THE BLOG
08/02/2013 01:15 pm ET | Updated Oct 02, 2013

Why Is the 'Tinderbox West' the New Normal?

I am beginning this letter with a dire and dismal question. But I promise, part-way through I will turn toward alternatives and active hope.

In Arizona a few weeks ago, 19 highly skilled firefighters were killed by a fire in what the New York Times called "Deadly New Normal: A Tinderbox West." It was the largest number of firefighters killed in a single day since the terrorist attack on 9/11.

WHY is a tinderbox West the "new normal"? WHY does the NY Times report that -
  • June 30, 2013 -- "An unforgiving heat wave held much of the West in a sweltering embrace over the weekend, tying or breaking temperature records in several cities, grounding flights, sparking forest fires and contributing to deaths. ... Temperature records were tied or broken in several cities. ... At least seven migrants had been found dead in the desert over the past week."
  • June 10, 2013 - "Drought and other factors have created historically low-water marks for nation's Great Lakes, putting34 billion shipping industry in peril; situation could send ripples through United States economy."
  • June 10, 2013 - "Torrential rains have overwhelmed vast stretches of the country, including much of the farm belt; deluge has followed on heels of one of worst droughts in American history, and farmers face the fear that their crops will not make it.
The chances are increasing that this is not all coincidence or bad luck, but the result of "global scorching," the kinds of unprecedented heat that brought torrential floods upon Pakistan and spontaneous peat-bog fires upon Russia several summers ago. Does the behavior of Big Carbon rise to the level of terrorism when it creates the conditions that killed those 19 firefighters, or "only" to the level of Drug Lordism? When tobacco companies were first accused of bringing about thousands of deaths from lung cancer, they had a series of responses:

§ It's all a statistical anomaly. You can't prove that any of those deaths came from smoking.

§ Even if they did, it's all a matter of free choice. We don't force anybody to smoke. There's no such thing as addiction to nicotine.

§ Even if some people do get addicted, it's not our fault. We don't amp up the nicotine in cigarettes. And it's still free choice whether people start smoking. This is America!

§ And besides, if you start regulating us you are going to destroy the economy of North Carolina and other tobacco-growing states. Can't have that, right?

Each of these claims turned out to be a lie. The American people figured out that Big Tobacco were Drug Lords, creating lethal addictions both by advertising and by chemical manipulation of their products. The American people figured out that massive cancer deaths were costing far more pain and even far more money than regulating tobacco would.

So the American people forced their Congress to regulate cigarettes, and life continued. Longer and healthier, in fact.

Just so with Big Oil, Big Coal, Big Unnatural Gas. They use their political clout to create social structures that then force on us the carbon addiction that is killing us. First they deny the planet is heating up. Then they say it probably is getting hotter but that is maybe caused by sunspots -- it has nothing to do with burning fossil fuels. Then they say it would wreck our economy to move from fossil fuels to solar, wind, and geothermal energy.

So -- like good Drug Lords -- they cajole us to keep buying their drugs. But filling the air with Carbon Dioxide and methane is as sure to kill us -- us humans and the other life-forms of our planet -- as is filling our lungs with tobacco smoke.

This deadliness operates not only with extreme heat but also by forcing high-water-vapor atmospheric systems to pour out unceasing and unprecedented rain -- and so floods. And by melting glaciers so that seacoasts rise and drown whole nations. And by worsening storms and hurricanes so that they flood a city like New York. And even, on occasion, by dumping freakish snowstorms on unprepared cities. And by moving hidden diseases out of tropical jungle pockets into what were "temperate" zones.

The heat build-up within our planetary system can act in what seem weird and contradictory ways. Like warming milk in a pot and forgetting to turn off the flame. (I've done this.) The milk can boil over and flood your kitchen stove, choke off the burners. Or the heat can scorch, burn, even melt your pot. Or both. Would you claim the overpour of milk proves that the burning is just an accident? Would you claim that a flood and a drought cannot both be traced to the same cause?

All these "weird" results are becoming "the new normal" because we are addicted to burning fossil fuels. For convenience. For pleasure. And within the social systems we have built upon them, by necessity.

These addictions are what the Bible (Psalm 115) calls Idols. False gods.

"They have mouths, but cannot speak,
eyes, but cannot see.
They have ears, but cannot hear,
noses, but cannot smell.
They have hands, but cannot feel,
feet, but cannot walk,
nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
Those who make them will be like them,
and so will all who trust in them.

That is, They look alive, but what they are is Dead. And Deadly

Let's be clear: The social, economic, and political system of our world is far more centered on burning fossil fuels than America was centered on burning nicotine.

It will be harder to break loose.

But there are ways. Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet (MOM/POP) is one avenue toward creating life, not dealing death.

The United Church of Christ just voted to begin moving away from investments in Big Carbon. The UCC has more than a million members.

The student body of Brandeis University - a universal institution with strong Jewish roots - this past spring, voted by 79% to urge the University trustees to move their money out of Big Carbon. Negotiations with the Trustees are under way.

Many people in the academic, religious, and even political worlds are already convinced that Big Carbon is dangerous. But in regard to Moving Our Money, we face other concerns. Investment committees for clergy pension funds and similar groups are legitimately nervous about losing money or reducing income that is intended to serve worthy ends. And low-income congregations want to know that the Money is Moved to invest in low-income neighborhoods.

To make this work, we have to be prepared to Move Our Money to invest in stable, profitable, job-creating businesses and projects that help move us toward a just, sustainable world.

Knowing how to do that for ourselves, and being able to persuade an investment committee, don't happen in a flash. The first step in this direction is self-education. To that end, we suggest you consult:

Here and here.

I began this letter with a dire and dismal description of where we are as a result of the climate crisis: Fires are raging, droughts are parching and floods are drowning parts of our food supply, people are dying.

At the same time, we know much more than we used to about the interwoven web of life on our planet, about the ways in which spiritual wisdom and scientific truth cohere, about how to see YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh as the sacred marker for a universal ecosystem based on Interbreathing. We can begin not only to imagine but to plan what a planetary Beloved Community would be like.

We have not yet created the effective political will to shift from death and disaster to new life and new abundance. That is what Move Our Money/Protect Our Planet (MOM/POP) is intended to do.

If you are interested in working on this, please write me at Awaskow@theshalomcenter.org -- explaining where you are and what you feel drawn to do.