Today is Earth Day, and I’ve been thinking about climate change. “Climate change” tends to be one of those “zone-out” terms for a lot of people. It’s such a big concept, and so depressing, that we feel there’s nothing to be done about it by little ol’ me. It’s so big and so distant that “so what?” is how we tend to respond.
One reason why climate change is hard to grasp is that it is never present in the way that rain, wind and weather are. It exists as changes to patterns and predictability, which we depend on precise scientific calculations to know.
That is why we need more than just numbers to understand climate change: the specificity of stories. We need narratives to interpret scientific data but also to interpret the meaning of our specific experiences.
Here’s an example. In the summer of 2013, I visited my family’s farm in Indiana. It was a drought year. Early spring blooming followed by frost disrupted fruit and berry production. Ditches dried up; young trees of certain species dried and died; many corn farmers took crop failure insurance since that made more sense financially than fighting for a harvest.
I responded emotionally to all this loss with confusion. It seemed so different from the place I knew so well. But such losses do not stop there.
I saw a play recently called Sila about the effects of climate change in the Arctic, told through the interconnected stories in a Nunavut community of an Inuit family that includes a climate-activist matriarch, a climate scientist, a politically-savvy Coast Guard officer, and some polar bears. Each story involves generational uncertainty and loss, and the play suggests that climate change isn’t about the environment so much as our inability to deal with loss, whether that is the loss of culture, traditional knowledge, mental health, or even future generations.
We also lose certainty. Climate science can show us how we got ourselves in trouble, and it can offer models and projections for the future, but mostly it tells us that we are in for a future of unpredictability and unreliability, especially regarding when and how the tipping points of collapse will come. We are afraid to lose the security that some of us are afforded by the very political and economic systems that are causing irreparable damage to the sustainability of human life.
Furthermore, we lose a sense of our place in nature. Of course, nature and culture have always been interconnected. But the scale of human impacts on rest of the world has never been greater. We can no longer honestly call extreme weather “acts of God” when human agency has affected the non-human world to the point that extreme weather is as much of our own making as the functioning of faithful natural laws.
Leading climate activist Bill McKibben has long warned that climate change may make it harder for us to hear God’s voice in nature and cause us to lose our emotional connection to the divine. Of course, humans have been finding ways to shut out God’s voice for millennia. But if humans alter the meaning of nature itself, by which we understand God’s power and faithfulness, we may end up losing touch with God in an essential way.
I didn’t just observe climate change in the summer of 2013; I contributed to it. I flew from Oregon to Indiana to see my family, as I’ve done many times. Thus I contributed to pollution and climate change, as we all inescapably do every day of our lives. No amount of bicycle-riding, recycling, tree-planting, or even a carbon tax can erase our complicity in climate change or even contribute to the sustainability of today’s globalized society. It is doubtful whether our political and economic systems, even if they weren’t systemically hell-bent on compounding climate crises, could be changed at all. So even though I want to stop destroying the earth, I can’t, just as the Apostle Paul in Romans 7 struggled to stop sinning but couldn’t.
The big-picture story of climate change is clear and implicates us all, especially those of us who benefit from capitalism. It starts when human history starts: The Ice Age ends, and humanity, that socially and rationally gifted species, spreads over the globe. Humans master fire and develop agriculture, burning plants and disrupting soil in ways the release huge amounts of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. Humans use fire and agriculture to develop empires and industry, eventually digging up and burning up fossil fuels like coal and oil to make life easier for those ruling these empires. Agricultural and industrial extraction and pollution grossly alter and destroy the natural world in most places, even in places now considered “wild.” Biodiversity plummets as human culture homogenizes globally. After World War 2, during which humans added nuclear radiation to their toxic side-effects, neoliberal capitalism becomes the dominant global economic system, and human impacts on the earth accelerate out of control. Centuries of human emissions of heat-trapping gasses into the atmosphere warm the entire earth, which alters climatic weather patterns throughout the world. Non-humans and the poor disproportionately suffer the effects (including from climate change) of all the injustices of these dominant imperial systems.
So here we are. Climate change is also about our total depravity as sinful humans. It enframes all our stories. But that isn’t the whole story.
First, the larger story by which I understand this narrative of decline culminating in climate change actually begins with the goodness of creation. The world was made for love and flourishing. Humans were given the task of serving and protecting creation, but we didn’t do this. We disobeyed God, and curses were the consequence. Climate change was a consequence.
The Bible is rife with stories that figure God using weather events—climate change of a different sort—to pass judgment on imperial political and economic systems that devastate and enslave the earth, the poor, and marginalized. Take some of the plagues on the Egyptians, for example, or the drought in the time of the prophet Elijah or the global devastation prophesied in Isaiah 24:
See, the Lord is going to lay waste the earth
and devastate it;
he will ruin its face
and scatter its inhabitants—
2 it will be the same
for priest as for people,
for the master as for his servant,
for the mistress as for her servant,
for seller as for buyer,
for borrower as for lender,
for debtor as for creditor.
3 The earth will be completely laid waste
and totally plundered.
The Lord has spoken this word.
4 The earth dries up and withers,
the world languishes and withers,
the heavens languish with the earth.
5 The earth is defiled by its people;
they have disobeyed the laws,
violated the statutes
and broken the everlasting covenant.
6 Therefore a curse consumes the earth;
its people must bear their guilt.
Therefore earth’s inhabitants are burned up,
and very few are left.
7 The new wine dries up and the vine withers;
all the merrymakers groan.
Yet in each instance, God redeems and restores.
In one of the Bible’s literary pinnacles, God speaks to Job from the whirlwind in Job 38-41. God’s divinity is supremely proclaimed in God’s power over and in non-human nature. We humans are not the big deal we think we are, and climate change is one unintentional consequence of our recent collective attempt to usurp God’s place, to build Babel, to master what isn’t ours. When Job repents, acknowledging he is but dust, after hearing God speak in the whirlwind, God restores to him all he lost.
I am convinced that neither reform nor revolution will be enough to fix the climate mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Only exodus from our enslaving system will, to the extent that that is possible, and ultimately only systemic death and resurrection will be the means of redemption.
The ancient Hebrews modeled this when they escaped Egypt to hear God speak in the wilderness. Likewise Jesus has given us the prototype of what death and resurrection should look like. Just as the Roman Empire with the collusion of the religious authorities crushed Jesus, today’s capitalist empires (and colluding religious authorities) are crushing themselves and us under the costs of their environmental and social injustices. But that’s all they’ve got. (If the environmental and social costs of extraction and pollution were actually considered, no corporation would be profitable.) Capitalism and empire ignore reality, and, thank God, they will die. Not that that loss will be easy for anyone! How God brings about resurrection from this is a mystery—as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15—but I have patient faith and hope it will happen.
Does that hope for ultimate redemption mean that we can keep on living our present destructive lifestyles? Does it mean that what we do now doesn’t make a difference? By no means! The Apostle Paul explicitly dismisses such logic in Romans 6:1 and 6:15. We must align ourselves to the extent we can with the Biblical vision (in places like Romans 8:18-25 and Revelation 20-22) of a renewed earth free from the bonds not only of human-caused frustrations but of sin, suffering, and decay as well.
Perhaps human civilization might embark on a spiritual awakening of repentance via a 12-step program: admitting our powerlessness to our fossil fuel addiction, surrendering ourselves to God to restore us to sanity, accounting and amending our wrongs. It is hard to imagine a conversion on the scale of climate change. I am reminded of a quote by Wendell Berry:
I am not an optimist; I am afraid that I won’t live long enough to escape my bondage to the machines. Nevertheless, on every day left to me I will search my mind and circumstances for the means of escape. And I am not without hope. I knew a man who, in the age of chainsaws, went right on cutting his wood with a handsaw and an axe. He was a healthier and a saner man that I am. I shall let his memory trouble my thoughts.
Nevertheless, let us listen to God’s voice from the whirlwind and repent as Job did, or a whirlwind is surely all we will reap, and the wind all we will inherit. Let’s embrace our interconnectedness and our loss of security and certainty. And let’s let what hope we have trouble us toward greater health and sanity today.
For more climate change stories, check out the Climate Stories Project.
Originally from a vegetable farm in rural northwest Indiana, Rob now lives with his wife Hope in Eugene, Oregon, as he pursues a PhD in English at the University of Oregon. He teaches undergraduate writing courses and studies religion, secularization, and environment in nineteenth-century American literature. He graduated from Calvin in 2007 with a major in history of religion but returned the next year to complete the English major. “Glory be to God for dappled things—”