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Backstory: Greenhouse masses

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

By G. Jeffrey MacDonaldCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 20, 2006



WALTHAM, MASS.

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.

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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.

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.

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