The existential issue of our time

The existential issue of our time

Unitarian Universalists are getting involved with growing climate action network Extinction Rebellion.

Elaine McArdle
Extinction Rebellion climate change activists perform a mass “die in” in the main hall of the Natural History Museum in London on April 22, 2019.

Extinction Rebellion climate change activists perform a mass “die in” in the main hall of the Natural History Museum in London on April 22, 2019. (© 2019 Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images)

© 2019 Tolga Akmen/AFP/Getty Images


Each day brings mounting evidence of the planet’s growing climate crisis. July 2019 was the hottest month ever recorded. By 2050, rising sea levels will displace at least 140 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, according to the World Bank. Sea ice levels are falling in the Arctic, wildfires are raging in the Amazon and Indonesia, and a shocking number of animal species are going extinct. As with so many social problems, people living in poverty—who are responsible for only a fraction of global carbon emissions—will bear the brunt of the impending climate disaster, according to a June report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights. Meanwhile, billionaires convinced of societal collapse due to climate change and other forces are building private compounds and keeping helicopters at the ready.

“Climate change is the existential issue of our time, perhaps in our history as a species,” says Stephen Leslie, a former Benedictine monk who has been an organic farmer in Vermont for twenty years. Although Leslie has been devoted to environmental sustainability for many years, two new reports from the UN brought him to his own personal crisis. One, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), warns that humans have less than a dozen years to act on climate change before the effects are irreversible. The other, by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), concludes that the global decline of nature is unprecedented.

“I started digging in, and I was floored and freaked out,” says Leslie, whose use of horses instead of tractors for some farming tasks has been featured in the New York Times. “The acceleration of the ice caps melting was off the charts, far worse than what anyone thought even ten years ago.” One night last spring, as Leslie watched his 12-year-old daughter perform in a dance competition, he began to weep uncontrollably for the children and their future. Then, inspired by the message of teen climate activist Greta Thunberg of Sweden—who has said that “the one thing we need more than hope is action”—Leslie says, “I decided to get involved with Extinction Rebellion.”

Launched in October 2018 in the United Kingdom, Extinction Rebellion (XR) describes itself as an apolitical network that relies on nonviolent direct action to persuade governments to react to the planet’s ecological emergency. In less than a year, it has expanded to more than 650 groups in forty nations and has held a number of nonviolent protests and actions to demand government attention to the climate crisis. In April, 1,000 people joined an XR protest in London that blocked major landmarks in the city and helped persuade Parliament to declare a climate emergency, making the U.K. the first nation to do so, according to Labor Party leaders. In September, XR announced an International Rebellion to start on October 7, calling on climate activists to peacefully occupy and shut down centers of government and corporate power to spur action on climate change.

XR’s core demands include that governments must tell the truth about the severity of the ecological crisis, declare a climate emergency, and act immediately to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2025. In the U.K., XR also wants the creation of a Citizen’s Assembly to lead the government on issues of climate justice. In the United States, responding to critiques that XR was not emphasizing the disproportionate effect of climate change on marginalized groups, XR has added a fourth principle: intersectionality, which recognizes that the struggle for climate justice is also the struggle for racial, gender, sexual, and economic equality.

Meagan Bluestein and Aly Tharp, program director of UU Ministry for Earth, glue themselves to the door of a Chase Bank in Austin, Texas, during an Extinction Rebellion action protesting Chase’s support of fossil fuel extraction.

Meagan Bluestein and Aly Tharp, program director of UU Ministry for Earth, glue themselves to the door of a Chase Bank in Austin, Texas, during an Extinction Rebellion action protesting Chase’s support of fossil fuel extraction. (Courtesy Extinction Rebellion ATX)

Courtesy Extinction Rebellion ATX

While Unitarian Universalists are engaged in climate justice in many ways, including supporting the Green New Deal through an Action of Immediate Witness affirmed by the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly in June, a growing number are also joining XR. Last fall, Aly Tharp, program director for UU Ministry for Earth (UUMFE), was on the initial phone call between organizers of XR U.K. and activists seeking to launch XR in other countries. In April, Tharp and two other people were arrested in an XR action in Austin, Texas, protesting Chase Bank’s continued support of fossil fuel extraction; Tharp also joined in XR’s “die-in” in downtown Austin.

Stephen Leslie’s sister Susan Leslie is congregational advocacy and witness director at the UUA. Introduced to XR by her brother, she has joined the XR national team in the United States. The UUA partnered with XR and other groups, including and Sunrise Movement, to support the Global Climate Strike that began September 20 (see our coverage). In January, Tharp helped launch the XR chapter in Austin, Texas, whose meetings have been hosted at Wildflower Church, a UU congregation in Austin.

UUs across the country are joining or starting local chapters of XR, including in New York, Texas, Oregon, and Vermont. Leonard Higgins, one of the “valve turners” who helped shut down five tar-sands oil pipelines in October 2016, for which he was convicted on felony and misdemeanor charges and is now on probation, is helping organize XR in Oregon, where he is a member of UU congregations in both Eugene and Corvallis.

“I’m feeling very excited about the potential” of XR, Higgins says. He notes that XR’s approach is based on data-driven research on successful social movements, including by Erica Chenoweth, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School. Historical data demonstrates that if 3.5 percent of a population joins in a social movement, a tipping point for effective change can be reached, says XR. While the more established climate justice organizations often have direct action in their toolbox, “it’s not their main thing,” says Higgins, who also belongs to

First Unitarian Church of Portland, Oregon, has connected with the city’s XR chapter, according to Emily Herbert, a leader of the congregation’s Community for Earth committee. The Portland chapter protested in July outside the downtown ice building to express the interconnection between immigration justice and climate justice.

Barbara Ford, an artist and activist in Portland, who was born and raised UU, says she’s drawn to XR in part because it includes a “ReGen” or regeneration team to support people past the denial and through the grief engendered as they face the grim facts about climate change. “Right now, it’s hard for people to look at the reality of the situation. That’s one thing I like about XR, they’re not sugar coating it, and they’re calling people into action,” says Ford, who offers workshops to help people remain resilient while working to heal the world.

XR offers various options for involvement, Ford notes, since not everyone is in the position to get arrested in a direct action. Ford suggests that congregations can form an affinity group to study XR’s philosophy and help UUs decide what level of involvement they’re comfortable with.

Jim Driscoll, a member of Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Maryland, who has been involved in social change for decades, was among those who participated in the Washington, D.C., XR chapter’s direct action in January in front of the Republican National Committee headquarters. “It’s really true that it always, always takes large numbers of people willing to break the law to spur significant social change,” says Driscoll, who has been arrested nine times over the years protesting nuclear proliferation and other societal ills. For the past eight years Driscoll has focused on climate change. “You don’t get change from elections, from lobbying,” he says. “Education does play a role, but ultimately it always takes nonviolent direct action.”

In New York City, the Rev. Peggy Clarke, senior minister at Community Church of New York, where the XR New York City chapter will be based, says she is working with XR “because they have had tremendous impact by capturing our collective imagination, making possible the massive transformation I know we need.”

“We are living in a climate emergency, and while most people know it, XR is doing something about it,” Clarke says. “I’m willing to leverage whatever I have to support their work.”

The Rev. Karen G. Johnston, minister at the Unitarian Society in East Brunswick, New Jersey, preached about XR at UU Santa Fe in New Mexico on July 21. A YouTube video of her sermon has been viewed 3,824 times. “First off, I am drawn to XR because from the very beginning they state their intention to be intersectional,” says Johnston. “They have four main demands and one of them is to address environmental racism. They recognize that too often, proposed solutions to the climate crisis continue to place marginalized communities—poor, people of color, indigenous—at the end of the waiting list to experience benefits.” The emphasis on intersectionality “resonates with modern Unitarian Universalism’s aspiration,” and XR’s reliance on direct democracy echoes the Fifth Principle of Unitarian Universalism, she adds. XR’s insistence on truth-telling about the climate crisis “echoes the Unitarian Universalist commitment to the use of reason and our dedication to the integration of science with religious and spiritual understanding. They know their science and data really solidly.”

In early August, Johnston attended an XR direct-action training, which emphasized nonviolence while explaining “a litany of devastating facts about the climate crisis,” she says. She was moved by XR’s “creative, artistic, even flamboyant expressions of public resistance. They know that given the leaden weight of facts around the climate crisis, given the despair our climate reality evokes in us, they must connect with the heart, not just the head.”

In May, Stephen Leslie organized the first meeting of Extinction Rebellion Upper Valley, a “bioregional” chapter that spans parts of Vermont and New Hampshire. The chapter is building relationships with indigenous peoples in Vermont to seek their partnership and leadership on the issue, he says. The first meeting was at the public library in Hartland, Vermont, a town of 3,000 people. Sixty-five people showed up, including a number of Unitarian Universalists from the area. The second meeting was at First Universalist Society of Hartland, and XR has also presented at North Chapel, a Universalist congregation in Woodstock, Vermont. There are now five XR chapters in Vermont, which Leslie finds heartening.

Working with the Climate Mobilization, which seeks a World War II-scale mobilization to reverse global warming and prevent a climate catastrophe, the Upper Valley XR chapter was part of a coalition that persuaded Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York to introduce a resolution in July asking Congress to declare a climate emergency, Leslie says. XR is also prioritizing a push to get cities, governors, and state legislatures across the United States to declare a climate emergency—which both New York City and San Francisco have done—and to rapidly wean society off of fossil fuels.

“So many people are uninformed about this issue,” says Leslie. “They think [climate justice] is about recycling or the ozone or another environmental issue. I don’t think they really get the seriousness. It seems to me what’s really required at this point is this transformative leap in human consciousness as we face this existential threat collectively. Because we have really reached a point where business as usual is going to kill us.”

Johnston and other UUs involved with XR agree. “This is no false promise about preventing the planet from dying,” says Johnston. “It is a promise to choose to act now, in case we can save some semblance of the planet, of nature, of human society, of the much vaster interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. [XR] are taking deathly serious that last part: of which we are a part, for which we hold exquisite and urgent responsibility.”

Learn more about Extinction Rebellion at

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