Advocacy and the Climate Crisis: Reflections from a Canadian Christian Feminist

By Diane Marshall

I would like to share with you a little personal history of my faith journey around advocacy and climate change.

I am a family therapist, not a scientist, and not a politician, although I have always been committed to social and political justice. And I have long been concerned about environmental issues, such as protecting declining species, or lobbying to protect old growth forests (I’m originally from British Columbia, on Canada’s west coast), or supporting Aboriginal communities in their need for safe drinking water, or teaching my children to conserve and recycle, or driving a hybrid car.

But in 2007, I had a profound experience of repentance as I began to grasp the full significance of what being an “earth keeper” would mean in a time of climate change. I was then part of a planning group in my downtown Toronto community for a multi-faith event to be held on Earth Day 2008, in which Jewish, Muslim, Ba’hai, Buddhist, and various Christian denominations would gather together to share our differing understandings of what the earth means— and how we understood our faiths to guide us in caring for the creation.

Experiencing a paradigm shift
This experience became for me a paradigm shift in terms of transforming my previous semi-conscious understanding of the concepts of “progress” and “unlimited growth”—which is our heritage from the industrial revolution and which has resulted in a cultural acceptance of domination of the earth and its resources.

I realized that Jesus and His disciples travelled “light,” and that I was not living in a way that was ultimately sustainable on this earth. While I had for a long time been concerned about our consumer culture and the values of compulsive “getting and spending” that it promotes, I had not thought through the moral and ethical dimensions of what it means to build a culture and an economy of sustainability.

Increasingly, I had noticed that international development organizations like World Vision and Doctors Without Borders had begun to document in their reports that climate change was a major cause of poverty and famine in the developing world and especially the global south—and that the industrialized world (of which I was a part) was a major contributor to this.

New awareness leads to action
With this new awareness, I then joined a small group of Anglicans within our Diocese who began to meet regularly to educate ourselves on the seriousness of the climate crisis and to look at how we, as a national Church, could respond in terms of political action and advocacy.

Our little ad hoc group (most of us grandparents, who were concerned about the effect of climate change on the coming generations, as well as the destructive effects on the global south right now) decided to draft a manifesto to be circulated as widely as possible. It became the framework from which we then worked with our national Church’s eco-justice committee to formulate a resolution on climate change (Resolution 180), which was passed in spring 2010 at General Synod.

God’s faithfulness and our responsibility
We were moved to learn that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, spoke passionately at the Copenhagen Cathedral during the 2009 United Nations Congress on Climate Change, taking as his theme, “Act for the Sake of Love.” There was only one Canadian Christian leader who attended that conference (the United Church Moderator, Mardi Tyndal).

Then in June 2011, I attended an ecumenical conference sponsored by Operation Noah in London, England, and heard the former Bishop of Norwich, Dr. David Atkinson, speak about a “Carbon Exodus”— inspired by the exodus journey out of slavery into freedom. Bishop Atkinson said “we are in bondage to a neo-liberal economic model of perpetual growth,” and he called us to remember God’s Covenant with Noah in chapters 8 and 9 of Genesis— God’s commitment of faithfulness to His promise, sealed with a rainbow, and our response of commitment to follow. Further augmenting this sense of urgency was the November 2011 United Nations report of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), representing top climate scientists around the world. It warned of increased risk of extreme weather events if the earth continues to warm.

The whole created order lives under God’s grace and under God’s judgement. We are called to be Earth-keepers, to be carers of the creation: the first mandate given to humanity in Genesis. The worldwide Anglican Communion’s fifth “Mark of Mission” calls us to “strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth.”

Thus, by advocating for more significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, offering worship resources for our communities, learning to pray more intentionally for the earth, and examining our own lifestyles through the lens of caring for creation, we are being responsive to God’s call.

In January 2011, the head Bishops of the Anglican Communion, meeting in Dublin, Ireland, issued a statement on climate change. It included this call:

“We encourage all Anglicans to recognize that global climatic change is real and that we are contributing to the despoiling of creation. We underline the increasing urgency of this as we see the impact of climate change in our provinces. . . . We press Government, industry and civil society on the moral imperative of taking practical steps towards building sustainable communities, and urge them to work to achieve agreement on the way forward at the UN’s Congress in Durban in November.”

And yet, to our shame, and international embarrassment, Canada has not developed a Climate Action strategy in spite of the fact that the elected House of Commons voted to support one last year—which the Conservative-dominated (appointed) Senate then defeated! Canada publicly refused to support the Durban call to action, and withdrew its previous commitment to the Kyoto Accord.

Yet, Canada is one of the world’s top 10 greenhouse gas emitters. The Alberta tar sands is being tripled in size and scope— to the outrage of environmentalists and Aboriginal peoples throughout our country. Those of us active in this movement and in the church believe that we have a moral responsibility in the international arena to bring about a fair, ambitious, and legally-binding agreement on greenhouse reductions.

In addition to calling on members of our national Anglican Church, at parish and Diocesan levels, to incorporate concerns about the care of creation more fully into our liturgies and to become educated about the climate crisis, General Synod Resolution A180 calls on us to formally lobby the Government of Canada to adopt a comprehensive climate action plan. In the background notes to the Resolution we wrote:

“Throughout its history, the Christian churches have affirmed the Biblical belief that ‘The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world and all who dwell therein’ (Psalm 24:6). Even so, we have participated in the exploitation and pollution of the planet. We have identified too uncritically with the values of Western (industrialized) culture, failed to communicate the Gospel in its fullness, and shared in the conquest and domination of Creation…. “

Speaking the truth in love
Our Christian calling is to “speak the truth in love,” and the need to speak to government is part of “safeguarding creation.” In workshops I have given recently, I have asked the following questions:

1. How do you see yourself advocating for the earth, and “safeguarding the integrity of creation”?
2. How do you see yourself “sustaining and renewing the life of the earth”?

My early commitment to advocacy on the climate crisis that began four years ago has now led me— in addition to signing petitions and meeting with my Member of Parliament — to become a member of the Toronto Diocesan “working group on the environment,” and to organize a mini-conference for my professional provincial organization of registered couple and family therapists.

Writing this brief article for my Christian friends at EEWC-Christian Feminism Today is one further step in raising the challenges facing us in the global north, and particularly here in Canada. “Big Oil” is mounting enormous campaigns in all our media to counter the concerns surrounding the expansion of the tar sands and to quell the growing opposition to the Keystone Pipeline and the Northern Gateway Pipeline—especially as more and more people are becoming aware of the environmental hazards they engender.

This fight for the integrity of the earth—to wean our dependence on oil, to develop instead new technologies for sustainable sources of energy, and to practice conservation—is in many respects analogous to the anti-slavery movement in Britain in the 18th century. The pro-slavery forces, including the church and the government at that time, argued that the “way of life,” “the economy”, and “people’s jobs” would be sacrificed if slavery were ended. The whole economy of the British Empire was dependent on the slave trade. But justice and truth prevailed, and eventually the evil structure of slavery was formally ended.

Today, at a time of climate crisis, we face another moral and spiritual challenge. I believe that we Christian feminists, who have struggled for equality and justice for women and men in the church and in society, now have a voice that again needs to be heard—this time in advocating for the earth, our island home in the universe.

Copyright © 2012 by Diane Marshall


Diane Marshall
Diane Marshall has served as long-time director of the Institute of Family Living in Toronto, practicing in the field of family therapy and training therapists in the multicultural communities of refugees and immigrants that people Toronto. She also serves on various boards working on public justice issues, urban ministries, and with people with physical and intellectual disabilities, in addition to her work within the Anglican Church of Canada in eco-justice committees. Her book, Healing Families: Courage and Faith in Callenging Times, was published in 2005 by Path Books. She is the mother of three adult children and grandmother of four. Diane served as Canadian representative on EEWC’s first elected council after our incorporation as a nonprofit organization in 1978.


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