Six Earthkeeping Conversation Tips
Since Christians disagree on climate change, you may think it’s best to agree to disagree. But these six tips can help you find common ground for taking positive action. It all starts with conversation.
Early in summer 2020, I took Creation’s Sabbath, a short-term online course taught by environmental studies professor James “Jamie” R. Skillen. Creation’s Sabbath was part of the ongoing Christian Witness in a COVID-Shaped World series of courses offered by Calvin University and Calvin Theological Seminary. Although classmates shared freely in the online discussion forum and in optional virtual meetings, several didn’t feel safe speaking about earthkeeping in their normal lives or being quoted for a story.
“It’s painful to watch when environmental issues divide churches,” Skillen said. “It’s often presented as a specialized, compartmentalized issue. I hope students saw the inextricable link between our own experiences of rest and our responsibility to others. I hope they saw sabbath as an encompassing idea. These are an integrated set of questions for Christians.”
Since finishing the course, I’ve been wondering whether it’s important to try talking about creation care with friends, family, colleagues, or church members who see Christian faith as being at odds with environmentalism or who even equate caring about climate change with neo-pagan nature worship. And if trying to talk is good, then how do we do it well?
The six tips below come from the Creation’s Sabbath class and from scholars such as Katharine Hayhoe. She’s a climate scientist, Christian, child of missionaries, pastor’s wife, mom, and Texas resident. In her 2018 TED Talk, Hayhoe explains why people worried about climate change should try talking with someone who disagrees. “The number one thing we can do is the exact thing that we’re not doing: talk about it,” she says.
Katharine Hayhoe (Photo credit: Ashley Rodgers)
1. Find common ground.
Hayhoe and others suggest you first explore loves that you and your discussion partner share, such as outdoor activities, family ties, or biblical values and language. Focusing on common interests rather than polarized political identities makes for much better dialogue, according to this Sojourners article.
Various classmates traced their earthkeeping interests to a childhood fascination with bugs, animals, and gardens; middle school science class, summer camp, or hiking in the mountains; or witnessing the decline of coral, fish, forests, glaciers, rainfall, or water quality. This environmental degradation affects both the nonhuman creation and humans, especially the poorest people.
Those of us who are older posted about wanting to preserve specific parts of God’s creation so that our children, grandchildren, and their descendants could enjoy them. A recent study published in the academic journal Climatic Change shows that younger adults are especially concerned about “the well-being of their existing, expected, or hypothetical children in a climate-changed world.”
Fellow Christians might agree that creation is good. God calls us to take care of creation and love our neighbors as ourselves. God is making all things new. Ask your conversation partners how they understand terms such as stewardship, creation care, and earthkeeping. Our class forum revealed that, for some people, stewardship is about giving money to the church or the proper use of nature for ourselves. “Creation care” might sound vague or as if it’s denying evolution. “Earthkeeping” might have undertones of secular tree-hugging, or it could mean humbly working toward bringing about the fullness of creation.
We all resonated with this phrase in a reading assignment: “The proper exercise of dominion yields shalom: the flourishing of all the creation.” It comes from Steven Bouma-Prediger’s chapter “From Stewardship to Earthkeeping” in Beyond Stewardship: New Approaches to Creation Care, edited by David P. Warners and Matthew Kuperus Heun.
2. Connect the dots.
“Just about every single person in the world already has the values they need to care about a changing climate. They just haven’t connected the dots,” Hayhoe said in her TED Talk. That’s why your next conversation step is to show how climate change is affecting what you and your conversation partner both care about, be it snorkeling, hunting, family, unborn babies, national security, or people living in poverty.
One Midwestern pastor in our class, who described picking up roadside trash and believing we should love our neighbors as ourselves, said, “I’ve realized that when we degrade the environment, we fail to love our neighbors. So picking up trash and caring for the earth is an act of love to my neighbor and a way to honor and love the Creator.”
3. Share positive local solutions.
After you’ve agreed that climate change is affecting something you both care about, then it’s time to share local solutions. Let’s say you’ve traded stories of seeing coral die-offs and fewer fish on your return trips to the Gulf of Mexico, Hawaii, Indonesia’s Bunaken National Marine Park, or Australia’s Great Barrier Reef.
The Great Barrier Reef Foundation reports that rising sea temperatures and acidity are the main causes of global reef damage. This one-minute video from the US National Ocean Service explains that when humans burn fossil fuels (coal, gas, or oil), more greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, etc.) are released. The ocean absorbs about 30 percent of that carbon dioxide (CO2). This process increases sea temperatures and acidity, which upsets how coral, algae, and fish naturally interact. A healthy ocean also provides many human benefits, such as regulating global weather patterns.
Because God created the cosmos as a complex web of interdependent relationships, there are many things you can do to protect ocean reefs. You can switch to LED light bulbs to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, choose marine-safe sunscreen, and volunteer with a group that protects and advocates for your local beach, watershed, or the global ocean.
It turns out that whatever you and your conversation partner care about, most solutions are related to actions that reduce fossil fuels, invest in clean energy, promote eating lower on the food chain, prevent food waste, or otherwise reduce, reuse, and recycle. For example, the National Wildlife Foundation says that reducing CO2 is vital to maintaining big-game habitats for hunting or just watching wildlife. The Evangelical Environmental Network launched its Pro-Life Clean Energy Campaign because polluted water and air harm unborn babies and vulnerable elderly people.
4. Include earthkeeping and creation care in worship and congregational life.
No matter your role in your congregation, you can probably find a way to make earthkeeping and creation care part of conversations with fellow church members. Starting small is fine. Preachers might include sermon illustrations from nature. Those who lead congregational prayers can include at least one petition for people, other creatures, or places affected by natural disasters or environmental woes. You can do the same in any group where people pray together. Creation’s Sabbath class member Renee Buist asked her church, Second Christian Reformed Church in Randolph, Wisconsin, to switch out its Styrofoam coffee cups for mugs. “That was approved and will start when we can have coffee fellowship time again!” she said.
Most denominations have already put together excellent resources on prayer and action. Climate Caretakers, a nonpartisan, nondenominational organization, will help you pray and learn more. So will joining programs that connect families and nature, such as Earth Rangers in Canada, the National Wildlife Foundation in the US, or A Rocha International, a Christian nature conservation organization with programs in twenty-one countries around the world.
5. Give your reasons for active hope.
Our Creation’s Sabbath class watched No Impact Man, a documentary about a Manhattan family’s quest to make zero environmental impact for a year. It ends with the idea that if you do only one thing for the environment, you should choose to be an optimist.
Christians have even more reasons for hope. We believe that in Christ, all things hold together and we are members of one body. That means we can each play a part in God’s plan for all creation to enter shalom and eternal sabbath rest. God can use our conversations, individual actions, and group efforts no matter where we are on what Hayhoe calls a spectrum of scholarship, advocacy, and activism.
“We need people at every point,” she said in this Rolling Stone interview. She said she’s found that most people can find climate change solutions “that are consistent and compatible with their values and their ideology.” For example, the Bipartisan Climate Caucus in the US has proposed taxing energy companies for their CO2 emissions. The money collected would go to taxpayers, not the government.
If you live in Australia, Canada, or the US, you have great potential for making personal choices to reduce your carbon footprint. These three countries (and Saudi Arabia) are the world’s top producers of CO2 emissions per capita. Becoming part of the climate change solution gives us hope to advocate for systemic change.
Our classmate Araceli Eikenberry said, “It is clear that people and corporations in the wealthiest countries have contributed the most to the weather hazards displacing people in Bangladesh and Kenya (and elsewhere). We are part of an unjust system that benefits us to the environmental cost of others. It is our role to repent, change our ways, sit down, listen, and support those most affected with the privilege we have.” Eikenberry is a Calvin University environmental studies major and program assistant for Plaster Creek Stewards.
Hayhoe is fully aware of the risks our earth faces. Yet she finds “active hope” in how Texas energy policies have made Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport North America’s first carbon-neutral airport. You can find hope by considering how COVID-19 has already given us the experience of buying less and traveling less. Despite all its horrific effects, the pandemic also functions as a “mass experiment for the climate” and may help our world make choices to “build back better,” according to BBC environmental analysts writing for the BBC.
6. Don’t give up too soon on your conversation.
Climate skeptics sometimes deny that our planet is in trouble because they despair of being able to fix it or fear that any solutions will make their lives worse. If your conversation partners introduce misinformation, try to validate their perception or offer to trade information sources. Hayhoe says that about 90 percent of her climate change dialogues go well.
Our classmate Garrett Stier, director of liturgical arts at City Chapel in Grand Rapids, Michigan, cautioned against assuming that people don’t care about climate change. “We’re all figuring out what it means to take care of God's world as Christians. I’ve learned that if you have different views on the environment, it’s best not to present your way as correct or tell people that they’re ruining the world. I wait till someone asks why we're composting, growing vegetables, eating lower on the food chain, and seeking food without packaging. I explain some structural injustices in the food system and say we’re looking for how to do it better. Many people don’t realize there are other views or haven’t had space or time to do things differently,” Stier said.
Communications scholar Emma Frances Bloomfield won several awards for her book Communication Strategies for Engaging Climate Skeptics: Religion and the Environment. As she wrote on The Conversation website, “Every Christian I spoke to for my research . . . said that they valued the environment, even if they disagreed on specific policies. And for the most part, they were willing to speak with me about climate change even though it was a controversial topic.”
Read course descriptions and sign up for a short-term online course in the Christian Witness in a COVID-Shaped World series. Register for the 2021 Calvin Symposium on Worship to hear climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.
Katharine Hayhoe suggests starting with the FAQs on her comprehensive website.
NASA Climate Kids offers easy-to-understand information on climate change. George Washington University recommends credible climate news sources. Besides checking out what your own denomination has published, look to A Rocha International, Catholic Climate Covenant, Climate Caretakers, Evangelical Environmental Network, or Interfaith Power and Light for ideas on how to pray, act, and advocate for God’s creation.
Scientific American explains why vulnerability to natural disasters in the US depends not only on the actual weather event, but on a community’s poverty rate, racial composition, church membership, and access to high-speed internet.
If you like data and statistics, consider making infographics that compare countries according to their share of the world’s population, wealth, and per capita CO2 emissions. For some people, stories work better than scientific facts to help connect the climate dots. Learn how climate change affects people in these short videos about Bangladesh and Kenya or this VBS curriculum about thirsty children in Haiti, Cuba, Honduras, Ghana, and Mexico.
START A DISCUSSION
Feel free to print and distribute this story at your staff, board, education, congregational life, or worship committee meeting. These questions will help people start talking about climate change:
- How safe do you feel in your context to start a conversation about creation care, climate change, earthkeeping, or similar terms? Which phrases work best?
- Regarding environmental issues, who do you think is the neighbor God calls you to love as you love yourself?
- What first steps could you take in your congregation to begin conversations about climate change and caring for God’s creation?