Climate scientists have been screaming the alarm for literally decades. Despite global efforts, they now say we have 12 years left to contain the damage: the difference between 1.5°C and 2°C warming means tens of millions of lives lost, not to mention the death of all coral reefs and half the world’s plants and insects. In the USA, our oligarchic, oil-funded government seems determined to drive our country off a cliff and take the rest of the world with us. What on this good, green Earth are we to do?
I have been thinking about this a while. Below is a seven-fold strategy that I pray may bring help, comfort, and inspiration to those who, like me, can feel utterly overwhelmed.
It astonishes me to have to include this, but so much money has poured into distractions and strategies to discredit climatology that we must still spread the word. We now know which approaches actually bring people along; a little bit of doom and gloom goes a very long way. Focus on empowerment, action, and most importantly, connection: how do climate issues affect people directly? How do they intersect with issues people already care about? (Hint: the climate affects all life and every place on Earth!)
It’s time to dust off the power words of our faith traditions.[i] It is not only dangerous to ignore this crisis; it is sinful. Stop worrying about offending anti-religious environmentalists. We are out of time. We need all the tools in our belt, and religion has strong ones specifically for a time such as this. Sin. Forgiveness. Despair. Retribution. Apocalypse. Lament. Death. Rebirth. Resurrection. Hope.
Apply them. Now.
Here is a step most prefer to skip. (Actually, if you don’t feel filled to the brim with grief, you probably haven’t yet accepted the truth.) We want to jump into immediate action. As tempting as it is to leapfrog over grief, I strongly advise us to sit with it instead. As I have written elsewhere, the only path to true healing goes through grief, not around it. Otherwise, it seeps in and poisons our interactions, our relationships, and even our moments of joy.
But how, particularly with so much to grieve? Again, we are not the first. Our faith ancestors also faced end of the world crises, and they developed ways to express deep woundedness and fear, as well as frustration and rage at unjust and apathetic leaders. Light a candle. Scream. Sing a song. Read a poem. Use scripture.[ii] My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Take this cup away from me (Mark 14:34-6). Do you not care that we are perishing? (Mark 4:38). This brutally honest grief says, say it all – and release it; because no matter how crushing it feels, Love is big enough to carry our pain – and it is only through lament that we can rediscover joy and peace. So grieve often. Alone or together. Whatever your tradition. Create space for your grief.
Oh trouble set me free
I have seen your face
And it’s too much, too much for me[iii]
Once we have poured out our anguish, we can allow kernels of determination to take root. Did you know you cannot both laugh and be afraid? Find humor that helps transform your grief into resolve. We face a challenge we know we cannot truly meet; but we have two choices: wallow, or go down fighting. Millions of lives are at stake.
What gives you strength? Tales of feminist Warriors? Time in nature to awaken your inner Protector? Hymns and protest songs that fire you up? Children whose future you want to safeguard? Go!
Onward, Christians! Forward! March as ne’er before! March for peace and justice – justice evermore! Christ embodies healing: peace and grace for all! Forward now, together – heed Creation’s call!
I am going to be as blunt as possible. I am not asking you to put aside your differences with others and come together to prioritize climate healing and justice. I am begging you. What is your deepest conviction? I promise, it wholly and completely depends on a stable climate. Feminism? You already know that climate destabilization affects women most, especially poor women and women of color. Queer rights? The queer community reveals how we desperately need biodiversity for resilient ecosystems. Racism? The water crisis in Flint is only one example of ongoing, global resource conflicts that victimize communities of color. Maybe it’s quilting, or rescue animals. We need not choose ecological activism over anything else: we just need to do it with everything else. Find the points of contact, and for the sake of all that is good in the world, get to work.
Twelve years is both a blink of an eye and a long haul. We must work steadily, cooperatively, and efficiently if we are to avoid greater planetary catastrophe. I propose two emphases: policy and Sabbath. Forget the latest tweet. Stay laser focused on climate policy decisions, and elect people who implement them. Most people who care about climate also care about other justice issues. When you read, call, petition, march, advocate: put the climate in the forefront.
We do not have the luxury of burnout. This is the second focus. We need cycles of Sabbath restoration to nourish our spirits and replenish our inner wells of strength. What replenishes you? Ritual, music, time outside, planting flowers, playing with puppies? Whatever nourishes you, create space for cycles of labor and Sabbath.
Love, that madest Earth and Heaven, darkness and light
Who the day for toil hast given, for rest the night
Gird us for the task that calls us
Let not ease and self enthrall us
Strong through thee, whate’er befall us
O Love, most wise!
Did you know Earth healing offers its own reward? Social scientists call it the “green glow.” More than saving money, what actually motivates us is simply knowing we did the right thing. So open your address book. We need all hands on deck, and we needed them yesterday. Mobilize everyone you know for a full court press. No time for shyness. It will be too late to feel embarrassed when all our homes are destroyed by tornado-zillas. And as we journey along this narrow path through the Red Sea, remember to look for the helpers. No matter how bad the news, there are always helpers. We will make mistakes. That is unavoidable. It is time. Take up a cross and follow the Shepherd into the valley. Together. Lifting up our eyes to the Source of our hope, calling us through to Freedom Land. We shall overcome. We shall live in peace. We are not afraid. We shall all be free.
There is good news and bad news. The bad news is Very Bad. Our children may not have a planet, a home. Try as we might, we may not summon enough political will. Even if we go all out, our best efforts may prove unsuccessful. We may fail.
It’s true. It’s all true. But I, for one, will not go down without a fight. Between despair and hope, I choose hope, and I am holding onto it with both fists. Because there is no point sitting around wishing this crisis had not happened in our time. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.[iv] We need to get busy living or get busy dying.[v]
Maybe we will find the political will to get this done. Maybe we can come together, find common ground, join hands, and healing will prevail. Maybe this will not be humanity’s choking, disgraceful end. Maybe it will be our finest hour. This little light of mine – I’m gonna let it shine. Will you join me?
Tallessyn Zawn Grenfell-Lee recently earned her Ph.D. in social and ecological ethics from Boston University School of Theology. She continues to study intersections of ecofeminism, permaculture ethics, grief, and nature connection. She previously did graduate research on Alzheimer’s Disease and preventive research on Ovarian Cancer. She received a B.Sc. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, an M.A. in Molecular Biology from Harvard University, and an M.Div. from the Boston University School of Theology. She lives in central Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters, and enjoys gardening, canoeing, learning about medicinal and edible wild plants, and rewriting old hymns to make them more inclusive.
[i] Roger Gottlieb has a great book on this: A Greener Faith: Religious Environmentalism and Our Planet’s Future (Oxford Univ. Press, 2006).
[ii] See also: Rachel’s Cry: Prayer of Lament and Rebirth of Hope, by Kathleen D. Billman and Daniel L. Migliore (United Church Press, 1999).
[iii] From Trouble, by Cat Stevens.
[iv] From The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien.
[v] From The Shawshank Redemption, by Stephen King.