The North American Way of Life Is Not Ordained By God: Old First E-pistle 08.29.13

The North American Way of Life Is Not Ordained By God: Old First E-pistle 08.29.13

While I was away, Beth Walker wrote an E-pistle to us, encouraging Old First to consider lessening our carbon footprint, and advocating for the U.S. to become more carbon neutral.

She wants us to follow the lead of this past summer’s UCC General Synod. Two resolutions passed committing our church to:

1.) making our church buildings less damaging to the enviromnment, and

2) figuring out how to divest from fossil fuel holdings to pressure corporations and our country towards renewable energy alternatives.

(The article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math“ in the July 19 “Rolling Stone” has a sidebar paean to the UCC’s divestment move. The sidebar is not in the on-line addition: I’m trying to get a print copy so I can share it with you.)

While I was away, I took advantage of Germany’s well-planned, comprehensive transportation system — trains, subways, street cars, bicycles and pedestrian-power blanketing the whole country with an efficient alternative to automobiles. In Germany any additional mile of road built has to be matched by an additional mile of bike paths. Nonetheless, it seemed, that automobile usage in Germany is on the rise.

But I was aware, that international tourists to the U.S. cannot expect any such transportation convenience. Perhaps, more importantly, U.S. residents have little alternative to single-person, automobile trips.

While I was away, I marveled at the changes in the thirty years since I’d spent significant time in Germany.

Back in 1982, european cities were already much more pedestrian-friendly than American cities. (I do delight in how walkable a city Philadelphia is!) The size and density of European populations lends itself to effective public transit and central, car-free pedestrian commercial zones.

But what is new, as Keith Haberern pointed out to me in Bielefeld, is an entire infrastructure that enables biking. Train cars with set aside places for bicycles. Bike garages at all the train stations. (There had to be more than a thousand bikes parked in front of the Heidelberg train station.) Miles of dedicated bike lanes and separate bike paths. Racks for locking one’s bike, all over on city streets, in small town squares, even in the middle of nowhere (???).

Keith said when he cycled from Germany to Scandinavia as a young man, none of this was in place. As a result, now one sees all sorts of people riding bicycles — commuting to work, doing errands, riding for pleasure and leisure. My American friend, Claire, who lives in Berlin, loves the “grand old dames” — 80+ year old, well-dressed women — riding their bikes around town doing their shopping.

Another unmissable change is the prevalence of solar and wind power. Germans like to say — sometimes complain — that their countryside is now “gespargelt,” that is, “asparagus-ed” with the windmills that have sprouted up all over. In some places, just a single, modern white windmill. In other places, fields of windmills… “wind farms” above while crops grow beneath.

On a bike trip through Pennsylvania once, I saw a surprisingly numerous string of turbines along the Moosic Mountain ridge northeast of Scranton. And another time, upon entry into Atlantic City. But modern windmills are for us still an unusual sight.

And the Germans seem to be installing solar power collection everywhere. There are whole hillsides and fields “planted” with solar panels. I have a similar site off the highway between Philly and Collegeville.

But they are also installing panels on all sorts of rooftops. Not as many homes as you might expect, but on commercial and public buildings– big box stores, government offices, churches, parking garages, farm outbuildings… With Martin Olejnicki near Köthen, I saw a farm with these long, metal animal sheds with roofs all outfitted with solar panels. How many roofs could we add solar panels to?

The aforementioned article in Rolling Stone reports that one sunny day last May, Germany was able to resource half its total electricity needs with solar power collected within its borders. They are looking forward to completely retiring their nuclear power in the next decade, and there’s already talk of what to do when they have too much electricity.

None of this was present (or at least noticeable) thirty years ago…

While I was away, I enjoyed surprising Germans that Americans were not as completely profligate and wasteful as they expect us to be.

When giving Hartmut the instructions for my house, I included what needed to be recycled and when and how it needed to be put out. He gave me this blank stare: “Americans recycle?” I laughed, “Unless we want to get ticketed and fined.”

It was even more fun, next to give him composting instructions, and telling him where the compost barrel is in my backyard.

Also, I did not apologize to the Brünger’s that I have no dryer… since Europeans taught me that clothes dry “automatically” when you hang them. “It’s warm enough to dry clothes outside in the summer and you heat the house in winter anyway.” It was a transformative revelation for me! …Even as it seems that dryers have become much more popular in German in the last thirty years.

Likewise, Germans who know the heat and humidity of Philly expected me to rely on air conditioning. I just laughed and responded, “Ich glaube nicht in der Klima-anlage!” (I don’t believe in air conditioning!).

The most remarkable exchange was with a reporter for the church newspaper. Somehow it came up that I do not drive. She responded, “But you’re American! You must have a license?”

I explained that I had one, but let it expire by accident when I did not own a car. But, I continued, “Now it’s become sort of a faith commitment not to drive; I resist getting a license to discipline myself.” She needed more explanation about how not driving could relate to my faith. The stewardship of creation has not yet become a confessional issue for the church, I guess.

Which is all to remind us:

~ The way we organize our lives and cities and society is rarely the only possible way. And maybe not the best way. There are alternatives. Could they help us better care for creation as well as foster justice and peace?

~ Personal decisions and practices as well as public policy and corporate commitments can dramatically change the way we live… and lessen the damage we are doing to our environment. The former can also be an active way of living out your faith (or not).

~ We need to change… decrease the environmental devastation we are reaking on the planet God has entrusted to us as stewards. The U.S. is the largest contributor to the greenhouse gases that threaten our planet. Soon, China and India will surpass us. But if we do not as a nation make commitments and changes, how can we ask other nations to?

~ As a nation, we could build a public transportation that includes the infrastructure needed for cyclists and pedestrians. We could make the greener transportation options more attractive than car travel. Likewise, we could create better energy sources…

One of you said to me about the fossil fuel divestment resolution at General Synod, “I used not to care about such issues. But because we talk about it so much at church, now I’ve come to care, feel some passion. We have to do something!”

Wouldn’t it be a great mission service if the church could become a significant advocate for moving our society in such a direction?

See you in church,

(I am back and will be preaching the English-language version of the sermon I preached my last Sunday in Bielefeld)

Michael