Part 1 of this two-part conversation
I am pastor in Sydney, Australia trying to figure out how care for our earth should fit into my own spiritual formation. I asked my friend Nate Rauh-Bieri, who is a climate advocate and consultant in Michigan, to have a conversation with me.
Caleb Schut: I just finished reading naturalist and famed BBC commentator, David Attenborough’s autobiography, A Life on Planet Earth. I almost put it down after the first half. Each chapter explores the global changes taking place in the 20th century and begins with the year and the percent of earth’s wild land remaining. With this book as my before-bedtime reading, I struggled falling asleep because of increasing anxiety.
Gratefully, I kept reading! The second half of the book is so hopeful! Attenborough talks about what needs to happen to restore our planet and he shares stories of people already hard at work. If I had stopped reading, I would have been left in a place of despondency, which seems like a common theme in conversations on the climate crisis.
“Attenborough talks about what needs to happen to restore our planet and he shares stories of people already hard at work.”
People feel overwhelmed, hopeless and scared by climate headlines. Our options seem to be either (a) deny the problem exists, or (b) feel so helpless that we throw our hands up. But what about an option (c): can we change the trajectory in our lifetime? My own process caused me to wonder: should we be starting with hope more often in the climate conversation?
Nate Rauh-Bieri: You ask a great question about where we start climate conversations. It’s normal and valid to face the climate crisis from a place of fear or anxiety. But I know in my life, that doesn’t sustain. Nor does it usually attract people around us to care and act.
The environmental communicators I respect the most lead with vision. They help us imagine what’s possible, introduce us to the many solutions at hand, and show the real opportunities before us to address our ecological crises in ways that also benefit society and improve life for the most vulnerable among us.
We have a choice. We can keep going down the current road: burning stuff for energy, which causes air pollution that is responsible for more than 8 million people’s deaths a year—and this has been normalized!—and makes the world less and less habitable for us and other species in the process, and using the world’s resources wastefully. Or we can change: we can choose long-lasting energy, land use, and behavioral solutions that lead to better lives in the process. We can stop desecrating our common home right now, repair some of the damage, and even begin to regenerate life on earth over this century.
Caleb Schut: Right. The polarization on this topic has led me to think of the climate as black and white: annihilation or not. For better or worse, that isn’t the case. The current road you reference will lead to an increasingly unpredictable climate with less beauty and diversity. The biodiversity of planet earth has already been significantly diminished. There are less fish in the sea, less animals in the woods, and less rainforests. That is all objectively true. But the path we’re on doesn’t mean humanity will cease to exist. It just means our existence will be less wonderful and more frightening. In some ways, then, the degree to which we respond and curb the impact of our consumption upon nature, the more beautiful, interesting, and sustainable our future will be.
“The biodiversity of planet earth has already been significantly diminished… the degree to which we respond… the more beautiful, interesting, and sustainable our future will be.”Caleb Schut
Nate Rauh-Bieri: It is a more complicated tale. There can and will be irreversible loss even alongside regeneration. Many people prefer to go to either extreme of a) total doomism or b) an “it’s not that serious” form of denial. It’s tougher, but I think more faithful, to live from the messy middle.
A world of beauty and life and diversity is still possible. Positive shifts are already happening. The question is, how can we participate in those shifts and accelerate them in just and humane ways?
I’ve been challenged lately, especially by Black and Indigenous folks, to view hope less as circumstantial, or a wishful feeling that things are going to turn out alright (the kind of hope I as a white man have tended to fall into!) and more as courage in the face of an uncertain future. I’m trying to learn from changemakers who describe hope as a discipline, or dedication to taking action—even if change is uncertain or unlikely.
Many people attest: you feel more hopeful when you’re taking action—especially as part of a collective. And thankfully there are a lot of ways to take action that feel good and make a difference.
“…you feel more hopeful when you’re taking action.”Nate Rauh-Bieri
As you found in Attenborough’s book, there are good reasons to act. We know what the problems are.
And there are many people working on solutions, practicing active hope. For example, communities who live in the shadow of refineries are advocating for more accountability on how companies treat the earth. More people are adopting sustainable practices that protect the living world. We can join changemakers like these, getting off the sidelines of apathy or despair and into action. We also need to get politicians and businesses behind solutions—and quickly.
As you said, we can change the trajectory in our lifetimes. But we need to create political will and cultural change soon. We’re partway through a book whose ending is uncertain; let’s keep actively reading, for many endings are possible.