Op/Ed

Climate Matters: The shifting shoreline of what we think we know

REV. BARNABY FEDER

29th in a series

Dr. Catherine Keller, a feminist theologian working at the intersection of religion and science, once taught a workshop I attended, “It might be the very assumption you know something that blocks you from really knowing, but it might be that there is something unknowable mixed in.”

Dr. Keller advocated for agnotology — the study of intentionally-created ignorance. She asked us to learn what we could about how we don’t know what we don’t know. And she made sure her seminary students knew the physicist John Wheeler’s teaching that, “As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shoreline of our ignorance.”

None of my Keller notes speak of climate change observations, but they strike me as relevant wisdom to keep close at hand. They help me address my frequent feelings of futility. I have a commitment to accept those feelings in myself and others as rational. At the same time, I don’t want to ever be someone who uses futility as an excuse to give up the elements of the climate change struggle that may help bend the universe toward justice and compassion for humans and all other beings. 

For example, I worked in the failed effort to stop the Vermont Gas pipeline from being extended southward from Burlington to Middlebury and beyond. Thanks to a combination of economics and the organizing power of well-off opponents in western Addison County, the utility’s long-range plans to extend the pipeline to Ticonderoga and Rutland were scuttled, at least temporarily, but it got most of what it wanted. 

This, in my view, was a climate change defeat. Not because there was no plausible green argument for the pipeline. It was a defeat because the utility got away with arguing that there was a very long-term public need for gas as a “cleaner” and “greener” energy. In fact, the deal was structured to reward energy investors and landowners whose property it crossed in traditional ways as if there was no such thing as a climate change crisis bearing down on us. It will slow our shift to renewable resources. We missed an opportunity to act as if we truly understood that burning more fossil fuels needs to be regarded as a last resort, with all pipeline profits allocated to reducing future demand for such gas. 

Nevertheless, as a minister preaching that we share in a Spirit of Life-Giving Love, I never felt that the futility of getting arrested opposing the pipeline was the whole story. “What happened” is no more than the prelude to “What now?” if we strive to hold tight to the disciplines of love. 

An honest accounting of the decades since we became aware of the likely impacts of climate change should honor our progress in grasping the challenges. But we must concede that the progress has been overwhelmed by delays in our responses and countless defeats. Some of the problem is related to too many people not knowing what is happening because they are holding on to more convenient truths and misinformation. Some of it is related to the global environment being so complex that we have to be humble about what is actually knowable. 

We who style ourselves as advocates for addressing climate change are also among the misinformed — often, there’s a gaping hole in our information about what those reluctant to act know. And we can be naive about our claims that we can address climate change without further oppressing the world’s most vulnerable populations, at home and abroad.

But “known” and “unknown” are binary categories. In truth, we live in a messy threshold between them. We know enough for each of us to do more in many ways, all of the time. We know enough to be more thoughtful and honest about what is holding us back, as Ollie Cultrara was in her recent contribution to this column. 

We also know — or should know — that any good we do as individuals will be inconsequential to life’s future on Earth if big business and big government don’t move much more aggressively to combat climate change. Our individual shortcomings won’t be inconsequential, though, in writing the story of a future in which the big actors can and must shift course. We have a role to play.

Our ability to tell powerful stories is at the root of all religions. Religions repeatedly address the mysteries that mean the most to us as individuals and participants in the interconnected web of all existence. We can bless or harm Life’s future on Earth. You will find folks like the Interfaith Climate Action Network and other faith-based groups working on how we can address climate change at the shifting shoreline where what is unknowable is mixed in with what we know.

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Rev. Barnaby Feder, minister at the Champlain Valley Unitarian Universalist Society, is a co-leader of the Addison County Interfaith Climate Action Network (ICAN).

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