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The World Where We Live - Part 1 (Kate Lovelady - April 19, 2008)

Platform Address Part 1 of 3 by Kate Lovelady
Co-presented by Kate Lovelady, Randy Best, and Tony Hileman
American Ethical Union Assembly, Austin, TX, April 19, 2008

For the platform address today you'll be hearing from three leaders: me, Randy Best, and Tony Hileman, and then the National Leaders Council will be welcoming Tony officially into Leadership with a certification ceremony. First Randy, Tony, and I will each be sharing our unique thoughts on the theme of this Assembly, "Where We Live." 

I’m going to speak from a personal and environmental point of view, primarily because I am a dreadfully literal-minded person. When I think about Where I Live, I see the big blue marble, the earth as seen from space, and I see my yellow house with its front porch and daffodils in St. Louis. And I think how those two images are related: how my practical, mundane choices of where and how I live, affect that big blue marble. 

When Bill and I decided to buy a house over a year ago, we immediately faced some decisions that for us were clearly ethical decisions, but none of which were all that easy or clear. 

The City of St. Louis is still struggling back from the mass flight to the suburbs of several decades ago -- white and middle-class people fled the city, beginning a steep decline in the quality of the public schools, and now the lack of good public schools is one of the main barriers to many people who consider coming back to the city. Bill and I don't have children, and we wanted to support the city by buying our house there. However, the Ethical Society of St. Louis, where I work, moved to the suburbs in the 1960s, so moving to the city would mean I could no longer easily walk to work, and we would have to buy a second car. We had to choose between helping a community or helping the environment.

We ultimately bought a house two blocks into the city limits, as close to the Society as possible. I can still walk to work, but it takes an hour, which is a little long even for a former New Yorker, so I bought a motor scooter that gets 90 mpg and I use that to commute, most of the time. It’s sometimes fun but often inconvenient, wet, and damn cold in the winter.

I love where I live; I love my life. I just wish it were not so full to the brim and spilling over with compromises. More examples: Environmentally an apartment is kinder to the environment than a stand-alone house, but when you have rock bands in your house a stand-alone building is kinder to your neighbors. A new house would have been much more energy-efficient than our 102-year-old place, but the energy to build anything new is considerable, so instead we are adding insulation and using as little heat or air conditioning as we can. Which also is often not very comfortable.

I wish that our choices were as seemingly pleasant and easy as in this hotel, where we can consider ourselves green for using the same sheets and towels for three days. Don't get me wrong; the attempts of places like this hotel to be more environmentally sensitive are good, and I hope they make some guests think more about their choices. But as our speaker on global warming implied yesterday, we will not be able to turn around our catastrophic course without radical changes in our lifestyles. Much more radical than we are often willing to consider. 

I get the impression that I am seen as being on the radical environmental fringe of our movement -- I follow a vegan diet, I drive a scooter, I buy practically everything but my food second-hand, at the Society after I wash my hands in the bathroom I run with dripping hands to my office to dry them with a towel rather than use a paper towel. 

And yet, it’s not enough. I go online and do those ecological footprint quizzes, and even when I cheat by claiming that I eat more organic food than I really do, I'm always still above 2 earths. It would take more than two earths to sustain humanity if everyone lived like me. And yet my lifestyle is considered too difficult by a majority of Ethical Culturists. What does that mean?

By the way, what's killing my footprint stats is not what I thought, all the air travel that I do for Ethical Culture, though that doesn’t help. The biggest environmental sin is that Bill and I have a two-person household and the relative extravagance of 1100 square feet. Relative, of course, to the rest of the world; an 1100 square-foot-house is less than half the size of the average American home today.

So what can we do, if even the so-called environmentalists aren’t doing enough? Saying "it’s too hard" and waiting for technology to save us isn't an option, practically or ethically. Because the nature of being a developing species on the earth, as we were talking about at the bioethics workshop yesterday, is that we will constantly be faced with new challenges that we will have to adapt to or give way for better-adaptive species (probably roaches or bacteria). That means that we must culture not only our ability to solve problems using science and technology, but our willingness to understand and respond to all our ethical relationships, be they with other species, ecosystems, or people literally on the other side of the earth. Because my footprint of 2.67 or whatever really means that I am using someone else's resources. I believe that what we must develop is not so much technology as the ethical imagination to honor our relationship with that someone else whom we will likely never meet, and stop eating their food, using their energy, poisoning their atmosphere, and causing drought and flooding in their communities. 

Every year at the Ethical Society of St. Louis I give a platform address to kick off pledge week, and this year I talked about our Ethical Currency, which is much more than money -- it's everything we have that we use to build a better future, money, time, energy, thought, our health, our relationships. It will take all our ethical currency to face our environmental crisis, because for us as Americans, the essential challenge is that we have to go back to Sunday School and learn how to share. 

We will have to be much more generous with our ethical currency. We will have to buy fewer and probably more expensive things that are made sustainably and save energy; we will have to share things and living space and vehicles with more people; we will have to use our energy to walk more or do whatever we are able to do physically instead of plugging in a machine to do it for us; we will have to use our time to rebuild community and perhaps to wait for public transportation or to consolidate car trips; we will have to change. Change our diet, our everyday assumptions, our way of life. 

People hate change. Yet we are also the most adaptable species on the planet. And religious liberals are by definition the people most open to change. And religion doesn't get any more liberal than Ethical Culture. So it has to start with us. And it has to start now.