We have to wean ourselves away from our dependence on fossil fuels. Think about petroleum. The industrial economy treats oil as a resource free for the taking, with a price based only on the cost of extraction and delivery. It shaped a world which became completely dependent on cheap oil. But we have passed the time when oil can be easily extracted, and now riskier and dirtier methods are required. Deep sea drilling like that which caused the spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Tar sands mining in Alberta Canada that destroys the forest, and devastates the health of the people and animals of the region. Arctic Sea drilling. Burning oil for fuel will increase greenhouse gasses and bring our climate closer to disastrous changes.
I know we have to stop burning oil. But when I look at my own life I see how big a challenge that will be. Our home is heated by oil. I drive a car than runs on gasoline made from oil, to buy food and other needed items, and also to go back and forth to the congregation I serve. It would take several hours to walk to these destinations from my house, and there is no public transportation nearby. The whole structure of suburban life is dependent upon oil. My congregation is a suburban congregation, and almost every person who comes to worship drives there in an automobile. Without oil, it is likely the church, and my house, would not have been built in these locations. The whole geographic structure of our society has been shaped by oil.
And not only that—many material goods in our lives are also fabricated from oil. Plastics are made from petroleum, and there is plastic in every room in our houses. I write on a computer with plastic components. Alarm clocks, toothbrushes, synthetic fabrics, telephones, televisions—all from oil. Modern agriculture is dependent on fertilizer made from oil, and machines that use oil, and a transportation system that uses oil. The asphalt on our roads is made from oil. If oil disappeared tomorrow, the whole system would collapse. And eventually, oil will run out. That is one of the realities we are learning in our time.
None of us have the ability to undo our dependence on oil individually. It is too entrenched, too societally enmeshed. But we can begin to imagine some partial solutions—in fact, the technology to live without oil already exists. I was inspired when I learned about “zero-carbon” houses that actually generate more energy than they use. We may not be able to fully achieve such a goal, but why not try to get closer to that ideal?
I know that even if we succeed beyond our wildest dream—even if we create a zero-carbon home from which we could walk to most functions of our lives, even if we could afford an electric vehicle that we charge from solar panels for other transportation—oil companies will still be breaking open the earth in Alberta, and spilling oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The children living near refineries will still be getting asthma. The ice of the arctic will still be melting, and thousands of species will go extinct each year. We need not only individual change, but a social will to transform our relationship to the earth. But I believe that each change we pursue as individuals also works its magic on that larger transformative process in ways that we can’t fully understand. And so we take the one step we are able to take.
In the Talmud it says, “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly, now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.”