I recently finished the book Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. As I sit down to write a review on it, I realize that there is one chapter that is so significant to the green movement it cannot be shuffled into a review of the entire book. It might be lost tucked amongst descriptions of Amazonian deforestation, the environmental justice movement, and Robert Kennedy, Jr.'s attempts to block a wind turbine project. That chapter demands its own post.
In Belonging and Fulfillment, Nordhaus and Shellenberger explore the rise of the Evangelical church and delve into its success and political dominance. It is no secret that people today feel less happy and more isolated than they did twenty or thirty years ago. Research repeatedly demonstrates, however, that the key to happiness and the cure to loneliness is connection with others. Being part of a meaningful community enriches one's life, imbues one with esteem and a feeling of belonging. Evangelical churches offer those very things to their members. People join and participate because they build relationships through their meetings, gain a sense of peace and meaning, fill a spiritual void, and belong to a larger community. The primary purpose of gatherings of the religious right is not politics, protests, or petitions. Those are mere byproducts. Rather, the primary purpose is connection, community and consummation. Because people have those needs met through their involvement with Evangelical churches, they attend meetings, regularly donate a percentage of their income and bring friends and family into the church to share the joy.
"While Evangelical Christianity is an individual and community experience, environmentalism is mostly an individual one." (203). Environmentally aware people vote in line with their green values, make individual changes to reduce their personal carbon footprint, read books, and occasionally donate money to green organizations - all primarily individual pursuits. Nordhaus and Shellenberg posit that "few among even the serious environmentalists ever actually do anything to manifest their environmentalist identities or to recruit others to join them." (Id.) Indeed, "[t]o the extent that environmentalists have meetings at all, they are more depressing than inspiring, focused more on stopping development than creating a beloved community. Drive across town to the local mega-church service and you'll likely find an energetic and vibrant righteousness that doesn't get to the dull work of door knocking and phone banking until well after the faithful have sung songs and felt the warming love of Jesus in their hearts." (Id.)
Since I was a teen, environmental progress has been painfully slow. Two steps forward, two steps back. The movement has finally gained steam in the last few years, but even now, global warming is overshadowed by other political issues. Even Democrats and Independents rank global warming 13th out of the top 19 issue facing voters today. (107) Calls to action - whether it be to stop aerial pesticide spraying or to petition a city to take action on climate change - are often met with silence. People voice their frustration over high emission vehicles and melting ice caps but fail to follow through, to attend the meeting, write the letter, enlist others.
We cannot continue as we have. Recruiting based solely on scare tactics is too slow a way to grow. The green movement instead must liken itself to the Evangelical churches that Break Through explores. We must create a Church of Climate Change, a way to promote the environmental agenda in a less frightening manner and a means to offer parishioners solace and friendship, laughter and support, community.
To my mind, the Church of Climate Change is not a place or a thing but a shift in strategy, a migration from the negative to the positive, and a movement toward gatherings based on fulfillment instead of fear. If you pay attention, you will see the beginnings of the Church of Climate Change here in the blogosphere. The nuttiness of Crunchy Chicken and the community she creates through her challenges come to mind. The blog world's support for one another, as demonstrated by A Crunchy Tribute, is another example.
The environmental church extends beyond keyboards and cables, though. It can be found at my green book club, where once a month, local wine flows freely, women share laughter and advice and talk about a good book. It is further evident in that book club's decision to expand its membership by doing something different, something purely for pleasure. This summer, we will skip one environmentally relevant book and substitute a jam making session instead. We will also join another green moms group to indulge in a safe makeup makeover. The RSVPs for the latter event are more than double our usual response - evidence that people want to connect but without the angst and anxiety with which so many environmental meetings are fraught.
The Church of Climate Change is alive and well at Green Moms Coastside, where events focus not on inconvenient truths but on holiday crafting with recycled materials, tours of organic farms, fruit picking, and bread baking demonstrations. Even movie nights in that group veer toward more light hearted but educational flicks like King Corn and Garbage Revolution. Grassroots green groups can increase turnout at meetings by hosting events that bring people together simply for the sake of being together and not the sake for political action, which can come later, after the faithful have felt the warming love of making strawberry jam together.
It is time for us, as a movement, to change focus. To reach out instead of in. To think potlucks instead of protests, movie nights instead of marches, fulfillment instead of fear. To become a political force and make the sweeping changes necessitated by climate change, peak oil and the hunger crisis, we first need to invest in one another, to build a foundation, friendships, and belonging. While I believe that individual lifestyle changes are essential, saving the world is not something we can do alone. We need community. We need each other. We need to build our church.