About the Author
Shelley Dennis

Totem Salmon – Book Review

Totem Salmon: Life Lessons from Another Species
by Freeman House
Published by Beacon Press

Because it was about salmon in the Pacific Northwest, this book was hard for me to read.  Periodically I found myself bored  But then I remembered something I’d told others about when I was running a book group:  boredom can be a sign of resistance, and if you dig deeper you might find something underneath that boredom that you really didn’t want to see.   What I found was a profound feeling of disconnection.  Disconnection from the food I eat, the products I buy, the consequences of those purchases.  This book is all about connection, but since I was (at the time of reading it) so vastly disconnected that I’d lost the ability to even recognize the problem.

If you have an interest in Native American ecological perspectives, or would like to read a detailed account of what a local grassroots environmental action looks like when it’s serious, this is the book for you.  It’s lyrical prose will lure you into a deep reflection on the state of food practices, an indeed life itself.  This book is deeply spiritual, and you may find yourself surprised with the depth of meaning you take away from its pages.

The Great Turning – Film Review

The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community
David Korten (Actor), Robin Mallgren (Director) 2006

This movie provides a whirlwind overview of the multiple socio-political-economic strands feeding into the tangled knot of environmental destruction and looming oil crisis we are leaving for our children and grandchildren.  David Korten makes the case that largely the knot is tangled by the stories we tell about who we are as a species, how we do business, and what political structures best ensure our survival.  The most tragic part of these stories is that they may actually run counter to our survival as a species. By changing our stories we can change the way we approach each other and how we do business, which will ultimately increase our chances of survival.

As I approach the end of a master’s in sustainable communities, I can attest to the truth in Korten’s reasoning.  Because this is an overview, he doesn’t lay out in a way that will convince the unconverted.  However, the areas where he is less than convincing may entice viewers to conduct a bit of research on their own. I would suggest holding a discussion group after this movie so that you have an opportunity to assess the group for any frustrations with those limitations, and bring them around to a place of curiosity instead.

The extremely positive conclusion at the end is Korten’s focus on the solution, which again finds strong support in the world of sustainability: we must forge community where we are, and find common ground with our neighbors.  We cannot rely upon governmental bodies or corporate entities to make decisions that are in our best interest.  Instead, we must join together one relationship at a time to create a strong community that shares a vision of a more just and sustainable world.

I have yet to read his book, which I hear is fabulous.  I can envision this movie being the lure that sparks interest in forming a book group that delves deeper into the questions raised. If you’re interested in reading the book, which goes into greater detail, the Unitarian Universalists for a Just Economy page can provide you with information on how to order a packet including the book, CD of David Korten’s slides from General Assembly 2006, and supplemental materials.

The End of a Long Summer – Book Review

The End of the Long Summer
by Diane Dumanoski

Dumanoski artfully demonstrates both the nature and cause of or environmental problems and suggests an alternative mindset that may help us see our way through the pending climate crisis.  She fully believes that although we are headed toward a time of uncertainty, likely brought about by the impact of human behavior on the environment, humans have evolved over millennia of similar uncertainty and we are made of the stuff with which to adapt—but only if we become more flexible, holistic and realistic in our collective worldview.

She illustrates self-perpetuating processes, such as the chemical interaction of chlorine with ozone, wherein each individual molecule of chlorine can cause the destruction of multiple molecules of ozone, having a disproportionate impact on the ozone layer.  This hole in the ozone further triggers a self-perpetuating cycle of planetary warming, because as the polar ice caps melt, there is less ice to reflect sunlight, causing further warming.  Additionally, increased water is available to absorb the solar rays, and decreased ice is available to deflect them, resulting in even more warming.  In short, small events can have disproportionately disruptive—and unpredictable—impact.  Because of the unpredictable nature of the these massive systems, she recommends humility in our actions.

In order to rectify the situation, which at best means our species might survive the pending planetary changes coming our way, we must adopt a new perspective of not only the world but our place in it.  We must recognize the earth as a living organism, with an intricate balance struck between many systems. We must recognize the limitations to our knowledge.  And lastly, we must reverse the trends of globalization and develop local food, water, and healthcare systems that can meet the needs of the local population without excessive dependence on foreign goods since these may become unavailable as weather systems become unpredictable and oil supplies dwindle.

While I would not categorize this book as uplifting, I would categorize it as a must-read for anyone seriously interested in the work of sustainability.  You will come away with a better understanding of the science involved and a deeper commitment to activism on a local level—both of which will fuel your passion for the Green Sanctuaries projects you’re working on!

Connecting the Strands of the Interdependent Web

Recently a friend shared a story about a failed effort to establish composting on her campus.  The students behind the effort met with administration and got approval for the compost pile, then proceeded to contribute organic matter.  Shortly thereafter, the Buildings and Grounds team, not knowing what it was, bulldozed the pile.

Another friend told me about trying to start a Green Sanctuary team at his very environmentally conscious church.  He did a sermon on the topic, hoping for a bevy of volunteers, but never heard a peep.

What is the take home lesson in these stories?  To paraphrase Cool Hand Luke, “What we have here is a failure to communicate.”  And not just communicate, but communicate deeply and personally about things that matter. In grassroots community organizing this communication takes place in the context of a relational meeting.  While you may not think of yourself as a community organizer because you’re not doing political work, make no mistake about it: every congregation is a community in need of some organizing!

You can learn a lot by spending 30-45 minutes in deep conversation with someone exploring her or his motivations for participation on a particular committee or your church in general.  In relation to Green Sanctuaries, you have the opportunity to learn not only whether or not the people you meet with are passionate environmentalists, but what other community groups they may be involved in and what skills they may possess that they may contribute to your project in the future. And best of all, you can learn how your Green Sanctuaries projects may meet their needs, too, which will help you gain support and make recruiting volunteers a cinch! (more…)

Earl the Earthworm Digs for His Life – Book Review

By Tim Magner
Illustration by Lindsay Knapp

This coming of age tale details the developmental trajectory of Earl the earthworm, from the moment he hatches from his tiny cocoon until he realizes his important Earthy destiny.  Children will relate to Earl’s process of self-discovery as he encounters other species.  He sees that the ants are much stronger than he, the trees much larger, and the bees have the power of flight.  But only through following his inner wisdom does he come to recognize his own special gifts and his important role in sustaining the lives around him.  At the bottom of each page are factoids about earthworms and other microbial soil-dwelling organisms.  The glossy, richly colored illustrations engage the reader’s focus on this lowliest of creatures, whom, as we learn from one footnote, “Charles Darwin declared the most important animal in the history of the world.”  This book makes an excellent companion to the Compost Stew book, as both books mention the importance of worms in the creation of compost.

First Universalist Church of Denver – A Green Sanctuary!

Making great use of this endeavor as an opportunity for community building both between church members and between the church and other community organizations, First Universalist Church of Denver got busy! They utilized the project to unite the efforts of various ministries in the church.  To quote from their application, “The Green Sanctuary Program has been a catalyst for uniting and involving more of our members in a common goal….the Earth, our Home is an issue that…can bond our members together.”  A perfect example of their inter-committee collaboration is their What A Wednesday (WAW) dinner featuring seasonally available local and organic vegetables sponsored by their Green First and Hospitality Committees.

Tree planting excursion

Not only did they unite their membership around a common goal, they collaborated with other local groups as well.  First Universalist Church of Denver became a CSA pick-up site for Grant Family Farms, a family-owned organic farm 70 miles from the church.  Grant Family Farms participated in church-sponsored eco-fairs where another organization, Agriburbia, demonstrated how to transform grass lawns into edible gardens.  Partnering with Trout Unlimited for river restoration and Groundwork Denver for energy efficiency, they provided information at their weekly coffee hour. Over 100 members flocked to their annual Rex Morgan Social Justice Awards to hear keynote speaker Peter Sawtell, Director of Eco-Justice Ministries deliver his motivating eco-theology speech.

They took the Green Sanctuaries Program to the streets, too.  Several members, trained through Groundwork Denver to perform energy audits, volunteered their services in low income neighborhood and participated in a door-to-door environmental canvass, swapping out incandescent bulbs for CFL’s and sign people up for recycling, free trees, and free weatherizing services.  Collaborations were also established with Feed Denver, an organization committed to empowering people to feed and sustain themselves via urban agriculture, a partnership that holds promise for further development.

First Universalist Church of Denver took the ball and ran for a touchdown, giving their membership a sense of common purpose and a boost of energy.  The process of achieving certification is ideally a process of building community; it is inspiring to see the potential realized so beautifully by our fellow UU’s.

World as Lover, World as Self – Book Review

World as Lover, World as Self:  Courage for Global Justice and Ecological Renewal
Written by Joanna Macy, PhD
Parallax Press
2007

World as Lover, World as Self, written by Joanna Macy, a Buddhist scholar, eco-philosopher and spiritual activist, counters the standard notion that true enlightenment leads to withdrawal from all worldly concerns.  To the contrary, says Macy, it leads to the fortitude necessary to address them. Three themes emerge from this reading relevant to the very important work involved in your congregational Green Sanctuaries projects: the dynamic tension between despair and hope, the need to develop a larger sense of self in order to address global problems, and the benefits of spiritual practice in sustaining one’s commitment to creating social change.

Macy rightly devotes an entire chapter to the necessity of despair work in order to move forward to create solutions for these massive problems, stating “of all the dangers we face, from climate chaos to nuclear warfare, none is so great as the deadening of our response.” We cannot heal what we cannot feel.  Once we begin to heal, we develop a profound sense of what our role in what the UU Seventh Principle says is “the interconnected web of existence of which we are all a part.”

Development of this larger sense of self hinges on the theory of co-arising.  Not only that, the Buddhist theory of co-arising “frees us from having to have it all figured out ahead of time, for the solutions arise as we walk the path and meet each other on the road.”  It allows for the possibility that although previous attempts have resulted in failure, solutions may yet arise, provided we persist in moving toward them.

Most importantly, Macy beautifully articulates the vital link between spiritual practice and faith. Joanna Macy states that “it becomes clear that unless you have some roots in a spiritual practice that holds life sacred and encourages joyful communion with all your fellow beings, facing the enormous challenge ahead becomes nearly impossible.”

I strongly recommend this book for anyone seeking to participate in their Green Sanctuaries Program as an enriching spiritual practice, rather than another thing on your to-do list.

Easing into Green

I’m pretty excited about my Green Sanctuaries Internship, so naturally I talk about it to anyone who will listen.  I’m a student at Andover Newton Theological School, with an audience of future ministers so I am of course hoping that this is good PR for the program, too, and not just idle conversation.  The other day a friend said she thought it was unlikely her church would ever participate because it was too hard: “Don’t you have to be carbon neutral and get solar panels and things like that?”

As it turns out, that’s not the case at all.  If you’re interested in the Green Sanctuaries program, please know that this program can work for you whether your church has yet to begin recycling or whether your congregation is the epitome of sustainability.  All you have to do is take a few steps toward sustainability, a few carefully planned and implemented steps.

This project, like any other effort at behavior change, will work best if you aim for a change that feels significant, but isn’t so large as to feel out of reach.  Below are some ideas of beginning and intermediate level projects to get your creative juices flowing:

Examples of possible Worship and Celebration projects: (Two required)

  • Any increase in environmentally themed services. Some churches are not doing any, so they begin by adding an Earth Day service.  Others already have 1-2, and commit to doing 6.
  • Earth Day celebration with booths educating people about environmentally sound practices.
  • Committing to one environmentally-themed reading or hymn during service every month.
  • Any increase counts!

(more…)

The Power of Community – Film Review

The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil.
Dir. Faith Morgan.
The Community Solution.
2006.

I saw this movie a week ago and I can’t stop talking about it. It is absolutely the most uplifting movie I have yet seen on the topic of the multiple pending environmental disasters towards which the human species seems to be careening.  With the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Cuba abruptly lost 80% of its import-export business.  For a tiny island producing only three cash crops and heavily dependent on foreign oil, foreign food, and petroleum-based fertilizers and pesticides for the food they did produce this was catastrophic.

Immediately they faced what oil geologists tell us we will all face: a peak oil crisis.  Peak oil is the term used to describe the phenomenon experienced when the production of oil, a finite resource, reaches its peak and begins to rapidly decline.  In short, we will run out of oil.  We in America, similar to Cubans in the late 80’s, are dependent upon petroleum-based pesticides and fertilizers, and oil-guzzling tractors and combines as well.

The situation in Cuba was dire.  People on their way to work had to wait four hours for a bus, only to find that there was no work due to power outages or lack of supplies.  They then had to wait another four hours for a bus home.  Within weeks, children were showing signs of malnutrition and babies with low birth weight were born.

I will not ruin the surprise and tell you how they got themselves out of that mess, but only that they did and how they did it is a lesson for all of us, which is what makes the movie so uplifting and worth seeing.  As a sneak peak, I will say that currently, 50% of the food in Havana is grown by organic urban agriculture.  My friend who’s a habitat biologist tells me their coral reef is the healthiest on the planet.  That means there’s hope for Earth yet.

It is SO Easy Being Green!

Reviewing the certification applications from Unitarian Universalist congregations around the country is truly an uplifting and inspirational way to spend time! As a busy graduate student, DRE and intern with the Green Sanctuaries program—with tons of reading to do, believe me when I say these applications are worth reading!

Here are some of the highlights off the top of my head:

First Unitarian Church of Cleveland in Shaker Heights, Ohio has installed a 72-plot community garden.  They farm 10 plots for donation to the local food bank.  Of the remaining 62 plots, about half are farmed by non-churched members so they’re doing great outreach to the community at the same time that they’re working for a greener planet.

Comal County Unitarian Universalist Society in New Braunfels, Texas has found new life through participating in the Green Sanctuaries program.  The majority of their small, 73-member congregation is rallied around environmental issues and they are working to integrate sustainable living themes into every other element of their church life together.  Not only that, but they are receiving a tremendous amount of positive press in the local newspaper as the result of their programs.

I’m excited about the things I’m seeing, and want to encourage other churches to join in so that you can receive the benefits of participating in this cutting edge program.

What are some potential benefits of pursuing Green Sanctuary certification?

  • This project can potentially involve the following church committees: The worship committee, the religious education committee, the social justice and/or social action committee, the buildings and grounds committee, the membership committee, the hospitality committee
  • There is a sense of common purpose that results when many different committees are working on a common theme.
  • Members on more than one committee can create ways that their contributions serve each committee simultaneously, since the theme of each committee will be resonant around the issue of Green Sanctuaries.
  • Members involved in community-wide sustainability issues will have the opportunity to benefit the church while doing activities they are already excited about.
  • plenty of opportunity for good press coverage in the local newspaper which may boost the number of enthusiastic new members.

What other potential benefits can you think of?  How can participating in the Green Sanctuaries program help your congregation promote all seven of our principles simultaneously?