Backstory: Greenhouse masses

One New England church makes global warming a crusade – but finds sacrifice isn't always easy.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

Over cider and cookies, Albert Sack is discussing the internal conflict he often feels between goodness and global warming. He is a member of a Unitarian church here that is trying to set a moral example in helping to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.

As a retired electrical engineer, Mr. Sack knows global warming is a problem. But by his own admission, he isn't doing enough. He hasn't put solar panels on the roof of his ranch house. He hasn't installed the insulation he knows he should. "I'm not a big guilt person," he says. "But now I feel guilty when I leave the light on outside my door at home. I'm feeling guilty because I'm quite knowledgeable about [climate change], and I'm doing nothing – almost nothing."

Sack is hardly alone in his church's pews. Here in the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, one congregation is learning how hard it is to roll back the effects of industrialization – and to alter their lifestyles in pursuit of religious ideals.

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Over the past two years, the First Parish Church, Universalist Unitarian in Waltham, Mass., has made the fight to stop global warming a core moral cause. For 21 months, members held monthly, often weekly, public discussions on the subject. Twice in October, they held free screenings of Al Gore's movie "An Inconvenient Truth." Over the summer, they led the charge in St. Louis when the Unitarian Universalist Association adopted a landmark statement calling on everyone to make significant lifestyle changes to save the planet.

So far, however, the congregation hasn't been able to move with the speed it would like. In the church basement, two aging oil-burners convert less than three-fourths of their fuel into heat. Insulation is scarce, according to a March energy audit. Single-pane glass stretches across windows arching toward a leaky roof. Last winter, the congregation spent more than $9,800 to heat its 21,000-square-foot facility.

Proposals are in the works to help the church practice what it preaches. Among the suggestions: use compact fluorescent bulbs, switch to natural gas heat, install solar panels or even windmills on the roof.

The church also uses its 75-seat chapel, instead of the cavernous church sanctuary, for worship in the summer, when attendance is low. But the congregation hasn't yet made the move to the smaller structure in winter, which could save large sums on heating bills and cut down on emissions. "People don't like to sit as close to one another as they did back in the days when you didn't heat the church," says Susan Adams, a member of the church's Climate Change Task Force.

Indeed, preferences for privacy and convenience can make curbing greenhouse gases difficult, no matter how well-intentioned worshipers' motives. Unlike some issues, this one involves personal sacrifice rather than political compromise: According to denomination spokesperson Janet Hayes, it calls on Unitarians to question their "fear of intimacy" and "aesthetic preferences," such as living in large homes and relying on private transportation.

"The changes that we're used to asking other people to make are the changes that we have the greatest responsibility in making now because we are the most affluent," says Ms. Hayes. "We do live in the country that consumes the most. Our demographic is more likely than any other to live in the suburbs, to be large users of fossil fuels."

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Meredith Ruland is trying hard to do her part to keep Earth from warming and the polar ice caps from melting. She buys local produce to help cut down on the emissions created by shipping corn, cucumbers, and other goods across country. She often wears gloves at home in winter so she can keep the thermostat at 60 degrees F. She believes, ardently, that a warmer planet threatens the life of many species – including humans.

But Ms. Ruland is far from feeling righteous. She still lives alone in a spacious condominium, drives alone 30 minutes each way to work, and buys fruits and vegetables from distant growers when local stocks aren't available. "I don't think many of us have gotten to the point of making real sacrifices," says Ruland.

Feelings of culpability and ineffectiveness don't dovetail easily with the Unitarian experience. The denomination proudly celebrates a history of being on the noble side of social reforms, from the abolition of slavery to women's suffrage to civil rights. Unitarians place great emphasis on reason and the revelations of science in fashioning a moral code. For members to see themselves now as major contributors to a problem that may threaten humanity worldwide is virtually unthinkable.

"We feel we're entitled to be part of the solution," says Susan Brown. "It's part of being a UU [Unitarian Universalist]."

On this night, members are taking their latest mission seriously as they prepare for a screening of Mr. Gore's movie. Women on the task force flash two thumbs up at one another as visitors claim almost every empty seat in the chapel. Men, clad uniformly in pullover fleece tops, smile and laugh as they discuss what to do about discouraging data on climate change.

"You can't always crucify yourself," says Bill Porter, a biochemist who dropped out of medical school because he felt medicine was contributing to an overpopulation crisis. "It's important to enjoy things," such as hiking in New Hampshire, which he almost didn't do this summer after considering the two-hour, carbon-spewing car ride.

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Principled self-denial, inspired by the example of 19th-century naturalist and Unitarian hero Henry David Thoreau, is proving inspirational to members in their quest. Ron Adams, president of the local church's governing board, practices his version of it by wearing shorts on this brisk autumn night as temperatures dip into the low 40s – part of his ethic of braving the weather. He uses less energy at home by shunning air conditioning in summer and never pushing the thermostat above 62 degrees F. in winter.

"It makes me feel connected to the Earth," Mr. Adams says. "When the temperature changes, it should affect you.... It's feeling like life is real."

Whether such traits will make the First Parish Church and its members pioneering conservationists and help prevent the planet from turning into a heat lamp is uncertain. Deeper lifestyle changes raised in questions posed by Ms. Hayes – Must all children have their own rooms? Can't families carpool to church? – haven't been debated here yet.

A simple proposal to leave lights off during 10:30 a.m. worship, when the sun is high, shows the difficulty of making sacrifices: Senior Minister Marc Fredette doesn't want to try it for at least six months because he anticipates resistance.

Still, some members are taking small – and expensive – steps. Ms. Brown bought a used Prius, a hybrid vehicle, last year and spent $1,300 on a new energy-stingy refrigerator. The congregation will soon face its own "This Old House" dilemma: upgrade energy systems or fix a rotting steeple?

Even though many of these steps are costly, the cost of inaction may be paid in the most precious currency: moral authority on a defining social issue. "Internal systems have to change," says the Rev. Fredette, "before we can have any kind of an authentic voice in the community."

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