A couple of months ago one of my friends mentioned that Open Universities Australia ran free online refresher courses in a variety of topics. I filed it away in the back of my mind, but eventually succumbed to curiosity and looked up the courses. I immediately signed up for the climate change course and am now in the last week of the online lectures and assessments.
I very highly recommend that as many people as possible take this course. It’s pretty straightforward. You watch a roughly 5 minute video and then answer a multiple choice question. After one week or module – a total of eight to ten videos per module – you complete a short assessment. There are four modules and then, if you average 60% or more in the quizzes and assessments, you’ll get a PDF certificate of completion that you can print out if you want. Too easy and it doesn’t cost a single cent (except your own Internet bill!). The course is presented by the highly-regarded Open Universities Australia but is available to anyone with an Internet connection. You don’t need to be in Australia to take the free courses.
You can learn more and enrol in the course here: https://www.open2study.com/courses/climate-change. Please, give it a go. If you’re even vaguely interested in learning more about climate change and the surrounding discussions, even if you don’t know what you personally believe on the topic, this course is well worth the effort. It discusses a huge variety of angles on climate, from meteorological science to the social justice issues it is already affecting. I am personally impressed with the quality and breadth of the free course, and it provides plenty of information for further reading. As someone who already studied climate change at university level, it’s been a great refresher as well as introducing me to aspects of the science I didn’t research in my uni days (as I was more concerned with the socio-political discussion surrounding climate action, rather than the science itself).
As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I have a uni degree in sociology (sociology, or social science, studies and analyses humanity’s interactions with various “structures,” like politics and philosophy – as I like to jokingly say, it studies “-isms”).
For my honours by research degree I specialised in environmental sociology, exploring the interconnections between climate change and animal agriculture, using the lens of ecofeminism and a critical realist perspective to frame the discussion. I started my uni course not particularly well-versed in climate change, but after years of immersion in the arguments both for and against climate action, I came out convinced that climate change is an extremely significant and important issue that must be tackled from as many angles as possible.
However, at the time I was also heavily involved in a non-denominational Pentecostal megachurch. Technically, it’s still my church community but it seems inevitable that I will leave in the near future – though that’s a whole other story.
When church friends and acquaintances heard that I had returned to my uni studies as a mature age student, a fairly predictable conversation would ensue, and it always went a little like this:
Them: “What are you studying?”
Me: “I’m doing my honours in sociology.”
Them: “Sociology? As in Tony Campolo?”
Me: “Yeah, he’s a sociologist.”
Them: “Oh cool, he has some interesting views*. I liked his social justice talk at church. What topic are you studying?”
(*Alternatively they would proceed to tell me why Campolo is too leftist and/or a compromising heretic.)
Me: “Environmental sociology. I’m researching political attitudes to climate change.”
Them: “Do you believe in climate change?”
Me: “After reading numerous arguments for and against it, I’m convinced that the weight of evidence reveals it to be a very real and measurable phenomenon, caused or at least exacerbated by human activity.”
Them: “You really believe in it? Well, see I was listening to a sermon by [–any North American or Australian politically conservative preacher you can imagine–] and they said that climate change is just a myth. It’s God-hating lefties who are pushing it.”
Me: “Well, I’ve read the science and the political analysis surrounding it and there’s a lot of convincing evidence that if people don’t do anything about it we are, to put it nicely, screwed. I believe in God but I also believe climate change needs to be addressed. I don’t think God’s mandate in Genesis to tend His Garden gives us blanket permission to destroy it.”
Them: “See, the thing is, as [–not in any conceivable way qualified-to-make-a-statement preacher–] said, talking about climate change is a way for environmentalists to make money. They’re also trying to scare us into giving away our money.”
Me: “And… you’re absolutely certain that some preachers aren’t possibly doing that very thing? It’s entirely possible they’re trying to scare people into throwing money at them, too, by threatening them with spiritual consequences if they aren’t ‘generous.’ Anyway, the science behind climate change is pretty solid.”
Them: “Science isn’t always trustworthy, especially if it doesn’t begin the Word of God.”
At that point I’d usually be asked to read some paper or article suggested by the other person – and I mean, this script here is a condensation of many, many utterly fruitless conversations I had with church acquaintances and friends over the two years of my honours degree. The article would inevitably regurgitate the same clichéd conspiracy theories about how science is anti-God, unless, of course, that science remotely hints at the plausibility of young earth creationism.**
If they hadn’t heard it preached from the pulpit then it wasn’t real. The only reference to climate change I personally recall hearing from the Pentecostal pulpit was a retelling of the oft-repeated but rarely fact-checked tale of Irena Sendler “losing” the Nobel Peace Prize to Al Gore because, as claimed, those crazy lefties would rather reward a Powerpoint slide show than a brave woman who saved countless lives during WWII, and “it’s not like scientists even agree on climate change.” Nowadays it seems to me that it’s really profoundly irresonsible for preachers to use their influential platforms to promote views they haven’t thoroughly researched and understood (or at least fact checked lest they fall prey to a half-true chain email), especially when it’s on such major and politicised issues.
I couldn’t begin to psychoanalyse the reasons why certain pockets of Christendom are so hostile to science – if that science in any way suggests that their worldview is incomplete. I’m not a psychologist. However, sociologically there appear to be a number of factors, though it’s been a while since I’ve studied them in depth, some of which surround the basic human need to not change one’s deeply ingrained and selfish habits. If climate change is real then it requires that we do something about it. If a lot of people make a lot of changes in their lifestyles it could have a positive effect on global warming and anthropocentric climate change.
For me, as an example, though my efforts are by no means perfect, and nor is this list comprehensive, I’ve chosen to live a plant-based lifestyle (I don’t eat any meat, fish, poultry, and virtually no dairy or eggs, ideally it’d be none, and I avoid animal-based products in other contexts wherever I can) and we buy renewable energy from our electricity provider (solar and wind) as well as carbon-offset gas. As far as possible we incorporate organic and biodynamic foods and as natural as possible and preferably recycled or recyclable house hold cleaning products, toiletries and linens. We grow some of our own food, too, and I am convinced that learning to grow and share our food will be a major aspect of alleviating the pressures on the agricultural system in feeding the world. We learn what we can, and we make adjustments as far as possible. We can’t do everything but we can do something. We are moving in the direction of a minimalist lifestyle. Everyday we choose actions that affect the size of our “ecological footprint.” We are conscious of the fact our efforts are not perfect but in good conscience we seek to make adjustments as we can.
My personal theory, one that I cannot base on research and so is based more on personal experience and discussion and reflection, is that to suggest that our patterns of consumption and our lifestyles are damaging the planet is, in a way, a critique of a particular Pentecostal view that God is our infinite provider of health and wealth and blessing and abundance. Now, I know there are myriad ways of interpreting Biblical texts on “abundance,” particularly in light of Jesus’s references to the evils of worshipping material gain. But I’ll be as politely blunt as possible – as much good as can be found in Pentecostal circles, based on my experiences of 14 years of heavy involvement in Pentecostalism, as occasional outside observer, one-time true believer and now back to frustrated insider who probably won’t stick around much longer – there is often a subversive, though sometimes even overtly explicated, belief that God gives to us generously. Despite the many disclaimers and caveats spoken in preaching, it is assumed that this generosity involves money, business success, material wealth, and basically all the other trappings of rampant capitalism. This is not true of every Pentecostal, of course, and most would tell you that we ask God for prosperity and blessing in order to be able to give on that blessing to those who need it. It appears that this attitude in middle class Pentecostal circles where the Spirit operates as what I would dub our “capitalist co-worker” is an attitude that goes unchallenged. Yet I’ve also been privy to the whispered conversations from those who shamefacedly admit that their earnest prayers and years of fasting and sacrificial tithing came to nothing and all they’re left with is debt and uncertainty and credit cards they can’t repay, all while continuing to pour what little they have into the seemingly endless stream of building programmes, missions work and other fundraisers that come up. As far as I have encountered it, Spirit-filled capitalism doesn’t work by endlessly pouring God-breathed money into the coffers of charitably minded believers in order to be fairly distributed as the Spirit commands. Of course, some well-off Pentecostals are profoundly generous and they do a lot of good with their wealth. Yet it seems to me that unbridled wealth accumulation takes and controls from the finite resources available to all of humanity and brings it into one community. That’s not to say it won’t be given to the poor or needy in some measure. But still, I often think it’d be great if the conversations surrounding money in the Pentecostal circles I moved in over the years could be more balanced and honest about the fact that their views on money just don’t work for everyone, and that there are incredible financial burdens faced by genuine, kind, and prayerful congregants whose time and money are taken and there simply is no reward or blessing or prosperity for them whatsoever. (Though those people would likely be immediately dismissed as living beyond their means or not praying enough or having an ungenerous mindset, so I can see why people rarely speak out about their hardships.)
To bring this back to the point: the things that cause climate change are inextricably bound with patterns of human consumption. In my uni days, my dissertation centred around the specific ways that modes of animal-based food production contribute to climate change, not to mention the links to animal and human suffering that arise as a result. But no one wants to be told that by living their lives they’re also engaging in the destruction and obliteration of the very ecosystems that sustain us. No well-off Christian wants to think that they are successful at the expense of others. It makes me think of a recent “discussion” (argument) that I saw on a friends’ facebook thread where she dared to suggest that in Australia women face greater challenges in earning potential and high level corporate jobs (a statement she backed up with statistics, sociological research and detailed analysis). Immediately a church member I was vaguely acquainted with, and who is quite young but successful in the financial sense, piped up with the assertion that Australia is a meritocracy and that if women were good enough at these jobs then maybe they’d be getting the work in the first place. I think the same thing happens in discussions of climate in Pentecostal circles: a well-researched and carefully articulated position on the problem of climate change and the urgent need for action is presented (and there are Pentecostals and other Christians speaking out). Then comes a reactionary and predictable counter-response in which the suggestion that we ought to consider how our materialistic lifestyles impact the environment is taken as a personally offensive, theologically distressing and unacceptable view by the prosperous believer.
I concede that these are my views, accumulated through years of personal conversations and reflection on those conversations, as well as reading widely on Christian environmentalist viewpoints. However, it appears to me that there is a general attitude that if God is the God who blesses us with material prosperity, even if that prosperity is purely for passing on the blessing to the needy, then it’s akin to heresy to question how the trappings of financial success (like large houses that need a lot more land space and heating/cooling, large meals, large cars, etc) might be causing more damage. I guess, if I look back at my first forays into Pentecostalism (I married a Pentecostal, to cut a long story short) then the early warnings that I was in a community I would never relate to without completely changing who I am were there from the start: one of the earliest sermons I recall hearing there was by a guest preacher who straight-faced declared that God blessed her with a new and very expensive four-wheel-drive car on an annual basis; and then there was the chat I had with a woman introduced to me as a prophetess who talked about how her best friend had been “blessed” with the exact amount of money needed for the particular cosmetic surgery procedure she wanted. I mean, maybe God is in the business of funding new cars and bigger breasts for some of His daughters. Please hear me: I do not want to create a false dichotomy that belittles the genuine suffering of a person who is profoundly unhappy in her body, and who feels that her confidence improves through surgical alteration of her external appearance; and nor am I making the claim that certain types of cars are immoral, so don’t misread me there. I’ve got friends who have 4WDs because they enjoy the challenge of driving on some of Australia’s bush tracks that are set aside for that very purpose – I’m not trying to take that from them. But, then, maybe, just maybe, the women in these encounters were already well-off, middle class, successful in the capitalist sense of the word, able to make decisions about big cars and preferred body image, not worrying where their next meal would come from or whether the electricity would be switched off or that their beat up old bomb of a car that took every spare cent just to keep it running would die in the middle of the night on an empty highway while the newborn baby in the back was about to wake up for a feed and the toddler’s crying and the cheap second-hand mobile phone is about to go flat (that actually happened to me!)… Maybe it’s possible that if there really is a benevolent Creator God then He isn’t as massively concerned with one’s cup size or torque or whether one’s children get to go to the fancy super-pricey private Christian school – and maybe, just maybe, He’s looking with sadness at the way that one privileged section of humanity is using the bulk of available resources while countless thousands or millions of children are literally dying from a lack of clean drinking water.
I may have gone on a tangent here, so I’ll try to summarise: those of us who are Christians in the middle class West tend to have the luxury of not worrying about whether we’ll have water to drink or food to eat. We may even see good in accumulating wealth, and after paying for our own needs then redistribute the rest to the poor and needy in our own communities or support overseas missions. That’s great. It’s a good thing to help in whatever way we can. But climate change is already affecting communities, through an increase in extreme weather patterns (droughts, flash floods and hurricanes). Once-predictable harvest seasons have shifted or never occur. Parasites, like mosquitoes and the diseases they carry are spreading as temperatures warm and increase their habitable zones. The complex ecosystems that provide our water and food and soul-healing natural aesthetic beauty are dying off, species by species. Glaciers are melting at a much faster rate than they can be replaced, thus destroying a once-reliable source of freshwater for the communities that live downstream. As impoverished communities leave their now-unlivable homes, maybe because the drought hasn’t ended, they clash with other communities, and in some cases wars begin that destroy many, many lives – because there isn’t enough habitable space to go around. Climate change isn’t just an issue of environment. It’s affecting human lives. It’s an issue of social justice. And as Christians who take seriously Jesus’s words on caring for the poor, surely, when we see a pattern of destruction that so adversely affects human lives, we don’t have the luxury of pretending that it doesn’t matter. For those of us in developed countries, we may feel that we have the luxury of whinging that we don’t want wind turbines because they’re “visually awful,” for example, as a certain former Prime Minister said, but let’s put that in the context of the kinds of suffering our excessive lifestyles may be causing further down the track for more vulnerable people groups.
The first step is to get educated, though, to be able to understand and articulate what exactly we’re fighting when we talk about climate action. So go on, if you want to learn something new, try the course. I’ve enjoyed the learning process so much that next time I’ll be trying some of their other short courses.
**Experientially, having interacted with countless people who are aligned with a view that takes a literal historical reading of Genesis chapters 1 to 11, young earth creationism and anti-environmentalist attitudes do not necessarily go hand-in-hand – though after years of reading creationist publications I found it interesting how often the desire to link science to the Biblical texts resulted in skeptical attitudes to climate change. Some creationists that I’ve met take quite seriously the call to lovingly tend the environment, in light of God’s dominion mandate in Genesis, Chapter 1. From memory, because it’s a long time since I read it, I think that the John Ashton-edited book series on scientists with a creationist belief system includes some scientists who were interested in the intersection between faith and ecology. (I found an interesting counter-article on that book series here.)