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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

US and China -- Ongoing Conversion!
distributed 11/14/14 - ©2014

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Reid Detchon of Bethesda, Maryland. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

Surprise! We all thought -- if we thought about it at all -- that President Obama was going to Asia to work on trade deals. But the big news from his trip was a joint announcement with the President of China about significant promises for action on climate change.

The White House summarized the "Big News":

  • President Obama is setting a new target to cut U.S. carbon pollution by 26-28% below 2005 levels by 2025.
  • China is committing to peak its CO2 emissions around 2030 while striving to peak early, and boost its share on non-fossil fuel energy to around 20%.

China and the US are the world's two largest CO2 polluters, so this announcement is very important. Prior to this week, both countries have refused to make promises about greenhouse gas reductions, so this is, indeed, big news. We are in a qualitatively new situation, where the two biggies are putting forth real numbers.

It is, of course, disappointing news, too. The promised actions are too small and too slow in the face of the rapidly escalating climate crisis. We are in a quantitatively familiar situation, where the two biggies are not promising enough.

Bill McKibben acknowledges both sides of this equation in his post-announcement pep-talk to climate activists, with "10 things you need to know."

Such extremes of good news-bad news within the same event are not easy to handle. Fortunately, we can glean some good insights if we approach the matter theologically instead of politically.

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"Ongoing conversion" is not a concept that I encountered in my theological education. In fact, I'm not sure that my training in liberal Protestant thought dealt seriously with any aspect of conversion.

So I am grateful to Katherine Turpin, who teaches at Denver's Iliff School of Theology, for introducing me (and thousands more) to the Wesleyan idea of ongoing conversion. It is a central theme in her book, "Branded: adolescents converting from consumer faith."

Turpin critiques what she calls the "shock, inform, and convert" pedagogy which assumes "that if a person is exposed to a sufficiently compelling vision of reality, they will desire more knowledge about that version of reality and subsequently change their behavior in response to this new knowledge." I have to admit, that sounds a lot like the approach taken by lots of climate activists -- scare us with a frightful vision of an overheated world, immerse us in lots of facts, and hope for a sudden and dramatic conversion to low-impact lifestyles. Unfortunately, she says, "these undoubtedly powerful experiences often lack the staying power to maintain a change in life habits and commitments."

She finds more promise in an alternative kind of conversion which may have a sudden beginning, but then involves "an accrual of events that show the gradual placement of trust and reliance in a different grounding, a different imagination of the world. ... Ongoing conversion is the gradual shift of imagination and life practice from one object of devotion to another."

The news media have not been talking about President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping in religious terms. I certainly have not heard about conversion or shifts of devotion, but it is not too big a stretch to see some major changes in imagination and a commitment to global futures in the statement from the two presidents. There is not a sudden conversion to a fossil-fuel-free world, but there is a turning away from confidence and allegiance to a fossil-dominated world. We have witnessed, this week, two global leaders supporting each other in a step of gradual, ongoing conversion.

Turpin's theological and sociological research meshes well with McKibben's encouragement to climate activists. Both remind us that change does not come from individuals in isolation. Real and lasting change requires communities of support.

Katherine highlights the importance of "participation in a social body with others who share a commitment to an alternative meaning system." Bill -- in the 9th thing we need to know -- says that the announcements are a response to huge protests in both countries. Were the two presidents just giving in to political pressure, or have they had their imagination and devotion shifted a bit by passionate communities critiquing business-as-usual, and affirming other options? There's enough political risk in their joint announcement that I think a change of heart must be involved.

Ongoing conversion is not as tidy as a sudden and total change of heart, but it is how most change happens -- in individuals, in political leaders, and culturally. We, who speak and act as advocates for a more sustainable future, are members of the communities of support that nudge leaders toward each step of that gradual process. And part of our role is to keep speaking, keep acting, keep nudging so that the gradual process moves as quickly as possible.

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The timing of the US-China announcement is important. In December, UN climate meetings will be held in Lima, Peru. The delegates will be negotiating agreements that will be signed -- we hope and pray -- next year in Paris. The bold announcement from China and the US comes just a few weeks before the Lima meeting. Action from the two biggest polluters will put pressure on other countries to take action, too. In the setting of diplomacy, we're seeing how a "community of support" can facilitate change.

Our collective support for the negotiations in Lima is essential. We must be visible and vocal to keep the process moving. Among the many options for action, I strongly encourage local faith communities to join in a global initiative called "#LightforLima."

Coordinated by Our Voices -- "bringing faith to the climate talks" -- #LightforLima centers on a global, multi-faith prayer vigil on Sunday evening, December 7. "When world leaders come together in Lima, they need to know that we're holding them in our thoughts, meditations and prayers. Our prayers will bring hope. Our lights will guide the way."

You -- or your congregation -- can reach out to faith partners to organize local vigils. Those candlelight (or solar light!) vigils will witness to a hopeful future, especially when we do our media outreach well, and let politicians know where we stand, and why.

#LightforLima provides a strong collection of resources for those who organize and lead a vigil. It isn't that hard to do, and it is essential that people of faith demonstrate the "shift of imagination and life practice" that is required to turn our world toward a stable climate.

If we look at the US-China announcement in stark political terms, it is hard to see how the timid promises of this week can be expanded into dramatic changes of climate policy. But if we think theologically -- if we recognize that conversion of heart and mind comes in steps that are nurtured by outspoken communities -- then we are called toward engagement that is hopeful and effective.

#LightforLima is one way that we can foster global conversion within the next few weeks. Visit the website, and sign up to organize or participate in an event. Join me in this global vigil of hope and witness.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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