Educating for Ecological Responsibility in an Unsustainable State

My remarks at the Transforming Lives Methodist Education International Conference on April 29, 2023 in Bristol, UK.

Perhaps when many of you hear the name of my home state of Oklahoma in the United States, you may think of the world famous musical Oklahoma and our well known state song by the same name that comes from that musical, and although it might be entertaining, I will not be singing the song as part of my presentation this morning.

Perhaps some of you already know that Oklahoma is also the area of the United States where indigenous native peoples were forced to move in the 1830s after they were violently removed from their homelands by European invaders. And then, not long after being forced to move to Oklahoma, the native peoples once again had much of their land taken away by deceptive practices that led Oklahoma to also become occupied by European Americans in the late 19th century, an occupation that has been unfortunately romantically portrayed in the musical Oklahoma.

One of the key reasons that the promise of Oklahoma being a permanent territory for native peoples was broken was owing to the presence of an increasingly valuable black liquid underneath Oklahoma’s surface. According to the Oklahoma Historical Society, In 22 of the years between 1900 and 1935, Oklahoma boasted the United States’ largest amount of oil production. And although over time the oil and natural gas became more and more difficult to access, through technological advances in exploration and drilling, the oil and gas are still flowing and the industry is still the most powerful industry in Oklahoma. To this day their economic and political power is unmatched by any other entity in the state.

In a state that is dominated by the oil and gas industry, where the good or bad fortune of our economy seems inextricably linked to the price of a barrel of oil, where towns boom or bust based on oil and gas well counts, and where we are reminded constantly by the propaganda of oil and gas companies that they are responsible for all of our good things and that we would be lost as a state without them; it is not surprising that when it comes to the climate crisis, Oklahoma has one of the highest percentages of people who deny the reality of climate change and the role of human activity in contributing to rising global temperatures.

In such a state as this, it is no surprise that we are home to a recently retired United States Senator who brought snowballs on the floor of the U.S. Senate and built igloos on the National Mall when it it was cold outside as evidence of his assertion that “global warming is the greatest hoax” ever perpetrated on the American people. It is no surprise that many Oklahoma politicians have long taken their talking points from oil and gas companies and have the state’s most powerful fossil fuel executives on speed dial or speed text as the case may be today. It is no surprise that very few of Oklahoma’s religious leaders speak out about addressing the climate crisis when their offering plates are full of fossil fuel money. It is no surprise that Oklahoma colleges and universities have their regents and trustees packed with persons with fossil fuel interests, and it is no surprise that university presidents in Oklahoma are often paid directors of oil and gas companies or simply come directly from the ranks of fossil fuel executives, often with little to no experience in higher education. In the Oklahoma game, it is difficult to win without oil and gas on your team.

As climate change has become a full blown climate crisis and as the effects of climate change are real right now, not just some forecast of a distant future; the word “denial” to describe Oklahoma’s response to the climate crisis no longer seems adequate. It seems more appropriate to say that my home state of Oklahoma is complicit in actively contributing to the climate crisis. And the climate crisis is contributing to the ongoing sixth great extinction on our planet, which is the only mass extinction event on earth caused by the actions of one species.

So what can Methodist related institutions do to work for ecological sustainability in such an unsustainable context? Fortunately there is a lot that we can do and that we are already doing, and we have been reminded of many of the things we are doing during our conference.

When Methodist related colleges and universities or other Methodist related institutions follow John Wesley’s three simple rules: 1. Do no harm, 2. do good, and 3. stay in love with God, we can find ourselves able to make a difference even in places as unsustainable as Oklahoma, and we can work collaboratively with others who share the value of caring for the Community of all Creation.

No one can deny the great good that is achieved by so many Methodist related institutions, including our many schools, colleges, and universities. The service and education provided by our institutions continue to uphold the Wesleyan tradition of viewing the world as our parish, and in the case of higher education we might also say that the world is our campus. Methodism should rightly be proud of the good it is doing for the beloved community around the world, though there is certainly potential for doing better. Whatever good that we do, however, will be fleeting if we continue to be a part of hurling our world towards climate chaos. Doing good in a time of climate crisis requires that we do all in our power to address this crisis.

As Methodist related institutions of service and learning and as followers of the way of Jesus, we recognize the very good Earth and all creation as the work and ongoing expression of God’s love. When we are involved in activities and support systems that dishonor God’s creation and that bring suffering and injustice to God’s creatures, we are not expressing love for God. If we truly want to stay in love with God, we must honor all of God’s creation and work for climate justice and environmental justice for all.

The three simple rules of John Wesley and the love and justice found in the way of Jesus inspire us to action to address the climate crisis with the fierce urgency of now that it requires. In Methodism, we have both the worldwide connection and hopefully we possess the worldwide will to address the most urgent global crisis facing the community of all creation today.

This is a matter of preserving a livable climate to maintain the possibility of a flourishing human civilization. This is an existential threat, a matter of life and death for billions of humans and numerous species of life on earth. This matters! Addressing the climate crisis is the most sacred work we can do for the sake of God’s very good creation, and the world needs the worldwide will and the worldwide connection of Methodism and our Methodist institutions of education. Together we can bring realistic hope for a continued livable climate through our sacred work together, even dare I say in places like Oklahoma, especially in places like Oklahoma, that need our shared witness and commitment to preserve a livable climate for all life. It is the privilege of my life to share in this hope giving and life giving work with all of you. May all of our hearts be softened for God’s creation.


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