Between God and Green: An interview With Dr. Katharine Wilkinson

BY ON March 5, 2013

Photo of the book between god and green by Dr. Katharine Wilkinson

When I was a college freshman looking for extra credit, I stumbled into my campuses Environmental Stewardship Society’s service project. It set out to clean up the creek bed that ran through campus. As a student growing up in an evangelical home, finding a group of Christians caring for the Earth was thrilling. After college, I struggled to find other Christians who shared my views. There seemed to be a disconnect between religion and the environment. So, when MCAF asked me to read Between God and Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change, and interview the author, former Natural Resources Defense Council staffer, Dr. Katharine Wilkinson, I jumped at the offer!

INTERVIEW WITH DR. KATHARINE WILKINSON, AUTHOR OF BETWEEN GOD AND GREEN:

headshot of Dr. Katharine Wilkinson Where did your personal interest in climate change come from? What is your story?

That’s a long story! Certainly, the roots of my interest come from my mother, Lucy. From an early age, she ensured I spent time in the natural world, taught me the names of trees and flowers, and gave me a deep love of animals. As a sophomore in high school, I attended the Outdoor Academy – an amazing experiential education program in the Appalachians. There was a deep focus on the outdoors, environmental issues, and sustainable living. Those four months were transformative for me. That’s when I really committed myself to environmental issues, started to make substantive changes in my own life, and became an activist.

Are you a mother? If so, how does this guide your activism?

I am the lucky, adoring godmother of a 16 month-old girl, Harrison. For years I’ve talked about “future generations,” but Harrison has made that concept incredibly tangible for me. I want her to come of age in, and inherit a world where she can thrive. Having her in my life hasn’t shifted my issue focus, but it has intensified my sense of urgency as I seek to effect change. Yet even with my gaze set on the future, she reminds me to be present and fully embrace the good right in front of us.

How does faith guide your passion? 

I am not, myself, religious, but my passion for sustainability issues is deeply grounded in an ethic of justice, reverence for the world we live on, and an emotional connection to people and place. Martin Buber wrote about engaging with other people as “Thou” rather than “You” – and the way that deeply ethical interaction can connect us with transcendence. I like to extend that way of thinking to the environment – treating the world not simply as an “It.” That’s where I find a sense of purpose and meaning, of connecting with something bigger than myself.

Why is environmentalism referred to as the “Green Dragon?”

There is a band of politically conservative, Christian activists who believe environmentalism is a worldwide conspiracy, and a threat to Christianity and the economy. They use the language of “green dragon” (and images of the Eye of Sauron!). Not surprisingly, these folks, their funders, and their partners are intimately connected with the larger machine of climate change denialism. (I’d recommend Frontline’s Climate of Doubt for more on that topic.) In my analysis, the “green dragon” activists are defending extreme free-market, anti-regulation ideology – and the sources of political power associated with it. Let me clarify: This crowd should not be confused with the leaders and organizations of what I came to call evangelical “climate care.” Those who see environmental protection, care for the poor, and see Christian faith as intimately connected – and climate change as a major area demanding their efforts. They also embrace collaboration and alliance building, as opposed to the venomous, oppositional style of the “green dragon” efforts.

I love the way you talk about taking a Sabbath from our typical lifestyles and creating a day of rest for responsible care of the environment. What are some ways a family could put this concept into practice in their own homes? 

I should clarify that I’m a total hypocrite on practicing the Sabbath! I’m pretty mediocre at carving out time for rest, but it’s something I work towards, even in small ways. The most important thing: rest needs deliberate commitment. I think it can be a very powerful way to reflect on our environmental values, whether or not they have a religious foundation. A day without driving – just feet, bikes, and little red wagons. A day of local, vegetarian foods. A day off technology – instead reading, making our own music, creating art. A day without shopping. A day that incorporates meditation, yoga, silence, or prayer. For those interested in exploring Sabbath from a Christian perspective, I’d recommend Matthew Sleeth’s writing on the topic. His advice: “Figure out what work is for you, and don’t do it.” A great place to start could be a family conversation about that – getting deliberate together.

Regardless of a person’s eschatology belief, how do you respond when someone says they are not responsible for climate change?

I don’t think there’s a hard-and-fast “right” answer here. One of the lessons of Between God & Green is the importance of understanding the underlying values and beliefs that drive an individual’s or a group’s position. What’s meaningful to them? What do they care most about? How do they understand right and wrong? I find there are many footholds for engaging people on sustainability issues, but we have to get out of our own heads and hearts to uncover them. I also think it’s important to remember we don’t have to share the same views to take beneficial actions together. We’re so worried about mindsets, but behaviors are the critical piece. We can arrive at those behaviors from many different avenues, and action itself can, and does, reshape our perspectives.

What fueled your interest in the evangelical’s response to climate change instead of the church as a whole or even just the Protestants?

Climate care’s “coming out party” was in 2006, when the Evangelical Climate Initiative published a full-page ad in the New York Times: “Our commitment to Jesus Christ compels us to solve the global warming crisis.” Even though I had studied the intersection of religion and environmentalism, it caught me off guard. I was struck by the use of language – very different from that of the secular environmental movement – and by the possibilities for this group to broaden and diversify engagement with the issue of climate change. I remember thinking, “Wow, this is powerful.”

Evangelicals comprise roughly a quarter of US population and have traditionally polled more skeptical and less concerned about climate change than their mainline Protestant or Catholic counterparts. At the same time, the evangelical community has wielded significant public voice and political influence, especially within the Republican Party – also traditionally opposed to action on climate change. I was intrigued by this dual opportunity to shape both political will and public engagement and to spark action.

In your book, you frequently reference the “Call to Action.” What are your thoughts on it’s efficacy? 

The Evangelicals Climate Initiative’s Call to Action is, in many ways, a manifesto. Manifestos have power. They capture our guiding principles and beliefs; they detail our collective commitments; and they help tell a story. Certainly, the ECI’s “Call to Action” was important glue for that community of leaders and helped convey their perspective to broader audiences. It was also a politically effective tool on Capitol Hill. But, ultimately, manifestos also put demands on us. They have to be put into practice. There’s been lots of fantastic work done, but there’s also much more to do to bring the “Call to Action” to life – beyond words on a page. Between God & Green is just the first chapter of climate care. The story continues!

Thank you, Katharine for such an inspiring interview!

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TOPICS: Activism, Climate Change, Religion