The Poetry of Climate Ethics (UU Sunday service)


On Sunday, April 6, 2014, I had the privilege of delivering a lay sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Monmouth County. The service brought together poetry, music, spiritual engagement, science and ethics, to talk about our mutual ethical responsibility. The sermon explores the global climate system as a web of life supports defined by patterns of reciprocal intention and impact.

We are part of a global ecology. What we do impacts the state of that global system of natural life support services. Our personal freedom depends on how well we do in honoring our responsibilities to that life-sustaining balance of forces.

Buckminster Fuller said that “The human brain is nature’s most powerful anti-entropy engine.” We have a choice to use our understanding to do better than the bare minimum, to shape a future that need not be defined by scarcity, conflict and the collapse of life-giving ecological and climate systems.

In discussion about humanity’s ability to achieve a sustainable future, I decided to build the text around the following insight:

Human beings—with our industry, our technology and our numbers—are enough of a force to affect the integrity of the interlocking web of life supports that makes the Earth friendly to human life. We have real options available to allow us to manage that responsibility intelligently, for the benefit of future humanity; why would we not do that?

We are not separate from the environment; we are the environment; the environment is in us, and what comes to us, through our ecological surroundings is the consequence of our choices. Environment is consequence, and we can choose stewardship and responsibility over selfish plunder. We are built to do better.

That is the spirit of the sermon titled “The Poetry of Climate Ethics”. The following is a complete transcript of my remarks, as delivered on April 6, in Lincroft, NJ:

The Poetry of Climate Ethics

Honoring the Web of Intention & Impacts that Gives Us Life


Love means learning to see yourself as one of many;
whoever sees this is healed of various ills.
—paraphrasing Czeslaw Milosz


We can’t always see the origins
of what happens to us
or of what we think we know

but we can feel the origins
working through our experience
reminding us that nothing is a test
and the word “reality” is superfluous
because nature contains no untruth

only we in our fear and trembling
only our humilities and vanishings
ringing like glass and chattering like
cattails standing guard against the ice

our mathematics
our incomplete romancing of history
the rhythm and delicacy of intellect making a plan
that will let the universe express order

Buckminster Fuller said: “The human brain is Nature’s most powerful anti-entropy engine.”

And though we doubt it, it is the most natural, shared and persistent dream of all human beings and of our cultural and scientific endeavors: that we can stave off unraveling and be strong precisely where we are most vulnerable. We strive to be better than accident. We say we search for meaning, but what we often mean is that we want to know if our preferred meaning will hold.

We want to know if what is here, now, close to us, will remain, reliably, as we understand it to be. We want to protect our intimate biases… and if we look closely enough, and with genuine attention, at whatever there is, regardless of what we intend, we see:

Nothing is nothing
everything is more than it seems
there is always a layering
a breadbasket convergence
of urgencies and of frictions
that sometimes act like harmony

there is a vibration
that feels like a yellow sun
inching up over evergreens

there are star-forming regions
inside thoughts and feelings
that spin out threadwork galaxies

beauties that require orchids
mountains and ocean waves
Mayan glyphs and blizzards
to announce their intention
never to be diminished or lost

and all of this is devotion
and all devotion is surrender
of a kind that feels like
a yellow sun inching up
over evergreens…


When I was 17 years old, I joined the Wilderness Awareness School, at CBA here in Lincroft.

We went to Thompson Park and learned how to track animals, how to see whether they were wounded, or hunting, or lost or getting ready to sleep. We learned how to survive with no shelter and no fire in the woods, in sub-freezing temperatures, in the snow.

In October 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus landing in the Americas, we went to Voorhees, New Jersey, where Lakota elders and the local Catholic congregation made amends for all that had happened. Side by side, they burned sage and frankincense and let the two sacred smokes waft together; they recognized each other’s humanity and pledged reciprocal care and honor.

We went into the woods, erected a communal tipi 18 feet across at the base and made camp.


We told stories by the fire—spiritual stories, about fear … and hunger … and awakening. The next day, we held a ceremony of reconciliation… “Inipi” was the Lakota word: sweat lodge. A small group of people gathered together in an igloo-shaped water-over-hot-rock steam-heated sauna made of branches, animal hides and cloth.

The heat allows you to pull back from the world of sensory inputs. You can focus on your spirit. But it wasn’t about solitary meditation. It was an opportunity to open up, to connect, to share and to be cleansed. The practice was to share our regrets—”sins” we wished we had not committed. To recognize our frailty. Then, to give thanks. To recognize the immense blessing that is being alive.

After, we walked. Each on our own. In the way Black Elk described using the Lakota word “wakan”… being, conscious, sacred, connected, to the Spirit that Moves through All Things. Wakan Tanka. To feel at the same time the joy and the weight of being… conscious… entwined in the sacred.


Later, we put our feet in a cold stream, touched the rocks, were asked to think about what Nature “meant” by doing/making/being all of this.

Feel what she is telling you.
Feel the cold of the water.
The season changing.

Feel the pressure, and the softness.
The direction, the decision,
and also the generosity.

The Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan writes:

A woman once described a friend of hers as being such a keen listener that even the trees leaned toward her as if they were speaking their innermost secrets into her listening ears. Over the years, I’ve envisioned that woman’s silence, a hearing full and open enough that the world told her its stories. The green leaves turned toward her, whispering tales of soft breezes and the murmurs of leaf against leaf.

To listen with such attention is to pray.

I could feel the changing of the season, the generosity of what was happening. Something more important than I had ever thought before. I came away from that experience with a sense that we owe each other everything, that we are provided for in ways we cannot comprehend, that we always have access to more truth than we admit to, that I should do something about this… to make living in tune with this gift a priority.


The philosopher and theologian Augustine of Hippo—the self-described sinner whose epiphany came first with the caveat “God, give me chastity, just not yet”, the sinner who became a saint… and whose philosophical inquiry laid the groundwork for much of what would be “discovered” 1,500 years later in the thrall of 20th century phenomenology—wrote in his treatise on free will that ‘the truth is fragrant’…

The truth lets us know it is there, that we are never without it. Even when we don’t yet “know” the truth, in descriptive detail, it draws us to it.

Scriptures say we are from dust; science tells us we are stardust. We have evidence. Our origins are both majestic and unfathomable. The iron in our red blood cells, and the oxygen they carry, and all of the other elements we are made of, alongside them, were made inside of stars.

We are beings among beings, and conscious…


I have had moments of deep, clear wonder, letting the ocean move around me in Loiza, swimming with surprisingly clean clumps of golden kelp, made playful by the movement of the waves off Culebra, feeling the ground turn to liquid for a brief moment, as tectonic plates shifted, under the South China Sea. The ocean moves in a way that contains traces of the rhythm of the Earth’s dance with the Moon, the tidal urging, the waning and relief.

Water. Memory. Poetry.

Sometimes, to recapture the wakan experience of Voorhees, the wisdom of the leaves of Thompson Park, the speech-defying complexity of life and beauty experienced in a rock-strewn river at the heart of El Yunque, a Puerto Rican rainforest that thrives because three major climate patterns reliably converge in that place… I feel like having a morning full of silence, and poetry.


The mind works differently
when it moves like water
through quiet enlivening memory and poetry

it is as if
at the right moment
in the right way
the strain of slipping
from day to day
through an ongoing series
of filament furrows fades

and all we have is mercy.

This web of intention, truth, fragrance, impact, this web of life-supports and systems moving in and out of collaborative order, this is the Earth’s climate system: a “cloud atlas” of untraceable convergences.


If we listen, if we surrender our armor, and commit, in genuine devotion, our capacity to know, to listening, as being… we can hear the resonance (the fragrance) of the truth: that we act hastily, we make unfair assumptions about each other, we uproot and tear down, and clear the land, and decide, if we can, where every drop of water should be directed. We take too much, too carelessly, of a wealth more ancient than our world, and that we don’t know how to create from scratch.

Everything is made of what already was.

The climate is vast, complex, unknowable, too big a ship to turn with just the force of my own fragile being, or yours.

“Now is not the time to take this on; now is not the time to act,” we say to ourselves. “It’s an election year. This weekend I am busy with picnics, tennis, a personal loss; this weekend, the discussion is about Crimea. Anyway, it’s an election year.”

The word ’emergency’ refers to a coming into view, the sudden requirement of awareness matched by a suddenly emerging awareness, the emergence of a consciousness that is able to deal with the scope and depth and urgency of a problem situation. Actionable intellectual clarity. And then… Cooperation. Because, in an emergency, it suddenly makes sense to cooperate with whomever else will or is able.

Still: “Now is not the time to take this on,” we say.

In politics, as in everything, we look for, wait for, hope for, the right moment. The moment when action is the thing, when the universe calls us to respond. The moment is never perfect, until it is. The perfect moment for my brother to propose to his girlfriend never existed, until he asked, and she accepted.

The moment of right action, of emerging into consciousness, of collaborative rescue, is never here, until we engage it.

In ethical philosophy, there is an admonition that we are “always already called”… we are summoned by the web of intention and impact of which we are part.

Mary Oliver writes, in her poem ‘On Traveling to Beautiful Places’:

Every day I’m still looking for God,
and I’m finding him everywhere,
in the dust, in the flowerbeds.
Certainly in the oceans,
in the islands that lay in the distance

continents of ice, countries of sand
each with its own set of creatures
and God, by whatever name.

How perfect to be aboard a ship with
maybe a hundred years still in my pocket.

But it’s late, for all of us,
and in truth the only ship there is
is the ship we are all on
burning the world as we go.


Marshall Saunders is the founder of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and a man I am proud to call a friend. Marshall has devoted himself for decades to making the world more just. In 25 years of fighting poverty, he initiated more than 1 million microcredit loans. He is one of the pioneers of microlending, and has helped to dignify the lives of millions of people. When he learned about the scope and the pace of ongoing climate change, he immediately recognized it would devastate, in ways far beyond the rescue potential of the work he had been doing, the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Knowing that opportunity limited is justice curtailed, he applied the same approach to climate policy that he had to fighting hunger and poverty: he committed to remain aware, to engage his conscience, to organize people in their communities to lobby government and to build the will and the capacity for meaningful action.

Marshall has given a great gift to the world, by creating a platform for people of conscience to directly influence the course of public policy with regard to an emergency in which we are all involved. He understands that the climate is a way of looking at the biosphere, and that through the complex web of interactions we call the biosphere, everything an organism does is consequence for life itself.


The climate is our living space, the fabric of natural life supports and energy transfers on which all our economic activity depends. Life exists not only in, but AS, and as A RESULT OF, interconnected webs of ecological complexity… In other words, all life exists because all other life exists. We are connected.


Anything we put into the world, any chemical compound, any thermodynamic energy, can find its way not only into our surroundings, but into our bodies, into our cells. Petrochemical compounds from oil spills show up at the cellular level in vulnerable crab and plankton species born many generations after the spill.

Acidification and oxygen depletion in the oceans means diatoms, microscopic organisms that produce 20% of all breathable oxygen on Earth, have a harder time making the opal skeleton that allows them to thrive. Rain carries chemical effluents than have run down the Mississippi into the Gulf of Mexico back over land, so they wind up inside plants and animals we call food and in the water we drink.

That is ECOLOGY, from the Greek: oikos-logia… The study of our dwelling place. It is a way of talking about life-support systems inherent in Nature’s way of being / making / doing…

Securing a climate that is healthy for sustaining life, democracy and prosperity, is an ethical / moral / spiritual project that involves—whether we like it or not—all people everywhere.

We all matter.

All of us are long-term ecological agents; all of us are designing and enacting the future.

We ARE stewards. Each of us, at our best, is an instrument of healing. If you pay attention, you can get a whiff of that fragrance of the ethical truth: that by virtue of our existence, we are “always already called” to ethical entanglement.

Human beings (with our industry, our technology and our numbers) are enough of a force to affect the integrity of the interlocking web of life supports that makes the Earth friendly to human life. We have real options available to allow us to manage that responsibility intelligently, for the benefit of future humanity… Why would we not do that?

We are responsible. We cannot escape that.

Unsustainable behavior leads to cherished conditions coming to an end. Sustainable behavior leads to cherished conditions continuing to exist and to thrive, sustainably, into the future.

This is why many Native American cultures set the ethical consideration at least 7 generations into the future. If we don’t leave a world healthy enough, productive enough and ecologically vibrant enough to support human life in a dignified way, at least 7 generations into the future, then how could we say we answered the call that is inherent in our being?

What we do and how we do it, together as a planetary force, is ethics. Citizenship, therefore, is ethics in action.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote, in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, that unless women were fully equal to men, able to enjoy the freedom to express not the narrowly construed “feminine virtues” of her time and context (which she described as means of fashionable deception) but true universal virtues (like honesty, courage, reason and service), then all of that society in which so many were so limited, the wealthiest and most influential of systematically privileged men included, would be relegated to living in a well-dressed and talkative, but still primitive state.

Everyone would be less free. Less whole. Less morally vibrant.

She said that without the right to full education, to genuine experience, and the ability to be true and virtuous by CHOOSING against temptation, women could not be fully who they are, could not fully express their character, and so society would be full of dishonesty, distortion and degradation.

To be citizens means we are moral actors.

We cannot be moral actors only for our own interest. We cannot be moral actors only insofar as we uphold our own biases. We cannot be moral actors who rule out service to the whole web of humanity and of life. We cannot be moral actors and say “only this smoke is sacred” or “only my wishes matter”. We cannot afford to disengage.

Citizenship is ethics. It is how we can best express, organize and effect, our ethical agency in this world.

if the task is to dwell
in the way the world wants
and nothing is going to be
all things always
or always stark as we would like

if the music fades
only when something else
lives more vibrantly
and vibrancy is nourishment
and the riches we hear about

are just clever stories
(about want and need)
wanting homes

we can make a world
that breathes illumination
and gives scent and warmth
to the cold mornings of winter
and harbors spring and offers
new life that seems to fall
upward into the mix of plenties

we can rescue consequence
from inconsequence
and be assured
there was spirit in all of it

spirit in the fog and squall
and in the times of rest and dawning

beginning to begin
as if all moments had weight
and the best way of being
were already in us waiting
to summon goodnesses shared

and subtle anointings
like birdsong and moonlight and

eyes that look with care and quiet

beginning to begin is possible
and everything else we hope
or desire or will make or do
flows from there

Marianne Williamson writes, in A Return to Love:

our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure … We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you NOT to be? Your playing small doesn’t serve the world. We are all meant to shine, as children do… And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we’re liberated from our own fear, our presence liberates others.

We are already making the future,
filling it with our intentions,
and the force of our awareness…

We have the power to get it right.

Returning to the poet Czeslaw Milosz:

Love means to learn to look at yourself
The way one looks at distant things
For you are only one thing among many.
And whoever sees that way heals his heart,
Without knowing it, from various ills…
A bird and a tree say to him: Friend.


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