March 16, 2012

Meet Rick: Churches and Duck Blinds: Meeting People Where They Are

There wasn’t a dry eye in the entire room, and I sat there transfixed, tears rolling down my face. Former Vice President Al Gore was telling the crowd how, twenty years ago, he felt the hand of his son Albert slip out of his grasp as his family was walking home from a baseball game. Choking back grief, he recounted how his son ran into the middle of the street. A car slammed into Albert, sending his body skidding across twenty feet of payment. He miraculously survived, but Mr. Gore likened that moment of feeling his son’s tiny fingers leave his own to our present moment, and how we must do everything we can to solve the climate crisis to ensure our children’s and grandchildren’s futures do not slip away.

This was the climax and conclusion of a weekend of training in 2007 with The Climate Reality Project, a worldwide, grassroots organization of volunteers who present in their communities on the science of climate change and on climate solutions. When I returned home from Nashville, Mr. Gore’s call to action still ringing in my ears, I was on fire, alive with a passion and purpose that I had never felt before in my life. But as I thought about how I would begin giving presentations in my rural hometown of Dresden, Tennessee, I came up short, stymied. The small-town community that raised me is filled with people who are incredibly hard-working, deeply faithful, and who possess uncommon kindness and compassion. And lots of us in Dresden are blessed with strong connections to the land. But many are nevertheless skeptical of anything that smacks of “environmentalism”, which America’s punditry has conventionally cast as the sole province of rich, white, coastal liberals who care more about polar bears than people in places in “flyover country” like Dresden.

I’m sure folks like that exist (I’ve met a couple), but they are a microscopic minority and are certainly not anything like the amazing environmentalists I’ve known and worked with and learned from. Such narrow and biased portrayals of environmentalism and environmentalists are nothing new, of course, but they are still being perpetuated by certain segments of the media. And yet we don’t have to let that be our face. The beauty of The Climate Reality Project is that, while presenters are provided with the base template of Powerpoint slides from An Inconvenient Truth, Mr. Gore’s documentary, presenters are encouraged to modify their presentations, to speak to their own friends and families and communities in the language of their shared values.  And so I began speaking in churches (both of my parents were ordained as Methodist ministers), where discussions of climate change in terms of stewardship, the majesty of God’s creation, and Jesus’s teachings on our responsibilities to the poor, to the least of these, resonated with many of my fellow Christians.

I also presented in a biology class at my high school, where one of my friends in the back of the room was nodding off, somehow unimpressed by my captivating, enthralling survey of the scientific literature on positive feedback mechanisms and the albedo effect. He was on the verge of throwing back some serious Zzzs when I put up a picture of Reelfoot Lake, the place where he and I had both been going with our dads since we were little. We went to fish, to duck hunt, to watch the bald eagles and the blue herons and the sun as it set and threw its hues of pink and deep orange over the water and the cypress trees. I then shared with the class studies projecting the impacts of climate change, like how it would affect duck migration from the Prairie Pothole region, and how we might never get the chance to take our sons and daughters to Reelfoot Lake to go duck hunting, would never have many of the same experiences that we had with our parents.

When most folks think of places to find environmentalists, churches and duck blinds are not generally the first places they would look. And yet discounting wide swathes of America on the basis of preconceived notions would be both unfair to those people and dangerously limiting to our movement by relying on the same type of stereotypes and provincialism that has been used to skewer environmentalism itself. Inspiring action and building the climate movement means working in all communities, across all boundaries of race, class, religion, and everything else that divides us by focusing on what unites us. And that means more than just speaking to the core values that we as Americans share. It means finding common purpose by building bridges, speaking to particular communities and concerns, and meeting people where they are. I hope that we as part of this WeArePowershift community will engage with one another about our values, how they influence our work, and how we can best speak to all sorts of people about our shared values and about how protecting the climate means protecting all of the people and all of the places which we hold dearest.