The Power of Community to Prevent Climate Catastrophe

Sermon to the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock

Thank you for this tremendous honor – I’m really grateful to Jim, Elaine, AnneMarie, the Green Sanctuary Committee for this opportunity.

Again, my name is Eric Weltman, and I’m a senior organizer with Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit environmental organization whose mission is to protect our most essential resources. I work from our office in Brooklyn.

I believe that climate change is the greatest threat facing humanity.

And I believe that our ability to prevent climate catastrophe hinges on our commitment to the institutions that are the bedrock of our society – in fact, that constitute much of society itself.

I’m referring to unions and political parties, churches and community organizations, libraries and public schools – and, perhaps first and foremost, government.

These institutions are the glue that bind us together. Enable us to pool resources. Collaborate. Share. Work towards and achieve common goals and advance mutual interests. And overcome the obstacles that stand in our way.

Historian Tony Judt has argued that our most important task may be reminding people of the essential role that government has played in keeping our society from collapsing.

For example, at the beginning of the Great Depression, Germany’s government, undermined by anti-social and authoritarian movements, was unable to accomplish things and lost credibility, contributing to the Nazi’s rise to power.

In the United States, in stark contrast, the government successfully put people to work, met social needs, built public infrastructure, and sustained faith in our shared purpose and identity. The New Deal strengthened our social solidarity and our democracy.

Of course, we live in a country where some people believe the solution to gun violence is more guns – and for each of us to own one.

That cowboy mentality – the frontier, go-it-alone, every man for himself, lift yourself up by your bootstraps myth – that cowboy mentalitymay be uniquely prevalent and powerful in the United States, but it’s present elsewhere.

Margaret Thatcher, the late British Prime Minister, once famously said, “There’s no such thing as society; there’s only individuals and families.”

And she set about to make that cynical sentiment a reality by attacking her nation’s unions, public transit and health systems.

It’s the atomization of our nation into competing individuals that we must resist as we build communities that nurture, support and sustain each other and enable us to strengthen our capacity to challenge the clout of the oil & gas industry.

Ultimately, we must leverage that people power into pressure on our government to use its resources and its authority to make a transition to 100 percent clean energy.

Of course, here in New York, it’s sadly easy to be scornful about government, with our elected officials getting arrested on a regular basis.

And, more fundamentally, the obscene amount of influence in politics wielded by wealthy individuals is absolutely poisonous to democracy.

I’m sort of reminded of a quote by another British prime minister, Winston Churchill: “Democracy is the worst form of government except for all those others that have been tried.”

But we must resist cynicism and, through our activism, make government more responsive to our interests, more active in fulfilling its obligations and much more bold in exercising its authority – because the fate of our planet is at stake.

Indeed, the Pope, in his recent encyclical, acknowledged that we cannot rely on free market solutions to prevent climate catastrophe, with his condemnation of pollution trading.

We need our elected officials to ban extreme methods of fossil fuel extraction, we need them to stop subsidizing and supporting dangerous forms of energy production, and we need them mandate a rapid transition to 100 percent safe energy.

And we need look no further than our own state for inspiration for how this can happen.

As you’re aware, we achieved a stunning, historic victory here in New York, winning a ban on fracking.

It was result of literally thousands of people who contributed their time, energy and money to the cause, bringing immense amount of pressure to bear on Governor Cuomo, who had the authority to decide whether or not to allow fracking in New York.

It was a vast – truly vast – coalition that enabled us to take on the oil & gas industry and win and this institution was an important part of it.

Shelter Rock has been literally a home for the anti-fracking movement on Long Island. Where we meet. Where we hold movie screenings, forum, vigils and other events and activities.

Shelter Rock has sustained, nurtured, and supported Food & Water Watch and our community in ways that words can barely express. And we are very grateful.

I’m a big believer in institutions and organizations.

Organizations are essential to accumulate, target and sustain the power needed to reform our energy system – which the threat of climate change so clearly necessitates.

I’d like to talk for a moment about my favorite civil rights leader: Ella Baker.

Baker’s civil rights work began with the NAACP starting in the early 1940s, but she was instrumental – key – in the formation of two of the great organizations of the 1960s, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.

When a young Martin Luther King was chosen to head the Montgomery bus boycott, he was picked by all the older ministers in town precisely because he was a newcomer and none of them wanted any other minister to be the leader.

After the boycott, King’s intention was return to his original plan of just being a minister.

It was Baker, along with Bayard Rustin, who helped persuade him to launch the Southern Christian Leadership Conference – and she helped run it.

And when the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was formed, there were only two adults – Baker and Howard Zinn, the historian – invited by the students to participate in the meeting that gave birth to the organization.

Baker nurtured leaders; Baker fostered community; Baker built organizations.

One of my favorite quotes is by Baker: “Martin didn’t make the movement; the movement made Martin.”

The point is: History isn’t made by famous individuals – it’s made by movements, the collective power of individuals, families, and communities, motivated and sustained by our shared values, shared goals, shared aspirations and shared interests.

And organizations are the means by which we organize, focus and direct that power, accumulate resources, and create a more permanent and growing base of power.

Shelter Rock – and so many other institutions like it across New York, the United States, the world – are a vital part of the web that binds us together, in our mutual and shared love and respect for life – for nature, ourselves, each other, all of creation – for our families, our community, our society.

In the weeks and months ahead, we have important opportunities to make progress in the struggle to prevent climate catastrophe. Stopping the Port Ambrose liquefied natural gas facility off of Long Beach. Encouraging New York State to divest from fossil fuels. Calling on world leaders to ban fracking and transition to renewable energy at the Paris climate change negotiations in December.

And, every step of the way, with every rally, movie screening and petition drive, we will be strengthening our community, and fulfilling our capacity to care for ourselves, nurture the best in humanity, and create a more loving, compassionate, and sustainable society.

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