In February, Ash and I were on vacation and we had the chance to take our children to the San Diego Zoo. What a great place! We saw elephants and tigers and gorillas and giraffes and rhinos and pretty much all the animals.
My highlight was the orangutan.
When we started the day, we went on a double decker bus tour, which my kids were really excited about. We sat on the top, because that’s obviously where you want to sit when you’re on a double decker bus, and the bus driver/tour guide was showing us the animals and telling us about the zoo’s conservation efforts.
And as we were going on, she said “Such and such an animal is currently being threatened by climate change. And yes, folks, climate change is real. And we humans are the cause of it. And we know this because science tells us. And yes, science is real.”
I just looked at Ashley, who teaches high school biology, and we started laughing. Of course science is real! How can it not be? Every day we rely on science for our cell phones and our pain killers and our cars and our drinking water. You can’t just picks which parts you like and which parts you don’t. It’s a methodology! Who doesn’t believe science is real?
We’ll come back to this question in a bit.
But first, let’s draw a circle.
Let’s say this circle represents us. As individuals. Central to our functioning as normal humans is the belief that for the most part, we’re good people making good decisions.
If I were to ask you to turn to the person beside you and ask them, “Are you a generally a good person?” I think most of us would say “Yeah. I’m not perfect, but I’m pretty decent.”
And if you were to ask the person beside you “Do you make good decisions?” They’d probably answer. “Most of the time. Sometimes I eat too much cake, but most of the time I make good decisions.”
Central to our functioning as humans is the belief that for the most part, we are good people making good decisions. This is normal and necessary and true for almost everyone.
So, what happens when we receive information or feedback or experiences that challenges the notion that we are generally good people making good decisions? What happens when someone says that our beliefs and behaviours aren’t the best? What happens when someone tells us that we spend too much time on our phone? Or that we spend our money unwisely? Or that we kill frogs and bees when we spray our yards with chemicals? Or that we voted for the wrong political party? What happens when someone tell us that we might be racist? Or that you doesn’t take the Bible seriously?
When we receive information or feedback that challenges our current beliefs or behaviours, psychologists call it cognitive dissonance. A really simple definition of cognitive dissonance is the mental discomfort experienced when we encounter new information that contradicts what we already believe. It’s the mental discomfort of having two opposite stories competing in our brains.
What do you mean I vote for the wrong political party? I’m still a good person.
What do you mean I kill the frogs and bees in my backyard? I’m a good person who just wants to create a weed free back yard for my kids!
What do you mean I’m racist? I’m a good person. I have a black friend!
What do you mean my church don’t read the Bible? We’re good people! Look at all the good work we do!
When we experience cognitive dissonance, we don’t really like that discomfort, so generally try to get rid of it through a variety of ways.
Sometimes, we attack the person who creates this discomfort. We get defensive. We shoot the messenger. We try to discredit them so the information they’re given us has less weight. For example, sometimes I can read people’s Facebook comments when I put my sermons online. When they write negative comments, I immediately click their profile and create a mental list of everything that is wrong with that person. “Oh, you don’t like my sermon? Well, you spend too much time playing Candy Crush, your shoes don’t match your belt, and you’re probably a terrible person.”
This is very normal reaction, but I’m quite confident in saying it’s not very healthy or helpful (and if you find yourself doing this ALL the time, I’d highly recommend getting a spiritual director).
Another thing some of us do when we encounter cognitive dissonance is we reinforce our pre-existing beliefs, trying to prove that we are good and right. And in 2017, this is primarily done by typing what we already believe into Google and looking for an article that proves that we’re right. We look for Bible verses, we look for blog posts, we look for authors, we look for studies. Ahhh… studies. Especially food studies. Studies say that coffee is good for you. And then one says it’s not. And then one study says that a low-carb Paleo south-beach gluten-free juice diet is good for you. It’s the best! And then another one says no.
Now, things might be good for us, or they may be bad for us, but usually, (and if we’re honest with ourselves), we’ll just search on the internet for what we already believe, or what we want to believe. And what’s especially troubling in 2017 is that Google and Facebook do such a good job predicting what they think we WANT to read that they’ll pull those posts up first and not show us contradictory posts. So any idea that we’ve done balanced research on the internet is probably a sham, because Facebook and Google want us to click on things simply for their ad revenue. So they’re most likely not going to show me articles or pages about how war is good and Jesus is fake and ultimate Frisbee isn’t a sport, as I’m probably not going to click those.
Another way that we deal with cognitive dissonance is kind of like an involuntary cognitive trance, where the physiology of our brains alters so that any feedback that challenges our identities simply goes in one ear and out the other.
If you tell someone that they’re racists, the most likely won’t say, “Oh…. Right. Sorry about that. I’m going to not be racist anymore.”
If you tell someone that they’re sexist, they’re probably not going to say, “Oh… Right. I’m going to flick off the sexist switch in my brain and turn on the equality one.”
Or what happens if you tell a lifelong Pepsi drinker that Coke is better? Well, they’ll probably lash out and attack the bearer of bad news. But if they’ve calmed their inner beast-mode, they most likely will just ignore it and keep drinking their Pepsi.
And we can’t even get mad at people for this, because sometimes, it’s physiological. Our brains just do it! We all believe that we’re generally good people making good decision, and we will simply ignore most of the information that challenges that.
So how does this relate to science and climate change and Earth Day?
Well, let’s go back to circle. Let’s make it represent something a bit bigger.
Let’s make it represent the groups that we belong to, the tribes that we identify with. Our church, our faith, our city, our school, our gender, our political parties, our sports teams, our country… whatever groups that we identify with, they will all hold some common beliefs, and rooted in all of those is that, yes, there might be some flaws, but we generally believe that they are generally good, and making generally good decisions.
Canada? Generally a good country.
Steinbach? Generally a good city.
Christianity? Anabaptism? Grace Mennonite? Generally all pretty good, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.
And then let’s draw another circle over her. Smaller.
This is a group that identify as climate scientists. They’re generally believe they’re good people too, but they have knowledge that most of us don’t have. They have fancy schmancy thermometers and the scientific method and peer reviewed research, and over 95% of them say things like “climate change is real and is cause by humans.” They say things like “16 of the past 17 years have been the warmest on record.” They say things like “We are seeing more extreme weather patterns. More intense droughts, more intense storms, more intense floods.” They say things like “We are seeing the ice caps melt, we are seeing permafrost melt, and these are going to fundamentally change how our world works.”
And then the climate scientists and the paleontologist and the evolutionary biologists all got together and say things like “The planet has gone through 5 mass extinctions, and at the rate we’re currently losing species, we are currently living through the 6th.”
They say things like “If we don’t change something, we’re going to be in trouble.”
But those of us who aren’t climate scientists… we still believe we’re good people! What do you mean that some of our actions are bad for the climate? So we’re either going to discredit those scientists, or we’re going to type into Google why we think they’re wrong and claim “Science isn’t real! The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to steal our jobs!”, or we’re just going to simply ignore them.
Let’s draw a third circle.
The easy way to describe this circle is “the poor”, but that’s a clunky, loaded term that is ideal. So we can also think of this as the “global south”, or the under-served population, or those who are more exploited or historically looted, or however you want to put it. Those with less access to resources to than others. (And notice how much bigger it is?)
What are they going to do if food prices rise?
How are those who grow their own food going to respond to more intense droughts?
How are those on islands going to respond to rising sea levels?
How are they going to respond to floods when they can’t afford insurance like we have?
How are Northern communities, like Pauingassi, going to survive without ice roads?
Climate change is going to have a greater effect on “the poor” than the rich. And with great confidence I can say that over the past 100 years, the rich have been more responsible for climate change than the poor (currently, the poorest 50% of the world are responsible for about 10% of the world’s carbon emissions).
But we’re good people! Making reasonably good decisions!
I think in this case, when we hear stories from small scale farmers in Zambia, we don’t attack the messenger. Or when presidents of small island nations say that that their home will literally disappear if the ice caps melt, we don’t really type into Google why they’re wrong. Rather, we deal with the cognitive dissonance simply by ignoring it.
This is all, kind of depressing, isn’t it?
Well, there is some good news in all of this, especially for those of us in the church.
While the climate scientists and those with less resources are articulating their concerns, and most of us here in the first circle are busy ignoring them, their messages ARE heard by some people in the first circle. The sympathetic listeners. And if these sympathetic listeners are able to translate these concerns to the rest of their circle, maybe, just maybe, the rest of us will listen and take action.
But these translators must do one thing: They must continue to affirm the general goodness of the group, otherwise the group will not listen.
These translators are bridge builders, not bridge burners. The other circles don’t necessarily have to be bridge builders. But the sympathetic listeners must be.
They are the ones who must be able to say, “Hmmm… These people might be saying something important, and we’re all good people over here, so maybe we should listen to what they’re saying and try to build a better world together for everyone.”
There is significantly less cognitive dissonance in that message, isn’t there?
We’re all good people trying to make good decisions, so let’s keep doing that.
And I think, those of us who are part of the church, we can speak to our circle by saying things like:
“The Bible says that God has given us stewardship over the Earth. What kind of stewards are we if we trash the place? Are we like a bunch of teenagers who throw a party when they’re parents are gone?”
Or we can say: “The Bible has over 2000 verses about the poor. We should listen to these voices and take action because the Bible says that God cares about the poor.”
Or we can say “Jesus tells us to love our neighbours as ourselves. I wonder how we’re loving our neighbours when some of their homes will no longer be there? Or if they can’t adapt to climate change because they lack the resources that we have? We’re all good people here trying be faithful by loving our neighbours as Jesus says, so how can we best do that?”
And the church, when it’s a tad unhealthy, is really good at divisiveness and guilty and shame and excluding and telling others why they’re wrong.
And the church, when it’s a tad healthier, is really good at loving its neighbours and affirming people’s goodness and working at justice and working with people we disagree with in very redemptive ways. We can listen to these voices and work together for a better world by affirming each other’s goodness.
If you feel a bit less depressed now about climate change now, and our role in it, then great.
But I’ll throw one more wrench in here.
These people here, the climate scientists… They probably would read this “bridge building” sermon and say “That’s nice and all, but it’s about 20-30 years too late. We are running out of time.” So to those of us who are here, trying to translate this message, and to those of us who are trying to love our neighbours as ourselves, especially those with less access to resources, “We’re running out of time” is certainly a difficult message to translate nicely, isn’t it?
So, yes, science is real, our climate is changing, and human activity is the cause of it.
And yes, our actions, both big and small matter. And they matter because they are all faithful attempts on our part to love our neighbour as ourselves, especially those who in the world who have less access to resources.
I could end this sermon with a list of things we can do: Bike to work, garden more, compost more, reuse things more… Just type the words “Green” or “Earth Day” into Google and you’ll find lists and lists of things we can do. If my 6 year old knows how to be Earth friendly, I think most of us know there are things we can differently.
So instead of lists, let’s end with a prayer of confession.
When we are unkind to people,
when we are careless with animals,
when we choose the cheapest or easiest,
when we don’t care about the consequences of our choices,
when we waste energy and water,
when we lack respect for the Earth,
when we are complacent and overcome by apathy:
forgive us, O God, and reconcile us to yourself,
to one another
and to the Creation.
May the wind of the Spirit blow through our lives
and enable us to be good stewards of Creation,
now and forever. Amen.
For all things climate change related, check out Katherine Hayhoe’s work, especially her “Global Weirding” video series.
For the piece on cognitive dissonance, there are many more than the three responses. Those are just the 3 that I think are quite common. I picked up the “involuntary trance” part, and the circles, from the Liturgists podcast “Prophet or Ass?”
The confession is from the Canadian Foodgrains Bank worship material