Leave It in the Ground

Genesis 9:12-17, John 13:31-35

Rev. Doug Van Doren, Plymouth UCC, 4/24/16


I am so happy that Plymouth Church, as a congregation, and in so many of our members, see care for the planet as a core Christian value. It is, and has been, a focus for the Justice and Peace Task Force. You all demonstrated your commitment by funding the solar panels on the roof that we and the community can all see, and the insulation under the roof - not as glamorous, but just as important. In fact, tomorrow, here at Plymouth I am hosting, with Michigan Interfaith Power and Light, a meeting of about a dozen clergy and lay people with Senators MacGregor and Hildenbrand on the need for greater conservation and renewable energy mandates in the pending state energy policy. Our solar panels made us an attractive meeting place.


So on this Earth Day Sunday, I am sure you will welcome the opportunity to celebrate the gift of the creation, and continue to repent the irresponsible attitude and actions that threaten the earth and all that lives therein. The passage from John read this morning is the lectionary text for the day. It states clearly that the sign of Christians is love - loving one another. Too often and for too long, that has been interpreted as only loving other individuals, or other Christians. But Jesus meant it as loving all others. And how can we say we love, if we destroy the very thing that gives life? How can we say that we, as Christians, care about love and justice for the marginalized, when climate degradation disproportionately impacts the poor, such as asthma among poorer people due to where they live, and destruction of so many poorer people's homes from rising sea levels and more violent storms? Already, thousands of homeless people in Bangladesh have had their homes literally washed away beneath their feet due to the rising sea levels.


I have pointed out before that God's covenant as understood by our Hebrew forebears, illustrated in the story of Noah, is that God has a covenant with all living things. God cares for all creation. Yes, they understood we, humans, are to have stewardship of the planet, but that doesn't mean the right to destroy it, rather it means the responsibility to protect it.


This morning we are joining many UCC and other churches in a growing movement called, "Keep It in the Ground." Let us be clear, this does not mean "keeping our heads in the ground," quite the contrary. Rather, based in irrefutable science, it provides a clear focus for the urgent work of creation care.


The phrase, "Keep It in the Ground" comes from Dr. Bill McKibben. He is the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in Environmental Studies at Middlebury College, the founder of 350.org, and the winner of the 2014 Right Livelihood Award. He wrote this for the Yes Magazine's Spring 2016 edition, Life After Oil. As there is so much good information in his article, I want to quote from it extensively.


"Physics," he wrote, "can impose a bracing clarity on the normally murky world of politics. It can make things simple. Not easy, but simple."


"Most of the time, public policy is a series of trade-offs: higher taxes or fewer services, more regulation or more freedom of action. We attempt to balance our preferences: for having a beer after work, and for sober drivers. We meet somewhere in the middle, compromise, trade off. We tend to think we're doing it right when everyone's a little unhappy."


"But when it comes to climate change, the essential problem is not one group's preferences against another's. It's not-at bottom-industry versus environmentalists or Republicans against Democrats. It's people against physics, (the laws of nature) which means that compromise and trade-­off don't work. Lobbying physics is useless; it just keeps on doing what it does."


"So here are the numbers: We have to keep 80 percent of the fossil-fuel reserves that we know about underground. If we don't-if we dig up the coal and oil and gas and burn them-we will overwhelm the planet's physical systems, heating the Earth far past the red lines drawn by scientists and governments. It's not 'we should do this,' or 'we'd be wise to do this.' Instead it's simpler: 'We have to do this.'"


"And we can do this. Five years ago, 'keeping it in the ground' was a new idea. When environmentalists talked about climate policy, it was almost always in terms of reducing demand. On the individual level: Change your light bulb. (Add more insulation.) On the government level: Put a price on carbon. These are excellent ideas, and they're making slow but steady progress. Given enough time, they'd bring down carbon emissions gradually but powerfully. So we have to attack this problem from both ends, going after supply as well as demand. We have to leave fossil fuel in the ground."


"Most of that coal and oil and gas-most of that money-is concentrated in a few huge underground pools of carbon. There's oil in the Arctic, and in the tar sands of Canada and Venezuela, and in the Caspian Sea; there's coal in Western Australia, Indonesia, China, and in the Powder River Basin in the U. S.; there's gas to be fracked in Eastern Europe. Call these the 'carbon bombs.' If they go off-if they're dug up and burnt-they'll wreck the planet. Of course, you could also call them 'money pits.' Those already wealthy who want to get richer won't walk away voluntarily."


McKibben goes on, "If you understand the logic of the 'Keep It in the Ground' campaign, for instance, then you understand the logic of the Keystone pipeline fight. Pundits said it was 'just one pipeline,' but efforts to block it meant that the expansion of Canada's tar sands suddenly, sharply slowed. Investors, unsure that there would ever be affordable ways to bring more of that oil to market, pulled tens of billions of dollars off the table, even before the price of oil began to fall. So far, only about 3 percent of the oil in those tar sands has been extracted; the bomb is still sitting there, and if we block pipelines, then we cut the fuse."


"And the same tactics are working elsewhere, too. In Australia, there was unrelenting pressure from indigenous groups and climate scientists to block what would have been the world's largest coal mine in Queensland's Galilee Valley. Activists tied up plans long enough that other campaigners were able to pressure banks around the world to withdraw financing for the giant mine. By Spring 2015, most of the world's major financial institutions had vowed not to provide loans for the big dig, and by summer the mining company was closing down offices."


"In Fall 2012, students, faith leaders, and other activists launched a fossil-fuel divestment campaign in the United States, supported by 350.org, that soon spread Down Under and to Europe. The argument was simple: If Exxon and Chevron and BP and Shell plan to dig up and burn more carbon than the planet can handle, if their business plan would break the planet, then we need to break ties with them."


"At first, the institutions that joined in were small. But the campaign accelerated quickly because the math was so clear, the physics so irrefutable. By now colleges from Stanford to Oxford, from Sydney to Edinburgh, have joined in, pointing out that it makes no sense to educate young people and then break the planet they'll inhabit. Ditto doctors associations on several continents, which argue that you can't pretend to be interested in public health if you invest in companies destroying it. Ditto the United Church of Christ," who called for us to divest from oil companies and set up a fund without those investments, "and the Unitarians and the Church of England and the Episcopalians, who insist that care for creation is incompatible with such destruction."


"These divestments are having an effect-coal giant Peabody formally told shareholders in 2014 that the campaign was affecting its stock price and making it hard to raise capital. But even more, they've driven the necessity of keeping carbon underground from the fringes into the heart of the world's establishment. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund started divesting its fossil fuel stocks, while Deutsche Bank, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund have started down the same road. A month after the Rockefeller announcement, the governor of the Bank of England told a conference that 'the vast majority' of carbon reserves are 'unburnable,' warning of massive 'stranded assets.' Trying to get out from under this 'carbon bubble' is one reason why huge funds are now beginning to divest. The California Public Employees' Retirement System, for instance, lost $5 billion before it saw the light and started selling its stock."


"But the fight remains damnably hard, because politicians are so used to doing the bidding of the oil companies. In fact, just days after the theoretically landmark Paris climate accord, the Administration and Congress gave the oil industry a much-sought-after gift: ending the 40-year ban on crude oil exports. But the fact that many of the carbon bombs lie in richer nations like Canada, the United States, and Australia; provides some advantages. We have more control, and we can afford to let them be."


"More importantly," McKibben points out, "it's beginning to look like we don't need to win this fight forever. That's because alternatives to fossil fuel are becoming cheaper with every passing day. The price of a solar panel has fallen more than 70 percent in the last six years." As you know, Michigan is taking several of its coal plants off line, and solar is at the point where it can compete economically with other forms of energy production. I am convinced that is why Consumers Energy and Detroit Edison have been lobbying the state legislature so hard, in order to either end solar or put it completely in the utilities' control. The fact that solar is becoming more economically viable is, as McKibben puts it, "a mortal threat to the hydrocarbon tycoons. They know that they have to get new infrastructure in place in the next few years. If they can build those pipelines and mines, then for the next 40 or 50 years they'll be able to get carbon out cheaply enough to compete (and to wreck the planet). If they can't-if we can hold them off for just a few more years-then, (just maybe) "we'll have made the transition to clean energy irreversible."


Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt, Environmental Justice Minister for the UCC, when hearing Dr. McKibben's expression, "the carbon bomb," is reminded of the old bumper sticker, "What would Jesus bomb?" What would Jesus carbon bomb? He reminds us that, "If this truly is the Jesus in whom we believe, then it seems only natural that the ranks of those on the front lines fighting against carbon bombs should be swelled with Christians. At rallies and protests, people should point at us saying, 'Ah, there is a group of Christians! There's a church! You can see it in how much they love others, how much they love all of God's creation.'"


The temptation to use those carbon resources is tremendous, of course. I go back to that story in the Garden of Eden that points to our human propensity to transgress our boundaries. Adam - humans, had the whole lush garden, everything was there for them, and it was good. Only they could not consume of the tree at the center of the garden, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for it would destroy the order of things; they had to let it be, unharvested.


It seems to me, that the carbon resources in the ground are like that tree. It is so tempting to pluck off its fruit. Those poised to do it are very powerful and wily, like the serpent, "What can it hurt?" Their money and power, and our desire for cheap, plentiful fuel makes us reach, with feigned innocence, for the forbidden fruit. But who cries out for the planet? Who cries out for generations unborn, for marginalized communities, the first to choke on the forbidden fruits?


Have we learned anything? Will we, this time, love God and one another more than the temptation that will destroy us? Will we let it be, and not, this time, put ourselves at the center, but rather be content to be simply part of the lush, abundant garden called Planet Earth? May it be so. Amen.