Cleaning out the mental refrigerator: Niebuhr, McKibben, and Band-Aids

I’ve been surveying the multitude of leftovers in the refrigerator of my mind. When was the last time this thing was cleaned out? Jeez. Prodded into further examination of my last post by subsequent emails, conversations, and readings, I’ve concluded that my thinking is a little moldy and needs either to have the fuzz shaved off or be thrown out. Caveat lector: slightly smelly smorgasbord on the way.

Fuzzy thought number one: Chiding me for a Band-Aid approach to life-threatening environmental crises, a friend emailed this: “I actually think democratic control of the world through political action must be established. For me that means crushing the power of corporations.” On the one hand, I agree fully. The sheer, concentrated force of most multinational corporations is flabbergasting: the fact that British Petroleum still enjoys reasonable financial health despite the costs of the oil spill cleanup beggars the imagination. That much money is as good as a private militia, if not a private nuclear arsenal. Like anything powerful and willful, corporations need constant skeptical scrutiny.

Fuzzy thought number two: Bill McKibben, environmental prophet extraordinaire, was the first speaker a few weeks ago in a new annual lecture series endowed by my father in my mother’s memory at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. Martin and I were unable to attend, but my sister told me that the evening was beautiful, the talk was inspiring, and McKibben was a passionate and humble witness to the planet- (and therefore self-) destructive path we’re currently running down. (A few days later he gave a more formal version of his lecture at the Aspen Ideas Festival; either version is very much worth the time it takes to watch.)

Likening the scope of climate change to the devastation of nuclear warfare, he says that Americans “have so far failed to imagine that the explosion of a billion pistons and a billion cylinders each minute around the world could wreak the same kind of damage on the same scale.” Contributing to this failure of imagination are national inertia (we like the way we live); the divide between wealthy and poor nations (how do we tell others not to do what we have done when we are so comfortable?); and, unsurprisingly, the defensive position of the fossil fuel industry, which has hefted its mighty bulk directly on top of anything that might derail profits as usual. Imagine the public response to a campaign by the munitions industry downplaying the effects of nuclear warfare; one assumes that most of us would be thunderstruck. We should be as horrified by an industry that uses “the atmosphere as an open sewer for the effluent of their product” and makes more money than any industry in the history of money. But apparently we’re not. Yet.

Fuzzy thought number three: corporations aren’t going away, nor should they. They (can/should) provide the infrastructure that local and sustainable economies need to thrive. The problem comes when mighty corporate bulk squishes the little guys flat, which is what usually happens. Governmental regulations meant to restrain the mighty corporate bulk often squish the little guys even flatter. (That’s about the most sophisticated economic observation I’m capable of producing, so I hope you enjoyed it.)

Fuzzy thoughts numbers four through six, which come from the very back of the bottom shelf: when faced with complex, apparently insoluble problems, my tendency is to go for a walk. Or pull out Band-Aids. Or make a big messy meal requiring lots of cleaning up. (Martin, as chief dishwasher, gets tired of this one.) But having spent the week reading Reinhold Niebuhr, one of the great Christian theologians of the twentieth century, and listening to Bill McKibben, I must sadly conclude that mine are inadequate responses. Writing with the stench of World War II still in the air, Niebuhr rebuked those Christians who had concluded that the only response to evil in the world was pacifism, trusting in power of human goodness to convert evil. Nor did he allow those who act against evil to trust fully in their own righteousness. Rather, he said, we need to be acutely aware that “political controversies are always conflicts between sinners and not between righteous men and sinners. [The Christian faith] ought to mitigate the self-righteousness which is an inevitable concomitant of all human conflict. The spirit of contrition is an important ingredient in the sense of justice.” As tempting as it is to preen, when we choose to fight the bully power of corporations, we need to be clear about our own implication in the tangled web of environmental injustice.

Add Niebuhr’s words to these: McKibben, a mild-mannered science writer, published a column titled “We’re hot as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore” on the website this week that immediately went viral. Furthermore, our mild-mannered hero writes specifically about the refusal of our political leaders even to consider climate legislation last week: “So what I want to say is: This is fucked up. The time has come to get mad, and then to get busy.” This from a Methodist Sunday School teacher!

The organization he started in 2008 with seven recent Middlebury College graduates——was a ragtag effort to organize a worldwide response to climate change. The results of that effort were astonishing. It turns out that the term “environmentalist” does not apply just to a bunch of over-educated, effete white Americans; in fact, the rest of the world—most of it brown, young, poor, and powerless—knows something we Americans still aren’t willing to confront: climate change, driven by fossil fuels, has crippled the regularity of the natural order we rely on for everything. Everything. Everything.

Through, we have an opportunity on October 10, 2010—10/10/10—to tell the powers that be that we’re hot as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore. We should still walk through our neighborhoods and chat with our neighbors. We should still introduce people to the profound pleasures of eating locally and according to the seasons. Acts like these will give us sustenance for the battle ahead, especially those of us who don’t feel much like fighters, who don’t want to crush anyone or anything, and most especially those of us who don’t want out clean out our refrigerators.

What we’re reading
Dan O’Brien, Buffalo for the Broken Heart: Restoring Life to a Black Hills Ranch
Martin: Warren St. John, Outcasts United: An American Town, a Refugee Team, and One Woman’s Quest to Make a Difference

This entry was posted in Nature and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Cleaning out the mental refrigerator: Niebuhr, McKibben, and Band-Aids

  1. Joybells says:

    Be careful when you clean out your refrigerator that you don't mistake something moldy for guacamole. This happened in our house, to someone I will not name (it was not MY mistake, thankfully.)

    I'm looking forward to watching the McKibben lecture. Thanks for the links, and for this blog, and for taking the time to clean out your refrigerator!

  2. Janet says:

    "political controversies are always conflicts between sinners and not between righteous men and sinners. [The Christian faith] ought to mitigate the self-righteousness which is an inevitable concomitant of all human conflict. The spirit of contrition is an important ingredient in the sense of justice." Wonderful, just wonderful! Humility is always the first casualty of conflict. Thank you for these terrific musings. I appreciate you reading and paraphrasing Neibuhr for me. I love him and have not had the chance to revisit his writings lately.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>