My Conversion: A Story of Al Gore, Mayor Hodges and the Pope

How The Inconvenient Truth becomes personal.

written in 2015 as Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges was heading to the Vatican for a conversation with city leaders around the world about climate change

As a young girl growing up in Prior Lake, Minnesota, I was biking distance to the Franciscan Retreat House. At the time, it was almost the only thing behind our house other than a handful of homes, lots of trees, and a pond of noisy bullfrogs and creepy garter snakes.

There are now very few trees and at least 70 new homes in the old neighborhood.

I remember being a little awed walking through the wooded trail of the retreat house where Franciscans – in the style of St. Francis, namesake of the current Pope – would commune with nature. Some of us nerdy Catholic neighbor kids had a fake mass at a clearing in the trail. We actually sang Kumbaya.

Around that time, in my Catholic elementary school classroom, I asked our priest how the Bible and evolution could both be true. I recall being confused about his answer. (I also remember throwing up on this poor man’s shoes at communion; I’m not sure if this was cognitive dissonance, exorcism or bad breakfast.)

Although my parents were dedicated churchgoers — mom taught Sunday school and they led a Catholic youth group — we left the faith when I was a teenager because of fundamental disagreements with its rules.

I am a humanist now, at the First Unitarian Society. But like many lapsed Catholics, I am a genuine fan of this new Pope Francis.

His mission seems to be to remind us of the interconnectedness of our planet – to ask us to remember, whether your preferred reading is the Bible or The Origin of Species or an annual report, that everything and everyone matters. Whether or not the world was created in seven days, humans are not the only things that came from clay.– Ervin Laszlo, “Science and the Akashic Field”

I am excited that this Tuesday and Wednesday, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges will be among 50 mayors around the globe – the lone female among nine from the United States — invited to attend a unique conversation at the Vatican. They will talk about the two issues I’ve spent a lot of time learning and writing about in the past 1.5 years: human trafficking and climate sustainability. The issues go hand in hand, as deeply moral issues we have been disrespecting in medieval ways. I look forward to learning what the Mayor comes back inspired for us to do.

Individual Change

Minneapolis Mayor Betsy HodgesAs a young woman, Betsy Hodges smoked a pack of cigarettes daily, weighed more than 200 pounds, and drank every day.

When we set our minds to making change happen, we can do remarkable things.

Or… not.

Like many progressives, I watched Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” nearly a decade ago. (One of its producers is a Minnesota Daily alum I worked with on an investigative series in the ‘80s). I was properly freaked out by the implications Gore pointed out. And then… I put it back into a corked bottle. “That seems scary and real,” I told myself. “I hope they figure out how to fix it.”

What Would Darwin Say?

I suspect Charles Darwin would be appalled at how we’ve interpreted his message of the evolutionary universe as “survival of the fittest” – aka “me give me mine.” Gobbling up resources for comfort, security, unsustainable growth.

A sustainable life – whether on the Galapagos Islands, along the Mississippi River, or in the formerly snow-packed mountains of California – is based on the balance of life’s systems. It’s not our survival skills – nor, ultimately, our pocketbooks — that dictate who lives and dies, but our ability to interact within our environment. Farmers can’t pay for nature to resume its irrigation process. Ocean-based resort owners can’t keep angry waters from eating up their property.

Even our individual bodies operate in this way. Everyone has trillions of single cells that cooperate together if they are to survive.

Near the end of his life, Darwin wrote a letter that said, “In my opinion, the greatest error I have committed has been not allowing sufficient weight to the direct action of the environments, ie. food, climate, etc., independently of natural selection. When I wrote the Origin, and for some years afterward, I could find little good evidence of the direct action of the environment; now there is a large body of evidence.”– Ervin Laszlo, “Science and the Akashic Field”

Seeking Morality

Recently I watched each of Al Gore’s appearances on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. In 2006, when he was promoting “An Inconvenient Truth,” he said he hoped the public would finally reach a tipping point and require climate change action as, not a political issue, but a moral obligation. (The message Pope Francis is delivering now.)

In 2007, frustrated, he said climate change deniers (and Iraqi war proponents) were winning because we don’t make decisions often enough by using reason. In 2009, he said we have the tools – solar energy, electric cars – to do more than simply adjust our light bulbs, and we need to require policymakers to take the bigger steps. In 2013, Gore pointed out that not one question asked of 2012 Presidential candidates in the debates — despite a horrendous year of heat waves, droughts, as well as Hurricane Sandy — was about climate change.

Yet, at a July discussion in Ontario, Gore sounded a hopeful note. He still pointed out the scary impact of climate change: the droughts and diseases killing crops, the odd temperatures in Antarctica, the global mudslides and floods. He talked about forest fires, which Minneapolis experienced as dangerous air pollution in early July; Canadian wildfires are burning this year at 10 times the normal rate.

But he also described that change – some of it finally good – is in the air. He said doctors, firefighters and even investors are demanding stronger action. China, facing political unrest because of its pollution issues, is “putting a price on carbon, tightening restrictions on coal power, and investing heavily in clean energy.”

Citizens Climate Lobby participants from Minnesota were among 800 who spoke in 500 Congressional offices in June 2015.

Citizens Climate Lobby participants from Minnesota were among 800 who spoke in 500 Congressional offices in June 2015.

Gore explained how more of us can help to reduce carbon in a bigger way. “The way to do it is to put a price on denial in politics,” he said.

Sadly, Al Gore won’t get a return visit to the Daily Show (Jon Stewart steps down on August 6) to remind us, for at least the tenth year, that we as citizens need to reach a tipping point to demand that our politicians make the businesses in our interconnected world respond to our environment.

I don’t consider myself an activist – more of a focused questioner. But increasingly I realize that sometimes the biggest individual change we can make is to tell others, again and again, why change needs to happen… until it is done.

I was not trying to make my Catholic school priest uncomfortable with my childhood questions about how the universe came to be. But the Pope – and Gore – and I expect Mayor Hodges – are coming together to agree that we need to make each other increasingly uncomfortable with questions about how the universe is coming apart.

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