By Holly Zadra, Special to the BDN
Bangor Daily News op-ed
On Thursday, Pope Francis released his encyclical on the environment, “our common home,” in hopes of effecting worldwide consciousness about climate change. “Laudato Si,” or “Praise Be to You,” calls for swift and dramatic action to curtail what the Vatican called “ecological sin.”
The pope’s words echo what mainstream scientists have been saying for decades about climate change caused by humans’ unprecedented burning of fossil fuels. Focusing on the need for wealthy, developed nations to make radical systemic change to their extractive economic and unjust social paradigms, the pope sent a powerful message upon which elected officials across the political spectrum have so far failed to act.
Though the pope’s message is critically important, he is not the first to lead on this issue. In Maine, institutions, leaders and laypeople alike have taken action into their own hands, both within and outside their faith communities, reviving the moral leadership for which religious organizations and educational and government institutions were once known. These organizations work toward systemic change that can liberate everyone — including the most vulnerable — instead of focusing on individual hypocrisy created by our shared dependence on fossil fuels. This systemic change begins with a shift in consciousness and spirituality among the wealthiest people and nations who have the ways and means to create policy and large-scale change.
Religious institutions across the state have embraced the Climate Action Plan, including more than 100 churches that participated in Maine Council of Churches projects to turn church suppers into local foods suppers. Methodist, Quaker, Lutheran and Unitarian Universalist congregations in Maine have installed solar panels, and the Midcoast Friends Meeting House recently installed an exterior charging station for electric cars. With help from Efficiency Maine, many faith-based organizations have greened their sanctuaries and individual homes with energy efficiency and weatherization measures.
Anne D. Burt of the Midcoast Maine Friends Meeting House and a member of the Maine Council of Churches believes such efforts create “a visible covenant with future generations by leading the way to a clean energy future.”
Following in the footsteps of Maine’s Unity College and College of the Atlantic, faith-based communities have divested from fossil fuels. Building upon an idea from 350.org. founder Bill McKibben that “if it’s wrong to wreck the planet, then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage,” the First Universalist Church of Pittsfield as well as the UU Society of Bangor and the Norway Universalist Church have sold investments they previously held in the fossil fuel industry. Representing nine denominations, the Maine Council of Churches has never invested in fossil fuels, and there are active divestment campaigns within other faith communities, colleges and institutions across Maine.
More than any individual action, the kind of change that Pope Francis calls for must come from a shift in shared consciousness. It comes down to what we want to invest in — both in the financial sense and in the spiritual one. What kinds of institutions — schools, companies, corporations, communities — do we want to see?
We need leaders of all kinds to guide us in the right direction by speaking unequivocally about our human responsibility to create systemic change that holds all life — human and nonhuman alike — dear. This means the pope and religious institutions, universities, cities, states and those responsible for creating policy in the United States and the world. Politicians and leaders unwilling to do their part for whatever reason — whether that be denial or because they are funded by corporations dependent upon the fossil fuel status quo or simply because it’s too hard — should become obsolete.
What we may find when we face this challenge is that we actually come home to ourselves — in the spiritual sense as well as the physical. Learning to depend upon and trust our neighbors again — the way Mainers lived when our rural communities were more stable — may fulfill us in ways that strip malls can’t. Taking steps toward a clean and just energy future can move us in that direction, one where we may no longer need to work so hard just to get away from it all and go someplace else. Instead, we may find we are happy to be exactly where we are.
Holly Zadra is a member of the First Universalist Church of Pittsfield and a confirmed Catholic who helped lead her church to divest its endowment of fossil fuels.