The Sun Interview  December 2012 | issue 444
If Your House Is On Fire
by Mary DeMocker

DeMocker: You mention enlisting the aid of religions, but you’re not a believer. You describe yourself as a “sacred secularist.” What does that mean?

Moore: It means that I believe the world is extraordinary and mysterious, beautiful beyond human imagining and grand beyond human measure, worthy of reverence and awe. The word we have for something like that is sacred. You don’t have to believe in God to know that when you go out the door in the morning, you walk on sacred ground. A friend from New Zealand who had never seen a rufous hummingbird once said to me, “That’s the kind of creature that makes you believe in God.” And I said, “Or that’s the kind of creature that makes you believe we can’t let this world slip away.” If God doesn’t have his eye on the sparrow, somebody else had better, and that somebody is us.

DeMocker: You often address faith communities. Does your lack of belief affect how they respond to your message?

Moore: When I tell people of faith that I don’t believe in a divine Creator, I think they feel sorry for me. They believe I am dragging a ball and chain that keeps me from doing this work as joyously or as effectively as I might, that I have given away a source of strength. All this may be true. But they don’t turn away from me, because they agree that the glory of the universe, whether it comes from God or nature, has a value beyond its usefulness to humans. No matter if you’re a member of a church or not, you can appreciate that glory, which calls us to action.

DeMocker: I once heard you read “The Call to Forgiveness at the End of the Day,” your piece in Moral Ground written from the perspective of an imagined future in 2025, after you have witnessed the extinction of songbirds, bats, frogs, and salmon. In it you wonder how your grandchildren can forgive you for not acting fast enough to save these beautiful creatures. After you finished reading, the audience sat in stunned silence. Is this the reaction you hope for?

Moore: Yes and no. I don’t pretend to know what a writer’s duty is in these times. And nobody wants to write something that breaks people’s hearts. But I did want to help others see one possible future, a world without owl calls and frog song. If we can’t imagine what probably lies ahead, how will we gather the courage to turn in a different direction? Maybe more writers should tell stories about possible futures, the beautiful ones and the ones that will break our hearts. It’s cowardly to shy away from sad stories. As songwriter Leonard Cohen says, even when our hearts are broken, we have to sing the “broken hallelujah.”

DeMocker: Can’t thoughts of devastation also paralyze?

Moore: Our civilization has rituals that help us draw strength from grief, get our courage back, and continue forward. Maybe that’s the primary function of religion. Surely it’s an important function of art. The philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “We have art in order not to die of the truth.” Can we turn our grief toward positive action? We need creative ways to acknowledge loss and extinction. If there are trucks going down the road in the countryside pouring poisons on wildflowers, there ought to be a hearse following them and a string of cars with their lights on to acknowledge the deaths. If construction crews are bulldozing a marsh for a parking lot, there should be a choir there singing a requiem. If you poison your lawn, you should post a sign that says, “Not safe for children and animals.” At the site of every clear-cut there should be a little shrine like the ones families put up for a young person killed in a car wreck. Erect wooden crosses on stumps. Organize people to wear black and to stand along the line the seas will reach in 2050.

DeMocker: Do you imagine this as a kind of grieving or as a political protest?

Moore: Both. I was in Laramie, Wyoming, in 1998 when Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, was murdered in a vicious hate crime. The University of Wyoming homecoming parade that year turned into an outlet for grief and outrage. After the marching band and the girls on horseback went by, people poured off the curbs and marched, crying and shouting, through town. The community was profoundly changed. People in the Middle East have taught the world how quickly a funeral procession can become a political protest. In the U.S., civil-rights activists showed that people walking out of a church holding hands and singing can be a powerful political statement.

DeMocker: My friends often say they don’t want to give fear or negativity too much of their energy. Our culture’s desire to focus on the positive is a pretty serious roadblock for activists wanting to confront these issues.

Moore: Yes, and if I were an oil-company ceo, I would take heart in that. I would design strategies that build on that aversion to what is unpleasant or horrifying or sad. If you give people a chance to turn away, they will. If you give them a distraction, they will take it.

Let’s face it: our culture is hooked on cheap oil and consumer goods, and we exhibit all the self-destructive behaviors of addicts. We devote our days to the pursuit of the next hit. We have developed enabling behaviors to allow our addictions to go unchallenged, to deny that they do any harm.

I think the addiction to consumer goods is a response to the loss of community, self-sufficiency, meaningful work, neighborly love, and hope. When these things are taken from us, we look for the cheap fix, which is turning out to be very expensive indeed.

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