Climate Activist Offers Message for Difficult Decades in Future

The Greater Woodbury Environmental Forum hosted a talk by the Rev. Fred Small, an environmental lawyer, a singer-songwriter, a Unitarian Universalist minister and a nationally known climate activist, Monday evening, September 30, at the Mattatuck Unitarian Universalist Society, which shares space with First Congregational Church of Woodbury on Main Street North. (Dunn photo)

WOODBURY — In its third public session, the Greater Woodbury Environmental Forum hosted a talk by the Rev. Fred Small, a nationally known climate activist, on Monday evening, September 30, at the Mattatuck Unitarian Universalist Society, which shares space with First Congregational Church at 241 Main St. North. An environmental lawyer, a singer-songwriter and a UU minister, Rev. Small left parish ministry in 2015 to devote his energies to creation care and climate advocacy.

He is currently minister for climate justice at Arlington Street Church in Boston and serves on the steering committee of the Faith Science Alliance for Climate Leadership, a coalition of scientists and faith leaders who advocate for public policies that address the ecological and moral emergency of climate change.

Rev. Small began his talk by noting that humans are 90 percent water.

“Basically,” he said, “we’re cucumbers with anxiety.”

Much of that anxiety, he believes, comes from the knowledge that 2018 was the warmest year ever recorded; that 29 countries have recently experienced their warmest days ever, including a day of 123 degrees Fahrenheit in the United Arab Emirates.

But those who came expecting to hear a rousing talk filled with “fighting words” to challenge climate deniers instead heard a message of peace and spiritual support for what Rev. Small predicts will be difficult decades ahead, particularly for the poor and people of color.

“I still believe my fellow citizens are largely good and decent people who want to do the right thing,” he said.

The reasons people turn their back on climate science are many, he noted, ticking off ideology, economic insecurity, racism, addiction to convenience, hypercapitalism and more. And yet, he said, the whole world is at risk. There is no refuge.

Rev. Small asked those present to imagine a four-year-old child, perhaps their own grandchild.

“Imagine that child playing with friends,” he said. “Imagine that child in the tender embrace of its parents. Imagine that it’s up to you whether this child suffers, is in pain, endures famine, drought, storms, is poisoned by contaminated water.

“Now imagine that child growing up happy, in a place with renewable energy, under a democratic government.

“Which future is real,” he asked. “It’s up to us.”

Rev. Small is known as one of the key figures in the religious environmental surge, engaging in civil disobedience to draw attention to climate change. In 2001, he was arrested with 21 others in prayer outside the U.S. Department of Energy in Washington, D.C. In 2007, he was a lead organizer of the Interfaith Walk for Climate Rescue from Northampton to Boston, Mass.

He described the day in 2016 when he and other faith leaders protested the construction of Spectra Energy’s fracked gas pipeline in West Roxbury, Mass., recalling that when an arresting officer reached down into the trenches to remove a fellow protester, he whispered, “thank you for your service.”

His advocacy on behalf of the planet is peaceful, persistent and above all, patient.

“To be patient means to slow down,” he said. “The hectic pace of activism takes a toll on humans.”

Quoting the American Trappist monk Thomas Merton, Rev. Small noted that sometimes “the frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace.”

As Rev. Small wryly noted, it’s easy for someone like Thomas Merton to find inner peace, considering that he died before the age of Twitter. Though his presentation at the MUUS lectern was serene, almost Zen-like, the pastor admitted that on social media, his own zeal sometimes gets the best of him.

“It’s natural to feel grief,” he said. “Climate justice activist despair is my constant friend. But the realization that it’s too late to prevent climate change has calmed me.

“We are treading into the unknown,” he said. “Terrible things are happening, and will happen. But we can reduce suffering. We can tend the wounded. We can build a more just world with love and compassion and generosity and tenderness of spirit.”

Noting that the world of our children’s children’s will be unlike the world we know, he maintained that our climate future is not binary.

“It won’t be utopia or dystopia,” he said. “It will most certainly be both.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said. “I hope the human species will survive this crisis we’ve created. We’ve already seen five major extinctions.

“Life will endure, with the grace of God, if we’re wiser, kinder, more compassionate.”

In the question-and-answer period that followed, when someone asked what one thing people could do tomorrow to combat climate change, Rev. Small paraphrased American environmentalist, author and journalist Bill McKibben, saying “Stop thinking like an individual.”

He noted that climate activists sometimes spend so much time worrying about their own personal carbon footprint that they’ve surrendered the public square to those who don’t have the earth’s interests at heart.

Political activism, he said, is key.

“I use silk dental floss,” he said. “Good for me. But that won’t make Connecticut the leader on the climate front. The gap between what has to be done and where we are politically is tremendous.

“People who are the least responsible for climate change will be the most vulnerable. That’s unconscionable. Going vegan is not going to address that. Personal responsibility does not address environmental injustice.”

Rev. Small suggested that everyone should know where their legislators stand on climate change.

“Ninety-seven percent of scientists agree that global warming is real,” he said. “There are no studies that disprove global warming. It’s not a controversy; it’s a matter of identity.

“Time is short and the risk of inaction is high. If your legislators aren’t at the cutting edge of this issue, change their mind — or vote them out.”

The Greater Woodbury Environmental Forum is a project of the Green Sanctuary Committee of the Mattatuck Unitarian Universalist Society.

The next program, set for 7 p.m. Monday, November 11, will feature sustainable development organizer and activist Greg Watson, director of policy and systems design at the Massachusetts-based Schumacher Center for a New Economics.

Mr. Watson’s topic will be Environment, Equity and Climate: Tools for Systemic Change.

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