The Future of Mother Earth: “The” Issue of the 21st Century
by Maureen Fiedler, SL
Good afternoon… I’m delighted to address this jubilee gathering, looking to the future of Loretto… future I believe can be, and will be, bright!
200 years… quite a milestone. Many people are saying to us… may you have 200 more! I want that to come to pass. But I’m here to add a serious caveat. To have that next 200 years… we must do something drastic, even revolutionary,about our relationship to Mother Earth. The signs of the times are calling us to work tirelessly to stem the tide of climate change and create a planet beneficial to all. This is what the saintly Thomas Berry called the “Great Work” of our age.
This work will require interfaith collaboration… with Jewish leaders who call for “repair of the earth,” with groups like the “Green Muslims” and earth-conscious Buddhists like the great Dalai Lama himself. It includes mainstream Protestants and evangelicals and even scientifically attuned atheists and humanists. Even the Vatican is on board.
We in Loretto have a strong and powerful history as teachers and pioneers – as DorieKincaide so aptly described our tradition. So I am confident that Loretto can make important, even decisive, contributions to this “Great Work” in the next several decades.
Dorieemphasized evolutionary spirituality, an essential foundation for this work. But that spirituality must bear fruit in works of education, action and advocacy. So I am going to talk about climate science, politics and concrete solutions Loretto can offer to our world.
Let’s begin by looking at Mother Earth today. I’m sure that many of you are familiar with the basics of climate change, and many of you, no doubt, saw Al Gore’s landmark movie about it, “An Inconvenient Truth.” But I don’t want to assume that everyone here is familiar with climate science… so let me quickly run through the basics.
I begin with a basic observation: climate change is real and human activity is the major cause. Many of you would say, “of course.” But there are those – including, sadly, some political candidates – who deny its reality or cast doubts on its validity. And the polls show they are having an influence with an increasingly skeptical public.
So… let me say as emphatically as I know how: The scientific predictions about climate change are based on a consensus among leading scientists at a global level. This is not a fantasy of the left fringe. It comes from the collective work of the international scientific community – a community now deeply concerned that its warnings are not being heard clearly and acted upon with fitting haste.
Let me also be blunt about the root of theeffort to convince the public that climate change is a hoax. It is well funded by carbon-based industries – oil and gas companies especially – who will lose economically as we move away from carbon-based fuels –the basic source of the problem –toward renewable energy. Money flows freely from these industries into the pockets of politicians who are willing the spout the same line.
The most reputable source for climate change information is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which has been issuing reports for 22 years.
Now, what will happen as climate changes? First, the average temperature of earth’s atmosphere, and the oceans, will increase – and already is increasing –at an alarming rate not evident in previous centuries. The resulting melting of snow ice and glaciers is already causing a rise in sea levels. Think of thosedesperate polar bears with cubs on small pieces of ice that were once part of large ice masses. Small island chains, like the Maldives, areeven now beginning to see their lands disappear as the ocean engulfs them.
And this is not all. Between 20 to 30 percent of all plant and animal species are likely to go extinct if the global average temperature increase exceeds 2.5 degrees Celsius. We will experience increasingly erratic weather patterns with tropical cyclones in some areas and severe drought in others. And predictions for the future make today’s hurricanes and tornadoes look tame.
Now, reputable climate scientists will tell you that we cannot definitively link any one weather event to global warming. Some would have happened anyway. It’s the patterns, frequency and ferocity of these events that will change in the next century.
But climate change is not just an ecological concern; it is a poverty issue. Unchecked rising oceans will, by the end of this century,flood low-lying areas. Many are places where the poorest of the poor live,like the river valleys and deltas of Asia – places like India, Bangladesh and the Yangtze Valley of China. Millions of poor people will become “climate refugees,” seeking new homes in an already overcrowded world. The potential for war will increase as some countries try to prevent climate refugees from crossing their borders.
This is likewise a problem of the Northern Hemisphere. Think about the Netherlands, New Orleans,the Florida keys, New York and Long Island. Unless we take action, these could be gone – literally.
And Africa – already the poorest continent on earth – could be deeply affected by drought. I’m quoting here: “…In Africa, by 2020, between 75 and 250 million of people are projected to be exposed toincreased water stress due to climate change. …yields from rain-fed agriculture could be reduced by up to 50%. Agricultural production and access to food, in many African countries are projected to be severely compromised.” In other words: massive famine.
Now, why is this happening? The answer: human activity. The Union of Concerned Scientists explains it this way: Think of a blanket, covering the earth.When carbon dioxide, methane and other heat-trapping emissions - commonly called “greenhouse gases” – are released into the air, they act like a blanket, holding heat in our atmosphere and warming the planet. We need some, but we have way too much, and that blanket is getting thicker and heavier.
These gases are, of course, generated with industrialization, whenwe drive cars, generate electricity, and operate our homes and businesses – when we use carbon-based fuels like coal, oil and gas.
Another major factor is tropical deforestation. When forests are burned, they release huge amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and when forests no longer exist, they are no longer available to absorb carbon dioxide as they normally do.
What to do? There are many steps we can take as individuals. You know most of these: drive efficient cars, use public transportation, switch to compact florescent light bulbs, look for the “energy star” label when purchasing appliances. We can – as I did last year – have an energy audit at home to determine how to better insulate it …and then do it. I did it in our community house in Maryland, and it’s not only more energy efficient, it saves significant dollars in heating and cooling bills. And if by any chance somewhere we are still burning coal, we need to switch to renewable energy soon. Coal is, as you may know, among the worst of the carbon-based fuels.
But individual action is not enough. Systemic change requires systemic action. We all need to follow the latest legislation – good and bad –that affects the emission of greenhouse gases. And we need to let our Members of Congress know where we stand… consistently and often. We also need to join the civil rights movement for Mother Earth. Sometimes, that will mean demonstrating publicly, and even using nonviolent civil disobedience as was done recently, and effectively, in opposing the Keystone Oil Pipeline.
Loretto’s Role at the Frontiers of Climate Recovery
I believe that Loretto has a special leadership role in the recovery of our planet. We are, as Dorie reminded us, both teachers and pioneers.
As teachers, we need to be active in countering the climate myths, and in spreading the facts about climate change. But most education these days is not done in the classroom. It is done on mass media, on the Internet, by e-mail and social media. And it is done by example. The best educational enterprise on climate that we have right now is that magnificent array of solar panels near our center in Denver. And the best educational enterprise at the Motherhouse recently has been the planting of those 15,000 trees.
I like Dorie’s idea for a center located here at the heart of our founding… in the midst of magnificent nature… to promote a spirituality to undergird this work. But this has to be an activespirituality, a seedbed for advocacy and action. And it needs to embrace an interfaith dimension.
Most important of all… this is the key to Loretto’s future. A lot of us lament the fact that very few young people are entering. But young people are attracted by our values... and at least the conscious ones… are deeply concerned about climate change. They know a ruined planet could be their future, and they know they must act. So let us think about attracting young people to join in a Loretto effort that has a firm spiritual foundation, but is also active in multiple ways, shaping a new future for our planet.
This is not a pipedream. I have seen what I believe is one sign of Loretto’s future in the last two years in Washington, DC. Each year, five Loretto volunteers have been living together in ways that make me think about Mary Rhodes and Ann Havern and Christina Stuart. They live simply and ecologically. They talk excitedly about “Loretto values” and they care about what they do. This volunteer program is vibrant and alive… expanding our energy and our mission at a time when some of us can no longer work an 8-hour day.
So I ask: How can we expand this work to embrace the future of Mother Earth? Environmental Volunteers perhaps? New forms of membership?The involvement of vowed and co-members in special ways?
And of course, Loretto has a tradition of public advocacy. Our sisters marched in the civil rights movement, protested the Vietnam War and the conflicts in Central America,or stood for the Equal Rights Amendment – to name but a few causes. Today, we are justly proud of that heritage. The cause of Planet Earth will require the same fortitude… It will require resurrecting our Loretto tradition of public advocacy and civil disobedience. The forces arrayed against the Planet are formidable. ButLorettois also formidable.
I believe we can… indeed we must… become leaders in this movement. If we are successful, just imagine what it will be like to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Loretto on a renewed planet!
- Where is "climate change" on my personal radar? Is it important in my list of issues on which to take action? Why or why not?
2.How can Loretto as a community become a “pioneer” in saving our planet from the ravages of climate change? What creative and concrete steps can we take?