“Every Step an Impact”
Much like JD Stillwater, the writer of our reading this morning, I was caught up in the marches of the early 80’s. Annually or sometimes twice a year I would board a bus to New York or Washington DC to join with thousands of others who showed up to protest. The antinuclear movement was alive and well in those days. Other causes were granted similar billing, but “No Nukes” was a common denominator. We opposed the use of nuclear power and weapons, concerned about the environment and safety in terms of byproducts, spoke out against the “war machine” and potential repeats of atomic bomb threats being carried out. These were risks we weren’t willing to take. I haven’t seen the new Oppenheimer film yet, but I know that those who developed the bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki seventy-eight years ago this week, were uncertain what to expect, what level of devastation would occur. Certainly, they had some ideas, but the magnitude was unknown. Still, they were willing to risk it. After the fact there was a wish that somehow the genie could be put back in the bottle, but it was too late. And so, the world lives now with that underlying tension, knowing that it could happen again in even bigger ways, destroying so much of the life we know as our own in this interconnected web of existence.
I was doing a little research for this morning’s sermon and was reading about the history of the Yucca Mountain disposal site. Back in 1982 congress developed a policy for the development of a nuclear waste disposal program and charged the Department of Energy with the task of creating an underground “geologic repository.” The idea had its origins in the 1950’s and in the 70’s study of the idea began in earnest resulting in Yucca Mountain being the prime target. Various administrations over the decades have pushed the start and stop buttons on this project. Meanwhile, there are thousands of tons of spent fuel in temporary storage. Local Nevada residents oppose the site, worried about the leakage of radiation emissions, and rightly so. The governor stated in 2019 that not one ounce of nuclear waste would be stored in his state and the people indigenous to that area remind us of the sacred nature of the mountain site which is being impinged upon by the process.
Here at home, recent decisions about the 1.1 million gallons of industrial wastewater emissions from the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant into the bay as a part of its decommissioning process have been halted.i It has taken years to get to this decision and the hope is that it will have a ripple effect around the country because the same company is working to decommission many other sites. Considerations include the people who go into our waters, ocean wildlife, seafood, and tourism. There is a ripple effect one way or the other and we continue to watch for how this all plays out.
In an entirely opposite course of events, we can read about the recent commissioning of a new phase of their nuclear power plant coming online in Georgia, the first such occurrence in 30 years. They declare this as the safest form of power production for Georgia residents – a long term investment in the state’s clean energy future, as cited in a story by Daniel J. Graeber. This is Unit 3 and Unit 4 is anticipated to come online early next year. They expect the facility to be in use for the next 60 years providing reliable and affordable energy. Technological advancements in safety are touted and recent developments in nuclear fusion as opposed to nuclear fission are mentioned. But my question remains, “What if?” What if something went wrong? What happens at the end of those 60 years? Are we solving a problem for the present without fully thinking through the outcomes for future generations? Sixty years is most of my lifetime, but this feels shortsighted to me.
Here at the Meeting House, we have excitedly jumped on the solar bandwagon and why not! Our electric meters are spinning backwards figuratively and perhaps literally, I am not sure which, but the result is zero dollars spent on electricity and that is a savings we welcome. So, given the topic for today I took a bit of a dive into the process ofii creating solar power – solar panels to be specific – a key component of the system. Turns out that they rely on a variety of minerals to function effectively according to an article published last fall by a nationally recognized engineering firm. Things like silicon for generating the sun’s power, cadmium in manufacturing and improved efficiency, tellurium for stability and selenium to prevent sun damage. These minerals are mined in places like Australia, Brazil, China, and the US under “strict environmental regulations.” Mining has the potential to disrupt local ecosystems, release harmful toxins into the air and water, and the amount of energy required to process the minerals is quite large and produces hazardous waste. Mining in places with lax labor and environmental laws is still another consideration. Ethical concerns abound and the demand for more of this technology means solutions should be at the forefront of industry thinking.
So, what’s a well-intentioned Unitarian Universalist to do? There are no easy answers to this question, I realize. Most of the answers sound really hard, probably ask us to give up comforts we have come to know and love, necessities we have come to rely upon. The Rev. Dr. Randy Woodley in his “Becoming Rooted” series of meditations on reconnecting with Sacred Earth talks about looking to nature for solutions to the needs we have for survival. He makes an example of windshield washer fluid which contains methanol – flammable, toxic, bad for the environment. And he says that technology, in our culture, is equated with progress, placing us in a power over relationship with previous generations of peoples who employed simpler methods. The bottom line is that there are lots of recipes for homemade windshield washing fluid that might work just as well or better. Such solutions ask us to do a little research, to experiment, to take the time to produce and utilize safer products. Harder, or at least less convenient than picking up a gallon of fluid at the gas station. The ask, though, is for us to explore what nature already offers and to minimize impact.
Stillwater cites Complexity Theory, the Butterfly Effect, Chaos Theory – all of which tell us that the tiniest of actions can create big effects sometimes in places far flung from where we sit. I am sure you have had sermons on this topic before! This comes to life for me when I think about walking meditation. I have done it on retreat in boot covered feet in the snow and barefoot on the grass. Maybe for us, here on the shoreline we see it on a walk on a sandy beach. Every step creates an imprint of one kind or another. The outline of my boot in the snow with all the ridges and markings of the tread. The blades of grass bent over, tiny creatures squashed or send back underground to safety. Those foot shaped sand prints, toes and all, that mark our path. And not even a full step does it take for some impact to occur, right? In walking meditation, we are very deliberate and slow, heel first, rolling past the arch and the ball of the foot, onto the toes, each previous component releasing in favor of the next. Even a partial reflection sets some cause-and-effect cycle into motion.
Our Principles invite us to honor the interdependent web of all existence. It is easy to think about doing this, to say we, of course, acknowledge such connectedness. It is harder to turn our thinking into action, to apply the Principle to our living. We begin with intention, but we need also to be looking toward impact in so many ways. Our environment and the good of our whole Earth home are just one way this plays out. But the bottom line is that no matter what we do we create an impact. A simple conversation. Our tone of voice. Showing up or not. Thankfulness. Hiding behind injustices that serve us. Kindness. There is nowhere in our living that is untouched by some form of impact.
Our intentions, once acted upon, have two options in terms of impact! I want to believe that those times I gathered with other likeminded people on the mall made a positive difference – effected the consciousness of those who witnessed the outpouring of concern and passion. It is just as likely that it angered some others or that thousands descending on a city were disruptive to life for those who make their homes there. We make the choice for solar energy knowing that it is a more sustainable way forward, but also acknowledging the potential harm and perhaps this impacts our intentions about what we press for from science and technology. It becomes cyclical in nature. Our intention toward generosity this morning in taking up the cause of our siblings in faith in Montpelier impacts how their restoration efforts play out. We mustn’t be trapped into thinking that what we can offer might be too small or insignificant. In the combined impact of many who contribute, the good work will be done.
There is a balancing that occurs as we attend to intention and impact in our lives and world. Paying attention matters. Educating ourselves makes a difference. Wise choosing evolves out of taking the time to investigate next steps. All we can be certain of is that what we think and do, how we purpose ourselves, the very act of being, will have an impact. And this is an awesome thing to consider, this constant evolution of occurrences moving forward in time! We are part of the chain, linking past to present and beyond. Life is filled with opportunities and responsibilities. How we live it creates that ripple effect, widening the circle, expanding its reach by virtue of our single drop.
This week I invite you to take a step back and think about the impact produced by acting on an intention you have. Is it aligned with what you value most? Does it beg for reconfiguring? And once you do take action, I invite you to let go of expectations around the outcome. The genie is out of the bottle! Set it free and see where it lands. Honor your wisdom. Allow your intentions to be impacted, too. May we enter into this awareness of the cycle of life in and around us. May we move with gratitude for all the possibilities that lie ahead. May we be blessed and blessing both.
So may it be and Amen.
Rev. Tracy Johnson
UUMH Chatham, August 6, 2023