Reclaiming the Narrative
A few years ago my sister and I cleared away an old forgotten pile of wood on our family farm. As we were moving branch after branch and stacking chunks of wood, we startled a well-camouflaged toad. It responded to our intrusion by creeping deeper into the pile. Each time we shifted the pile and uncovered the toad, we’d call out to each other, “Watch out for the toad. Be careful you don’t hurt him.” Slowly, the pile dwindled and finally there was no wood left and no place to hide. Still the toad made an attempt by covering itself with a cluster of dry leaves. I was ready to wrap up the task, leave the toad where it was and find a new project, when my sister called out to my brother to come over and rake the site. Unfortunately, the first thing he did upon arriving was to make a swing with the rake toward the toad’s leafy hiding place. Together, my sister and I screamed out, “Watch out for the toad.”
I have no idea how the toad fared, because our little outburst set off a three hour rant. Shamed by us, my brother ranted and railed for hours about the “the crazy liberals who care more about the lives of toads than babies.” In confusion, I tried to explain that there were no babies present and certainly none at risk of being harmed. He just went deeper into his rant about abortion, adding insults on my character, focusing on the insane notion that I wanted to kill babies to save animals, like toads. As he continued his rant against “crazy environmentalists,” he grew more and more profane. I finally abandoned the work site for my own safety and left.
I tell you this story, not to share my personal struggles with right-wing family members, but to suggest instead that it is time for those of us who love the Earth to take back the narrative. We must get people to understand that our care for nature includes a deep and defining love for all life in it and upon it. We must make others know that we stand up for clean water, as so many of us did at Standing Rock and in Flint, because we love people. We recognize that people need clean air and clean water, as much as they need a connection to nature.
I say this, because we environmentalists have failed to adequately convey that we believe people matter and all life matters.
We who love the Earth must reclaim the pro-life narrative.
Sixty-some years ago, when the environmental movement started picking up steam, it was not about climate change. Environmentalism’s narrative was, “We must stop harming the Earth and the life She supports.” Environmentalists recognized that we were poisoning our waters, polluting our air, causing health problems for ourselves, and breaking down the ecosystems that support life – including human life. In those days, environmentalism was the ultimate pro-life movement.
The movement has evolved. We’ve learned that the harm we’ve done to our environment is worse than we imagined. We’ve learned that we’re changing the Earth’s climate. Environmentalists have become climate activists. As climate change threatens the lives of unborn generations, we climate activists urgently need to reclaim the pro-life narrative.
Why does this make a difference?
This past election cycle, people of faith, specifically Catholics, were sold the story that incoming President-Elect Donald Trump is “pro-life.” I suspect most of us failed to see this coming. Yet the message carried far more power and influence than we could have imagined. It came hard and fast in a variety of packages.
“Pro-life” television commercials ran continuously. A giant Right-to-Life voting pamphlet went to many Catholic homes. Its list of pro-life candidates put Donald Trump at the top. Even Catholic Bishop Paul Bradley of the Diocese of Kalamazoo got in on it. He slipped a letter into church bulletins across the region. It said that “not all goods are equally good and not all evils are equally evil.” The two issues that are most relevant and that require the most attention, he stated, are abortion and gay marriage. No others were deemed important by the bishop. We must, we were told, vote for the pro-life candidacy of Donald Trump.
I know that many, including Catholics and others, especially the Christian right, chose Donald Trump for that very reason.
Much of the full pro-life message of Laudato Sí was lost on many voters and on many of my fellow Catholics.
I felt like I had failed. I thought we had made progress. I thought we had time. I thought things had begun to shift. I thought Catholics had embraced Pope Francis’ words in his powerful and poignant encyclical Laudato Sí. I had grown complacent in my confidence.
Last fall I worked for the Global Catholic Climate Movement helping to mobilize Catholics to take action on climate change. I spent hours working for the Climate Reality Project on a presentation that incorporated the words of Pope Francis in Laudato Sí with Catholic social teachings and slides of catastrophic impacts of climate change. Yet, even though I believed my presentation could make a difference, I hadn’t reached out to any churches to share it with them.
I thought people were responding to the work of organizations like GCCM, the Catholic Climate Covenant and Green Faith in answer to Pope Francis’ call to “answer the cry of the Earth and the cry of the poor.” I thought Catholics and people in other faith communities would recognize that there is nothing “pro-life” about Donald Trump and that tackling climate change was imperative.
I was wrong, deluded.
The result of environmentalism’s failure to reclaim its pro-life narrative is staring us in the face.
When Mr. Trump told reporters at the New York Times that he was keeping an open mind, I grew hopeful. So hopeful that I started a letter writing campaign to ask him to become a climate hero and take on climate change. But then I watched as he rolled out climate change denier after denier, each one worse than the last. Taken all together, he has assembled a nightmare cabinet of climate deniers. Here are a few of the worst.
- Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson is CEO of Exxon and a friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Completely committed to Exxon, Tillerson has worked no place else and has appealed to President Obama numerous times to lift the sanctions that were slapped on Russia in response to that country’s annexation of Crimea. Lifting the sanctions would allow Exxon to extract over $500 billion worth of oil from Russian lands. See Rachel Maddow’s take down of the Tillerson Russian oil deal and SNL’s spoof of the Tillerson/Putin bromance.
- Trump’s pick for head of the Department of Energy, Rick Perry, once forgot the name of the agency he wished to abolish and that he now could lead. He sits on the board of the Dakota Access Pipeline and is an industry insider. If that wasn’t disturbing enough, Trump’s transition team sent around a questionnaire to Energy Department personnel requesting information on climate research including the names of staff members who attended climate conferences. People fear it is a witch hunt that could lead to retaliation and the destruction of valuable climate research.
- Trump’s selection for the head of the EPA is no better. Scott Pruitt has sued the agency countless times seeking to push back against what he sees as unnecessary regulations. His selection is akin, many say, to putting the fox in charge of the hen house. Many fear that, like Perry, he will destroy the very agency he is slated to lead.
- Myron Ebell was chosen by the President Elect to lead his transition team for the EPA. As Director of the Center for Energy and Environment at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, he “has long questioned mainstream climate science and has argued against any need to rein in greenhouse gas emissions that are warming the planet.”
- The rest of the cabinet is equally scary. Even Betsy DeVos, heir to the Amway fortune and considered for Secretary of Education has big oil connections. She is the sister to Erik Prince, founder of the now defunct and controversial Blackwater.
- Dick Cheney has weighed in on these selections and deemed them “good” and is emerging as an advisor to the Trump team. That alone should give all of us reason for concern, especially when many of us recognize Cheney as a war criminal.
Reclaiming environmentalism’s pro-life narrative
Last year, after helping to organize climate marches in countries across the world, I took a break and waited to see if a Paris Climate Agreement could be reached. Throughout the COP21, I found myself struggling with bad dreams that seemed powerful and full of messages. One of the strongest was that we cannot merely demonize the fossil fuel industry. We must act – in every way imaginable.
We must educate ourselves and others on the best and swiftest ways to reduce our individual and collective carbon footprint.
Most importantly, we must get others to understand the existential threat that is climate change. We must get them to understand that it is a profoundly pro-life issue, the most definitively pro-life issue of all, because it pertains to the very existence of life on this planet.
Steps I am taking to reclaim climate action’s pro-life narrative:
I wrote back to Bishop Bradley in response to his letter. Here is part of what I told him:
We never talk about whose babies we are saving. We are certainly not saving Syrian babies born of climate refugees. And, we don’t discuss what we are saving all these babies for (or any consideration of their dignity, well-being, or quality of life) considering how seriously impacted their future will be with runaway climate change on the horizon. We never ask if we are saving these babies to die in a world plagued with devastating droughts and a lack of clean water. We don’t mention how we might be forcing them to live with regular and frequent catastrophic storms, hurricanes and wildfires. Will they be able to feed themselves in an Earth that is polluted and dead? What will our beautiful, beloved babies be up against? Shouldn’t that be our concern?
It is our concern.
This past week as the cabinet selections rolled out, I reworked my climate presentation to make sure its emphasis is clear – climate action is pro-life.
I called my Congressmen and women to ask them to disallow confirmation of the cabinet selectees.
I wrote electors and asked them not to vote for Trump (to no avail).
I read every political article and shared them all – especially the ones that spoke of Trump’s, Tillerson’s, Pruitt’s, Putin’s and Perry’s anti-environmental intentions.
I reached out to friends supporting the efforts at Standing Rock.
I stuffed my fear down and reached out to conservative Catholic family members and asked them if I could share information on climate change.
I applied to work for the Global Catholic Climate Movement again.
I wrote to friends working with the Citizens Climate Lobby, who are interested in outreach to Catholics.
I shared a petition drafted by the Catholic Climate Covenant urging the President-Elect to take action on climate change. (It is the same petition that was signed by over 900,000 people from around the world and presented to world leaders in Paris.)
Unfortunately, those are all small gestures. There is so much real work to be done.
What might happen when we who love the Earth reclaim environmentalism’s pro-life narrative?
The only positive thing that may come out of a Trump presidency is that it is awakening a sleeping giant. It is truly forcing us to be the ones that we have been waiting for – it is forcing us to stop being complacent and to start acting with intention and integrity. We have a long way to go and a lot of people to educate. We have letters and blog posts to write, marches to organize, institutions to pressure to divest, pipelines to stop and our own carbon footprint to reevaluate.
Some people have suggested that Trump is “God’s” president. God, they insist, wanted Trump as president. Yet no concept of God sees God as anti-life. Anti-life is the antithesis of God. We must make it clear that not taking action on climate change is anti-life. We must work together to bring about an Economy in Service to Life, as will be discussed at a conference in Denver in May.
A Trump presidency may force us to deeply express how much we love life and each other and to work together as a “we” in new ways, reaching further out and cultivating new collaborations across communities.
A Trump presidency will force us to find limitless courage and conviction. It will require us to stop every measure, every cabinet pick that Trump puts forward by relentless calls to our legislators and marches in the streets if we have to do so.
It will require us to step up and take on climate change ourselves without waiting for a white knight holding a giant banner.
It will make us take back and rewrite the narrative about what it truly means to be pro-life as we express simply and clearly our love and devotion for all life on this planet, including babies and toads.