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Bank Street Unitarian Chapel

Open Hearts Open Minds


"Our addiction to fossil fuels, and how we can overcome it"

An article based on words delivered by Stephen Lingwood

28th September 2014 


A Story from the Islamic Tradition

Version by Bill Darlison

One day Nasruddin was feeling very thirsty. He’d been walking for a long time in the blazing sun and there was no water to be had anywhere. “What I need is some luscious fruit. A big melon or a couple of oranges would be perfect,” he said to himself. As he turned the corner he saw a fruit and vegetable stall. His prayers had been answered!

“How much are your oranges?” he asked the stallholder, looking at the mountain of juicy oranges.

“Fifty cents each,” replied the man.

Nasruddin looked at the few coppers in his hand. Not enough even for one orange. And his thirst was burning! “How much are your melons?” he inquired, optimistically.

“Seventy-five cents each, and cheap at the price.”

Disappointed but not defeated, Nasruddin looked at the rest of the stall, and some shiny little red pods caught his attention. They looked wonderfully refreshing. “How much are those?” he asked excitedly.

“Three cents each,” replied the man.

“I’ll take ten!”

Nasruddin handed over thirty cents – all the money he had – and then he sat down in a nice shaded place and began to munch the red pods. He devoured the first one with no trouble, but mid-way through the second his eyes began to water and his mouth began to burn. “These are the hottest fruits I’ve ever tasted,” he thought. But he still carried on eating.

Just then, a passer-by saw Nasruddin’s distress. “What on earth is the matter?” asked the concerned woman.

“I’m eating some fruit,” replied Nasruddin, “but I’ve never tasted any like this before! They’re hot!”

The woman looked closely at what Nasruddin was holding in his hand. “No wonder they’re hot!” she laughed, “those are chillies! They’re not for eating, they’re for cooking. You put them in curries!”

But Nasruddin carried on eating. Tears were streaming down his bright red face, and his throat was burning unmercifully. “You must stop eating them at once!” ordered the woman, “or you’ll make yourself very ill! I’m telling you they’re not fruit!”

“Oh, I know they’re not fruit,” said Nasruddin, “but I’ve paid for them so I’m going to finish them. I’m not one to waste my money!”

(From The Shortest Distance by Bill Darlison)


Reading from the Book of Leviticus

You shall observe my statutes and faithfully keep my ordinances, so that you may live on the land securely. The land will yield its fruit, and you will eat your fill and live on it securely. Should you ask, ‘What shall we eat in the seventh year, if we may not sow or gather in our crop?’ I will order my blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it will yield a crop for three years. When you sow in the eighth year, you will be eating from the old crop; until the ninth year, when its produce comes in, you shall eat the old. The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; with me you are but aliens and tenants. Throughout the land that you hold, you shall provide for the redemption of the land.

(Leviticus 25: 18-24 (NRSV))


It was a sobering and astonishing realisation to me that my nephew, born last year, is quite likely to live into the twenty-second century. He will only need to live to the age of 87 to make it to the year 2100. And that seems quite possible.

But then the question becomes – what will the world be like in the year 2100? And that’s when I start to worry. Because the international scientific community are saying that if we continue with present carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere it could well cause an increase in average global temperatures of 6 degrees Celsius by 2100.[i]

Six degrees may not seem very much but we’re talking about a global average, not just warmer weather on any given day. A six degree higher average will be hotter than this earth has been in three million years, when the northern hemisphere was entirely free of ice, and sea levels were 25 metres higher than today.[ii] And while I don’t believe this will result in the apocalypse – life, and humanity, will continue to exist – it will result in a radical change for our world and an immensity of suffering for humans and other creatures.

A six degree increase would result in higher sea levels, increased extreme weather, flooding and draughts in different parts of the world, and decreased availability of food and fresh water. The Amazon rainforest will become a savannah.[iii]

The biological result of all of this will be a mass extinction event as significant as the one that killed the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries could be seen as a period of biological genocide: a mass extinction, the effects of which will take evolution millions of years to recover.

This change in our environment will create huge social changes for humanity. If anyone thinks we have an immigration problem today, it will be nothing compared to the millions of climate refugees who will be on our doorstep as the equatorial regions of the world become uninhabitable. These changes will affect the poorest most, those in the “developing world”, but they will affect all of us. Or rather they will mostly affect our children and grandchildren. I worry about the world we are giving them.

The effects of climate change are already observable. In the summer of 2012 a larger extend of the Arctic Ocean was open sea than at any time in the 200,000 years human beings have been on the planet.[iv] The 2012 Hurricane Sandy was the largest storm ever recorded in the North Atlantic, causing $68 billion dollars’ worth of damage to the United States.[v] The summer of 2014 was the hottest since records began in 1880[vi] and this autumn feels like it’s going to go the same way.

When I say this is the issue of the twenty-first century, I am not exaggerating.

Scientists keep warning, in stronger and louder tones, about the effects of burning the fossil fuels of oil, coal and natural gas into our atmosphere. In desperation they seem to ask, “How many times do we have to say this? How many different ways do we have to say this? The industrial burning of fossil fuels by humans is changing our climate.”

The scientists are more afraid than we are. Think about that: those who spend all their professional hours every day studying the climate are scared. Don’t you think that means we should be too?

In September 2014 the United Nations held a climate change summit in New York City that was accompanied by climate change protests in that city and in others around the world including London and Manchester. It was the biggest climate change march in history.

The world seems to agree this is a big issue, and yet, what do we do about it? Governments around the world still continue not only to tolerate fossil fuels, but in fact to give government subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.[vii]


It seems we are just like Nasruddin – we continue eating those hot chillies even though we know that they are doing us harm. We’ve started eating the chillies so we’re not going to stop. We are not ignorant of the damage – but we just can’t stop ourselves.

We are addicted: addicted to fossil fuels as a society. And maybe we’ve made some progress in admitting we have a problem, but we still can’t help ourselves. We know we have a problem, but we’re not yet really serious about dealing with it.

To truly recover from our fossil fuel addiction we need, as in the twelve-step recovery movement, to turn to the spiritual root of our addiction. This is not only a political or economic issue – this is a theological and spiritual issue.

There is a need for us, along with other faith communities, to build a new theology and ethics that turns us towards the Earth. Sometimes we have become too concerned with individual salvation or “getting into heaven” and have not paid enough attention to the world we’re in now. Sometimes we have only thought of ethics in terms of loving our fellow humans and have not considered that our love should embrace other species as well.

But we need to go further than this. The danger is that we only talk about a “nature spirituality” that does not make the real changes we need to make. Now, don’t get me wrong, spending time in nature is one of the most important things we can do for our spirituality. Going into the hills or into the park or your garden, these are important practices, and they are good for your spiritual health. But to only talk in these terms misses the point. We need to make the imaginative leap to understand how we need to change the world if we really want to show our love for nature. To do this we need to turn to our damaging addictions.  

We have become, in the rich part of the world, addicted to a consumerist mind-set that keeps us constantly wanting more. We are obsessed with owning things. Owning is seen as the greatest achievement it’s possible for us to make in our lives. Think about how governments and political parties are constantly wooing us with offers and deals so we can “achieve the dream” of owning our own houses. This is supposed to be the biggest dream we have to achieve in our lives: owning something worth thousands of pounds. Society says this should be our biggest dream.

But here’s the truth (which all spiritual traditions unite to tell us): it is impossible to own things. Ownership is entirely an illusion. Our life on this earth is short, and we take nothing with us, we can only borrow things, until other people need them in future generations.

And this grasping, this desire to own things, in fact has the opposite effect to the one we really want. Our deep desire is to connect to something greater, and yet this desire is misplaced into a clinging and grasping after objects, and this in fact isolates us from the world. It creates suffering for ourselves and for others.

In the Jewish Torah there are agricultural regulations to leave the land fallow every seventh year. This is partly a practical agricultural policy to let land replenish its nutrients: it’s just good farming.  But the Torah says it is more than that: it talks about the redemption of the land. The land is a free gift of God to the people, and God says, “with me you are but aliens and tenants.”

In the world today we have lost the idea we are but aliens and tenants. We think the earth is ours to use as we see fit, we grasp after it and the products it provides. But what will be left for the next tenants? What will be left for our children and grandchildren? If we are to truly love the earth, the living things on it, and its future tenants we need to give up the idea that we are the owners. We cannot be both owners of the earth and lovers of the earth. We must choose one or the other.  


What would this mean, practically? Well there’s not space here for me to get into all the issues, which are vast and complex. Climate change is the social problem of the twenty-first century. It affects every other problem in the world: poverty, war and peace, economic justice. And it is caught up in the complexities of international politics, economics, and science.

But there are simple and important changes we can make in our lives to reduce the impact we have on climate change through our consumption of energy. We can use cars and planes as little as possible, we can reduce our household energy use and we can eat less meat. Personally the primary reason I don’t eat meat is to reduce my effect on climate change. Put simply a field of plants can feed 100 people but if those plants are used to feed animals that are eaten then only 10 people can be fed. If you can’t fully give up meat then having one, two, or three days a week than are meat-free would still have an important impact.

But there needs to be a lot more than such personal commitments. We need governments and economies to change too. This year at our Unitarian Annual Meeting there was a motion raising concerns about climate change. I got up and spoke against this motion, not because I disagreed with it, but because it didn’t go far enough. It didn’t call on us to take any concrete action or effective activism about climate change, it was much too weak.

I’ve come to believe one of the most effective steps we can take as an organisation is to disinvest stocks and shares from fossil fuel companies. I’m acutely aware that much of our investments in the Unitarian world, including the investments of this Chapel, will be in fossil fuel companies. The uncomfortable truth is that part of what pays our bills and pays my stipend and pension, is profits from the extraction, selling and burning of fossil fuels. And how can we condemn this practice if we ourselves are profiting from it? Things can’t change overnight but we need a people’s movement that moves our economics and politics away from dependence on fossil fuels.

The climate change motion at the Unitarian meetings was “referred back” – which means it will come back again at the meetings in 2015. But what I want to see come back is not a purely wordy “we are concerned about climate change” but a motion with real teeth that says “we are committed as a Unitarian community to begin a process of disinvestment from fossil fuels as a way to move our economic and political systems away from this industry that is costing the earth.”

That is one effective and real step we could take in making a difference in preventing the worst effects of climate change. It’s a step that was made this year by our sister Unitarian Universalist Association in the US. We need to make the same step.


I believe faith communities such as ours have a vital role to play in the public debates about climate change. We need to be the leaders, both practically, and spiritually of a change in our society. We bring a spiritual perspective that has the potential to recover the knowledge that we are not owners, we are tenants. We have a religious tradition that calls us to love the earth. And we have grassroots communities in every town that can lead locally on these issues.

There is a long road ahead of us. Like any addict we will not be able to give up fossil fuels cold turkey. We will need to transition to a different way of doing things. But for the sake of our children and grandchildren, we must.



[i] Michael Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change (London: SPCK, 2014) 163.  

[ii] Michael Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change (London: SPCK, 2014) 165

[iii] Michael Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change (London: SPCK, 2014) 164 - 165

[iv] Michael Northcott, A Political Theology of Climate Change (London: SPCK, 2014) 1

[v] http://www.nws.noaa.gov/os/assessments/pdfs/Sandy13.pdf

[vi] http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/21/un-limit-climate-rise-warning-nicholas-stern-barack-obama-david-cameron

[vii] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-27142377{jcomments off}

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