Surviving Climate Change Requires Collective Action

Editors’ Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Pagan community here.

Did Pagan environmentalism fail? I proposed this as a frame for the Patheos Pagan summer series on climate change because the question haunts me. Surely it was too much to expect that the tiny, idealistic Pagan movement of the 1960s and 1970s would utterly change the course of global culture. But I’m not sure we’ve even significantly managed to change ourselves. John Beckett cites a recent study by anthropologist Kimberley Kirner suggesting that though Pagans are somewhat more politically active than average on behalf of the environment, but our sustainability practices are no better.

Why is this?

The most straightforward answer is that, like our neighbors of many faiths, we are subject to economic and social demands and pressures over which we have little control. For-profit corporations have a tremendous influence on United States’ national policy, and few of us feel that our elected representatives are responsive or have their constituents’ best interest at heart. Even those of us who believe in our representatives are disappointed time and time again by the difficulty of making change through legislative means. Feeling disenfranchised by government, Pagans and other environmentalists have often turned to emphasizing individual choices, like recycling, composting, or taking public transportation.

These activities are not entirely useless – especially when public desire for them leads local governments to create structures for doing them more easily and more universally. And yet I can’t help but see the intense focus on individual action as wrongheaded. Ultimately, it makes little difference if one person decides to take the bus rather than driving to the store. We remain part of a society that operates as if our economy will never stop growing, as if our consumption of resources need never cease. Within that framework, we make choices not out of our deeply held values, but out of a need to survive.

Many of us went to college, or trained for a trade, and came out with debt. We sought jobs in a flagging economy and took what we could get, knowing that many of those around us were unemployed. Jobs are concentrated in cities, and many of those jobs require commuting by car, because housing near our jobs is not affordable; and so we increase our debt with car payments. Going forward, we hang on to stressful or meaningless jobs so that we have resources to care for children or elderly or ill family members, because we do not have community resources to help us with these tasks. In our state of isolation and overwork, we buy gadgets and trinkets to give ourselves a little pleasure, pleasure that might once have been provided by social time spent with family and friends. Once trapped within this web of debt and consumption, it is very difficult to get out; removing oneself may mean risking bankruptcy, the loss of access to health care, or threats to the safety and well-being of dependents. These are not conditions we can change through individual action alone.

I do not say that Pagan environmentalism is failing because we are not all already living in self-sufficient co-operatives, traveling by bike, and growing our own food. Nor do I say it because there are no Pagan leaders – Starhawk and John Michael Greer probably being the most visible – who have been working to draw attention to climate change and other environmental issues. Nor is it because there are not Pagans who are modeling sustainable practices like permaculture, or reclaiming practical skills like gardening and weaving to prepare for a resource-scarce future.

Somehow, however, this has resulted in relatively little effective, sustained collective action – by which I mean, the kind of action that creates concrete community support for freeing oneself from the web of debt and consumption. Some of you reading this may (for example) already be growing your own food in self-sufficient co-operatives, to which I say: more power to you; and, do you live in California? Because I’ve been in the Pagan movement for fifteen years, mostly in Texas and New England, and though I’ve seen Pagan families attempting to radically change their lifestyles, it seems like most of them have been forced, over and over, to do so on their own. Perhaps it’s our rabid individualism that’s pulling us down. And yet I find it misguided to condemn Pagans who, by themselves, can’t see their way out of their economic trap. We can free ourselves much more successfully if we work together.

Barn raising. Image by Alexander W. Galbraith via Wikipedia. Public domain.My efforts have begun to focus on collaborative projects that are too small and flexible to be called “institutions,” but still potentially involve more people than my immediate family. If you looked in my recent browser history, you’d find articles about biodiesel cars, raising livestock, real estate prices, yurts, water reclamation systems, and solar energy. I am engaged in collective real estate ownership and am involved with group starting a cooperative living arrangement. I also serve on the board of a self-directed learning center for students aged 10-19. The center provides scholarships for low-income families seeking a creative alternative to traditional schools, and it also offers a robust outdoor program that includes wilderness survival skills – good preparation for kids entering an unstable future. And finally, I try, every day, to talk to someone about climate change in the most low-key way possible… just so they can hear those words from a person they consider reasonable and sane.

This is what I’d like to see from Pagan environmentalism now, a collective action that doesn’t require us to immediately jump out of the web of debt and consumption without a safety net: let’s say the words “climate change” every day. Let’s make climate change the context for all our conversations – about theology, social justice, ritual, cooking and crafts. Planning for the future can no longer be about retirement funds and cute condos in Florida; that era is over. We need to look back to historical crises of the past, like the Depression or World War II, for models of how to survive these changes – with no promise of success. And, knowing we cannot free ourselves from our economic bondage alone, we need to join forces with relatively like-minded people and – horror of horrors – learn to compromise, forgive, and be patient with each other. Our –isms and our desire that our groups or traditions be ideologically perfect will not serve us now. Our efforts must be both intrafaith and interfaith, and we must focus on what we can concretely achieve, not on how we theoretically differ.

Whether we are ready to face it or not, we are in a life or death situation. It is time to embrace our imperfect allies, because that is all we have, and all we are.