© Justine Burt 2008. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
April 20, 2008

What if Martin Luther King Jr. had given a speech called "I Have a Nightmare" instead of "I Have a Dream"? Do you think "I Have a Nightmare" would have accelerated the civil rights movement in the same way? While we still have a long way to go until people judge others by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin, we have made great progress.

On August 28, 1963, hundreds of thousands of people assembled near the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. to hear King speak. President Kennedy had recently returned from Germany where he had called for freedom for those living behind the Iron Curtain. Yet prior to King's speech, Kennedy had asked King to call off the demonstration, saying "We want success in Congress, not just a big show at the Capitol."

This put King in a bad mood. He asked gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to open with the song "I Been 'Buked and I Been Scorned." Then he started off his speech with a metaphor about the debt America owed African Americans. At one point in the speech Mahalia Jackson interjected: "Martin, tell them about your dream." King paused and then said "But let us not wallow in the valley of despair. And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream."

Which part of this speech echoes today in the hearts of Americans? Which part motivated people to think that suddenly integration seemed... inevitable: the negative or the positive part? Was it both?

There is a struggle going on currently in the environmental movement for the movement's soul. Is the best way to save the planet to tell people to stop destroying it OR to try and inspire them to create a more sustainable future?

Sustainability is a large umbrella but the basic idea involves:

  1. Using resources from our environment no faster than Nature can replenish them so we don't sacrifice the ability of future generations to meet their needs.
  2. Ensuring everyone's basic needs are met: food, shelter, clean water, sanitation, education and health care.
  3. Restoring the balance and health of ecosystems.

In order to achieve a sustainable future we are going to need to redesign the way we do everything in our society. We will need to transition:

Our transportation, buildings and agriculture choices have a huge effect on climate change because these processes are so energy intensive. Most energy we use releases CO2 into our atmosphere and contributes to climate change. Experts say that to stabilize climate we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions by 80% below 1990 levels. Realizing this kind of transformation is going to require a new approach. The Kyoto Protocol with its ambition to reduce greenhouse gases by 5 percent is not nearly enough. The command and control approach of limiting activity, telling people to be less bad and reduce their emissions is not as motivating as inspiring people with a positive vision of possibilities.

What we need, according to Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus in their book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility, are major investments in clean energy technology to make renewable energy absolutely cheaper than conventional fossil fuels. This would mean a $300 billion public investment over 10 years in research and development into clean energy sources, as well as implementation of energy efficiency and energy conservation opportunities. These actions will send us down the path of sustainability.

Redesigning the way we do everything in our society and steer major investment dollars towards renewable R&D may seem like a daunting challenge but as Henry Ford once said "Whether you think you can or think you can't, either way, you're right."

If we look at the overwhelming challenges we face in a new way, they suddenly seem much easier to tackle. Consider the idea of "solving for pattern" which involves finding a solution that addresses multiple problems. Here's an example. Last year, the Energy Bill of 2007 set a goal of raising the corporate average fuel efficiency of cars and trucks to an average of 35 mpg by the year 2020. This is a 40% increase in gas mileage, a significant increase. Doing this will not only address climate change and air quality issues, but it will also create jobs in the U.S., reduce the trade deficit, and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

Here's another way to look at a solution to climate change and high gasoline prices. I saw a cartoon recently that showed two cars filing up at the gas station. One had a license plate that said 46 mpg and the other car had a license plate that said 23 mpg. The guy with the 23 mpg car said "I wish I knew a way to cut my cost of gas in half."

We feel alone sometimes in our efforts to make the world a better place. We feel good when we buy a hybrid, make dinner for a homeless shelter, plant trees, recycle or buy local organic produce. But sometimes it feels like these small efforts don't really make a difference. Well, another book I want to tell you about addresses this. Paul Hawken, the co-founder of the company Smith & Hawken, recently wrote a book called Blessed Unrest. Hawken posits that there is a large and growing movement to ensure that life on this planet will be able to continue and even thrive. The movement is practically invisible to the media because it is decentralized, doesn't have a single charismatic leader and it has no central ideology. Did you know that there are now one to two million non-profits working on environmental, social justice and indigenous peoples' rights worldwide? They are working toengage citizens' localized and pragmatic needs. According to Hawken's analysis of many vision and mission statements that his organization catalogued, the values that bind its members together are fairness, equity and a deeper understanding of the natural world.

How interesting! These are values that Unitarian Universalists covenant to affirm and promote:

Unitarian Universalists must be on the right track.

Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't the first American visionary to have a great dream. Henry David Thoreau, who inspired King, also encouraged those of us who dream of a more sustainable future. In Thoreau's book Walden, he wrote:

"I learned this, at least, by my experiment; that if one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams, and endeavors to live the life which he has imagined, he will meet with a success unexpected in common hours. He will put some things behind, will pass an invisible boundary; new, universal, and more liberal laws will begin to establish themselves around and within him... If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them."

Unitarian Universalist activist and community-building work are the foundations under our castles in the air. Let us endeavor to continue to be a model for others through our values and our activist work. And let us walk the middle path between knowledge of how much things need to improve and the possibility of how good things could be so that a sustainable future seems... inevitable.

Back to Top