The Religious Dimensions of Wildfire

August 9, 2021

Darren Fleet

Kootenay Lake, British Columbia, July 2021. Photo by the author.

*July 22, 2021, evening; 24 degrees Celsius; eyes itchy; windows closed

I woke up this morning to the sound of cats hissing on the front porch and the smell of campfire smoke. Peter, the neighbourhood alley-cat, had cornered Cheetah, our beloved, under-sized tortoiseshell kitty. When my partner leapt up from bed and opened the front door to intervene, Peter jumped for his life over the edge of the railing and disappeared into the shrubs below. At the same time, our lovely Cheetah made a mad dash for the open door and scampered to safety inside, bringing in with her a waft of wildfire smoke. My senses now alert from the frantic commotion, I looked out the window to behold the dense ashen cloud that had engulfed the town and the surrounding mountains. It had arrived at some point in the night while we had slept and appears to be here to stay. 

It has been almost two weeks of this, but today is the worst yet. And fire season has only just ‘officially’ begun. In late June, a weather anomaly in Western Canada called a ‘heat dome’ saw the Canadian all time high temperature mark shattered by almost 5 degrees Celsius—49.6 degrees. The town of Lytton, British Columbia, where the record was set, was razed to the ground soon after by a fire of unspeakable speed and, up until June 30, 2021, unspeakable heat in this country. For several days this year, Western Canada has been one of the hottest places on earth. Canada. A country that, if you know one thing about it, is cold. Real cold.

Although it is difficult to link any one set of heat trapping emissions to a specific extreme weather disaster, the relationship between C02, climate change, and the increased likelihood of extreme weather events is clear. In Southeastern British Columbia, where I reside, wildfire is a perennial summertime threat. Only, in the current moment, it carries with it the added ominous dimension of the new climate reality. And in moments like these, where the invisibility of the horizon makes the topic difficult to avoid, this reality means a reckoning with the systems of carbon-heavy provision and energy that power our lives and, at the same time, are laying waste to our shared planet.

Because climate change and catastrophic weather events invite thoughts of both doomsday and redemption, as well as the possibility of collective change, motivated, in part, by things like personal conviction, justice, and sacrifice, they have a lot in common with many religions in our world. Most, if not all, faiths emphasize and celebrate the possibility of change, both social and personal. This is something that people interested in energy transition and energy culture, too, spend a lot of time thinking about. As well, religions have a mobilizing and cultural capacity that is, for lack of a better word, the envy of many of those interested in mass social transformation. And, of course, religious publics constitute key electoral constituencies in many countries, Canada included.

Because climate change and catastrophic weather events invite thoughts of both doomsday and redemption, as well as the possibility of collective change, motivated, in part, by things like personal conviction, justice, and sacrifice, they have a lot in common with many religions in our world.

As a scholar, one of the things I study is the intersection of Protestant Christianity, energy, and climate change in Canada. What most often comes up in my research when I ask people about their faith, or when I examine how the language of belief is invoked in fossil fuel news reporting in Canada—aside from the parallels between faith and climate issues, or the historical and present links between the oil industry and Protestant belief—is culture war.

Amid the vast doctrinal and spiritual diversity within Protestant faiths, there are identifiable trends ranging from social gospel believing anti-pipeline eco activists, to politically engaged Christian nationalists who express direct links between God, progress, industry, and the nation. In the middle of these two poles is a broad array of positions and views about what an appropriate faith-based approach ought to be.

One of the most significant observations of my research is that a variety of actors actively mobilize faith in thinking about energy in Canada. Take, for example, two competing faith perspectives drawn from my research from two separate, and equally committed, believers who exist on opposite ends of the political/denominational spectrum – the first from a mainline protestant tradition in the BC Lower Mainland, and the second from a charismatic church in the Alberta oil patch:

"To stand in opposition to the fossil fuel industry is to say that there is a reality beyond what industry can see. And it's in the soil and it's in the water and it's in the air. All of the created order is an embodiment of holiness. And that is something you cannot see when you commoditize the world. So that's the sense in which I see it as a spiritual battle."
"You hear these competing voices that are out there. And my thought is always ‘how do I honour God’ and ‘what's the real truth?’ Because as much as I feel firm on the side I'm on – I feel fossil fuels we should be using them – at the same time … I don't know if I've ever met somebody who's as open minded as they think they are. So I have to stop and ask myself, do I lean the way I do because of where I live or do I lean that way because it's actually right to use these things?"

To me, these perspectives suggest something important when it comes to thinking about fuel. Mike Hulme writes that if we want to fully understand climate change, in all of its social, psychological, and political realities, we need to look at its religious dimensions, what he calls the “spiritual work” of climate change (Hulme, 2009: 326). We ought to do the same with energy. Doing so would allow us to develop additional conversations around the way that understandings of things like care, identity, justice, and nation are sutured to faith articulations of fossil fuels, and how faith is mobilized both in support of—and in opposition to—hydrocarbon industries in Canada.

Darren Fleet is a writer, artist, and instructor at the University of British Columbia's School of Journalism, Writing, and Media, and in the Department of Media and Communications at the University of the Fraser Valley.

References

Hulme, M. (2009). Why we disagree about climate change: Understanding controversy, inaction and opportunity. UK: Cambridge University Press.

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