We live in an amazing community and bioregion. Mountain Xpress keeps its readers up to date on the remarkably diverse events and offerings of the local human culture. This summer, for example, the Fine Arts Theater showed two wonderful nature films: March of the Penguins and The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. The San Francisco parrots (mostly blue conures) are there because of pet releases and subsequent breeding in the parks. These very social birds are a delight to the community.
But most folks don’t realize that until about a century ago, we had wild parrots right here in North Carolina. The Carolina parakeet — a conure with a yellow head and orange cheeks — was endemic to the eastern United States. About the same size as the Telegraph Hill parrots (12 inches tall), they had mostly been killed off for their feathers by the 1890s. We also had passenger pigeons, whose huge flocks literally darkened our skies. Yet they, too, went extinct in 1914 due to overhunting and habitat loss.
Sometimes I try to imagine what it would be like to have these birds back in our community. As part of my daily meditation, I look skyward — an intentional reminder of the great extinction crisis that we humans have caused since we walked out of Africa. It helps keep me focused in my work with a North Carolina Council of Churches program called The Climate Connection: NC Interfaith Eco-Justice Network. We collaborate with faith communities to address the causes and consequences of global climate change.
In the late 19th century, when much of the U.S. was still frontier, we thought nothing of clearing mature forests for housing, fuel and railroad construction. The Petroleum Age was just beginning. Today, however, there is no more frontier, and the fossil fuels we’ve been relying on for the past 150 years will soon be gone. Essentially, we’ve been living off 400 million years of stored solar energy, which has produced global warming and its attendant ills. Meanwhile, we continue to consume at a rate far surpassing what our planet and our region can support. All communities contribute to this trend, and all will be affected — some more catastrophically than others — by the evolving climate crisis.
A year ago, The Climate Connection began local programming in Western North Carolina. We decided to work with local environmental groups, including the Southern Appalachian Biodiversity Project, to emphasize that the climate crisis affects the whole great community of God-given life. We’ve presented programs in many congregations, helping them live up to their covenant to care for creation.
But it’s the public-policy-advocacy part of our mission that really motivates me. There’s a mighty force in our houses of worship that has withered since its great flowering during the civil-rights movement more than 40 years ago. In that spirit, we’re now working for a revival of that same force of moral commitment in our churches and other local communities of faith.
Christian fundamentalists maintain that we are a Christian nation, and the Supreme Court has recently ruled on the legality of displaying the Ten Commandments in public places. Yet our everyday lifestyle, which has produced the climate crisis that has already been responsible for tens of thousands of human deaths in the past few years (estimates of the death toll from the 2003 European heat wave alone run as high as 35,000 people), clearly violates the commandment not to kill. And as for the prohibition against stealing, if we continue to live this way, we’ll be stealing the future of not only our children but the children of all creatures on earth. In biblical terms, we will fail to meet our obligation to “keep” creation.
Like most governments, ours has bought into the fantasy of what’s oxymoronically called “sustainable growth” or “sustainable development,” believing that we need to “grow” when all the evidence says we need to consider how to improve our quality of life while using less. But our economic decisions are fundamentally moral choices, and rather than sustainable growth, we need to think about sustainable community.
There are more just paths to take. On June 5, more than 50 mayors from cities around the world signed the Urban Environmental Accords, committing their communities to 21 specific policies with measurable goals in the areas of energy, waste reduction, urban design, urban nature, transportation, environmental health and water. Also this year, more than 200 mayors across the country signed onto the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, which commits them and their communities to meeting the Kyoto accord guidelines for reducing carbon emissions. In North Carolina, the mayors of Durham and Chapel Hill have already signed.
This fall, we in Asheville have a great opportunity to begin the process of stopping the insanity of unlimited consumption and blind environmental degradation. In November, city residents will elect a new mayor and City Council. All our local candidates have received copies of both the Urban Environmental Accords and the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement; now is the time to ask them some tough questions. And based on their answers, let’s elect a mayor and City Council who won’t be frightened of the challenges that creating sustainable community will entail.
The plain fact is, we can’t continue to live on a grander scale than our bioregion and planet will allow. But if we exercise our moral courage and imagination, our children and their children’s children will benefit. And maybe someday our skies will once again be filled with birds — because we’ve stopped the killing, the forests have re-grown, and the waters are clean again.
[Richard Fireman, M.D., serves on the state steering committee of The Climate Connection: NC Interfaith Eco-Justice Network and is co-chair of Caring for Creation: Interfaith Partners of Western North Carolina, the project’s regional branch.]