It’s time to refocus our environmental theology on the vast majority of people who do good

by John Fraser
Mar 16, 2020

I’m interested in moral decision-making processes related to our natural world. People have very little compassion for the rest of the biodiversity on which human life depends, despite how much environmentalists would like to be true. It’s time to end the Luddite environmental rhetoric, and the nanny narratives of an Inconvenient Truth embedded in a fear of the earth’s limits. We need to move beyond the assumption that humans are born unrepentant sinners.

It’s time to refocus our environmental theology on the vast majority of people who do good, who want to be healthy, to live well, and to be loved for who they are. Environmental communications are often framed as a temperance movement trying to protect a fragile sick earth. But it doesn’t need to be like that.

We need to shout about the biosphere’s capacity to thrive. We need to unshackle our planet from the human ego. We should laugh at claims that we can harness nature to human will. Isn’t that a comedy not a tragedy? Our relationship to the earth should be described as a passionate love affair or romantic comedy. Right now, we’re having a marital spat about who and how we should put away the carbon dishware that’s making a mess of the planetary kitchen. We need reconciliation in our language because we need to love one another for all that we are and do a few chores.

For the past decade, I’ve studied cognitively mediated trauma in front-line environmental workers. The news is not good. We’ve proven that the more you understand environmental change, the more likely you are to exhibit symptoms of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. We see dysfunctional meetings, dangerous risk-taking, substance abuse, marriage difficulties, depression, sadness, nightmares, and panic attacks.

It’s cognitively hard for us environmentalists to talk about environmental change when all we see is nature suffocating around us. We’ve become environmental Cassandras who think no one believes our truth. We’ve created toxic communication that reinforces the pain for the communicators and doesn’t work for the non-environmentalist. It’s also not true. People know our environmental truth but can’t stand more elegies to the dead and near dead. Environmental communicators should not be PR for the planet’s hospice.

Our team is studying new tactics. We’re working with rhetoricians and artists to study the impact of language craft and the role of team-based training to increase self-efficacy and reduce the need for self-serving sad stories. We envision environmental communication as collective empowerment, feeding social processes to help good people support one another to make change. We don’t need to focus on the sinners. By talking about positive innovations, we’re working to scaffold small communities who are taking action within their sphere of influence rather than delegating the problem to the government. We’re working to support collective action, not individual change. We must combat the notion that we can legislate ourselves out of bad behavior. We’re working to expand the body poetic and politic that is making a better world because politicians follow trends, they don’t lead.

It’s time to end communications about bad behavior or a slightly better status quo. It’s time to end the saber-rattling language of war and combat for the planet. That language promotes resistance, conflict with nature, and hardening of the battlements of domination. We need to celebrate the ingenuity of humankind. Our new story should revel in the weedy sapling that bends to survive on a radically unpredictable planet and find appropriate personal treatment for dealing with our pain.

Photo credit: Johanna Montoya on Unsplash.

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