Note to Churches: No Time for Normal

Bill McKibben

The rise of religious environmentalism has been welcome and helpful – but climate change is essentially a race, and at this point faith communities aren’t pitching in fast enough or with sufficient heft to help change the outcome.

Thirty years ago it was understandable that churches didn’t make climate change a priority. It was a new topic, appearing out of the blue – and in progressive denominations it at first seemed a bit of a luxury, to be addressed after hunger and war. (In conservative denominations environmentalism seemed – and in many tragic cases still does – like a waystation on the road to paganism.) That’s shifted: From the pope’s remarkable encyclical Laudato si’ to the pastors willing to get arrested blocking pipelines, there’s been serious commitment to change.

Still, given the scale of the challenge – which by any measure is the largest crisis human beings have yet stumbled into – it’s not been the response we need. The world is on fire, but the church isn’t. And that’s particularly strange since, as three decades of close and careful reading have revealed, the scriptures are full of the messages we need.

Actually, close and careful reading is barely required. The first page of the book is basically an environmental screed. God makes a beautiful world, pronounces it good, and turns it over to us to safeguard. We are told to dress it and to keep it. A few pages further on, when we screw up, God drowns the planet but makes sure to preserve a breeding pair of every creature on earth. It’s Greenpeace on steroids.

And the gospel is just as clear. If our transcendent job is to love our neighbor, then what does it mean that we are drowning them, sickening them, turning their farms into desert and forest into ash? It means we are not doing what we have been called to do.

The “why” of our inaction hinges, I think, on questions of power. We’ve tended to do those things that we can do without confronting essential facts about our society. New insulation in the sanctuary? Solar panels atop the parsonage? Not a problem. But for at least some denominations and congregations, going further has meant an unacceptable level of tension. Episcopalians and Unitarians have divested their holdings from fossil fuels; Presbyterians and Methodists have refused; the Vatican hasn’t acted either, despite the pope’s fine words. Even the fact that oil companies have lied for decades about the reality of climate change is not enough for us to confront them – the tension is too high.

But we’ve got to get outside our comfort zones. Because the planet is outside its comfort zone – way outside. We need bishops wearing collars going to jail to block fracking wells; we need parochial schools suspending classes to join the magnificent school strikes spreading across the globe. We need a relentless moral challenge to the powers and principalities currently taking our planet if not to hell then to someplace of a remarkably similar temperature. This is a social challenge, not an individual one: At this point we can’t make the math of climate change work one household at a time. It’s not the job of the sexton.

None of the good that we do adds up to the scale of the damage now occurring. Combine every animal that the Heifer Project ever sent overseas, and every irrigation pump and every hospital built by every church aid program, and it can’t match the damage that comes from what we’ve done: There are whole nations now on the edge of disappearing beneath the waves.

If “normal” on earth is now disappearing, it’s time for normal in the church to vanish too. This is the great challenge and emergency of our time on earth, just as the fight against fascism was the great challenge of the 20th century. We don’t need to kill or be killed to meet this crisis, but we do need to be mobilized. We don’t need bystanders.

And if we do – well, there’s the chance for renewal that always comes with faithful witness. To let young people see the church at the forefront of the fight they care about the most would be to present them with fresh evidence that religion is not just what they’ve come to believe. Scientists have done their job and provided us with a warning. Engineers have done their job and provided us with the technologies that could conceivably rescue us – the solar panels and windmills that provide true hope. Time for the people of faith to do their particular job and fight like heck for the future.

Author and environmentalist Bill McKibben is a founder of, the first planet-wide, grassroots climate change movement, which has organized 20,000 rallies around the world. His 1989 book The End of Nature is regarded as the first book for a general audience about climate change. His latest book, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (Henry Holt), was released in April.