How do we stay spiritually grounded in the midst of tackling very complex issues? That question came to mind as I sat with a row of panelists behind a table in the chapel of Amherst College, waiting for my turn to speak. The focus of the conference was on whether we can make a carbon fee and rebate work in Massachusetts. Every speaker emphasized that in order to solve the climate crisis we must put a price on carbon emissions and put the money that is raised back into people’s pockets. My role on the panel was to address the spiritual and ethical foundation for supporting a carbon fee and rebate.
Climate XChange, an organization of advocates and citizens working for a carbon fee and rebate in Massachusetts, had assembled some leading thinkers to address the issue’s complexities, including Professor James Boyce, who teaches economics at UMass/Amherst; State Rep. Tom Conroy (13th Middlesex), the author and co-sponsor of the 2013 Carbon Tax Bill; Dan Gatti, the Executive Director of Carbon XChange; and State Rep. Ellen Story (Third Hampshire District). The moderator was Professor Jan Dizard, who teaches sociology and environmental studies at Amherst College.
I was glad to be the last panelist to speak, for as I listened to my co-panelists, I could see how much time, patience, and effort it takes for economists and politicians to explain clearly – and for listeners to grasp – how the carbon rebate will work, how it will achieve emissions reductions, and how it will be set up so that lower income and disadvantaged residents are not harmed. (For a clear and pithy explanation of how a carbon fee and rebate works, view this 4-minute clip from the forum, in remarks by economist James Boyce.)
Enacting a carbon fee and rebate is one of the most promising tools we have for changing consumers’ behavior, reducing our use of dirty energy, developing clean, renewable energy, creating green jobs, and stabilizing the climate. (Another promising tool would be for our government to quit subsidizing fossil fuel companies, but that’s another story.) A carbon tax can also strengthen a region’s economy: British Columbia has had a carbon tax since 2008, and that province’s economy has become the fastest growing in Canada.
But from the discussion in Amherst that night, it was clear to me that understanding how a carbon tax works, and pushing for its passage, will take a good deal of effort, stamina, and skill. What will keep our personal and collective energy from flagging? From what source of spiritual and ethical wisdom will we draw as we struggle to build a better future?
The answer, it seems to me, is no further away than our body, where everything begins. We may come from different spiritual traditions, or from none, but we all have a body. Perhaps through our bodies we can tap into a spring of spiritual energy that will renew our hearts and give us strength and guidance for the struggles ahead. What follows is based on what I said to the audience in Amherst about the spiritual and ethical foundation of our efforts to secure a carbon tax and to stabilize the climate.
I invite you to take a moment to feel your feet on the ground. Beneath the floor is the earth. Let yourself feel the support of the good earth beneath your feet. Feel the sensations of your feet on the floor, and let the good earth hold you up. Feel how solid your body is, as solid as the earth… I invite you take a couple of good, deep breaths. As you take in the sweet air and then let it go, feel the air passing into and out of your lungs. Notice that you are exchanging the elements of life with plants and green-growing things… Take a moment to experience yourself as a living creature, connected to the earth and air and to all living beings.
As we sit here with our feet on the ground, breathing with awareness, we may notice that none of us owns our breath. Our breath does not belong to us. We can’t hold on to it or save it up for later. We simply receive it freely and then let it go. Moment by moment, each breath is given to us. Breath by breath, we receive the gift of life. All of it is gift – everything we see and hear and taste and touch. This is where amazement springs up, along with wonder, gratefulness and awe. Here we are! Breathing!
Gratitude is the wellspring of all spiritual traditions, and from gratitude flows the perception that everything is precious. Everything is sacred. We belong to a sacred Mystery that is much larger than we are. We are part of a much larger whole. In our stressed and busy lives it’s easy to forget that we are part of something greater than ourselves, which is why so many of us come home to ourselves when we spend time outdoors – when we climb a mountain and get the big view, or when we pause in the midst of a busy day to admire a bird or a tree.
When we are spiritually awake we feel our connection, our kinship, with other living beings, human and other than human. We recognize that we’re in this together, that all of us are part of one single, precious, and intricate web of life. Perceiving the world like this elicits a certain tenderness: we want to nurture and protect the mysterious gift of inhabiting a living planet. That’s the spiritual wisdom we can learn from being aware of our feet on the ground and our lungs filling and emptying with air.
But our bodies also teach us about the ethical dimension, the justice dimension of the world. The good earth beneath our feet is the same earth that fossil fuel companies are blowing apart by mountaintop removal in order to extract coal; the same earth that is being violently injected with tons of chemicals that crack apart shale, release natural gas and methane, and poison rivers and streams; the same earth that is flooding in some places, going dry in others, and manifesting unpredictable, violent extremes of weather because of the abrupt changes inflicted by global warming.
The life-giving air that fills our lungs is the same air into which fossil fuel companies are pouring greenhouse gases as if the atmosphere were an open sewer; the same air that contains more carbon dioxide than it has for millions of years; the same air whose delicate balance is being disrupted and destroyed.
Our own bodies connect us to the wounding of the world and to the cries of the poor, who are affected first and hardest by climate change, and who are already suffering from its effects, including extreme storms and rapidly rising seas, food and water shortages and infectious diseases.
That is the spiritual and ethical context in which I welcome a carbon tax and rebate. Putting a stable and meaningful price on carbon, and distributing the fee in a way that is fair and does not harm the poor, is an essential step in moving toward a fossil free economy and healing the devastation of climate change.
We need to protect the web of life, which is unraveling before our eyes. We need to move quickly to build a just and sustainable future for our children and our children’s children. We need to plant our feet firmly on this beautiful earth, to take a good deep breath of air, and to press together for a strong, fair, and equitable carbon fee and rebate plan. I hope that Massachusetts will lead the way.
A YouTube video of part of the conference is here (MBJ’s remarks begin at 8’30”).
Bloomberg View has posted articles about why even people who doubt climate science should support a carbon tax; how a well-designed carbon tax can cut harmful emissions; how carbon taxes don’t kill jobs; and how carbon taxes can shrink government and help the poor.
Climate XChange is pushing for a carbon fee and rebate in Massachusetts.
Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) is supporting national carbon-pollution fee and dividend legislation. CCL is a non-partisan, international, volunteer organization whose mission is to create the political will for a stable climate and to empower individuals to have breakthroughs in exercising their personal and political power.
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