Building faith around something you want to hold sacred requires defining success criteria. Otherwise, how do you know you’re focusing on the right behaviors? How do you know you’re done?

To start, we’re not talking about creating an entire religion. Religions impact our sense of the Holy, elicit certain emotions, like awe, wonder, fear and reverence. They provide us with ultimate meaning. Religions are associated with cosmologies, origin stories, an ontology of spiritual beings, dogma about the nature of God and life after death, existence before birth, social norms, rituals and holy days, and the identification of exemplary believers and saints. They address universal themes like reconciliation, brotherhood and forgiveness. They use archetypical characters, like the Devil, angels of light, sages, tricksters, etc. Some participants have religious experiences they assert have physical manifestations, like ‘baptism in the spirit’, accelerated healing from sickness, and deliverance from spiritual forces. Religions have a corresponding rich body of art and literature. They cross geographical boundaries and can extend across the world. Incubating a new religion takes many years, even lifetimes.

The urgency of the climate challenge should shift our focus to changing crucial behaviors in order to reverse environmental degradation. As the environmentalists say, we’re now at ‘decade zero’, meaning that if we don’t drastically change greenhouse emission this decade, it will be too late to avert catastrophic climate changes. Thus taking time to create a broad religion seems like the wrong approach for now. What we need are tactical shifts in beliefs that impact crucial behaviors. We can call these ‘cultural micro shifts’, i.e. a modular faith building.

Let’s review a specific example:

  • Crucial behavior – consume less fossil fuels
  • Supporting values – high standards for the environment (clean air and water, etc.), reverence for the earth and its creatures
  • Success criteria – no fossil fuel used in daily transportation

As this case illustrates, cultural micro shifts aren’t necessarily easy. They can be a big deal for a given individual. They are ‘micro’ shifts because they don’t require the person to change any other dimension of their life or religion, although inevitably there will be a cascading effect. The shifted behavior is in fact somewhat of an arbitrary definition for the sake of measuring progress.

For me to achieve this shift, for example, I have to change a good cross-section of my value system. I drive an SUV and feel entitled to have the option to go off-roading if I want. I feel entitled to drive alone to work, and to go out on a whim. I see this as part of many rights as a consumer. I value my freedom, and it’s very hard to change that mindset. This is where we can apply the tactics of community mythology in order to:

  1. Gain awareness of the existing and new values, where they conflict, and where the shift that has to occur.
  2. Envision alternate outcomes – use the power of story and art to paint a picture of a better life with the new values. In other words, create a sense of that alternate reality that is very specific to the person and their community. Think of this as community-driven propaganda.
  3. Embrace, embellish and enact the new story – become a true convert, and socialize the new behaviors to others. Become an example and an activist, i.e. a ‘saint’ and an ‘evangelist’ for the micro shift selected.

Each of us can use our talents to build up the new storyline. If you’re an artist, you may create a film, write a short story or paint an image to drive home the negative of current behaviors, and the positive of the future. Repurposing your talents is the same type of thinking societies adopt during times of war, when factories and technologies used for civilian life are retooled for making arms and vehicles. We are at this level of urgency with regard to the climate. Business as usual is not an option. To win the race against climate disaster, we all have to retool our decision making.

Thinking about climate change as a mission reminds me of when I forsook art 30+ years ago to become an evangelical missionary. For two years I joined 300 young people from 35 nations on a ship visiting 18 countries. While my fine art production came to a standstill, I did apply my artistic talents to becoming the ship’s printer and a graphic designer. Thus the idea that we can personally retool our talents for a period of time for a cause is something I have first-hand experience with. I left everything to join the mission, and it was exhilarating. Now I’m thinking about retooling my art production for a different cause: the viability of a biodiverse ecosystem.

— Roy Zuniga
Kirkland, WA


copyright © 2015 roy zuniga