I am packing for my summer teaching gig at Au Sable Institute, both physically and mentally. Mental packing means preparing for earnest discussions we always have and probing my own positions to see if anything has changed. In the case of my Au Sable gig, my last interaction with the Au Sable universe of Christian staff, professors from Christian colleges, and undergrads from those same colleges was before the pandemic. it’s a different landscape.
COVID 19 restrictions rightly precluded the summer field teaching in-person last summer. Even now, Au Sable is rigorous about COVID protocols, trying to be faithful to the requirements of the various colleges it serves. My last entry into the Au Sable universe was prior to the COVID deaths of 600,000 fellow citizens and millions more worldwide, prior to the murder of George Floyd, prior to the protests Floyd’s murder precipitated, prior to the Big Lie, and prior to the January 6 insurrection. That was a different world – at least for many of us. Certainly, for me. I feel uneasy this year and am trying to figure out if it’s just because the world has changed so much or if something else is at work.
Entering the Au Sable universe for five weeks every summer is normally a cozy and comfortable affair. I know the staff and the other faculty, I know the setting, and even though it will be a completely new cohort of students, in a sense I know them too. They will be serious students with varying degrees of interest in the environmental topics we teach. Some already have a burden for “creation care” (the current term of art that we use to separate ourselves from other environmentalists). Some are gamely satisfying degree requirements.
All of them will know the language of church and of Christian scholarship. They will know how to lead praise and worship and how to respond, they will understand the ritual of prayer before every meal, and many will volunteer to pray. Many will talk freely about their faith, recognizing a safe space here. And whether they understand or not, they will make the subtle shift in language that we achieve. “Earth” or “environment” becomes “creation.” “Management” or “conservation” becomes “care” or “stewardship” – not always, but you get the picture. We signal each other that we are part of a community, and yet, I fear, we wall ourselves off at the same time. Is that why I am uneasy?
I seem always to leave Au Sable with a sense of satisfaction and restoration before heading into my real job and starting another academic year of teaching and re-connection with wonderful grad students. Then, as the next iteration of Au Sable appears on the horizon, my mental packing begins. Truth be told, packing often includes a measure of grouchiness. I accumulate arguments I want to have; points I want to push. That always happens, and most years the community takes me in and the vibe of long-held friendships around the campfire, the peace of wooded wild Michigan, and casual un-self-conscious signaling that we are brothers and sisters in our Christian faith softens and sooths me.
This year I am grouchier, more unsettled, than normal. I have a nearly 35-year association with Au Sable and with the larger idea of “creation care,” going back to my enrolment in an Au Sable interim term one January and field trips as a Calvin College biology student. Au Sable is a small operation, but it has been an important incubator for creation care scholarship and has alumni around the world. I’ve taught here for 15 years and have absorbed the way the “creation care” movement thinks.
Here’s the question occupying so much space in my mental suitcase: why has the creation care movement been so ineffectual? Setting aside a small number of individual churches and individual people showing leadership, and a smattering of Christian environmental groups like A Roche1 and Young Evangelicals for Climate Change Action2, I wonder why the church is not seen as a leader in battling the climate crisis, the extinction crisis, and the injustices that ripple out from there? Why does the creation care movement seem to only exist in the minds of a small handful of lovely people, some practitioners but with an outsize fraction of academics? Creation care is a boutique concern in big-C Christianity – at best.
My trip to Au Sable comes on the heels of travelling with a friend who was trained as a forester and now runs a public-affairs non-profit that I support. It is dedicated to the cause of conservation and works at the intersection of environmental science and policy. I described for him that the Au Sable Institute serves a network of small Christian colleges, providing summer courses in a field setting that emphasize a Christian perspective caring for the environment. He’s not (to my knowledge) a Christian but he was interested in how I deal with the concept (problem?) of hope when I teach.
What of hope?
My botanist colleague at Au Sable trails death wherever he walks through the woods. He identifies noxious invasive non-native plants, pulls them out root and branch, and shakes off the stolen soil held by their roots. He leaves them on hard-packed trails and driveways to wither in the remorseless sun. His motives are noble. Invasives degrade the biodiversity of native plants and the communities they support.
Wherever our paths cross, I see his recent presence in the leavings of dried and dead garlic mustard, St. John’s wort, and, especially, spotted knapweed.
Spotted knapweed is a wiry tough Siberian colonizer that grows virtually anywhere and forest openings here on our sandy soils, from oldfields to well pads to clearcuts, are choked with it. Nothing eats it and it secretes chemicals that essentially poison the soil for other plants. It asserts only its own interest and yields nothing for the community.
I asked my botanist colleague one time if his habit was an expression of hope.
He’s got quiet wisdom and mature faith and, truth be told, I asked wanting to tap that wisdom and sandbag a welling sense of unease of my own. You see, one person pulling up invasive weeds is vanishingly trivial in the face of the ubiquity of invasives and the ecological disfunction they cause – at least in any material sense. The scale of the problem is simply too huge.
His answer? “I not sure there’s much hope to be had. It’s faithfulness, I guess.”
The answer surprised me, coming as it did in the context of our Au Sable universe. Surely there must be hope to be had, even if it comes up somewhat performatively in the safe space we create here. I return to that conversation again and again when I brood over my own personal and professional responsibilities in “caring” for this enchanted planet.
An Au Sable summer on the horizon for the past 15 years and a growing sense of urgency for the damage being done is a baseline concern. A significant part of my reading and thinking space is given over to questions over how my discipline (wildlife conservation) can address the climate crisis, the related extinction crisis, and the embedded injustices that flow out from there.
In my Au Sable course, I cannot responsibly avoid teaching about extinction and the climate crisis because they are related, and they are squarely urgent problems in the world of contemporary wildlife conservation. And because they are so closely related, I teach them together.
On a muggy afternoon as the last session was winding down, I was trying to send them off with a sense of enthusiasm and clear-eyed purpose. The lights were down but I saw her there. Soft tears. She fell in love with the Big Lake, the dark woods, the idea of so many wild lives interacting, timeless and primal. I spent the previous day teaching about a climate crisis and endangered wildlife. I didn’t want that to be our last contact. Despite having the final on the books, I wanted to send the class off with a sense that they don’t have to be spectators, that this world needs them to find a passion, to lean in and put their shoulders to the wheel.
And I need to believe it.
It’s tricky. The situation is dire and I need to be honest. A colleague had been reading about the heroism of Frederick Douglass and the “duty of hope” in the face of cynicism and long odds. The phrase stuck with me. Something similar happens every year. They come to me after class and often don’t know what to ask or say – only that they want to say something. They want something to be hopeful about. They insist on it – and that insistence itself is a something to be hopeful about.
But what does one say to her?
One conversation I know I’ll have is what to expect when one returns to one’s church or Christian college at the end of an Au Sable summer. “People will ask you what you did over the summer,” I will tell them. “And then you can tell them about Au Sable and the Christian’s responsibility to care for this enchanted earth.”
And then they will say, “That’s nice,” and change the subject.
Concern for a Christian approach to caring for this enchanted earth seems to be a blandly inoffensive emphasis in the wider panoply of thing things that occupy North American Christians.
Part of the problem is that we teach creation care as an extension of personal piety. This emphasis resonates with the conservative Christian colleges that send their students to Au Sable. Au Sable classes are nearly all science classes, and the logic seems to be that simply laying out the science will motivate well-meaning Christians to act collectively with the urgency needed. We teach that if you recycle and buy locally and drive less, oh and maybe (just a suggestion here), go vegetarian on Mondays, you can care for the planet. Just pray. You can maybe plan an Earth Day church service. Find some sunsets and mountain vistas for the PowerPoint. See how many Creation-themed praise songs you can find. It’s all on you (but try not to offend anybody).
The reality is a small handful of corporations cause most greenhouse gas emissions and plastics manufacturing, and they are spending fortunes marketing consumption relentlessly on behalf on their shareholders3. Effective “care” of our enchanted planet manifests itself also in collective decisions about how we let aggressive interests exploit our global commons of clean air, clean water, healthy soils, intact functioning ecosystems, and abundant oceans. Hence “care” requires frank discussions about policy and regulation, and legacies of environmental injustices, and colonialism and “fairy tales of eternal economic growth” (Greta Thunberg) – and how you vote. These topics get the kid-glove treatment.
Personal environmental piety is admirable and even necessary, but it is insufficient.
As I write this, COVID vaccination rates among adults in the United States are about 55% and are leveling off4. It’s a perfect sigmoid curve and I could use it in my class as an illustration of growth approaching its upper limit. In this case, unless things change, the US appears to be heading to an upper limit, a carrying capacity if you will, of something like 60%. Experts are uncertain even doubtful whether that’s enough. Part of the problem is an active resistance to getting the vaccine, a resistance that has partisan, cultural, and even religious dimensions.
This past year Americans demonstrated a willingness to believe lies, especially if it aligned with their politics.
This is an omen. Addressing the climate crisis requires collective action for the common good. Our COVID experience, even after more than a year of headlines, and quarantines, and countless diminishments in the things we value, is that we cannot find the collective will to fix it. Moreover, addressing the climate crisis is not a matter of finding the right technological bullet like developing a vaccine and getting it out to the vulnerable. Addressing the climate crisis is a matter of the heart now, of self-sacrifice and repentance, and that puts it in religion’s wheelhouse. And those same partisan, cultural, and religious roadblocks are lurking. Why believe the weight of scientific consensus if you can find a contrarian gadfly at the Hoover Institute who will tell you everything’s going to be ok?
But what of hope? And what about God’s sovereignty? I threw a few sharp elbows in a blog post earlier this year and got gently called out for not having enough faith that God is in charge and that everything will work out “according to His plan.” The underlying assumption, of course, being that “His plan” will spare us wealthy Westerners the consequences of our greed and carelessness with creation. That somehow “His plan” will spare our poor brothers and sisters in the global south and our non-human kin from the damage that we’ve already caused. I’m sorry, but when can we expect that to kick in?
Doesn’t faithfulness require us to pull up the knapweed when we have the understanding about the damage it does and the ability to do so?
Faithfulness requires the creation care movement to find (and exercise) its prophetic voice and to build coalitions with other environmentalist groups both religiously motivated and secular. It needs to bring in and foster other disciplines like the arts and social sciences – to acknowledge the existential danger of being lukewarm. And to push. I ask my students, “As a Christian, what to you bring to the table?”
Thing is, some small fraction of my 13 undergrads this year will get this and others will find themselves opening to it. And I’m going to push and decide to be hopeful about it. It’s not much, but it’s something. Time is running out, but maybe the events of the past year have changed the students too. We biologists know the language of latency and resilience. I find a little hope there.
I hope my botanist friend might agree.