by Lowell Bliss
Then there was the Thursday morning back in the Fall of 1983 when my classmates at Moody Bible Institute woke up to find their hallways plastered with a poster that simply read “55.” In Student Missions Fellowship, we had found a number (probably in Mission Frontiers magazine—thank you, former US Center for World Mission) and we were determined to promote its significance.
Circa 2007, a group of students at Middlebury College in Vermont led by Prof. Bill McKibben found their own number, 350, in the testimony given at a congressional hearing (thank you, Dr. Jim Hansen). 350 parts-per-million is the threshold of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere after which the climate would begin to change in ways unfamiliar to established civilization. The students were intent on creating a global movement and thought that numbers translate into all languages better than words, so they named their organization, 350.org. Today 350.org is arguably the world’s leader in grassroots climate action.
Back at Moody, we not only had posters; we also had paper buttons and straight pins: “55.” We’d hand them to our friends. “Here, will you wear this?” “Sure, what does it mean?” We didn’t bother to answer yet. Some students speculated: “A long weekend is coming up, and they want us to drive safely” (i.e., the speed limit at the time). As the morning progressed, I sought out the chair of the Missions Department in his office, the venerable J. Ray Tallman, whom I knew was in charge of campus-wide chapel that day.
“Dr. Tallman, this is getting out of hand. May I have a few minutes at the beginning of chapel to resolve this thing?”
And so that put me in front of the student body to explain that, according to the US Center for World Mission, 55 is the number of people who die every minute without having once heard the story of Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection, in any meaningful way. A suitably somber air fell over Torrey-Gray auditorium, and if you were sitting close enough to the clock on the balcony, you could hear it tick away one more minute. Dr. Tallman had asked me to pray as well, and I hadn’t thought it through, it just came intuitively, but I asked everyone who was wearing a button to take it off, and everyone who spotted a poster that day to take it down. “Let’s ask God to imprint this number on our hearts instead,” I said and then we prayed together for unreached people groups. Student Missions Fellowship that day had successfully “raised the heat” on our campus, and then we had done another important thing: we had kept the heat in the productive zone.
On this blog, I’ve started a new series on the leadership skill of “Raising the Heat” on those we wish to mobilize for environmental missions and creation care. You can read last week’s post for the graph and the explanation, but let me review using the analogy of microwave popcorn. It is silly, of course, to accuse a popcorn kernel of “work avoidance,” but there it sits in the bag, hard and uncracked. And so, we literally must raise the heat on it. At some point, the heat is high enough to take the kernels past “the threshold of change.” The “productive zone” is that noisily joyous period of white, tasty fluffiness that results. We also know that it is possible for things to get “TOO HOT!”—which in microwave terms means leaving the bag in too long. In my opinion, few things can stink up an office or dorm kitchen more than a burned bag of microwave popcorn. Consequently, the Kansas Leadership Center, from where I have learned this material, explains that “raising the heat” isn’t the only necessary leadership skill. One must also become adept at “taking the temperature.” And let’s remember that we are using the word “heat” colloquially. It isn’t necessarily the same thing as “energy,” as if the unmobilized can simply be rallied with a good pep talk. Our graph uses the word “disequilibrium,” a sense of getting momentarily knocked out of a resting state, releasing inertial energy, beginning to molecularly vibrate like a popcorn kernel hit by a microwave. There may even be some pain involved. “Art should comfort the disturbed, and disturb the comfortable.” This was said by Cesar A. Cruz, a Mexican poet and human rights activist. (A funny sidenote: I had always assumed that this saying was attributable to Charles Spurgeon speaking about sermons.)
Our “55” posters and buttons raised the heat on world evangelization, both in their mysterious appearance and then in their somber reveal. Keeping the posters up for the rest of the day however would likely have changed the heat and brought students out of the productive zone. Some people would have found the whole scene too morbid, the heat “too hot,” and their reflections would have turned to fight, flight, or freeze. For others, the moment would have passed, and the remaining posters and buttons would have been subjected to some lighthearted graffiti, the unreached people groups forgotten. Invoking God to imprint this number on our hearts instead was a way of keeping the heat up in the productive zone as long as possible. After all, we were talking to God who knew each of those 55 people personally from the last minute, and who had called us all to MBI for the very purpose of his Great Commission. Of course, that was the Fall Semester of 1984; by the Spring semester, we in SMF had to once again put our heads together: how do we raise the heat again?
I love the story of 350.org’s branding. Establishing a deadline or a “line-in-the-sand” is a wonderful technique for raising the heat. They could also begin talking about the dread consequences (heatwaves, sea level rise, flooding, etc.) that we risk in crossing that threshold. Invoking the seriousness of science (Dr. Hansen’s finding) was another good ploy. And then from the outset saying that “we are going global” must have communicated to McKibben’s students: “this is not just a Middlebury College class project.” Nowadays however, I think 350.org’s name is part of a unique moment that we are all experiencing when it comes to “raising the heat” for climate action. First, its name fails to mobilize like it used to, or I should say that it fails to mobilize anyone other than those who were primed to be mobilized in the first place, the low hanging fruit, an example of the law of diminishing returns. In May of 2019, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was measured at 414.83 ppm. We aren’t going back to 350 ppm in our lifetimes, and 350.org, in its branding at least, has given us no other compelling vision than that we should not let it get as bad as it could. Appeals to science no longer generate any more heat than a half-used Bunsen burner. 350.org knows this, and they are actually quite good at raising the heat in new ways that keep their members up in the productive zone, and that try, once again, to move the recalcitrant towards the threshold of change. Civil disobedience raises the heat. Divestment campaigns raise the heat on universities, state pension systems, and individual investors which then raises the heat on fossil fuel companies to transition away from coal and oil.
Nonetheless, the second way that 350.org’s branding illustrates a unique moment for all of us in raising the heat on climate action, is that while for some the heat is too low, for others the heat is too high. The unmobilized look at the number 350 and think nothing; it does not move them. I look at that number and it hurts. I’ve been involved in climate action since returning from India in 2007 and 350 is the number of my powerlessness and failure. I look to Jim Hansen like a father figure and lament, “I miss the world that we used to know and, that we will never regain, and that I will never pass on to my children.” 350 is the number of my despair.
So that is our unique moment: well-worn strategies that we keep using to try and raise the heat on the unmobilized do little for them, yet then contribute to the burn-out of the rest of us. It’s like we have a a sourdough loaf and a Baked Alaskan in the same oven at the same time. Let me give a more explicit and widely-felt example using a totally different number: 45.1 (or 113.2, if you like.) That’s the record temperature in Celsius (or Fahrenheit) that the village of Villevieille, France achieved on Friday. I know because that is the report that 350.org and so many of my colleagues, including myself, posted on Facebook this week. Unprecedented. Deadly. The threat of a “new normal.” Even Pope Francis raised the heat on us who are religious by stepping out into St. Peter’s Square and praying for the sick, the old, construction workers and other outdoor labourers. “May no one be abandoned or exploited,” he asked of God.
If it had been a typhoon in the Philippines, we would have reposted about that. If it had been flooding in Kansas, we would have posted on that. If it had been a freak hail storm in Mexico. . . oh yes, we did report on that, just as we reported on June 2019 being the hottest month in recorded history, or about wildfires in Spain, or about precipitous ice loss in Antarctica, or about mussels already cooked in their shells along the California shore. Or here’s a number: 7,140. That’s the size of the Amazon rainforest (“a football pitch’s worth”) that BBC reports is being cleared every minute by Jair Bolsonaro’s new development campaign in Brazil. Hopefully each of these new stories reaches one new audience segment in a unique and compelling way (Francophiles perhaps, or mussel-eaters) but it seems to me that these stories of disaster and threat fail to mobilize people fast enough and in large enough numbers to rise to the climate change in time. Meanwhile, the barrage of these stories threatens to overwhelm the very ones using them in order to mobilize.
In the weeks to come, let’s brainstorm together new strategies for mobilizing others for environmental missions and creation care. Nonetheless, I intend to begin by exploring strategies and techniques on lowering the heat on ourselves first. How can we avoid fight, flight, and freeze and instead ease ourselves back down into the productive zone of our callings? How can we serve our colleagues who teeter on the edge of despair?