is an important issue I decided to look at the “Made in” labels on a few birthday gifts I received to see how far they had traveled. What I discovered put my sins in a new perspective as; the label on my “50 and over the hill” coffee cup my Daughter-in-law from Yakima Washington sent me says “Made in China” as does my wireless remote Bar-B-Que temperature sensor my brother from Los Angeles sent me, my electric pencil sharpener I bought with the Office Depot what does my 17 year old Daughter give to her father gift card as well as my step daughter, who lives in Santa Cruz CA , present of a “Superman Lunch box.” Seeing that my sins had some dimension to them I thought could redeem myself by looking at the Sustainable life style Clothing purchases I made. This was not to be as my new LL Bean shirt says “Made in Malaysia.” My LL Bean Cargo pants are” Made in Macao.” My LL Bean bathing suit says “Made in Shri Lanka.” This tawdry attempt at redemption worsened as I realized that my Truck is a Nissan; my Video Player is Hitachi, even my copy of “Travels with Charley, in search of America” by John Steinbeck was printed in Canada. At this point I realized that my sins where neither small and mean and nasty and best forgotten, but did have some size and bloom. But unlike Steinbeck did nothing to make me feel better about myself. As misery likes company I racked my brain for a subject to add to this discussion with which to prove that everyone else was just as guilty as I am. My first thought was to discuss the impact of coffee drinking (when was the last time you passed a Coffee plantation in New England) but as it is a sacrament of our religious beliefs, thought better of it. Not knowing which way to go with this and remembering the success that Vermont preacher had in getting his point across I did some further research and ended up with a copy of Dante’s Inferno. If you recall Dante uses each of his nine levels of hell to define the consequences of certain behavioral traits common to humanity. With this as a guide I found a common everyday item whose use and impact is something we can all relate to:

Level one — The Virtuous Non Believer

A person living in rural New England who drives their Prius 20 miles to a Trader Joes to buy organic avocados grown in California.

Level two — Lustful

Those who desire out-of-state avocados in the first place.

Level Three — Gluttonous

Those who eat avocados week after week with the knowledge that they don’t grow anywhere near here.

Level four — Prodigal and Avaricious

Those who teach their children to love eating avocados.

Level Five — Wrathful and gloomy

Friends of mine who will now feel remorse every time they eat an Avocado and will hold me to blame for their guilt.

Level Six — Heretics

Me since I am standing up here preaching abstinence went in fact I love eating avocados.

Level Seven — Violent

My few remaining friends who briefly had thoughts of forgiveness who now wish excruciating and lasting torment become my lot for being such a hypocrite.

Level Eight — Fraudulent, Malicious, Panderers

Those marketing people who got us hooked on eating avocados way away from areas where they are grown in the first place.

And finally, Level Nine — Treacherous

Those manufactures of the boxed, plastic wrapped, instant pour into a dish and break out the nachos purveyors of vacuum packaged Avocado Dip that can be sold anywhere a truck or a ship or an airplane can take it so that those of us who believe in “Natural” will also want the real thing be available on our local store shelves.

Now isn’t that the core issue? That if we didn’t desire those commodities that are outside our reach then may be we could find a way to live without them. What becomes the central theme of our evolution is according to the metaphors of David Brower’s timeline we have only been a short while on this earth and it was a paradise before we ate at the tree of knowledge, left the garden and in our quest to get back to that paradise started trying to improve the world we were given to live in. But the path chosen was the one where we always took more than we needed so that the delicate balance needed to sustain life on earth is always straining to keep up. Not all cultures misunderstood this need to seek balance with the world around them (that is the instructions from that third tablet David Brower wanted) but as civilization progressed for the most part they were engulfed by the rush of progress and our own history is filled with the consequences.

On a June morning in 1876 the smoke was clearing from the battle field in the Montana territories historically known as The Little Bighorn. The Sioux and Cheyenne warriors had won a battle by coming together but soon abandoned the encampment they had assembled because the impact of so many in one place caused degradation to the earth. As a nomadic people their lives were connected to respecting how the earth sustained them and it was not something they could live with and so disbanded. It was to be their undoing and soon the dominion over the native people’s lands would be complete.

War has been to often the way humanity has demonstrated dominion rather than stewardship and as warfare evolved in the industrial age this drive towards Dominion over the resources from the earth became motivations for war. Why did the madman Hitler in his reckless pursuit of dominion over Europe open the disastrous eastern front? To attempt to secure the South Western Oil fields of the Soviet Union. Why did Japan anger the sleeping giant of the US with its unprovoked attack on Pearl Harbor? So it could begin its race, invading from one island to the next to dominate the South East Asian oil fields. What wars in our own recent memory are tangled up in this web of dominion over these same resources? The same resources in a refined state needed to fuel the trucks that bring us avocados from California. To again quote John Steinbeck musings from his travels across our vast country, “I wonder why progress looks so much like destruction”

But I also believe that imbedded in the fabric of this relentless march for progress and unfettered prosperity the path back to sustainability and reason has been shown because of an experience of something that so clearly reminded us of what we need to become.

As the astronauts of Apollo 8 came round from their first orbit on the back side of the moon an unanticipated sight greeted them. Above the moons horizon rose the blue and white pearl of the earth, seen for the first time from a great distance. In the focus to go out to the moon, to beat the Russians and win one more absurd skirmish in the cold war it turns out the real purpose would be so we, as humans, could look for the first time on this jewel hung there in the universe. An image that would resonate through us so completely we would now begin to understand the need to care for this earth as much as we had previously only cared for the societies that lived upon it.

As this is the first day of advent it is important that I leave you with a message of hope. For if it only took us that 1/40th of a second to raid our Planet then it will only take 1/40th of a second to correct it. All it requires is we see our world with this new perspective. Because when we grow our own tomatoes and taste the truth. When we eat the labors of local farmers and are content to live with those bounties that are within our reach. When our homes are decorated by the artisans we call neighbors. When clothes we wear bear the tags that say they have traveled miles and not oceans. When we live with less and not more we will see clearly that our lives are linked and that the little things we do will affect the delicate balance that sustains that life. If the goal of the politicians of the fifties, the era of that massive highway project, was for each generation to be better off than the previous one, then I say our goal should be to brag into the future that our progeny could live with less than we did.

To paraphrase Steinbeck’s understanding of his Vermont preacher’s impact “We are forging a movement that is designed to last, not one of predigested obsolescence.”

But even with this understanding Sustainability must be more than a watchword or an organization, or changing a light bulb from incandesant to floresant. It is shaking to the core the perception of ourselves and our society and then changing how it is we live in that world. John Steinbeck traveled to experience the back roads and small towns of America, to see if the simple greatness that founded this country still existed and while far from perfect he was pleased to discover that it did.

There is one final request I want to leave you with. I believe we need to rewrite the story of Genesis to say that the residents of the Garden of Eden are not cast out of paradise by eating from the tree of knowledge but have it state they gained wisdom and evolved to become the caretakers of the earth by acknowledging this.

The apples from that tree of knowledge are locally grown.

grad-rainbow

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Most recently updated 2009-06-06