Members of the ASC Book Group will be reporting on our summer book by Bill McKibben. It is subtitled Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? Why does McKibben call it a game? How can we be actively engaged? Christina Gibbons, Linda Hay, Peter Gibbons, and Bob Wyckoff will respond to McKibben’s alarms about the lack of control over climate change and artificial intelligence. Uplifting readings and music will round out the service.
ASC Board Greeting
Prelude Ashokan Farewell Jay Unger
Peter Gibbons, viola
The central task of the religious community is to unveil the bonds that bind each to all. There is a connectedness, a relationship discovered among the particulars of the our own lives and the lives of others. One felt, it inspires us to act for justice.
It is the church that assures us that we are not struggling for justice on our own, but as members of a larger community. The religious community is essential, for alone our vision is too narrow to see all that must be seen, and our strength too limited to do all that must be done. Together our vision widens and our strength is renewed.
Opening Hymn # 148 Let Freedom Span Both East and West
Introduction Christina Gibbon
The Church book group spent four summer meetings on Bill McKibben’s newest book, entitled Falter. The subtitle gives you a sense of the gravity of his reporting: it’s called “Has the human game begun to play itself out?” McKibben lives in Ripton, VT and teaches at Middlebury College. He has been writing about climate change for 30 years. Ten years ago, he helped to found 350.org, a grass roots organization which hoped to influence public policy in a way that kept carbon dioxide particles in the atmosphere from exceeding 350 parts per million. In Falter, he admits they have failed; carbon particles now exceed more than 400 parts per million and are still rising. More heat is being trapped on the earth’s surface, changing the climate and deep geology of the planet.
Falter tells the stories of how fossil fuel companies ignored their own scientists in continuing to extract and sell the products that are largely responsible for this result. McKibben is troubled by the lack of regulation that allowed this to happen. And his concern extends to the rapidly growing and unregulated industries of artificial intelligence and genetic experimentation.
He doesn’t use the word “game” lightly in describing the vastness of human endeavor. Rather he means to invoke the sense of community, working together, give and take, rule making and rule breaking, history, culture – all the things that make our human life and give it meaning. We are responsible for changing our planet rapidly. He wonders if and how we will survive.
When I was first considering this book as a choice for our reading group, I was alarmed by the uncomfortable information that McKibben presents. I felt a lot of resistance, even as I recognized information that I had been reading article by article in the New York Times. I wanted it not to be all true. But here is was, in one place, vividly reported. I noticed that when our group – about a dozen people – read and discussed the chapters together, I was able to accept most of what I was reading. There was something about being together that made the truth more bearable, at least for me. I felt a little more courageous in thinking about what actions I could take. I realized how important it is to share in community, just as we are doing this morning.
Several volunteers from our reading group will be reporting in more detail on McKibben’s observations. You will see that even though he is deeply concerned, he avoids despair and chooses instead to live in a state of engagement. Otherwise, he writes, he would not have bothered to write this book. We hope by being together you too will gain some insights and feel the courage it takes to be engaged.
We have a lot to report this morning. We hope you will be patient if we run over a little bit in time. And we hope you will continue the conversations during coffee hour. We’d like to hear from you.
Story for All Ages
Hymn #331 Life Is the Greatest Gift of All
McKibben Part 1 Linda Hay
We are Unitarian Universalists. Turn in your hymnal to the 7 principals for a reminder of what that means. We have covenanted to carry out those principles, they provide a guide for decision making and actions.
I was the one who suggested we read this book, Falter, as I knew I would be reading it anyway.
I wanted to to consolidate my knowledge of just how bad things had gotten. Yes, I read the Guardian newspaper daily for a world view, and the New York Times, and listen to VPR but I needed a coherent summing up.
The first 80 pages of the book provides that information.
The root of the problem is the burning of fossil fuels and the way carbon from the process traps heat in our atmosphere. The greenhouse effect has been growing worse for more than 100 years.
The heat causes more than the melting of the ice in the Arctic and Antarctic, the plight of wildlife, rising sea levels, killer storms wiping out coastal areas and parts of cities, worldwide flooding, drought, and wildfires burning oxygen producing forests.
Climate change also lies behind the wars and violence forcing people from their homes in Syria, Central America, Africa, and Asia. When you can not grow enough food or find work, order disintegrates. Climate change has produced the refugee crisis. IS there a principle among the seven which approves of any of this, be it the death of polar bears or children ripped from their parents?
The book goes on to explain that heat is also a threat to the food supply, for staple grain crops such as corn can not grow at high temperatures. With corn the heat prevents fertilization, meaning no kernels. Wheat harvests across the world are dropping too, as is rice. Pollen has lost some of its protein content, another threat to the pollinators. Raising animals for food creates more methane and carbon dioxide and plant based diets are better, even if growing plants becomes more difficult. We also know warming ocean water can kill plankton, a major source of oxygen, and the basis of the entire marine food chain.
It is not just what is happening to the land, the ocean, and the food supply. Constant temperatures over 95 degrees combined with humidity of 95 % kills humans out right. For those who grow the crops, especially those working in the tropics, in Bangladesh and Indonesia, Central and South America, if drought and flooding don’t ruin your crop, the heat you work in can kill you.
Heat in cities is already killing the young, old, and sick. But even the seemingly well may not be so for long.
McKibben tells of an extended middle class family squeezed into one room in Cairo, the one room they can afford to air condition, where they cook and sleep, read and interact, while the temperature outdoors, over 100 degrees, keeps people away from work, shops are closed, the pavement empty, taxi drivers off the road. How long can they survive?
In North African oil refineries workers quit and flee when the combination of toxics in the air and extreme heat spell death. How many other industries and businesses will crumble under the assault of heat? How can one expect the world we know today to continue?
As Unitarian Universalists, we can not ignore the many sorts of suffering climate change has already spawned, and even if we did not covenant to respect human lives and the planet Earth, we are called upon to act.
McKibben reminds us that there is a slim chance that it is not too late. That in the past people “banned the bomb” and reclaimed river waters from pollution, stopped the slaughter of whales, and did away with Jim Crow. But all those changes took commitment and action on the part of ordinary people and even those changes are under attack. So it appears it is time to resist in a much larger way than we have done since the American Revolution.
The main culprit is fossil fuels. Heat and all the poisons humans have created have pushed us to the brink. And worse than that, there is the wealth fossil fuels and the economy they spawned has produced. The fossil fuel industry has stopped the move to take steps against climate change. It paid the climate skeptics and the politicians who have echoed their lies. As McKibben put it “There should be a word for when you commit treason against an entire planet.” He goes on “I’ve lived the last thirty years inside (a) lie, engaged in a debate in which both sides knew the answer from the beginning. It’s just that one side was willing to lie.”
That is how the first 80 pages end.
But an addendum is needed. On Thursday Bernie issued his climate crisis proposal. McKibben is his advisor. I recognize his voice in god text. The proposal is 48 pages, every one full of meat. It lays out what can be done and how much it will cost, and how to pay those costs, partly by punishing those planet killing traitors. If you care about the Climate Crisis and preventing the extinction of life as we know it, read the proposal. Think about the Seven Principles and then act as your conscience dictates, and remember that being steady can win a race, as it did for the tortoise.
McKibben Part 2 Robert Wyckoff
Poem by Cecily Taylor (1930-2018)
Our World Is One World
Our world is one world: what touches us affects us all: the seas that wash us round about,
the clouds that cover us,
the rains that fall.
Our world is one world: the thoughts we think affect us all: the way we build our attitudes,
with love or hate,
we make a bridge or wall.
Our world is one world: its ways of wealth affect us all: the way we spend,
the way we share,
we are the rich or poor, who stand or fall?
Our world is one world: just like a ship that bears us all: where fear and greed make many holes,
but where our hearts
can hear a different call.
McKibben titles Part 2 of his book “Leverage”. By leverage he means the power acquired by humankind in the last century to affect the world catastrophically. He names some of the forces which have brought us to this critical point in human history; global oil corporations like Shell who have intentionally suppressed scientific evidence of climate change for nearly forty years, and wealthy individuals whose foundations have furthered these corporate efforts. And he singles out a 20th century writer whose work is held in high esteem by people who run these foundations and corporations, and who hold public office. We have not come to this crisis accidentally. There is a distinctly articulated world view behind this which has been actively at work for the last sixty years and continues today.
Some years ago Congressman Paul Ryan said that he required people who worked for him to read “Atlas Shrugged”. As a teenager I read it and then forgot about it for forty years. McKibben finds it to be a common thread behind denial of climate change and efforts to block action to deal with it. Though she styles herself a philosopher, Ayn Rand never presents any systematic basis for her moral and ethical views, which she labels Objectivism. These are all delivered by characters in her several novels. The ideology of extreme individualism set out in these fictional monologues dismisses vast parts of humanity with contemptuous epithets like “parasites” and “second-handers”. It denies even the very notion of human connection in community. These values are critically affecting the future of the human community today.
I let me close by reading two statements from Ayn Rand that I feel directly contradict Unitarian-Universalist Principles.
The first is spoken by the character Howard Roark in “The Fountainhead”
“The creator’s concern is the conquest of nature … the parasite’s concern is the conquest of men.”
Two concepts stand out here: the division of humankind into two categories, “creators” and “parasites” and “the conquest of nature”.
Mitt Romney summed this one up during his 2012 campaign:
“There are 47 percent of the people … who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled … My job is not to worry about those people.”
Contrast this with:1st Principle: We affirm the Inherent Worth and Dignity of Every Person.
No person or people should be labeled “parasite”.
7th Principle: We affirm our Respect for the Interdependent Web of All Existence of Which We Are a Part.
Nature is not something to be conquered.
The second statement of Ayn Rand’s is spoken by the character John Galt in “Atlas Shrugged”
“Second-handers have no sense of reality. Their reality is not within them, but somewhere in that space which divides one human body from another. Not an entity, but a relation – anchored in nothing.”
In other words, human relations are not real, they are “anchored in nothing” and of no importance.
Margaret Thatcher would restate this in 1987 as “you know, there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.”
6th Principle: We affirm the Goal of World Community with Peace, Liberty, and Justice for All.
The World Community is real, not “anchored in nothing.”
And I will leave it there.
McKibben Part 3 Peter Gibbons and Howard Burrows
Basic to the immune systems of all living creatures, from bacteria to humans is the ability to recognize foreign agents on the attack. At the cellular level this is done when an invading organism, say a virus like measles shows up and begins doing damage, we mount and exuberant defense with enzymes and antibodies to destroy the offending organism hopefully before it destroys us. Special enzymes will cut up the virus and incorporate small portions of it into our own stem cell DNA so that it will recognize all future invasions of the measles virus and attack it before it even gets a foothold. It’s like storing a mug shot for future reference. Unfortunately, while the process is pretty much unerring for diseases like measles, it doesn’t work so well for others such as DNA mutations causing cancers. The cancer cells which do survive an immune response have a way of disguising themselves (like bank robbers with ski masks) so that they may not be recognized.
However targeted immunotherapy is new and rapidly growing science using a technique called CRISPR. It takes a patient’s own cancer cells, dices them up and then insert certain small snippets of tumor DNA into the patients own stem cells, allowing them to recognize the face, of the tumor cells, stripping them of their ski masks so to speak. Unlike conventional radiation therapy and chemotherapy, which destroys some normal cells along with the more hopefully more sensitive tumor cells, the altered DNA stem cells attack only the recognized tumor cells. So far this works in a large percentage of leukemias which have failed the usual therapies. And since the vigilant cells replicate with the new DNA in place, it seems to be on the watch for any recurrences in the future. It hasn’t yet been as successful in other tumor types, but the technique shows great promise. It seems like this CRISPR technology is also be used for DNA editing for a number of other genetic diseases, including sickle cell anemia, muscular dystrophy and cystic fibrosis. Arguably this technique will prove to be a tremendous advance in medicine.
However, using this new power to correct a defect in the DNA in an existing person is far different than the next iteration of this process: to change the DNA of an embryo; that would lead to all future generations of this embryo to inherit whatever traits the changed DNA would offer. Think guaranteed Ivy League acceptance, or musical or mathematical genius. How much would you be willing to spend to offer your anticipated child the best possible start in life? And when we find the collection of genes responsible for aging; a tweak here and there in the old DNA, a boatload of cash, and maybe one could buy a lifespan of a few hundred years. This may seem absurd to us now, but there are some Master of the Universe types already thinking along just those lines. I think McKibben’s point is that we all need, for a change, to start thinking about the ethics of all this before the consequences arrive and overwhelm us.
Bill McKibben’s book is about the faltering of the human species.
When I first read it, I thought it was the most important book of the year
Just to review, Part I concerns the scale and size of human impact on our planet — climate change is likely to have reached the stage of a terminal disease that will end the “living” nature of Earth itself; Earth will go the way of every other planet, like lifeless Mars or our moon.
Part II discusses the leverage we would now have, if we so choose, to meet the challenge from the climate by applying our wonderful capacity for creativity and technical advances.
In Part III, McKibben presents his startling awakening to the realization that a new, possibly more serious crisis is emerging — and it arises just because of this “wonderful” human ingenuity. Pandora’s box. Our faltering stems now from the likelihood that with our new technologies we will lose our very humanity: our powerful advances present a challenge to the very act of human “being”.
Scientific and technical “progress” are already challenging our values in new ways — ways that will require a reboot to our moral compass and sense of worth. Until now, finding a job and supporting your family has been sufficient to feel good about yourself. Raising a family included suppressing the playful, expansive intellect of your children, so they in turn would submit to the “job” treadmill. If you have managed to fit into society’s corporate culture, you could die confident that you had led a successful life.
This is no longer true!
Marvelous robots and “artificial” intelligence already surpass human abilities — even likely in the next few years to the point of developing moods and quirks, feelings and empathy. And they will all most certainly do this better than humans…
In the very near future, humans will not need to “work” to maintain a healthy family. Humility will replace competitive, meritorious bread-winning. We already no longer “understand” or control our machines. We now need to develop new ways to “listen” to what they have to say.
We are again sophomores: sophisticated enough to really screw it up. Right now, we can still have a small influence on the values of the machines we build, but not for long.
What are our REAL values, beyond work and raising workers? Climate is rapidly displacing current civilizations: immigration and emigration are becoming the norm. We are returning to nomad existence. What values will change us from “me now” to “us then”?
McKibben Part 4 Christina Gibbons
McKibben reports on two important technologies to combat climate change. One is alternative sources of energy – solar, wind, and lithium batteries. He gives some inspiring examples of places where one or more of these alternatives have been successful in reducing the use of fossil fuels. Here in Southern Vermont, Green Mountain Power has actively encouraged solar panels and e bikes. But in many other states, power companies block the use of alternatives in whatever way they can to protect their own profits.
The second technology is actually human resistance in the form of civil disobedience and non violent movements. McKibben reminds us that Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King headed mass movements that actually changed the zeitgeist. Sometimes it has proven true that “the active many can overcome the ruthless few.”
Admittedly our climate is already severely compromised. But what if a movement became large enough to change our current direction? It has happened before,. McKibben reminds us that Americans had resisted entry into World War II, but after Pearl Harbor, suddenly mobilized at lightning speed to fight a war and win. What would it take, he wonders, for Americans to more whole heartedly face the threats of climate change and uncontrolled growth?
McKibben ends Falter with a reverie on the changes he would like to see in our zeitgeist. What if, instead of continually needing to grow, we focused on the idea of maturing? What if we sought balance and scale in our endeavors? In order to keep dystopia at bay he believes we need to slow down. He ends by reminding us that “humans alone among creatures can decide to set limits on themselves.” We need to remember that “the human game is a team sport” – we all need to think about the greater good and work together to survive.
Silent Reflection: Be the change you want to see in the world.
I would like to invite you now into a few moments of silent reflection. If you are comfortable, you may close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Ask yourself how you are feeling about what you have heard this morning and how you may react. Ask yourself in what smaller or larger ways you can Be the change you want to see in the world.
Offertory Goldberg Variation no. 18 J.S. Bach
Closing Hymn # 134 Our World is One World
Extinguishing the chalice
I am only one
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
Closing Circle Carry the Flame (x2)
Hold on to what is good
even if it is a handful of earth.
Hold on to what you believe
even if it is a tree that stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must to
even if it is a long way from here.
Hold on to my hand
even when I have gone away from you.