Climate Change and Compassion: A Conversation with Norman Wirzba

April 10, 2023
Science Magazine

Above: Professor Norman Wirzba. Image Courtesy of Faith & Leadership.

Norman Wirzba is a Gilbert T. Rowe Distinguished Professor of Christian Theology at Duke Divinity School and senior fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. Along with Dr. Emily Bernhardt, he organized and led Duke’s first university course centered around the climate crisis: “UNIV 102: Let’s Talk About Climate Change,” which ran in the fall semester of 2022. His passions and research interests lie in the intersection of theology, philosophy, environmental, and agrarian studies. He is also the author of several books, including Agrarian Spirit: Cultivating Faith, Community, and the Land.

In conversation with Jean Chung (Trinity ’26), Professor Wirzba discusses his experiences teaching the university course, the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to climate change, and his advice for students in envisioning a more resilient, hopeful, and compassionate future. 

JC: In what ways do you think the UNIV course has left an impact on students who took it?

NW: Last semester, we had students write a reflection on their experience throughout the course. By the end of the semester, students saw that it's not enough to think in terms of science and engineering. We're going to need science and engineering for sure, but we're also going to be able to talk about more humanistic, social, and moral dimensions of climate change. Climate change presents us with what we can describe as a failure of our leaders in business and political institutions to create cultures that don't destroy the planet. Additionally, it creates massive injustices and inequities between people who have the resources to take care of themselves and the many more people who are going to be left to struggle with droughts, floods, et cetera. One of the things our course did is that it helped students see this other dimension to climate change, which is not just a scientific or technical problem — it's a question about what we think is good and the morals surrounding climate change dilemmas. 

A second thing is that [students] discover sympathy: how people think differently and why they think differently. They have to be not just good talkers about climate change but really good listeners. We know that especially in a very polarized society, people want to take sides and cast the other side of the end. When you take into account that people have their own fears, approaches, and perspectives on things, you can be someone who will listen better and then say, “Okay, let's now figure out what the implications are of these positions.” Because what's very clear about climate change is that there isn't going to be one grand solution — it's going to take a lot of very different people coming from very different backgrounds and points of view who develop an approach that is multifaceted. We said that the solution is not a silver bullet but a “silver buckshot.”

Above: Students presenting their “Climate Conversation Starter” class project as a part of the UNIV 102 course on the Bryan Center Plaza. Image courtesy of Duke TODAY.

JC: What are some other ways you find that climate change is already making an impact on our everyday life?

NW: It’s helpful to have such a diverse student body, where people come from all areas of the world. We had a student from Pakistan, which was undergoing immense flooding that displaced millions of people. This made climate change very real for the person themselves but also for many of the students. I think it sort of takes that more hypothetical future character away because some people, especially in the inland states of America, think, “Well, maybe it's going to come, and when it comes it won't really affect us.” But when you realize that North Carolina already suffers from drought and heat waves, it helps people understand that climate change always has a human face. It's not some abstract theoretical problem — there are always real effects on individuals and communities. So one of the things that was important in the class is that students learn to make climate personal by telling stories about what actual people are experiencing. And when it becomes personal, we can make connections to our everyday lives.

JC: How do you see these changes impacting us on the national and global scale?

NW: To start with, many coastal cities, such as New York City or Miami, are going to be severely impacted by flooding — and it's going to cost lots of money to help people in these more difficult circumstances and mitigate the structural damages. It’s going to require a lot of creativity on our part, and it's also going to require us to think differently. One of the major effects of climate change is that it's going to create millions of climate refugees — people who simply cannot live in their homeland — and all the political turmoil that's going to ensue. The question is: How do we help each other as communities, as nations? Not being the kind that says, “Let's just build a wall to keep everybody out.” How do we create countries that welcome those who have lost their homes? A lot of countries aren't thinking about this, and they're going to need to because the people are coming whether we want them to or not. 

JC: In light of the Duke Climate Commitment, can you speak to some of the broader educational initiatives building off of the university course, and how you envision them to be implemented?

NW: I see change being implemented in the future. So many of the Duke students who are here are smart and creative and are going to be leaders in all walks of life. What we hope with something like the course — but also the university as a whole — is that it can help these students be leaders who are not just attentive to the reality of climate change but help get people together to tackle these problems. Knowing about the political and economic effects of climate change, you can say, “This is what we can do, and this is where we are.” When preparing for these kinds of realities, we can help each other learn to be more resilient. For example, building the infrastructure for education and housing that we're going to need when you’ve got all these movements of people — that's a huge creative task. If we can get people all over the world thinking about climate change and responding to climate change, we give people agency.

JC: How can students build off of their climate education and literacy to translate that into action?

NW: Having conversations. Students have the opportunity to incorporate climate change in conversations with leaders: for example, they can talk with a national security advisor about how governments need to address climate change and what the next steps might be. I think a second thing is talking with each other: you all come up with really good insights and you come up with good responses to climate change. Sometimes the best ideas have not yet been thought of because the right conversation has not yet been had. So when we get people talking with folks who are not in their discipline, they are in a much better position to think creatively but also think in ways that take them beyond their perspective.

Above: Students discussing ideas on climate fundamentals as a part of the class’s Gallery Walk on BC Plaza. Image courtesy of Duke TODAY.

JC: You do a lot of work with spirituality and agrarian studies. How do you incorporate your values on spirituality and ethics into your teaching philosophy, and how does it tie into the various societal and ethical concerns that need to be addressed as part of the climate crisis? 

NW: I'm always asking questions about the meanings of things and the values by which we live. What's very clear is that the climate change realities reflect a world in which so much has been commodified: things have been made into objects that are for sale, and people are treated like objects as if they don't matter. And what I want people to understand is that it doesn't have to be that way. Many cultures have thought that this life is sacred, this world is sacred, and it’s worthy of our cherishing. It’s precious: it’s not just stuff out there, it’s something that reflects goodness and beauty in itself. That means we're going to have to start with this other conviction which rejects a capitalist framing of everything, and helps us understand that there is a different way of talking about life. 

The reason I like to work with people in agriculture is not because they are all religious in some sort of institutional way. It’s because they have had the most experience in what we need to think about in terms of living. It's their experience of working with land, plants, and animals that gives us a much more honest appreciation for what kind of a world we live in. If you're a farmer or a gardener, you know that life is not something that you can just control. That’s important to know because we are seeing that human desire, especially the desire to control everything, is now damaging our commitment to caring and kindness. We live in a brutal world, but what would it be like if people felt that they were surrounded by kindness? It's not going to come from the World Trade Organization or the World Bank. It's going to come from small communities of people who are saying, “what can we do here?" These communities respect the lives of animals and treat agricultural workers with respect and give them more protection. These become very localized, smaller-scale efforts and what they're doing — which I think is crucial — is showing to others that we don't have to live in the way we frame life. A lot of people think that where we are now is inevitable, so they can't think of a different future. One of the things this course teaches is that we're constantly needing to imagine different futures — better futures. If we're going to do that, we need to have examples of communities trying a different way to organize our lives. When we have those examples, we at least know that something different is possible — and that's enough to get going. 

JC: What inspired your interests in nature and religion?  

NW: I grew up on a farm, so I got a front-row seat to the industrial production in which animals are treated like machines and land is commodified and treated like a unit of production. When you visit a different farm where there is evidence of care and nurture of land, plants, and animals, students see that difference. A friend of mine told me this story about how he took students of his to an Amish farm. Amish farms are small-scale, respect land, and don't use machines. At the end of the day, when the students were getting on the bus to go back home, one of them said, “This is the most beautiful day I've ever had.” It's not enough just to think about a different way to live: it actually happens when people say, “We're going to make the care and celebration of each other a priority.” It’s not something speedy, where everything is sort of abstract and anonymous. When someone says, “Come to my house, I want to cook you a meal,” and we spend hours together enjoying the meal and talking, the meal communicates a sense of connection and compassion that is crucial for larger-scale change. 

JC: As students, we live in such a fast-paced environment. We're worrying about how climate change is going to impact our futures 20, 40, or even 80 years down the road. Many of us feel a lot of anxiety. How do you go about addressing those sorts of doubts and fears?

NW: It's a huge question for me: how do we help students live a life that is hope-driven rather than driven by fear or anxiety? That's not a small thing to be able to do. But I think first of all, start by saying, “Yeah this is really bad.” It means, for my generation, saying “We've made your future worse.” We've been committing for decades now to the policies and priorities that are damaging our communities, damaging the world, and we need to stop that. And the way you start to make a difference is, first of all, by admitting your mistakes and then committing to being with people. Because the worst thing to say when we screwed up is just “fix it.” We can't leave people alone and say, “Just deal with your own pain.” To come alongside young people acknowledges that you teach us what we need to do differently. To be repentant, in a religious sense, but committed to living better — and we're going to help you do that. 

I went to COP26 (26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties) in Glasgow, Scotland. For me, by far the best and most important point was seeing tens of thousands of young people marching for a better future. It was so inspiring, and the key now is to get the leaders to listen to the activists and the voices of the youth. 

JC: What are some ways you envision the scientific aspect of climate change integrating with perspectives from the humanities, ethics, and activism? 

NW: I sure hope they can integrate with each other! Of course, it starts with people talking with each other. People who are in science only talking with people in science, or people in humanities only talking with people in humanities is no good. For me, one of the best things about the course was becoming real good friends with Emily Bernhardt, a biologist. You get to understand that there are different ways of thinking about problems and then different ways of thinking about problems that are not mutually exclusive. Good activism depends on good science because we have to know what's actually going on. We have to know from engineers what's possible to do. At the same time, good science depends on the humanities. We have to understand that science doesn't exist in a vacuum: science reflects human values, and we have to be able to articulate these values in ways that resonate with the science that you are doing. Bringing people together from across disciplines, breaking down the silos that often exist at large academic institutions, is going to be crucial to making this university not just a few departments but a unified community engaged in this effort to address climate change and to  create a world that can still be a place for justice and beauty to flourish.

JC: As a society, we’re often desensitized to the facts of climate change and feel as if we’re in a helpless situation or an apocalyptic doomsday. Students often wonder what the point of education is if our institutions and economic systems themselves are corrupt. What are the most persuasive ways to restore hope and get people to be more involved?

NW: The very worst thing that you can do when thinking about climate change is be alone. Right now, the best thing to do is to be talking with other people, working with other people. When you're with other people, you learn that there are things that you can do together but you can't do by yourself. Nobody should be thinking that they are going to come up with the single solution. What does exist is lots of opportunities for change, but that doesn't mean that amid life's hardness and difficulty we can't create beauty — that we can't participate in the experience of joy. Because the world is still beautiful and we need the help of each other to see this beauty — to appreciate the goodness and celebrate that. Because for sure this sort of “do your thing and survive” is possible, but I want students to think that life isn't just about surviving. I want them to engage with the beauty of life, and we do that best when we do it together.

Jean Chung

Jean (Trinity '26) is a Biology major with a minor in Environmental Science from Long Island, New York. She is interested in the intersection between environmental health and human health and serves as a mentor for Duke's Health and Environmental Scholars Program. Outside of class, she loves to run, read, and consume peanut butter.

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