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Global Ecology- How Big Is Your Backyard?

Transcript by Ian Lawton, May 3, 2009

I read about a competition where people sent in witty analogies for how big their house is.

Third place was awarded to this one- My house is so big, there are two toll booths in the east wing.

Second place was this- My house is so big, I wake up every morning to my wife’s fifth echo reverberating around the house.

The winner was this- A condition of my house arrest is that I can’t leave the state, which of course makes it very challenging to go to the bathroom.

Sermon Transcript

That got me thinking about a similar competition for backyards.

Here are some possible entries-
My backyard is so big I have to pay the gardening company travel expenses to mow the lawn
My backyard is so big our kids are eligible for 5 different school zones
My backyard is so big the kids use a GPS to ride their bikes from the swing set back to the house.
My backyard is so big you cross two time zones to get from one end to the other.

Here is my question to you- How big is your backyard? How far does your backyard extend? To the fenceline? To the county border? To state lines? To national boundaries? To the stratosphere of the planet? Further still?

One of the most famous children’s books of all times is Little Nutbrown Hare’s, “Guess How Much I Love You.” Little Nutbrown and Big Nutbown try to outdo each other with love. “I love you this much….well I love you THIS much”, all the way to “I love you to the moon and back”. What if we tried to outlove each other? Imagine the global impact! A love that reaches to the moon and back! A concern that stretches to the other side of the Milky Way and back again!

Will you love with a love so deep that you hold all suffering; your own and others, the groaning planet included, without being overwhelmed? Will you love with a love so broad that you know that what happens in your backyard affects and is affected by what happens in the planetary backyard that we call the earth?

When you have a backyard, you often have to juggle different stakeholders and interest groups. You have the children, the pets, the uninvited critters and beasts. You want to create a beautiful atmosphere. Maybe you want to have a rich green lawn. Maybe you want to have the most ecologically healthy yard. In the ecosystem that is your backyard, you have your own priorities and needs.

Environmentalism in a Recession

Let’s take a step back and consider ecology in the context of the planet’s backyard. Last week I said that ecology has hit the mainstream. Is that true for everyone, or is it mainly a white middle class concern? Studies seem to suggest that being green is more of a white middle class issue. In other words, ecological concern has to take its place in a whole series of concerns.

Now, is environmentalism going to be able to holds its place in mainstream awareness even in the midst of a deep recession? Is someone who is out of work, struggling to make ends meet, able to care about global warming? How does the government justify spending billions on electric car subsidies and solar power while people are losing their homes?

To a certain extent it becomes a balance between conscience or responsibility and survival needs.

Here’s a light hearted way to think about conscience. The IRS received a note from a man who owed some taxes. The note said, “I have been unable to sleep because I cheated on my taxes. Please find enclosed a check for $150. I will send the other $150,000 if I still can’t sleep.”
Most of us take that sort of approach to the environment. We do what we can, because of concern or love or some combination of the two. Then we relax that we have done our bit for the earth. Each time we start losing sleep, we green up our lives a little more.

Why is it so hard to sustain ecological concern in a recession?

Abraham Maslow coined the wonderful phrase- “If you are a hammer. Everything looks like a nail.” If your basic survival needs are not being met, everything looks like both a threat and an opportunity to meet your survival needs. You do what you have to do. I experienced this first hand with people who live on the street. Not to say that they weren’t capable of incredible kindness, but they were survival machines, and most things looked to them like an opportunity to meet their needs.

Generally speaking, pure environmental concerns are fairly low on the list of needs. In other words all your survival and basic needs must be met before you can show concern for the earth. At a time of recession, people move back into survival and basic needs mode. Like the note to the IRS, a person out of work will get back to caring for the earth once they have a job.

Maslow outlined a hierarchy of human needs. It goes from the most basic survival needs such as food and shelter, to a need for basic safety and law and order, to the need to be loved and belong, to a need for self mastery, to a need to experience beauty and wonder in the world, and finally to the need for self actualization or in other words being all that you can be.

If you say to the hammer, “Look at this beautiful endangered species,” all it sees is a nail. If you say to someone who is out of work, “look at these melting polar caps”, they might just as likely take to the fragile ice hills with a hammer out of frustration.

The highest need according to Maslow is self actualization. This is the pinnacle of spiritual growth where you know that you will be all that you can be by loving with all that you’ve got. You will love with all you’ve got by serving with all of your might. Your fulfillment will be the joy of seeing others succeed and the earth thrive.

You understand that being all that you can be includes others being all that they can be, including non human beings. Everyone benefits. I will come back to ways that all, including the earth, can win in a recession. But first I want to consider some other world situations; pirates, and pigs.

Pirates and Ecology

It’s unfortunate that we use the word pirates to describe the Somali vigilantes who have had so much media attention lately. The word “pirate” is loaded with judgment. When we think of pirates, we tend to think either of Johnny Depp (if you are a woman) or an eye patched villain (if you’re a man who spent your boyhood on forts talking out of the side of your mouth).

The situation on the coast off Somalia is far more complicated than the media is generally presenting. Without for a moment condoning their behavior, it’s important to understand the complexity of the situation in Somalia. This is only part of the story, but it seems that many of these vigilantes are struggling to have their most basic needs met. They depend on their local ecosystem for survival, and it appears that international fleets are taking their fish and even possibly dumping toxic waste in their water. They have none of the basic safety systems in place; no political stability or proper law enforcement. Many of the pirates are hammers and all they see is nails; threat and the need to fight to ensure survival. Their so called piracy in some ways may be a primitive form of national defense.

This sort of vigilante action is not uncommon in societies where the national security is weak. In America in the 1770s George Washington used the equivalent of vigilantes to protect this country’s waters from the overwhelming British presence. Americans called them private seamen. Do you know what the British called them? Pirates, bandits and criminals.

So the emergence of so called pirates is an example of behavior that reverts to lower level needs due to imminent threat.

Does your backyard extend to the coastal waters of Somalia? What will it mean to have a love so broad that it includes the people of Somalia? Does the backyard of your consciousness include the connections between the ecological and economic crises in the world?

Pigs, Flu and Ecology

We have been told that pigs can’t fly, but now swine flu is airborne. We don’t yet know the extent of it. It’s such a current situation, that no one has fully analyzed how the flu started. Maybe we will never know. It’s possible that the flu originated in a confined pig farm, used to create cheap meat. It may have even originated in a pig farm in Northern Carolina several years ago. Part of the ecological crisis is short range thinking. This flu could be an illustration that meddling with the environment that you raise animals in creates more problems than it solves.

Including victims of swine flu in your concern is easy. Does your backyard include overcrowded pig farms in Northern Carolina or Mexico? Do you have a perspective so large that it sees the connection between Swine Flu, the ecological crisis, and short range economic thinking?

Ecology and Self Interests

Crisis circumstances tend to make people very self centered.

Two friends are in a bank, when, suddenly, armed robbers burst in, waving guns and yelling for everyone to freeze. While several of the robbers take the money from the tellers, others line the customers, including the friends, up against a wall, and proceed to take their wallets, watches, and other valuables.
While this is going on, one of the friends jams something into the other friends hand. “What is this?” he asks
The first friend replies, “it’s the $100 I owe you.”

Recession challenges you to consider how truly generous you can be, when your own security is uncertain.

I understand that one particular airline is about to start selling a $10 premium meal packaged in biodegradable materials. The other option is a free meal. Which option do you think most people will take, especially in a recession?

We have to be smarter than the airline, and stop forcing people to choose between self concern and concern for other, stop pitting the economy against ecology.

Self actualization has two features-

It takes into account all the needs beneath it. It builds a foundation where all basic needs are met allowing for actualization.
It finds its ultimate fulfillment in helping others to meet their needs, all the way up the pyramid.

Self Actualized Ecology

Here is a great example of smart, self actualized ecological concern.

The Houston Major League Baseball team has started offering half price tickets to fans who take public transportation to the game. Now that’s a smart way of going green in a recession.

Green collar employment is another great example of enlightened ecological concern. I read one study that said if 25% of all American energy were produced from renewable sources by 2025, we would generate at least 5 million new green jobs. That makes a massive difference. Green jobs can be created in 2009 and 2010 if we have the foresight to do it. If we stop pitting the economy against the ecology, the needs of some over the needs of others, we can make a massive difference.

Thinking Globally, Acting Locally

Think globally, act locally has been a catch cry for decades. I appreciate the intent of the phrase, although I believe we are entering a new era where a more appropriate phrase is “think cosmically, act globally” because there is no such thing as purely local action. All actions are related.

The intent of the phrase “act locally” is to do something. Maybe the most accurate catch cry would be “Think cosmically, act globally, and do something.”

I want to end with a call to do something where you can. Maybe you feel powerless to affect the situation in Somalia or the spread of Swine flu. You can do something, and you will be surprised how much difference it can make everywhere.

A young boy and his grandfather spent their days together, as was the custom. The old man spent much of his time teaching the boy to hunt, fish, and make things, and to do it all in a sacred way. One day the grandfather said to the boy, ‘We will change the course of a mighty river.’ The boy was filled with wonder, for he knew that his grandfather was a great man and could do great things. But change the course of a great river? Who could do such a thing? As they approached the river, the boy’s heart leapt as he imagined the course of the river being changed. When they got to the bank of the river, the old man reached down into the water and picked out a rock about the size of a melon. The boy watched as the hole that the rock left began to fill with water, and in that moment he understood that, in some small way, his grandfather had indeed changed the course of a mighty river. The old man looked at the boy with a twinkle in his eye and said, “This is the way the great river is changed. One rock at a time. It is the duty of every one to change the course of rivers. Every action that you do, every word that you say will affect or change the course of a person’s life. Keep on changing the course of rivers, little one.

Pick up a rock and if you aren’t strong enough to pick up a rock the size of a melon, pick up a pebble. Do something, and you will be affecting the course of history.

You long to be a part of something greater than yourself; whether it’s a vision or a movement or a God. You long to know that this collective energy is more steady than an economic crisis, unmoved by the worst flu, unshaken by global warming, and unflinching in the face of personal traumas. You can’t add to or subtract from this collective energy. It is infinite, and all you need to do is remember that you part of it. At the same time, you long to know that your life makes a difference; that your actions of love do matter.

I’m here to tell you that both things are true, and both things are true for the backyard that is this nation as well. What happens in this national backyard affects and is affected by what happens right around the planet.

Change your backyard and it will change the planet. Change your perspective on your backyard so that it includes the whole planet and you will change the consciousness of the planet. Live with a love so large and so practical that in your every thought, word and action, rocks are moved and you do indeed change the course of history for the better.


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