Activists, faith leaders hold 10-day fast and prayer for climate change

Scott Hardin-Nieri and Steve Norris
FAST FRIENDS: Steve Norris, middle left, and Scott Hardin-Nieri, middle right, stand beneath the Vance Monument during a 10-day fast for climate change awareness. Photo by Brooke Randle

It was a cold, dreary November morning as the small band of activists and faith leaders first made their way toward the Vance Monument near the center of downtown. But the dismal conditions did not deter Steve Norris, the group’s leader and a former Warren Wilson College professor of peace studies and environmental justice, as he prepared himself for a long stay beneath the granite obelisk.

From 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., for 10 consecutive days before Thanksgiving, Norris and his companions led a public fast and prayer to bring awareness to the issue of climate change. The group was spurred to action by an October report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which issued dire warnings about the effects of rising temperatures and the urgent need to adopt renewable energy and reduce greenhouse emissions.

“That was a wake-up call,” Norris says. “I’ve known for a long time and even used the words ‘emergency’ and ‘crisis’, but that just kind of clarified something.”

Stand fast

Fasting marks a change of tactics for Norris, who has accumulated over 15 arrests for protests and demonstrations in his decades of political activism. While he doesn’t shy away from public showdowns with powerful corporations and government leaders, he explains that fasting provides a less confrontational way to promote important causes.

“When Gandhi couldn’t figure out a way to stop the violence, he fasted, and the violence stopped. Now, I’m not Gandhi,” Norris says with a laugh. “I don’t have his stature, his courage, his charisma. But it seemed like an appropriate step for me to take to do this in a public fashion and to just not eat for a couple of weeks.”

Avram Friedman, executive director of the Canary Coalition, a Sylva-based environmental activism group, joined Norris throughout the fast. He notes that the sacrifice inherent in fasting helps people understand the urgency of causes such as climate change in a way that other forms of protest do not.

“We have been shouting about climate change for a long time, but now, we feel like it’s going to take more messaging in a different way,” Friedman says. “We’re showing people that we’re so committed to this, it’s so important, that I’m willing to fast for 10 days to get this message across.”

And as a participant, Friedman adds, the physical act of fasting allows him to connect to the issues without distraction.

“If you’re taking your mind off food and washing dishes and cleaning, all that stuff, it really puts you — at least temporarily — in a plane above the physical when you’re not focused on your immediate sustenance,” Friedman says. “You’re focusing on the issue at hand.”

Say a little prayer

Scott Hardin-Nieri leads a prayer \
CIRCLE UP: Scott Hardin-Nieri, center, leads a prayer during the fast for climate change awareness. Photo by Brooke Randle

That spiritual dynamic informed the interfaith prayer ceremony held at noon each day of the fast. Members of the scientific community, activists and passers-by gathered alongside those fasting to hear prayers and blessings from faith leaders, including readings from Christian, Native American and other traditions.

Ordained pastor Scott Hardin-Nieri was among the speakers who offered prayer at the demonstration. Hardin-Nieri serves as the director for environmental nonprofit MountainTrue’s faith-based program, the Creation Care Alliance of Western North Carolina, which engages over 40 regional congregations to tackle issues such as converting to renewable energy and eliminating single-use plastics. Faith and prayer, he says, are oft-overlooked but essential elements of addressing climate change.

“Climate change is so massive, it’s unsolvable. Not even large groups of people can fix it right now. We need a global effort, and so when people are faced with that, they tend to go to despair, they go to fear,” Hardin-Nieri says. “My experience with communities of faith is that we try to be the antidote to fear and to despair with hope and with courage and with love and compassion.”

For Hardin-Nieri, climate-associated problems extend beyond the obvious environmental challenges and into many areas that faith communities have traditionally addressed, such as homelessness and poverty. A 2016 World Bank report estimates that more than 100 million people worldwide could be forced into poverty by 2030 due to climate change-related events.

“We know that the changes that are happening are impacting the most vulnerable among us, and so when we talk about homeless folks, people of color, when we talk about poverty, people that are food insecure, the effects of climate change impact them more,” Hardin-Nieri says. “It confluences so many different issues that people of faith have the opportunity to be right in the midst of it and to do better.”

Hang in there

As climate change continues to drive devastating events such as Hurricane Florence and the Camp Fire, many people find themselves feeling helpless, says Kat Houghton of Asheville-based environmental activism nonprofit Community Roots. While supporting the demonstration, she recalls, she was approached by one onlooker who summed up the national mood.

“He said, ‘I’m somewhere between terrified about what’s happening and can’t give a shit,’” Houghton explains. “And I guess neither of those places felt good, so he was just kind of avoiding it. And I think that’s what’s happening. [Climate change] feels so overwhelming that it’s just easier to completely ignore it.”

Viewing the issue of climate change through a faith-based lens, Houghton believes, may provide relief for the feelings of despair and hopelessness that many people feel when facing the problem. Spirituality, she says, can help restore a much-needed sense of connection to the planet and its needs.

“Anything we can do to help people kind of connect back to that, I have to believe, is going to help shift behavior and help people be more aware of what they’re consuming and where our energy comes from,” says Houghton.

Suzannah Tebbe Davis, another Community Roots member who participated in the demonstration, agrees that any solution to climate change will require a renewed appreciation of the Earth. Inspired by Buddhism, Incan teachings and other indigenous and Eastern traditions, she says modern culture becomes “spiritually homeless” when it doesn’t identify with the natural world.

“I think from the perspective of the native ones and the indigenous ones, there is no separation,” says Tebbe Davis. “Our mother is suffering, and we are suffering. We need to come home to each other and we can do that in so many different ways.”

Keep the faith

As the fast wrapped up on the eve of Thanksgiving, cars continued to honk in support, and the team stood tirelessly among banners and homemade signs. While Norris continued to hand out flyers, he reflected on his decision to bring faith into his practice of civil disobedience.

“I came at politics at the beginning with confrontation of corporate and government abuse of power and oppression,” Norris explains. “Finally, I realized that the work I do is spiritual.”

Although some people simply walked by the demonstration on the busy intersection, Norris says every smile, wave and utterance of ‘Thank you’ made the effort worth it.

“You know, if we inspire one person who really wants to take this seriously and who has imagination, genius, creativity, courage and some leadership skills, who knows where that can go?” Norris asked.

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4 thoughts on “Activists, faith leaders hold 10-day fast and prayer for climate change

  1. C-Law

    These people are utterly deluded. Their entire premise rests on the belief that there are exponential tipping points beyond which there is no redemption, ever, when it comes to climate — and we’re driving the Earth’s systems in the direction that will reach them.

    Let me point that there is no scientific evidence for that position. None whatsoever.

    There is, however, nearly-irrefutable evidence for the converse. It rests in the fact that we’re here, today, on this rock.

    What am I referring to? What are known in concert as buffering reactions.

    The Earth possesses them as does every living thing on the planet both through physical chemistry and, in the case of living things, biological process. This is irrefutable fact.

    You are alive because of such buffering reactions. One of hundreds in your body, which is a complex biochemical process, deals with respiration. The process of biochemical reactions that produce energy in your body result in CO2 and other waste products (uric acid, etc) being released. The CO2 in the blood stream is a dissolved gas and dissolving a gas disassociates the ions in question; the result is a small amount of CH2O3, or carbonic acid, being present in the blood. That in turn slightly lowers blood pH since acids, by definition, have a lower than neutral pH.

    Your body reacts to this by increasing the respiration (breathing) rate. The CO2 is thus expelled from the body and the carbonic acid is removed, slightly raising the pH of the blood. Your breathing then slows.

    Let me emphasize something here: The change in pH as a result of this process is extremely small; normal blood pH ranges from 7.35 to 7.45 (7.0 is neutral.) Yet your body, indeed that of every animal that respires, is tuned to these extraordinarily small changes and responds with a buffering reaction that attempts to reverse that change. It does so automatically and immediately — within seconds.

    Most people believe that the body keeps arterial O2 saturation in the blood at almost-100% by direct biochemical measurement. Not so. This is why you will suffocate silently and painlessly if you breathe an atmosphere that has no oxygen in it. Your body doesn’t think anything is wrong because there is no increase in CO2 level nor change in blood pH, there is no respiratory response or distress (breathing faster trying to get what little O2 may exist), you just pass out and die.

    Now if you are chronically diseased (such as by smoking for decades) then this reaction will become damaged. Normally, without a secondary mechanism to regulate respiration, that condition would immediately kill you as your O2 saturation would fall below lethal limits or your blood pH would go out of the required range to support life. It doesn’t, because the body has a secondary mechanism; it can directly determine O2 saturation to some degree and if your CO2 sensing mechanism is damaged to the point that it doesn’t function properly it is capable of taking over sufficiently to keep you alive. But that “backup” is much slower, much less-precise and your exercise tolerance is essentially zero if your body is using that mechanism.

    The Earth has thousands of such buffering reactions. The oceans, specifically and just as one of these reactions, have an utterly enormous amount of carbonate dissolved in them. You might recognize that word, and you should, because it’s the same molecule — CO2 — that is dissolved in the blood.

    The oceans (indeed, all bodies of water) constantly exchange CO2 with the atmosphere. This is known. But what’s not known well at all is exactly what sort of boundaries are on this reaction, where equilibrium points are, what shifts said equilibrium points, or what the shape of the curve looks like in the actual world rather than in a laboratory. It’s a hell of a lot more-complex than it first appears and there’s a damn good argument to be made that this singular buffering reaction is largely responsible for the possibility of life on this rock.

    Throughout the history of the planet some extremely large disruptive events have happened. Very large volcanic eruptions that make anything experienced in the history books look like firecrackers and asteroid strikes to name two. We know these happened because they leave behind direct evidence, and we know roughly when they happened.

    In the absence of buffering reactions within the larger context of the planet’s chemistry life on this rock would have been extinguished millions of years ago and this would be a lifeless rock. It wasn’t and isn’t.

    Now it is absolutely true that the Earth cannot support unlimited and permanent exponential population growth of any species. There is no such thing as permanent exponential growth of anything, ever, period. You must stop such growth voluntarily at some point or you will be forced to stop by a foldback event where you cannot support what you grew. This is true for populations and it is true for economies.

    Governments refuse to accept this and make promises based on the belief they can violate this law of mathematics. They’re not just “wrong” by accident either — they know they’re lying.

    The economic fact is that behind every unit of GDP is a unit of energy. Energy can neither be created or destroyed; it can be exchanged through nuclear reactions with matter (E = MC^2 and all) but if stored by some process and then released it is inherently dissipated back into the environment. Sequestering the product somewhere (again) also requires energy from some other place; CO2 is sequestered into plant material by solar energy as just one example. All chemical reactions have (although often omitted when not being quoted by a chemist or other scientist) an energy term in joules/mol — either liberated or required. There is no such thing as a free lunch.

    While it would be nice to postulate that we will come up with some sort of Star Trek technology improvement before we hit the natural limits and foldback points of exponential expansion, especially of people, that’s not exactly comforting. Maybe we will and maybe we won’t, but history suggests it will be won’t and we’ll get the nasty. Nature has a way of doing that, and the “nasty” is frequently something like the plague that kills off a material percentage of the population!

    In point of fact warming and higher CO2 levels are, on a planetary scale, beneficial. Higher atmospheric CO2 levels make plants grow faster, which is good if you need them to either feed people directly or feed animals that then feed people. In addition while warmer temperatures will shift crop production they too are beneficial in that longer growing seasons also improve crop yields. While it is absolutely true that severe warming would inundate certain areas that’s a local issue, not a global one. On a global — not local — basis if you are interested in trying to sustain an exponential population growth pattern for a longer period of time you want more CO2 in the atmosphere and you want a warmer climate — period.

    This is a function of math, not politics.

    If you could stop warming and CO2 emission then you need to also not only stop population growth you must kill off a material percentage of the people already here. Those screamers who are hollering “emergency!” are in fact intending to do exactly that as it is the only way to get where they want to go. What they won’t discuss is exactly who and how they intend to murder. May I remind you that at least Hitler was quite clear in who he intended to (and did) target?

    But for the globull-warming screamers the more-likely scenario — by far — is that we’re setting up for a Maunder Minimum sort of event and there is nothing we can do about it since the source is that nuclear-fusion-based flaming ball in the sky commonly called “the Sun.”

    If if in fact we are at the entry to a prolonged period of much less solar sunspot activity then the decrease in radiation absorbed by the planet will produce not warming but cooling which will utterly decimate global crop production and kill a couple of billion people.

    Most of those who die won’t be in the “developed” world; the United States and Europe are capable of producing sufficient food, even with crop yields well below current levels, to avoid a famine-style problem. Other parts of the world have managed to survive exponential population growth by importing food from places like the United States and if a Maunder Minimum style event comes to pass that source will be cut off because we will need that food here.

    Thinking though the implications of that sort of thing ought to sober you up fast. See, starving people do desperate things, and in a world where advanced, mass-destructive weaponry is not only fairly common it can be stolen and “proliferated” if you think such an event is going to take place without at least some of the starving trying to take what they need by force you also need to become a better student of history.

  2. Ron Ogle

    Who knew? Meanwhile, the Oceans are dying. P.S.: The onset of the Little Ice Age occurred well before the beginning of the Maunder minimum, and northern-hemisphere temperatures during the Maunder minimum were not significantly different from the previous 80 years, suggesting a decline in solar activity was not the main causal driver of the Little Ice Age.

  3. Susie-Danzen

    The earth most certainly would’ve crumbled to dust a long time ago if ol’ Steve and Scott hadn’t come around

  4. Tygie

    Can’t believe someone would take the time to write so much that is caca. It shows how strong some people’s sense of denial is. This problem wouldn’t be that hard to solve if we would just get going. When you wait to study until five minutes before a test things seem difficult that would otherwise be easy. We can have an even stronger economy and all be healthier. It’s not hard when your work creates rewards.

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