Taking responsibility for climate change



What are we willing to do?

At the weekly meeting of our Spirituality and Environmental Conservation class, UMass Professor Dr. Erin Baker introduced us to the basics of climate change.  She explained the connection between burning fossil fuels, increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and severe disruption of climate patterns worldwide.  And then she asked us what we were willing to do.  Big question!

I was not surprised when this group of concerned students and local community members expressed a willingness to make personal changes to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we release into the atmosphere.  Among the changes either suggested or currently practiced were bicycle riding, reducing meat in our diets, investing in renewable energy, turning down the thermostat and turning off the lights, composting waste, ride sharing, etc.  Dr. Baker herself walked to the evening class from her home, which is her common practice.  The class is largely made up of individuals who see a direct connection between our own personal behavior and “something bigger than themselves” such as family, community, mother nature and/or the divine. This is a motivated group that feels responsible for our contribution to climate change.

Personal change is necessary but not sufficient!

Although Dr. Baker reminded us that personal change can have only a very limited impact on the global crisis, most members of the class continued to believe that a personal commitment to changing behavior was important.  From a political perceptive, we recognize that personal change is necessary but not sufficient We know it is unlikely that the significant policy and economic shifts required to reduce carbon emissions will be possible without widespread citizen action.  We know that politicians will see us as hypocrites when we advocate for policy change but do nothing ourselves to change our lives  Finally, we know that without a change in campaign finance laws, politicians who are directly influenced by major financial donors are are unlikely to pass any meaningful legislation.

So……  we are left with taking personal action, building a political movement from the ground up, and continuing to point out that the impact of climate change will be unevenly distributed on the poor and most vulnerable people on the planet.  We cannot afford to wait for politicians to make responsible social decisions.  So we begin with the question……

How much carbon do I contribute to the problem

How much carbon dioxide do we release as individuals each year.  Well, the average U.S Citizen contributes about 24 metric tons per year as follows:

  • Home Energy (36.8%)
  • Driving & Flying (43.5%)
  • Recycling & Waste (4.4%)
  • Food & Diet (15.3%)

If we were serious about changing our behavior, perhaps we should also be willing to invest an amount of money equal to our personal share of the Social Cost of Carbon in making things better.  For most adults this would be 24 metric tonnes x $39 or almost $1,000 per year.

But what about those of us who ride bikes?

Right, many of us already take actions to reduce our carbon footprint.  Personally, I ride a bike (well, when the weather is nice), dry my clothes in the sun, have solar hot water and electricity on the roof, use an electricity provider that guarantees they purchase power generated by the wind, have a big garden, rarely fly in an airplane, buy local food, etc.   I’m a good guy!  Nevertheless when I did a rough calculation of my carbon footprint, all of this good behavior only reduced my impact by about 8 metric tonnes.  So using my calculation, I still “owe” about $624 toward my own Social Cost of Carbon.

For the past few years, I’ve used a carbon calculator to “offset” the cost of my behavior.  One of the speakers in our class, Dr. Daniel Greenberg, however convinced me that I need to invest in the future rather than try to offset my behavior.  His organization Earth Deeds was created to help. Rather than trying to “buy a clean conscious” with an offset, Dr. Greenberg convinced me that we need to “pay it forward” by investing in solutions that address the causes as well as the impacts of global climate change.

If I am willing to take responsibility for my own behavior I need to invest at least $624 in local projects that help the planet both adapt to the impact of climate change and reduce the amount of carbon we release.  I might consider supporting projects that create more wind and solar power, or plant trees to pull carbon out of the atmosphere, or raise animals on well-managed pasture which puts carbon into the soil.  Anyway, this would be a good beginning.

What is the carbon cost of our class?

As individuals, there is much we can do.  But as a class, there is one more thing.  We might to try to model better behavior by taking responsibility for the social cost of the carbon emissions generated by the class itself.  I did a simple and crude calculation.

A rough estimate of the carbon footprint for everyone in our class can be calculated from the UMass Climate Action Plan. This study suggests that each person on campus accounts for about 4.2 metric tons of carbon released into the atmosphere per year, mostly from burning of fossil fuels for heat and electricity.

If we use the EPA figure on the Social Cost of Carbon ($39/mT), we each would have a carbon cost of (4.2 mT x $39) or $163.80 per person for the year.   Then, if we assume that a student might take 16 credits per semester or 32 credits per year, a rough calculation would find that the social cost of carbon for our one credit class was about five dollars ($5.00).  Members of the local community would have a slightly higher cost because we generally drove a few miles to get to class (although this is a small cost).

 Where do we go from here?

We have a choice. We can leave this problem to someone else or we can take action ourselves.  Our class is in the process of planning several action projects.  One of them is to invite participants to contribute an amount of money they choose to support projects that will address the impact of climate change.  Individuals might want to contribute $5.00 to account for the impact of our class.  Others might want to contribute more to account for other aspects of their lives.

This project is being supported by Earth Deeds. Contributions will be collected and distributed according to guidelines determined by our class.  It is a beginning……

Catholic Church “sustainability superhero” needs our help


popePope Francis has become something of a sustainability superhero today, finding his picture on the front covers of Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, and TIME magazine. He has been an outspoken critic of the dominance of the human desire for short term financial success at the expense of the other two sustainability goals of social justice and environmental quality. But I have to wonder if we are not expecting too much from just one man. If we are to realize positive change and a more sustainable world, this Pope needs our help.

Pope Francis surely deserves praise as he has courageously used his bully pulpit to challenge his own management team, the Roman Curia, to examine their collective Continue reading

A question of faith – struggling with being a Catholic academic


With a deep breath and a prayer, I wade into a topic I have avoided writing about (or even talking about).  Although I’ve written more than 100 blogs for World.edu over the past 3 years, I’ve rarely shared any thoughts on spirituality and never on religion.

So, why would anyone in their right mind want to write about something as controversial as their own particular form of religion – especially one as unpopular among academics as the Roman Catholic Church?

Why speak out now?

I’ve struggled with my own Catholic identity for more than 50 years, but over the past 15 Continue reading

Catholic leader calls for an end to “business as usual”


Pope Francis declares global capitalism the “new tyranny”

The Pope wants his Church to be a voice for the poor – as he himself speaks out against economic ideologies that promote “the absolute autonomy of the marketplace” and reject the right of nations to protect people from exploitation by multinational corporations – but he needs our help.  Pope Francis decries global capitalism as a deadly “new tyranny” which imposes its own rules on the poor and powerless.

“Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘Thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills.”

Pope Francis in “The Joy of the Gospel”  (paragraph 53)

NOTE:  I’ve included some “Pope tweets” in this blog.  Pope Francis gets five to twenty thousand retweets for each post like the one below. Follow him here!

Inequality is not inevitable, but rather the result of economic institutions designed by Continue reading

American Nuns deal with “power-over” Vatican hierarchy in a productive way


I was impressed while reading a story on the response of the American Catholic Nuns to an investigation and subsequent rebuke by the (all male) leadership of the Church.  If you don’t know the background to this story, the short version is that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (representing most of the American Sisters) were accused of “undermining the Church” and instructed to reform their ways in order to come in line with the accepted teaching of the Roman Catholic Church as determined by Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (which interestingly was established in 1542 as the Congregation for Universal Inquisition).

The U.S. Sisters were accused of radical feminist themes that were deemed Continue reading

Systems Thinking Tools: understanding hierarchy


I’ve focused my last few posts on Systems Thinking, as I prepare to teach a new course at UMass in the fall.  This post examines the structure of hierarchy using a systems thinking lens.  Like many of my friends who have a “problem with authority” –  that is, I always struggle with the concept of  hierarchy.  I think this is because the dominant form of hierarchy working in the human world is based on what peace and social justice activist Starhawk  calls power-over and is manifested as domination (at best) and oppression or abuse (at worst).


Power-over hierarchy is most apparent in the military, but is also found in corporations, universities, and many religious organizations (that is, just about every major human organization ever known).  Power-over hierarchy, built upon “command and control” relationships is deeply rooted in human history.

One of the early records of  hierarchy is found in Exodus 18.   When Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, came to him “in the wilderness, where he was camped near the mountain of God,”  he found Moses sitting all day making decisions over disputes among his people.  He asked Moses “why do you sit alone as judge?”  He advised Moses to “select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain —and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.”  There it is!  One controls the 10, ten controls the 50, etc., etc….

Human hierarchy runs deep.  This mode of decision making is the standard way humans have organized for thousands of years.  It is so much part of our culture that it appears to be the ONLY way to understand hierarchy.  While efficient in one sense, it is inherently unjust.

But there is another way to think about hierarchy….


While its true that humans have had thousands of years of experience organizing as power-over (command and control) hierarchies, ecological systems have several billion years of experience operating as power-with hierarchies.  That is, rather than power being manifested as command and control (power-over), it is seen as participation and inclusion (power-with).  Perhaps there is something we can learn from Mother Nature?

References to nature’s hierarchy are almost as old as the story of Exodus.  The first time we find nature’s hierarchy in literature is associated with Aristotle and is called the Great Chain of Being, or scala naturae (literally the “ladder or stair-way of nature”).  This ancient understanding of all relationships in the universe began to provide us with a sense of order and meaning.  More recently modern systems thinkers have added to this model of the universe.

Today, we understand a natural hierarchy (or holarchy in systems jargon) as a nested set of “systems within systems” of increasing complexity.  An organism (like you and me) contain “lower” or less complex subsystems like the human heart, and likewise are contained within the “larger” more complex subsystem of the human population. This is how living systems are organized and might depicted like this.

Now, what can we learn from this understanding of hierarchy?   Well…… one of the most important lessons has to do with the relationship between the levels of complexity.  A basic truth about natural hierarchies is “we look up for purpose and down for function.”


That’s right….  we look to more complex subsystems for purpose.  For example, an individual cell finds purpose in serving an organ (like the heart).  The purpose of the human heart, in turn, is to serve the human body (organism).  And, the organism looks to the less complex subsystems for function.   The organism looks to the heart for function.  The heart looks to individual cells for function.


Well, if this makes sense to you we might then ask the question…. so what?

YIKES….. its a big “so what!”   In fact it helps me to understand who I am and why I am here.  If I am indeed “a part of nature rather than a part from nature” then my relationship with all that is living is clear.  I too “look up for purpose” – that is, I am a “child of the universe” and my purpose is to be useful to something larger than myself.  If we apply the principle of “look up for purpose” we might see ourselves as part of “larger” or more complex “selves.”

For example, I am certainly part of a “family-self” and a “community-self”, so why not think of myself as part of an “ecological-self”, “universal-self” or even a “divine-self”?  This helps me to see that my purpose is to serve something larger than my personal self.

In a society when so many people seem to lack purpose (and therefore may substitute amusements or worse addictions for a meaningful life), the recognition that you and I are necessary to the function of more complex systems can be empowering.  The system we serve may be our family, community, nation, Mother Earth, or perhaps a sense of the divine.

This understanding of hierarchy based on living systems theory, might allow us to organize more human endeavors based on power-with relationships.  In this case, power comes from working with others at the same level of the hierarchy in service to a larger or more complex level.  Working in local communities for example, we can take actions together that serve others in the nation or protect and nurture “Mother Nature” (the eco-self).  Unlike the human hierarchy, the natural hierarchy is less likely to be unjust.


Power-over hierarchy it is NOT the only way of organizing human activities.  Some  businesses have learned that as they add layers of organization between top management and customers they lose access to feedback and begin to make poor decisions.   Likewise political leaders lose touch with constituents when there are many layers of organizational hierarchy.  This also explains why “conquerors” throughout human history rarely retain power for very long.

Conservationist, Aldo Leopold, reminded readers in his classic essay The Land Ethic, that conquest is always self-defeating, as conquerors rarely know “what makes the community clock tick, and just what and who is valuable… in community life.”  Power-over conquest always fails, eventually.  The “command and control” hierarchy that represents the dominant mental model governing how humans choose to organize has certain deficiencies.

If you have to cross a desert with a “stiff-necked people” (Exodus 32:9), then perhaps a command and control hierarchy is needed.  Or if you are fighting a war, then perhaps power-over is the relationship of choice.  However if you are trying to create a sustainable society based on economic vitality, environmental quality AND social equity…..  the human hierarchy just isn’t adequate.  For example, (with apologies in advance to all of my fellow Roman Catholics who I may offend) I do not believe the Catholic Church will ever be fully successful sharing the message of peace, justice, forgiveness and love attributed to Jesus as long as it is organized as a command and control, patriarchal hierarchy.  As I stated at the beginning, If power-over is the dominant relationship in an organization, it will ALWAYS result in domination (at best) and oppression or abuse (at worst).

The only human examples I can think of that might at least partially model a natural hierarchy are the first century Christians and modern 12-step programs.  Do you know of any human organizations based on power-with?

Perhaps after thousands of years of trying to get the power-over human hierarchy to work, it is time to give the much older power-with natural hierarchy a try!


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.  Or for more systems thinking posts, try this link.


Agriculture is a business – AND a way to connect with the divine


I have a student who reminds me that agriculture is a business – which is true.  But there is something about the business of agriculture that makes it much more than simply the efficient production and marketing of food and fiber.  Many people (including farmers) recognize that some forms of agriculture can feed both the human body and the human soul.  Some of us see local, sustainable food and farming as a way to participate in natural ecological cycles and thus connect with all of creation – and perhaps even the divine.

I believe this awareness of a larger purpose for agriculture is something that farmers should not ignore, as they seek creative ways to market local food.  In a world in which people crave entertainment and try to find meaning in distractions such as passive consumption of sporting events or “recreational” shopping, more and more people are finding a sense of purpose or a connection with “a power greater than themselves” through the act of purposeful eating.

Wendell Berry (1) wrote that “…eating is an agricultural act. Most eaters, however, are no longer aware that this is true.”  Everyone living has no choice but to participate in agriculture through the act of food consumption. This can be either a sterile, hurried act, offering little cause for joy — or a creative, spiritual act of connecting with the earth and thus with all of Creation.

According to Berry “when food… is no longer associated with farming and with the land, then the eaters are suffering a kind of cultural amnesia that is misleading and dangerous.”  This amnesia gets in the way of understanding food and farming as a source of both physical and spiritual nourishment.

Berry presents a few ideas on how we may learn to free ourselves from this cultural amnesia. He suggests that we:

  • grow our own food to the extent that we can,
  • cook and serve our own food,
  • learn the origins of the food we eat,
  • get to know a local farmer, and;
  • learn more about the biology, ecology and sociology of our food.

I would add to the list, composting all usable kitchen and garden “wastes”, as a necessary means of participating in natural ecological cycles.

I believe the nature of our interaction with the earth is an expression of how we see ourselves as human beings. Wes Jackson (2) describes our awareness of the earth as a technologically mediated rather than a direct personal experience.

When Astronaut Edgar Mitchell is asked about his experience on the moon “he replies that he was too busy being operational to experience the moon.”  According to Jackson, we have become  “..more operational, with less and less time to experience the earth.”  Buying pre-packaged food at the supermarket for example, or eating at fast food outlets surely do not add to the direct human experience of the earth.

The disconnection between the human species and the earth is reinforced by a Cartesian worldview that divides wholes into parts and gives priority to the importance of the part (humans) over the whole (the earth). Science is particularly good at dividing wholes for the purpose of study.  However when we do this, we sacrifice an understanding of those characteristics that only have meaning at the level of the whole.  It would be foolish to try to measure the speed of an Olympic runner by examining her foot. It is equally as foolish to try to understand the health of a human or an ecosystem by studying its parts.

The science of Sir Issac Newton and Descartes is based upon an understanding of a mechanical universe in which whole systems can be dismantled for study. This understanding is indeed quite useful when the area of study is actually mechanical.

However, people, farms and ecosystems are not machines but living systems born of an organic universe in which the parts are interdependent components within a hierarchy of increasing complexity.

Agriculture is highly efficient and successful when considered simply at its own level. But when it is viewed as a component of a hierarchy of increasing complexity, it fails in the sense that it causes a continual erosion of the capacity of the earth to support life (including but not limited to human life).  An agriculture that destroys both natural and social systems fails to achieve its own larger purpose. Wendell Berry (3) writes; “an agriculture cannot survive long at the expense of the natural systems that support it…  A culture cannot survive long at the expense either of its agricultural or its natural sources.  To live at the expense of the source of life is obviously suicidal.”

I believe farming should be viewed as both an economic (business) and a moral act. Americans (and most of western society) worship the economic act, while ignoring the moral implications. Aldo Leopold (4) boldly stated that we must understand an act as (morally) right “… when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”  If we consider agriculture as merely an economic act, then the business of agriculture is a grand success, as it is efficient at extracting resources from the earth.  On the other hand, if farming is more than a just a business then we must acknowledge that industrial agriculture fails to “preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.”

Leopold does not stand alone in his broad understanding of a successful agriculture.  E.F. Schumacher (5), wrote that agriculture must fulfill at least three tasks: “to keep man in touch with living nature…; to humanize and ennoble man’s wider habitat; and to bring forth the foodstuffs and other materials which are needed…”

In this statement he acknowledges the need to serve both an economic and a moral purpose.  Schumacher continues; “I do not believe that a civilization which recognizes only the third of these tasks, and which pursues it with such ruthlessness and violence that the other two tasks are not merely neglected but systematically counteracted, has any chance of long-term survival.”

A world in which agriculture is merely an economic act is doomed to continue causing damage to both the global ecosystem and the human soul.  We need to view agriculture as both a business AND a means of connecting with something larger than ourselves; with our community, with the earth, and perhaps even with the divine.


(1) Berry, W. 1990. The pleasures of eating. IN: What are People For? North Point Press. San Francisco.

(2) Jackson, W. 1990. Making Sustainable Agriculture Work. IN: Our Sustainable Table. Ed. R. Clark. North Point Press. San Francisco.

(3)  Berry, W. 1977. The Unsettling of America. Sierra Club Press.

(4) Aldo Leopold. 1949. A Sand County Almanac. Ballantine Books.

(5) Schumacher, E.F. 1972. Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered.  Harper Perennial.

NOTE: this blog post is an abbreviated and slightly revised version of an essay I wrote in 1997, Agriculture is a business, a lifestyle and a conversation with the universe.


Please share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.


Changing bureaucratic institutions from the inside


Last week, I wrote about fighting city hall to make my home town more “chicken friendly.”  After reading the blog, one of my students asked me “how do you work to change a bureaucratic institution without getting angry?”  This blog focuses on my experience working with bureaucracy; from local government to large universities.   I know that getting angry (even when its justified) rarely helps.

I’ve spent much of my academic career trying to change university programs (as both a faculty member and an administrator) to be more supportive of sustainability principles.  I’ve also worked within local government (serving on several town boards and commissions) to support local sustainable agriculture.  While institutions of power, may be influenced by outside pressure (including protests which certainly have value and are needed at times), my own experience is largely trying to change bureaurcacy “from the inside.”

When asked by students how to change bureaucratic institutions, I tell them the story of The Shambhala Worker Prophecy.

This story, adapted with permission from Joanna Macy, is said to have emerged from Tibetan Buddhism about twelve hundred years ago.  It predicts a time when great destructive powers have emerged – perhaps a time not unlike our own.

The Shambhala Worker Prophecy claims that “…there will come a time when all life on Earth is in danger.  In this era, great barbarian forces will have arisen which have unfathomable destructive power.  New and unforeseen technologies will appear during this time, with the potential to lay waste to the world.

Do you believe “all life on Earth is in danger” today?

What “barbarian forces” might have created this situation?

“In this era, when the future of sentient life seems to hang by the frailest of threads, the kingdom of Shambhala will appear.

“The kingdom of Shambhala is not a geopolitical place, but a place that exists in the hearts and minds of the Shambhala Worker.  These workers wear no special uniform, nor do they have titles or ranks. They have no particular workplace, as their work is everywhere.  In fact, they look just like the barbarians on the outside, but they hold the kingdom of Shambhala on the inside.”

Do you know any “barbarians”?

Do you know of any “institutions of great destructive power”?

“Now the time comes when great courage – intellectual, moral and spiritual – is required of the Shambhala Workers.  The time comes when they must go into the very heart of the barbarian power, into the tall buildings, corporate offices, factories, and the citadels of learning where the weapons of destruction are made – to dismantle them.

“The Shambhala Workers have the courage to do this because they know that these destructive systems are ‘mind-made’.  That is, they are created by the human mind, and they can be unmade by the human mind.  The lie that these systems are the inevitable result of progress must be exposed by the Shambhala Workers.  Shambhala Workers know the dangers that threaten life on Earth are not visited upon us by any extraterrestrial powers, satanic deities, or preordained fate.  They arise from our own decisions, our own lifestyles, and our own relationships.  They arise from within us all.”

Do you know any Shambhala Workers?

Might you be one?

“The Shambhala Workers go into the corridors of power armed with the only tools that the barbarians don’t understand, and for which there is no defense.  The tools of the Shambhala Workers are compassion for all, and knowledge of the connectedness of all things.  Both are necessary.  They have to have compassion to do this work, because this is the source of their power – the passion to act along with others.

“But that tool by itself is not enough.  Compassion alone can burn you out, so you need the other tool – you need insight into the radical interdependence of all things.  With that wisdom you know that the work is not a battle between good guys and bad guys, because the line between good and bad runs through the landscape of every human heart.  With insight into our interrelatedness, you know that actions undertaken with pure intent have effects throughout the web of life, beyond what you can measure or discern.  By itself, that knowledge may be too conceptual to sustain you and keep you moving, so you need the energy that comes of compassion as well.

“Within each Shambhala Worker these two tools, compassion and insight, can sustain you as agents of wholesome change.  They are gifts for you to claim and share now in healing our world and our destructive institutions of power.”


There are several interpretations of this prophecy.  Some portray the coming of the kingdom of Shambhala as an internal event, a metaphor for one’s inner spiritual journey.  Others present it as a transformation of the human social system that will occur at the just right time.  Now would be a good time!

So, when students invariably ask me if the time is now, I tell them that I think we have a choice.  I believe we can create the kingdom of Shambhala whenever we are ready to begin.

Do you know of anyone who might be a Shambhala Worker?  Are you?

Please post your own Shambhala Worker story in the comments box below.


I’d appreciate it if you would share this post with your friends.  And for more ideas, videos and challenges along these lines, please join my Facebook Group; Just Food Now.   And go here for more of my World.edu posts.