Backstory: Greenhouse masses
One New England church makes global warming a crusade – but finds sacrifice isn't always easy.
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."