The planet, stewardship and deferred maintenance required

When my car needs maintenance, it flashes a sign at me from the dashboard.

"Regular maintenance required," blares the sign. 

I rarely get to the required maintenance until I've driven a few hundred miles over the car's computerized limit. Thus, I drive along with the car's computer yelling at me. Or so I feel.

I take the accusation of needing maintenance personally — around my own diet, my own sleep habits, my own exercise regimen, or lack thereof. I don't need reminders about more deferred maintenance.

I often feel the planet yelling at me, too. It is begging for me rather than defer to expedite maintenance and to put in a plan of action. It may even be asking me for an oil change, but that is probably stretching the metaphor too far. 

So what might change? Often, we stage the climate debate in terms of doing something new. We delight in the news about renewables: We really are making energy in new ways at a rapid rate. This is a big and good change.

We often imagine the big Titanic on which we float making a sharp turn toward a different way of energizing ourselves. We imagine public transportation everywhere or gas stations that have turned into coffee shops or city streets where every other one is a biking or walking path.

I have done most of my climate thinking on this plane, one I call "new, different, better." I don't really know what I would do with all the roads and oil tanks underground or with all the cars that would have to be recycled.  

Another familiar plane on which I think environmentally is one I call a "sacramental, enchantment" plane. If we just changed our story and let desacralized nature become re-sacralized nature, we would find ourselves in a different relationship to the planet. That different relationship would result in an energy shift that would accelerate even more the path to renewables.

Lately, I have been testing a new plane theory. Maybe it is a third way?

I have begun to realize that more authoritarian methods may be necessary. Tax gasoline a dollar more per gallon and you would immediately see change. Prohibit single-passenger cars driving into cities on their morning commute. Require three passengers per vehicle. At the same time I have thought about these more authoritarian policy approaches, the price of gasoline has gone down and people are driving more because of that. The more authoritarian approach has value, if only by observing its opposite.

It could be that each of my environmental theories has their own theologies.

My authoritarian theory resides in a punishment modality. God does want us to have freedom but also is appalled at the sinful ways we use our freedom. Thus, we have to be curtailed.

My enchantment theory resides in a sacramental theology. The earth is magnificently sacred and if we just became more grateful for it, we would find our way to change.

My "new, different, better" theory resides in a resurrection theology. We may look dead but we aren't; a whole new way is right around the corner.

I have been wondering lately, as we head toward COP 22, the annual United Nations climate change conference, this year held in Marrakech, Morocco, and almost nobody I talk to wants to go or is interested.

Deferred maintenance required.

First, we need to think and then think again about our theologies. What does God want from us?  What is agonizing God these days? What is exciting God? How do we maintain good climate ideas and theologies? How often do they need dusting off or refreshed oil or their tires rotated? 

What is the theology behind deferred maintenance as an overall environmental theory? Stewardship. It is that we are free to take care of each other, earth and things. At our highest and deepest humanity, we are caretakers. Riverkeepers even.

In a maintenance mode, there could still be many new technologies and energies. They too would need to be maintained. In an enchantment or sacramental mode, we would still need that word "awesome" to describe how we figured out how to feed and energize more people on the planet for less damage or expense. In that same mode, we might consent to self-regulation and not have to give up democracy in order to self-regulate. We might be so happy that we would change rather than be so dismayed that we just drive along in our car with the dashboard light flashing.

Freedom put to the purpose of stewardship. Now that is an environmental theory and theology.

[Donna Schaper is senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York City.]

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