How Many Presbyterians Does It Take…

swirly bulbQ:    How many Presbyterians does it take to change a light bulb?

A:    It should require about five committees to review the idea first. If each is staffed with half a dozen members, that’s what…30?

Most mainline religious denominations have developed policies related to energy and climate change. How have they gone about this and what are the likely effects? Recent research on the Presbyterian Church (USA) explores this question. The anthropologist who did the archival research and interviews was attracted by the apparent contradiction between the Presbyterian reputation for political conservatism and the denomination’s bold initiative in 2005 to ask its members, congregations, and institutions to strive to become carbon neutral.

The carbon neutral initiative came out of work on the denomination’s updated energy policy, The Power to Change, adopted in 2008.  The earlier energy policy was formulated in 1981, The Power to Speak Truth to Power .  A 1990 environmental policy Restoring Creation for Ecology and Justice had emphasized the significance of climate change and made policy recommendations related to it. All of these policies are grounded not only in understanding of science but also in theological and Biblical study by teams of ministers, elders, and members. While not necessarily binding on individual members, they direct the advocacy efforts and investments of the denominational staff.

Two papers on the research by Patricia K. Townsend, a NYIPL board member, were published this summer. They included a book chapter in How the World’s Religions are Responding to Climate Change: Social Scientific Investigations. The volume was edited by Robin Globus Veldman, Andrew Szasz and Randolph Haluza-DeLay, and published by Routledge (2014).

An article on the research was published as “Energy Policy in American Faith Communities: ‘The Power to Change’” in the anthropology journal Culture, Agriculture, Food and Environment, Vol. 35, Issue 1, June, 2013.  The editors of the special issue of CAFE, Stephanie Paladino and Jeanne Simonelli, began the special issue on anthropology and energy with a quote from Townsend’s paper of the words of Margaret Mead, writing in 1976, about the plutonium question of that time, but is equally relevant to today’s energy decisions:  “These are hazards so grave that every citizen should have a voice in deciding whether this is the road to energy independence we—or anyone—should take….”

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