Monday, January 7, 2019

Right Speech: How to Talk about Climate Change

God be in my head, and in my understanding; God be in mine eyes, and in my looking; God be in my mouth, and in my speaking: god be in mine heart, and in my thinking; God be at my end, and and my departing.   - John Rutter (b. 1945)

This is the third installment in an eight part series that offers information and tips related to climate action and protecting our environment. The SEC's Eightfold Path of Environmental Action is a companion series to a video that is scheduled to be launched in 2019.

The way we talk about climate change and environmental degradation can make all the difference. The way we frame the issues can either contribute to people's propensity to engage or detract from it.  The scope of the problems are daunting but we must try to remain hopeful even as we try to reach people who may seem intractable.

Not everyone is obstinate many are simply overwhelmed. As indicated by the recent SEC survey many Anglicans are not sure they understand the facts or what they can do. Therefore sharing information is essential. How and what we share can make all the difference.

Avoiding division

We need to appreciate that words have the power to hurt.  When discussing the urgency of environmental action we should endeavor to avoid the politics of division.

There are people both inside and outside of the church who may not possess an understanding of the urgency. There are even some who may not think the church has a role in promoting climate action and environmental protections. These may be the least receptive people but they are also the ones we most need to reach.

If our goal is to encourage people to act we need to appreciate that effective communications is about more than just being factually correct. We need to foster an environment that helps people to be receptive to the facts. Rancor is antithetical to the goal of effective speech that augurs climate action.

As Christians we must acknowledge there are unique concerns that frame our speech that go well beyond avoiding divisive speech.  It is easy to allow our fear and frustration to express itself through words that may do more harm than good. Proverbs warns us against using harmful language:
"A gentle answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.
The tongue of the wise adorns knowledge,
but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.
The eyes of the Lord are everywhere,
keeping watch on the wicked and the good.
The soothing tongue is a tree of life,
but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit."
(Proverbs 15:1-4)
As the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said in a February 2018 speech on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the World Council of Churches, "being right is not the same as being agonized by our divisions." He went on to say, "we must deal not only at the theological, Christological and ecclesiological levels but at the psychological levels. Our habits of division. Our ways of looking at one another. Our instinctive approach. It is at the psychological level that we struggle almost beyond endurance."

The transforming power of love

Authentic emotion is important and the emotion that holds most sway and the one that represents the best of who we are called to be, is the emotion of loving-kindness. Loving one another is central in Christian faith and teaching, it is also at the heart of our eco-advocacy. There are many Bible verses calling us to love one another. Loving one another is referred to as an obligation and the law in Romans (13:8), "if we love one another, God lives in union with us, and his love is made perfect in us." (1 John 4:12). This message is repeated in John 13:34 and 1 John 3:11.

"Above everything, love one another earnestly, because love covers over many sins." (1 Peter 4:8) and Corinthians tells us to "Do all your work in love" (1 Corinthians 16:14).

Effective communication is about expressing our love for humanity and the planet upon which we all depend. Words expressed with love can have healing power.

We should try to emphasize our love for creation because this is what we are called to do as both stewards of the environment and Christians.

A word rightly spoken can heal deep wounds, reconcile former enemies and save countless souls. It is amazing how a few words of kindness can lead to a tidal wave of love. There are many passages in both the Old and New Testament that define right speech:

"Kind words are like honey–sweet to the soul and healthy for the body." (Proverbs 16:24)
"A person’s words can be life-giving water; words of true wisdom are as refreshing as a bubbling brook." (Proverbs 18:4)
"Words satisfy the soul as food satisfies the stomach; the right words on a person’s lips bring satisfaction." (Proverbs 18:20)

Right speech is informed by our love for God's creation and our compassion for each other.  One of the things we can do to test our words is to ask if they are "true, good and useful."  Another approach involves determining if our words fulfill the criteria of right speech: Is it spoken of at the right time, is it spoken in truth, is it spoken affectionately, is it spoken beneficially, is it spoken with a mind of loving kindness.

The following Psalmist passage is a commonly uttered prayer that is well worth remembering:  "Let the words of my mouth and meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O God." (Psalm 19).

Above all right speech is about more than words, it is about love that calls us to act. As stated in 1 John 3:18: "My children, our love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action."

While we are called to be compassionate and merciful we should not shy away from speaking truth to power. While it is always advisable to try to speak with love in our hearts, we must be stalwart in our protection of creation no matter how much opposition we encounter.

Tell personal stories that involve us as part of our communities

Although it is essential that we base what we are saying on facts, people tend to be more receptive to first-person narrative accounts rather than citing data or studies.  We must communicate the facts while avoiding unnecessary controversy. We can do this by focusing on issues, impacts, and solutions that people can relate to. Asking questions about families and communities is a good way to open any discussion. 

According to a recent paper on the science of environmental communications there are several keys to effective speech.  This includes,"knowing one's audience, telling local stories and building relationships with target audiences".

We will increase our chances of getting through to people by making it personal. This includes talking about the ways that we are experiencing the impacts of climate change in our communities. It also involves discussing what we are doing to minimize our environmental impacts.

The frame for all we say and do is the realization that we cannot do this alone. We need to encourage people to realize that we are all in this together. Whatever happens to the planet impacts all of us. We must speak honestly to the issues remembering that we are bound to each other.  As explained in the book of Ephesians, chapter four, verse 25, "So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbours, for we are members of one another."

Expert communicators and environmental psychologists indicate that our words are more powerful when we speak in the context of community.  We must also connect with people's values. For Christians in the Anglican tradition this includes the fifth mark of mission.

As revealed in the SEC's survey for Anglicans effective communication entails reference to their connection with nature.  This is consistent with the paper on best practice in environmental communication: "Values including social and environmental justice, unity with nature, protecting the environment and broad-mindedness have been shown to predict more pro-environmental motivations and behaviors".

In our pursuit of environmental justice we must try to understand opposing points of view and find common ground. We should be mindful of our own imperfections so that we may forgive ourselves and others as we dedicate ourselves to fostering awareness and encouraging action.

Related
Eightfold Path of Environmental Action.
Right Speech - Effective Environmental Communications.
Right Understanding: Knowing the facts about climate change
Right Thought: How we think about the natural world

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