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Getting personal on climate change

Thursday, 12 August 2021  | Claire Harvey

To me, faith and ecology have a strong connection. I remember travelling to the USA at age sixteen and being greeted by the ugly, brown air-pollution that hung over LA likely a deathly haze. Later that week we visited the NASA Space Centre in Florida, where I learned about the urgent need to discover other habitable planets because we had made such a mess of our own. I cried out: ‘Oh God, what have we done?’ It was around this time that I resolved to not have children, but that was because I was hopeless and without God (Eph 2:12). Yet these essential questions about life, purpose, hope and our place in the created order fuelled my spiritual search. And while I experienced a reasonably classic ‘evangelical’ conversion at the age of 18, it was a good few years before I encountered Christians who would actually help me better understand that Christian discipleship and creation care go hand-in-hand. This was a huge relief, but of course put me at odds with significant sections of the church that still cling to extraordinarily dualist ways of viewing life on earth (our job was to ‘plunder hell to populate heaven’).

Our formative stories and existential angst shape us as people. Recently I watched ‘Before the Flood’, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. As a careers counsellor, I was fascinated to learn that DiCaprio grew up in a nursery staring at Bosch’s famous triptych ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’, painted half a millennium ago. As a child, DiCaprio also had a significant interest in extinct species. So it’s unsurprising that he is now so committed to action on climate change, which threatens to bring about a range of quite disturbing scenarios of death, destruction and extinction upon the earth.

Engaging with climate change can be hard, tiring and often lonely. Often times, climate scientists cannot actually articulate how they feel about climate change, preferring to rattle off more statistics and predictions. Perhaps a level of emotional detachment is necessary to be able to continue their fascinating and terrifying research. But we are entering very dangerous territory. The experiment that we call industrial-scale human civilisation appears to have many critical points of failure, some of which we are incredibly close to breaching. Yet despite decades of research and ever-stronger certainty from the scientific community, still too few people seem to be sounding the alarm.

For the Australian church, I see both challenges and opportunities. Some of these have already been articulated well by Jonathan Cornford. We need to wake up and appropriate the divine mandate we have for caring for creation, particularly for the sake of the world’s most vulnerable people, our global neighbours. This will be hard and costly, and will test our commitment to sacrificial love. We need to reclaim the message of Jesus who insisted that our lives do not consist of an abundance of possessions (Luke 12:15).

I remember hearing the Dalai Lama speak at the Rod Laver Arena on a drizzly Sunday morning. I was amazed at how many ordinary Aussies seemed quite desperate to hear this renowned religious leader speak (we were seated outdoors, in ‘overflow seating’)! To paraphrase his message, the Dalai Lama shared that ‘You Westerners work so hard to get so much money so you can buy so much stuff even though you know in your heart of hearts it won’t bring you happiness. This is crazy’. I remember thinking, with some frustration, of how much this message echoed the teachings of Jesus! But most Aussies aren’t in churches on Sundays, and they tend not to look to the Christian Scriptures for hope and inspiration.

This year for Earth Hour I organised a very simple event, where some locals gathered and shared about why they care for creation, as a single candle was passed around. Tired of being continually co-opted to the urgent task of ‘protecting the reef’ or ‘keeping the coal in the ground’ or ‘saving the planet’, this gathering was intentionally different - with no other agenda, no twitter handle or hash-tag, just an excuse to connect as human beings full of hope, concern and grief, which many found life-giving and cathartic.

Surely our churches should be places more like this: offering hope for the hopeless and an active community to join as we live out both simple and boldly audacious acts of creation care? This is my prayer.

Claire Dawson is the author, together with Mick Pope, of Climate of Hope: Church and Mission in a Warming World (2014). She enjoys opportunities to get to know other locals who care about earth's future and has plans to establish a sustainable co-housing community in central Frankston, Melbourne.


Hieronymus Bosch's 'Garden of Earthly Delights'

Claire Harvey with Anti-Adani Coal Mine protesters at an Environment Victoria event



This was the second of two responses to ZED talks given by Steve Hatfield-Dodds and Jonathan Cornford at the Zadok40 Conference on 19th November 2016.

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