paris to pittsburgh

Last week, my church hosted a viewing of the 2018 documentary Paris to Pittsburgh, describing the efforts of cities and states to live up to the environmental standards of The Paris Agreement. You may remember that the Agreement is a worldwide covenant to reduce the harm we are doing to the planet, to try to address the climate crisis. The film is about the efforts of cities and states to live up to Paris, though the U.S. has now withdrawn, courtesy of our narrow-minded president. But watching the film, I was disappointed. really disappointed. These are my thoughts.

Experts have known for more than 7 decades that we are damaging the planet by our emissions. Fresh water is disappearing; major storms, flood and fires are increasing and threatening our livelihoods. Habitat is disappearing for people and animals. Perhaps 9 billion people is more than the planet can sustain, along with dwindling populations of wildlife and the ever-increasing populations of farmed animals. 

This film makes the urgent point that the problem is worse than we thought. In America, our ruling party hates science and is doing its best to take us backward. But there is hope. So the (frustratingly off-point) central theme of the film emerges: “Renewable energy is the greatest economic opportunity of the 21st century.” Renewable energy can create jobs to save dying cities, provide student-debt-free futures for students graduating into high-paying energy jobs, open vocational avenues for former prisoners and gang members, lower operating costs for industries, increase populations of lesser-known towns and villages, lower insurance costs for coastal cities, save families and whole cities on high costs of electricity, lower the costs associated with global hostility and regional instability, and make us all feel hopeful again. And this film goes on to tell us how it can do all that. 

It may save our economy, I would suggest, but what it will not do is save the planet, which becomes clear if we listen to the subtext. Here is what it says, deep into the documentary: If we do all the things this film wants us to do, we just may—may—reach the goals set out in the Paris Climate Accord. But we have to realize: the goal of the Paris Accord is not to reverse the damage we’ve done to the planet. The goal of Paris is to limit to merely double the damage we have already done. Merely double. The global temperature has risen 1 degree Celsius since the industrial revolution; the Paris Accord wants it to rise not more than 1 more degree…

…which may stave off the end of the world, but may also leave us with a world we don’t know how to live in.  

The trailer for the film promised conversation about so many things, but it focused narrowly on renewable energy costs and the damage of fossil fuels and coal. The global climate crisis is so much more broad than that. Energy is a substantial part of the problem. But it is not the only thing. Science tells us it isn’t even the biggest thing. 

A study by the Guardian, a study called “the biggest analysis to date,” and cited in Forbes magazine last June, noted that “researchers concluded that shifting away from meat and dairy is the single most effective way to regenerate our ecosystem and prevent its destruction.” “Livestock production,” it said, “is the single largest contributor of emissions around the globe (more than planes, trains and cars combined). Removing it from our food system could allow the planet to regenerate. Raising animals for food is also the largest contributor to wildlife extinction around the world.” “Even the lowest impact beef” [meaning that family farm every anti-vegan seems to have grown up across the street from] “is responsible for six times more greenhouse gases and (requires) 36 times more land than a plant-based diet.” Fish isn’t the answer, either, the researchers went on, as fish farming produces massive amounts of methane. 

While this film touted in the trailer and promo notes that it includes conversation about food sources and sustainability, there was not one word about a plant-based diet. And total food conversation accounted for less than 1 minute of the 75-minute film. Yes, there is a segment about Iowa, shot partially on a dairy farm. It focused on the way that solar panels can lower the cost of all the machines it takes to produce milk. The farmer noted that farming isn’t a great way to make living, but, he said, “it is a great way to raise a family”—while they showed adorable footage of a young boy bottle-feeding a calf powdered milk, which becomes necessary when you take babies away from their mothers. So, maybe it’s a great way to raise some families. (And by the way, 2500 dairy cows produce the same amount of waste as a city with a population of 400,000 people.)

I have been frustrated for a while with public conversations about climate change, because it has seemed to me that solutions generally range from solar panels to electric cars to better light bulbs, with forays into recycling, outlawing plastic straws and taking our own bags to the grocery. All important things. But not enough. We have a serious problem. And, despite this film’s ongoing theme, our serious problem is not primarily—or even secondarily—about the economy. 

I am no expert and certainly my carbon footprint is something greater than zero. Maybe you’d rather I not bring it up now. Half a solution is better than none, right? No. Not really. The thing is we need serious people to take action, but I don’t believe we do ourselves any favors when we avoid conversation about the single most powerful contribution we make to the problem—the single-most powerful contribution we can make to the solution. 

Greta Thunberg, speaking at the World Economic Forum, said: “I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act.” 

This is way too important for us to half-ass. 

scorched earth. literally and not so.

Australia is on fire as I write this, with little hope of a drenching rain for another month or so. The wildfire season on that continent has been brutal, worse than ever. All told, more than 12 million acres of land are burning — an area nearly the size of Lake Michigan—and about a billion animals are dead, some species now extinct. At least 2000 human homes have been destroyed, and an entire population is having trouble breathing through the thick smoke. Experts lay the cause at the feet of climate change.

In the midst of this unprecedented conflagration, just before New Year’s, people around the country begged the leadership in Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, to call off the annual New Year’s Eve fireworks show, the largest in the world. Leaders said no. Too late, too many tourism dollars riding on the event.

The world is on fire; by all means, let’s add more fire.

Then there is Iran. “All is well,” tweeted the president in the wee hours. “So far, so good.” This, in response to escalating conflict between and among America, Iran and Iraq. Conflict that Trump initiated months ago. One Iran expert wrote in the New York Times:

“It is important to remember who began this spiral. In May 2018, President Trump unilaterally withdrew from the nuclear agreement negotiated by his predecessor at a time when Iran was in full compliance with it. When he did so, the Quds Force and its associated militias in Iraq were fighting the Islamic State in indirect coordination with the American military. The Persian Gulf was quiet.”

But the president promised to prevail, even pledged to commit war crimes, should his ego be sufficiently threatened. (Or perhaps more accurately “additional” war crimes, since assassination of a foreign leader seems to qualify as such.) Pence and Pompeo, hawks that they are, are happy to fuel Trump’s fiery foolishness.

The world is on fire; by all means, let’s add more fire.

Probably not unrelated, on January 20, gun rights defenders and militia members from across the country will gather in Virginia to protest that state’s intent to curb, if not our appetite for, at least our access to, personal firepower. “Virginia has now become ground zero for the tyranny of government and the liberal agenda to take our guns and to destroy our constitution,” posted one website that I hope doesn’t start targeting me with ads now that I’ve scrolled through it.

We are on fire. No doubt American bravado will be on full display in the coming days and weeks, as we fall back into the default position that violence against us calls for violence by us. They offend us, so we should blow them off the map. Or something like that. Americans all around us will call for violence.

(The Iranian response to Suleimani’s murder—missile attacks on US installations in Iraq which killed no one—was more face-saving than warlike, according to analysts quoted in The Washington Post. We’ll see if presidential pride can call it even and live to bluster another day.)

Either way, it falls to people of a certain faith to hold the line, to proclaim again and again, ever more loudly, that violence is not the cure for violence. It cannot be. Adding more fire doesn’t put out the fire. Escalating doesn’t de-escalate. Peace does not come by threats or force. This has to be the very nature of our resistance.

And please understand, by “people of a certain faith,” I’m not talking about Christians. People who claim to follow Jesus will perhaps be among the loudest voices for violence and retribution. No, the peacemaking people I’m referencing may be Christian, but may also be Muslim or Jewish or Baha’i (a 19th-century world religion with its foundations in Iran, I’ve learned) or other. We are people who refuse to fight fire with fire, who lean to the prophets ancient and modern for our belief that violence solves nothing, that posturing and threatening are not the way to live in community—not local community, not global community.

We Americans are accustomed to wondering about the mental stability of despotic leaders of hostile or oppressive nations. But it can no longer be something we point to “over there;” these days, we are living with the mental instability of our own despotic leader. It is times like this that test our faith, that call us to be our best selves—to fight fire with something other than fire.

When a billion are dead, the air is too thick to breathe and tens of millions of acres are no longer habitable, will we still claim to value tourism dollars most? Will oil or ego continue to be our casus belli, our reason for war (even while both are also among the chief causes of our environmental undoing)? What will cause us to reconsider our highest allegiances?

Trump has addressed the nation this morning, content laced with lies, and tone intended to demean and taunt. But this morning’s tweet— “all is well, so far so good”—tells us what we need to know: he is not committed to peace, but to self-aggrandizement. The eyes of the world are on him, just the way he likes it.

In Christian churches around the world, folks have heard this week the Epiphany story of the magi traveling to see the child Jesus, (one tradition tells of them traveling from Persia, now called Iran) and being met by Herod’s ego. The story is a throwback to the story of Moses and Pharaoh, another story of magicians advising the king of a potential rival, and that king likewise responding by murderous rampage. In our worship, we have celebrated light, the light of God; perhaps, the light of something else.

In every age, some Herod or other tries to extinguish the light. In this age, in this place, Trump is our Herod. Our work as people of faith is to keep the light shining, to be light. It will take all our intestinal fortitude, all that we can muster.

The world is on fire and it is hard to breathe. More fire won’t help. Are we willing to try something else?