Stories and Norm

For the first million years of human existence climate change was no threat, not because our ancestors knew more than we do now, but because, unaware of the immense energy potential in fossil fuels, they hadn’t started burning them. The natural world doesn’t much care what humans think or know. But it responds forcefully to what we actually do.

This is good news. Because actions overshadow opinions, we don’t have to count on turning the whole society into committed, informed environmental activists. Systemic changes that make fossil fuel conservation the best financial choice can slow our greenhouse gas emissions.

But there is more good news. Americans are now ready to accept, and even encourage, such systemic changes.

A recent Stanford survey shows that in every U.S. state, at least 75% of the population believes that global warming is happening, and the majority of people in nearly every state believes that the U.S. should take action on global warming regardless of the actions of other countries. As Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), who is co-chair of the Bicameral Task Force on Climate Change, summarized, “The vast majority of Americans — whether from red states or blue — understand that climate change is a growing danger. Americans recognize that we have a moral obligation to protect the environment and an economic opportunity to develop the clean energy technologies of the future.” Evidently, politicians who oppose climate change measures are out of touch with their constituencies.

Thomas A. Heberlein, an environmental sociologist retired from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has written a book entitled Navigating Environmental Attitudes. His research shows that attitudes — what people say they think — are important, but not sufficient, to explain behaviors.

One chapter title says it all: “Educating the Public … and Other Disasters.” There he shows that additional information about fossil fuels does not change electricity use, for example. Rather, what changes behavior the most is knowing norms: finding out what neighbors are doing. For instance, electricity bills showing where a home stands in relation to neighboring houses encourages imitation of neighbors’ behavior. Most people don’t like to violate norms.

That’s why it matters that religious leaders make environmental responsibility normative. It’s also why concrete stories matter. We are more moved by hearing environmental success stories than by receiving general information about the dangers of climate change.

So here is an unfolding success story that I hope will inspire you:

This year the green team of our church started looking into solar panels for the church building. We found a company that had already installed panels on two neighboring churches and many nearby homes, including that of Wendell Berry. After examining the building and surroundings, the installer, SunWind Power, recommended four arrays ranging in size, placed on five of the church’s roofs.

Together these would provide half our electricity. These simple, grid-tied arrays could be installed simultaneously or sequentially, depending on when money became available. They would make an ethical statement to church members and neighbors. But they would also be highly practical, since the electricity generated over thirty years would pay back the installation cost by 200%. The fossil fuel power rate rises by more than 5% every year, but we will be able to lock in the cost for the next generation of members.

We asked an electrical engineer in the church who had spent his career at a utility company to hear the installer’s suggestions. After their conversation — which the rest of us could barely understand — he helped write the proposal and present it to the church leadership. Within a week, the first large donation came in. I had feared obstacles and objections. But so far we have sailed smoothly, in part because over the years the congregation has seen benefits from energy conservation, and in part because leadership was ready to introduce the project.

The following passages include some promising ecological themes. None are stunning, but the best ones come from the First Testament readings from Micah, Isaiah, Deuteronomy, and especially Leviticus.

February 2:

Micah 6:1-8 calls the mountains and hills as witnesses in the prophet’s accusations of his hearers.

Psalm 15 proclaims that the righteous will dwell on God’s holy hill.

Matthew 5:1-12 locates Jesus’ teaching on a mountain.

February 9:

Isaiah 58:1-9a (9b-12) contends that those who practice economic justice will be like watered gardens, whose springs never fail.

Matthew 5:13-20 compares the faithful to salt and light.

February 16:

Deuteronomy 30:15-20 foresees blessing and prosperity in the land for those who serve God without succumbing to rival powers.

1 Corinthians 3:1-9 compares the Corinthians to a garden, planted and watered by apostles, but grown by God.

February 23:

Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18 calls for environmental justice for the poor, offering them the gleanings of agricultural growth.

1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23 claims that each created individual is God’s temple.

Matthew 5:38-48 reminds Jesus’ hearers that, in God’s fairness, the sun rises and the rain falls on both righteous and unrighteous humans.