19 March 2005

The Evangelical Environmental Awakening, Part Two

I spent much of last weekend scouring the web for information from the Christian Right about their commitment to global climate change and the environment. I found much there that was enlightening and useful, including the National Association of Evangelicals' (NAE) "Call to Civic Responsibility," which was put forth this past fall. Throughout, I was struck by the clarity of their vision, but also how very different was their framework from most "greenies." (Hence, my last post on this blog about welcoming these aliens in our midst.)

I am increasingly concerned about the alienation the environmental movement fosters on others, either because we embrace traditions not our own (and seem like "New Age" liberal tree-huggers) or because we are too strident and really don't seem all that concerned with people outside of our mainstream. We rarely focus on those whose waters are not pristine, whose air is being polluted regularly, and who may not count environmentalism among their top ten concerns. In fact, we usually leave people out of the debate altogether, unless it's the "jobs vs. the environment" debate.

Take Adrienne Maree Brown, a young activist who wrote in Grist this past week: "Overall, too many young people see the struggles of humans as separate from the struggles for a healthy environment." And that the movement has "helped enforce that disconnect by seeming to draw divisions between the natural world and its human inhabitants -- and by seeming to worry more about the former than the latter."

She went on to say that "the movement has failed to reach the urban masses, and it has fallen prey to the marketing of the right, which casts caring about the planet as goofy liberalism instead of instinctual preservation."

This brings me back to the evangelists. In many of the materials I read, a bunch of which were published or posted long before the announcement by the NAE two weeks ago, the writers make connections that we have failed to do: connections to human rights, health and well-being, and to poverty alleviation. Meanwhile, the bulk of environmentalists are drawing lines in the sand on places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and writing impassioned, "bleeding-heart liberal" open letters to Senators who could not give a damn. Out of touch? Man, are we ever.

We need, according to Ms. Brown, "to connect the different survival struggles we are engaged in if we truly hope to sustain a viable movement for change." Environmentalism is not dead yet, as some would have it, it just needs a good defibrillator.

Nature worship, passionate pleas, population control, and "nurturant parent" stereotypes, to use a term of George Lakoff's, have walled us off from many who may, as a result, never see our concerns as theirs. But, if Ms. Brown is correct, and we can meet them halfway -- Christians and people of color alike -- maybe, just maybe, we can make a real difference together.

Caring for the earth is, according to the NAE, "a sacred responsibility." This means "clean air, pure water, and adequate resources are crucial to public health and civic order...Because natural systems are extremely complex, human actions have unexpected side effects. We must therefore approach our stewardship of creation with humility and caution." These are strong words; imagine if they were heeded. We must, as Larry Rice of New Life Evangelical Center writes, "not only find our place in the natural realm but...move forth as instruments of healing, hope and help." When was the last time you heard such words from an environmental group?

Some evangelicals proffer that global climate change will have its greatest impact on the poor, especially in developing countries and, therefore, they see it is directly related to issues they care about. Islands and ways of life may disappear; already asthma and other health issues linked to environmental changes are on the rise. Even the unborn are affected, as mercury poisoning influences their development in the womb. All these are valid concerns. How dissimilar are they, really, to concerns of environmentalists? The language is different, as is the framing. What would it be like for us to re-frame our work in ways that are related to issues others care about?

I'm not suggesting that environmentalists shed their values or join the evangelical movement; and I'm not advocating we give our missions over to others wholesale. We all have programs, projects, and concerns that transcend our narrow view of the world. We don't have to shoe-horn our work to fit the shoes of others. But it might be good to walk a bit in those shoes and come back and examine the language we use.

What are we saying that is exclusive? What messages are we giving about nature that reinforces its separateness from humanity or human concerns? How can we focus on the things nature provides for humans rather than negative human impacts on nature?

There are plenty of examples to illustrate that conservation and environmental action provide clear and direct human benefits, as a colleague pointed out to me recently; we need to identify those benefits and put them into simple terms.

Ms. Brown offers a few pointers, which she calls "transition steps": "1. Change your framework; 2. Be easy and appealing; and 3. Stop the environmental evangelism." (By that last she means ditch the "sky-is-falling" proselytizing.)

Dieter Hessel, on Harvard’s "Forum on Religion and Ecology," writes about "a dynamic framework for thought and action that fosters ecological integrity with socioeconomic justice through constructive human responses serving both environmental health and social equity." (Despite the jargon, that sounds like a fairly reasonable platform.)

Finally, let me offer a few suggestions for how we might change the way we talk about our work. I've shared these with some of my colleagues, but offer them here for general consumption and debate. This is by no means an exhaustive list; I'd like to explore more ideas while going deeper on some of these individually:

1. Speak simply (and don't carry a hockey stick).
2. Use language that is more broadly understood: care, stewardship, hope, "nature's keepers".
3. Show definite links to issues of health & well being (poverty, sea level rise, floods, droughts, asthma, and "environmental refugees").
4. Show impacts on people and their lives; and what the real costs are.
5. Demonstrate how to make a difference; give reasons for hope.
6. Clearly define what success looks like.


Anonymous said...

yo - WORD. this gets it all right, let's keep it building. www.indyvoter.org or www.adriennemareebrown.net is the way to keep growing! best...adriennemaree

Anonymous said...

I am a conservative republican. This typically implies that I am for the rape of the land for profit. This couldn't be further from the truth! Yet by admitting my political idealogy most "environmentalists" believe it to be true. I am also a Christian and I find this new rise in "Evangelical Environmentalism" troublesome and frightening. This is because to debate against this is to be against clean air and clean water, etc. This is similar to the race debate, if you're against affirmative action or any other self proclaimed policy, then you must be racist. The policies that are being set forth by the new Environmental Envangelicals are based in liberalism, which means more power to the government and less liberty to the individual. Also, you claim not to put the environment above other human life, but this is currently happening in parts of the world which are not being developed due to "Environmental Concers". And why does the author have to instruct people how to talk? Could it be that he is trying to disguise what this movement is leading towards.