solar church denisbin CC BY-ND 2.0 flicker climate change movement lesson building religion
Image Credit: denisbin (CC BY-ND 2.0, flicker)

“Just look at the friendliest person in the room.” That’s always the advice. I’ve done stuff like this before, but why am I so nervous now? What are there like 20 people here? I’ve spoken in front of a lot more people than this. 1,200 in fact. And singing was involved. “If someone looks mad at you, ignore them. They’ll try to suck your soul out through your eyes.

But the fact is that standing behind a pulpit in a church service attended by twenty people, I was the most nervous speaking that I had been in a long time. I don’t think it was the speaking itself, or the venue; no, it was the topic.

I was in Easton, Maryland to speak about climate change and the response that the church should have to it. Presenting on climate in a conservative area of the country, in a religious setting? I feared this wouldn’t go over well.

But in the end, my anxiety was unfounded. The topic was received warmly. The congregants were eager to discuss it. Some expressed a religiously motivated desire to learn more about the subject and about how they could help. On the whole, what I found was a warm, receptive community of people engaged with the world through the specific lenses of piety.

As I worshiped with the congregation, I started to notice some interesting crossover between religious movements and the climate one. Climate advocates have, since the crisis broached the public conscience, discussed the need to create a social movement around climate change. Such a movement would be useful, or even mandatory, in shaping our culture to one of greater sustainability and lighter impact. Creating this social movement would also help overcome the difficulty of asking people to make personal changes today in exchange for difficult to recognize benefits in the future.

But in our effort to create a movement for an inherently challenging topic, we may well have over-looked the lessons of some of the world’s most successful social movements: religious traditions. Like climate action, these traditions ask adherents for personal change in exchange for the promise of future reward. Sometimes what is asked of people is difficult, and people may struggle to adhere to principles as well as they should. But, ultimately, religions have been asking for these changes for thousands of years in some cases. And adherents have been responding.

I’m far from the first to recognize the potential for the climate movement in learning the lessons of organized religion. George Marshall dedicates a few chapters to the subject in his 2015 book “Don’t Even Think About It.” At the time I read his book, it was a novel idea to me and my recent experience with climate outreach in those very same faith communities has me thinking about it again.

Both climate and religious movements already share a few aspects in common. The previously mentioned denial of personal gratification for future reward is one. The presence of a clear authority on the subject is another. Both ask people to examine their actions and consistently work to better themselves.

But that’s unfortunately where the similarities end and where the lessons to be learned for the climate movement begin. Organized religion, for instance, is much better designed to develop the personal growth they ask for. Churches, Synagogues, Mosques, and other places of worship are more than just physical buildings; they house communities of people who are all dedicated to the same end. And this physical community is key. When one person struggles in their personal growth, they have that community to fall back on for support. All the fears, anxiety, embarrassment, and anguish of not living up to a cultural standard can be openly and readily discussed with others who have quite likely been there before.

That’s not to mention the greatest gift extended to religious adherents: forgiveness. Failing all else, those in religious communities are encouraged to know that they no matter their transgression, they can recommit themselves to higher ideals and start anew tomorrow.

But the climate movement offers no such promise and no such community. Currently, all it offers in the face of doubt and failing is isolation and guilt.

Even as a person who works professionally in climate and energy research, I don’t know of anywhere a person can go to confess their climate “sins,” be told “you’re forgiven,” and get support from others as they work to grow in a new, climate conscious way (outside of impersonal, online message boards). I feel as though we are trying to make a social paradigm shift while simultaneously refusing to let anyone know that we might struggle personally with our own ideals.

Religions actively recognize those personal struggles. Religion also offers a more streamlined education method with human connection. If you want to learn about the philosophy of Methodism or Reform Judaism, there are real, breathing people in nearly every town in the western world you can approach for personal lessons. From there, you can connect to a larger community to continue to learn, grow, and develop.

But, for all of the charges of climate change being a “religion” or a “cult,” I have yet to see a “Climate Pastor” or a “Sustainability Imam.” Having them might help us. Asking what climate change is and what it means for us are daunting questions, but they’re nothing in comparison to “what is the meaning of life.” As it stands, the climate movement leaves it up to each individual person to stumble from source to source in social isolation, trying to make sense of what it all means. In theory, someone could approach a researcher for help, but finding one takes time and that researcher would need to be skilled as a mentor.

All this is to say that the climate movement needs some help in community building. Luckily, we have a model we can look to that has stood for thousands of years: our religious organizations. Given that the consequences of climate change might last just as long as those movements have stood, we would be wise to study the community building example laid out by these social institutions.

That’s not to say that we should follow the example to the letter; a climate clergy and global warming hymns would certainly be out-of-place. But these organizations give people a place to gather as a community. It’s a place to celebrate victories, seek support for personal failings, solicit advice for improvement, and speak with like-minded people. It’s a place to find information from an expert trained to communicate it. Ideally, it’s a warm, inclusive, and welcoming group that takes you as you are and helps you become who you want to be.

The climate movement is missing nearly all of that, and it shows.

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