The Incorrect Rightness of Being: Finding Hope for the End of the World
April 26, 2023, Saint Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral, Chattanooga TN
I want to open my time with famous a prayer by Reinhold Neiber:
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference, living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time; taking this world as it is and not as I would have it; trusting that You will make all things right if I surrender to Your will; so that I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen.
I’m really excited to be here, talking about a subject that I find increasingly important but also difficult: finding hope amidst climate crisis. To start, I want to thank the wonderful people of St. Paul’s and Tennessee Interfaith Power and Light, especially, Angela Dittmar, Bruce Blohm, Sandra Kurtz, Dan Joranko, Ron Colvin, and Father Murdock. Without all of their incredible work, this wonderful event wouldn’t have been possible.
For those of you I don’t know, my name is Josh Richardson and I’m the director of Brugmansia Ministries which is an organization specializing in climate resilience for faith communities. I have masters degrees and extensive work experience in both geological sciences and religious environmental ministry. But, tonight, I’m also going to be drawing from my personal background.
I am here, in many ways, as an embodiment of the challenges to finding hope amidst environmental degradation and climate change. I grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains in Athens County Ohio which, at that time, was the poorest county in the state and one of the poorest counties in the nation. Athens County has a long legacy of previous coal and iron mining, with coal towns interspersed throughout the winding creeks colored bright yellows, oranges, and reds from acid mine drainage. The landscape of Athens County is colored with mine drainage and dotted with unmapped and largely uncharacterized collapsing abandoned mines that make almost any land use dangerous and impossibly cost prohibitive, limiting economic growth and future opportunities for current residents.
The once vibrant mining towns are now largely in a state of decay, where the only surviving official businesses are small restaurants, car mechanics, gas stations, McDonalds, and maybe a Dollar General or hardware store. None of which provide an income for employees where individuals can easily survive, let alone thrive. Funding for public school systems and social services are derived from property taxes which, as you might imagine, are incredibly low, leaving many children without access to an education that provides them the tools they need to continue on academically beyond high school, forcing them to choose between military service or staying in Appalachia with very little economic opportunity. Diseases and cancers related to environmental pollution from mining, coal plants, and chemical production are widespread with ill-equipped and poorly trained medical staff routinely failing to provide competent medical care to suffering individuals. And amidst all of these interconnected social and environmental challenges, folks turn to alcohol and opiates to manage the weight of living in a place with few opportunities and generational trauma that is manifest on the land.
At age 29, I was diagnosed with rectal cancer, which is a cancer commonly associated with environmental degradation, and is increasingly common in young folks living in Appalachia. During my treatment, I lost my rectum and all but 6 inches of my large intestine, leaving me permanently disabled, effectively ending my career as a geologist and impacting every moment of my life.
In living in Appalachia and in cancer treatment and survivorship, I’ve had to wrestle with the realities of something as ephemeral and exploited as hope. I’ve seen countless well-paid nonprofits, well-funded churches, and various high-profile politicians peddle false dreams and ludicrous ideas in the name of hope for a thriving Appalachia ungrounded from its culture, history, trauma, and infrastructure. And, in learning to live with a disability and dealing with vocational loss, I’ve had countless conversations with incredibly kind people where I’ve felt like hope was being used to assuage discomfort created by my existence as a young person disabled by cancer.
But, I didn’t come here to be with you to talk about the complexities of Appalachian Ohio, the challenges of generational poverty, or my own challenges with cancer. I came to talk about hope.
It’s just, I want to be clear about what we’re talking about.
Not too long ago in this country's history, coal and iron production were seen as a great source of hope. They promised economic growth, high paying jobs, technological advancement, and a refuge from harsh weather conditions. The coal and iron taken from Athens County and Southeast Ohio were pivotal for the North’s victory in the civil war. Even as recently as 2014, Peabody Energy, one of the world’s largest coal producers, argued that coal production was vital for reducing poverty in some of the poorest places in the world. They argued that coal provides vital electricity that can be used to create clean water, cleaner air, refrigeration for medicine and foods, and increase life expectancy in some of the world’s poorest places, all of which are true. Which asks a question of hope.
Right now, in European and North American countries, corporations, governments, and NGO’s, including the United Nations, are promoting solutions to climate change that are built on premises of false hope that are ungrounded from the suffering of marginalized people and physical realities. The United Nations and other major NGOs are proposing that the world needs to have Net-Zero carbon emissions by 2050, with a 45 percent decrease in emissions by 2030, to have a 50% chance of not exceeding a 1.5 degree threshold of increase in average global temperature. And to get there, we are going to mine more resources than the world has and use carbon capture and storage technologies that do not exist at employable scales.
In 2021, the journal Nature anonymously surveyed the authors of the International Panel on Climate Change report preceding the 2022 COP26 meeting in Glasgow. In this survey, Nature found that almost 90% of the responding authors said they expect to see “catastrophic impacts of climate change in their lifetimes”, with 60% of the respondents expecting that we will not be able to keep climate change below 3 degrees.
To put those numbers into a different context, a 2022 study published in the journal Science evaluated the temperature ranges for numerous climate tipping points, which are physical thresholds that, if crossed, will begin permanently altering foundational earth systems without any way for humans to stop the change. The impacts of crossing these tipping points range from entire agricultural regions becoming arid from changes to atmospheric air patterns to ocean level rises over 20’ becoming inevitable, potentially displacing more people than currently live in North and South America combined while completely destroying the places they used to live. In this study, the authors found that humans have already exceeded the lowest level threshold of temperature increases to avoid the potential for certain tipping points, with many tipping points potentially being crossed once we reach a 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in average global temperature, which we are currently projected to do within this decade.
Also in 2021, the Geological Survey of Finland published a report by Simon Micheaux evaluating the available mineral resources for a transition away from fossil fuels using currently proposed green technologies like solar panels and electric vehicles. In this work, Micheaux estimates that to transition electric vehicles, alone, it would require humans to produce 282.6 million tonnes of batteries, which would require 48% of the global lithium reserves, 43% of the global nickel reserves, more cobalt than we currently know about, and all of the batteries would need to be replaced within 8-10 years. Micheaux also found that, with current technologies, there is simply not enough mineral resources for necessary electrical storage to transition our grids to renewable energy sources compared to fossil fuels.
To put this more plainly, we have already changed the earth's atmosphere to the point where we may have done irreparable harm to the balance of life on this planet. Largely, goals and plans to reduce or eliminate carbon emissions have become discussions around how much we’re willing to risk our own future and how much suffering we are willing to inflict on ourselves, already exploited humans, our nonhuman brothers and sisters, and our children, either through the impacts of climate change or through mining.
And, the predominant solutions being presented to us by corporations and governments to address these problems in the form of technological innovation are, at best, ill-informed and ungrounded from physical realities, and, at worst, outright lies to either make the last bit of money they can in an ever-collapsing society or to keep us complacent. Either way, there is no hope to be found in continuing along a trajectory to destruction.
Which, just to be clear, doesn’t mean that there isn’t value in non carbon-based energy sources or a need for a transition away from fossil fuels. We absolutely need to transition away from fossil fuels and stop releasing carbon into our atmosphere, but the current technological paradigms will not be able to do that with our current levels of demand for electricity and transportation. There is no hope in a technological salvation, alone.
To be completely transparent, I don’t believe that I’ve said anything tonight that we all don’t innately know. We are all living in a world built on environmental exploitation at the expense of our lives and the lives of everyone around us. Our crops are grown in ways that destroy the soils while being harvested by migrant workers who are paid little, have very few rights, and are routinely abused. Our clothes are made in sweatshops whose conditions are so horrific that companies place nets outside of their windows to keep workers from throwing themselves off of their buildings to their deaths. The materials for our electronic devices are mined and refined using horrific chemicals by child slaves. In our own country, entire communities, often along racial and economic lines, are forced to live in environmental sacrifice zones that impact child brain development, give people asthma, cancer, and other diseases and consistently reduce the quality and longevity of life for anyone living in these places.
We are constantly leveraging the existence of the exploited and the future of humanity for the benefit of very few privileged people.
We live these realities every day.
Now, for some of us there is catharsis in being able to say the quiet things out loud. To be able to lament the insanity of operating in an environmental movement that on one hand asks us to stand with the Apache people against the destruction of sacred land and the potential poisoning of their people for copper production and, on the other hand, demands that we increase copper production for renewable energy sources.
Or, there is value in being able to grieve the realities that people who are struggling to survive cannot afford to care about the environment, and we live in a world that makes people struggle because people who struggle can be controlled and exploited.
And, to be honest, I grieve every single day for what we’re doing to life on this planet and what that means for future generations. And I am angry about how easily we allow atrocity and exploitation to be mundane and customary.
Yet, we cannot stop at the comforts of lament, grief, frustration, and anger. And we cannot continue to accept false hopes that will eventually lead to the destruction of everything we care about.
It is in this moment, where we are either being presented with false hopes or simply being told that there is nothing we can do to address climate change, that the voices and work of our faith communities are so important.
As faith communities, we hold what is sacred and we see beyond the certitude of trajectory, the myth of inevitability, and the false-salvation of technology. We hold on to love. We hold on to the belief in community and charity. We hold on to true hope.
The reason we can say that the climate crisis is a moral crisis is because we know that each person is sacred, our nonhuman brothers and sisters are sacred, and the land itself is sacred. So, to destroy or harm through our actions in carbon-dioxide production is not simply wasteful but breaks a sacred trust bestowed upon us. But also, when we destroy the land and enslave or kill our siblings for precious metals, we break a sacred trust bestowed upon us.
Here, my friends, is where I find true hope.
When we hold on to what is sacred and we refuse to allow what is sacred to be compromised or degraded, an infinity of solutions to addressing climate change and social exploitation become available. Because, we don’t need to profit from our actions or increase shareholder value. We only need to maximize the most benefit for everyone, including our nonhuman brothers and sisters. We are not bound by the same frameworks and logics that have driven us to this point. In fact, we are free to use humanity’s greatest assets, community, creativity, sacrifice, love, and ingenuity, to solve our greatest crisis.
So, when I look at the world through solutions that meet everyone’s needs, I find deep hope. Imagine what would happen if the citizens of Chattanooga converted all of their turfgrass to native plants, permaculture food forests, and community gardens. We could end the hunger of this city while reducing flood impacts and putting carbon back into the ground. In a time of deep disconnection, think about how many people would feel more connected and loved by their community if we developed ride-sharing programs or we took public transportation together to and from our services and meetings. What hope would we bring, if on the hottest days of the year, we made it known that all of our faith communities would welcome folks who cannot afford to pay for air conditioning into our buildings, truly making us a sanctuary. Honestly, the possibilities are only as limited as our ability to dream and care for eachother.
For those of us here who are Christians, we know we’re currently in the season of Easter, which is the most hopeful time in the Christian calendar. It is a time of renewal and resurrection. It is a time that we celebrate that death can be overcome by life, and that there is no challenge that cannot be solved and no injustice that cannot be righted. But it’s also a time that we recognize that in overcoming death, there are still scars.
We cannot avoid the scars of what we’ve done with climate change and biodiversity loss. But once we refuse to accept exploitation and begin to dream about justice, the solutions that will bring about resurrection are everywhere. And, for me, that is where I find true hope. Thank you for your time.
 “Peabody Urges Greater Use Of Advanced Coal Globally To Fight Energy Poverty And Improve Emissions,” accessed April 27, 2023, https://www.prnewswire.com/in/news-releases/peabody-urges-greater-use-of-advanced-coal-globally-to-fight-energy-poverty-and-improve-emissions-277245621.html.  United Nations, “Net Zero Coalition | United Nations” (United Nations), accessed April 27, 2023, https://www.un.org/en/climatechange/net-zero-coalition.  Jeff Tollefson, “Top Climate Scientists Are Sceptical That Nations Will Rein in Global Warming,” Nature 599, no. 7883 (November 1, 2021): 22–24, https://doi.org/10.1038/D41586-021-02990-W.  David I.Armstrong McKay et al., “Exceeding 1.5°C Global Warming Could Trigger Multiple Climate Tipping Points,” Science 377, no. 6611 (September 9, 2022), https://doi.org/10.1126/SCIENCE.ABN7950/SUPPL_FILE/SCIENCE.ABN7950_DATA_S1.ZIP.  Simon P Michaux, “Assessment of the Extra Capacity Required of Alternative Energy Electrical Power Systems to Completely Replace Fossil Fuels,” accessed April 27, 2023, www.gtk.fi.