Bill McKibben is a man who I respect as a modern prophet. By “prophet,” I mean that he speaks truth to power. Lately, he has been talking about divesting from oil companies because they are standing in the way of passing carbon reduction laws. McKibben’s point is that the environmental movement can no longer afford to be on the defensive. Global warming is now such a dire problem that we need to be taking active measures.
As mentioned, I respect McKibben; yet I am also aware that taking the offensive puts others on the defensive. So I am grateful for another modern prophet: the writer, Barbara Kingsolver.
Kingsolver’s new novel, Flight Behavior, is a return to the Appalachian culture that she knows so well. But her topic is new, specifically, global warming. Kingsolver highlights the effects of carbon emissions, not only in warmer temperatures, but in the disruption of eco-systems. Higher temperatures have all kinds of strange results; we might just as easily refer to our problem as “global weirding.”
The novel is located in a rural, poor community in Tennessee that becomes the unlikely home of a million Monarch butterflies. The main character, Dellarobia, stumbles across this sight by accident and mistakenly thinks that the forest is on fire because of the flurry of orange wings. In the days and weeks to come, the entire community becomes aware of this phenomenon, including her church. There are some who claim the presence of the butterflies is a miracle and a sign of God’s blessing. A team of scientists, however, paints a different story. Slowly but surely, Dr. Byron and team convince Dellarobia about the potentially disastrous effects of this migration, not only on the butterfly population, but the dire warning it portends for the country, indeed, the world.
Dellarobia is suspicious of global warming; her local TV announcer concludes weather reports of cold weather with the claim that “Al Gore can toast his buns on this!” However, her eyes are opened. And here’s the thing: Dellarobia discovers that knowledge leads to compassion. By taking scientific claims to heart, she is not contradicting her faith; rather she learns to have empathy for creation. She wants to make the world a better place.
Just as importantly, Dellarobia then teaches the team of scientists about her culture. Too often, the poor are denigrated and made to feel less then. She describes the tourists with their fancy boots and clothing, who visit the butterflies yet look down their noses at “those people” – people like Dellarobia and her family. Kingsolver makes a persuasive case that the hostility to science in certain demographics is actually the result of class prejudice.
Bill McKibben is right; the level of carbon in the atmosphere has reached a critical point and we need to take the offensive. We need to do everything we can to curb emissions. And Kingsolver provides another way: one in which we take the time to explain and cultivate trust with others, instead of simply dismissing them as ignorant. We need facts and figures and stories – we need to touch people’s hearts and engage their minds. Global weirding is literally a global problem. We need prophets who can call all hands on deck.