The Paideia School

Katharine Wilkinson ‘01

Katharine Wilkinson ‘01 is the author of Between God & Green: How Evangelicals Are Cultivating a Middle Ground on Climate Change. She is a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group, where she specializes in organizational culture and behavior change.

You've dedicated the book to Jane Pepperdene, a former Agnes Scott professor, Paideia teacher, and great friend to the school. What gifts did Ms. Pepperdene give to you and how does her presence find its way into “Between God & Green”?

Jane gave me countless gifts and remains present in my life, and hence my work, in myriad ways. At the core, though, she taught me to engage in the world as a reader, hearer, and interpreter of stories – to “see feelingly.” In her classroom, those were stories by Welty, Shakespeare, Eliot, Chaucer, O’Connor. But we swim in currents of stories every day, using narratives to make sense of our lives and give them meaning. In my research for Between God & Green, I collected the stories of and by evangelical leaders who have taken up the cause of climate change; I then wove them together, as a storyteller myself, crafting a narrative about this burgeoning movement. The care, attention, empathy, and responsibility applied in that inherently interpretive process – all those things have their roots in Jane’s classroom.

In the book, you introduce and explore the concept of "climate care." Can you describe the concept and explain why you prefer to use this phrase instead of others synonymous with "environmental policy"?

Language is an important theme in this book. These evangelical leaders are engaged in telling a new story about climate change, and they use biblical language and tenets to do so. The term “creation care” has been in use for many years, describing a faith-based approach to environmental issues. It suggests a clear grounding in the Genesis creation accounts, when human beings are given responsibility to tend and keep the garden, to be stewards of God’s created world. Believers engaged in environmental work today have a sense of fulfilling a divine mandate and enacting religious beliefs. Serving God and saving the planet are deeply intertwined. I use the term “climate care” to describe evangelical advocacy on global warming specifically. It points to the centrality of religion and the faith that binds the movement together – and distinguishes it from secular environmentalism.

There's a strong foundation to your work built from interviews of evangelical leaders and other participants in the evangelical climate care movement. Since you detail the contacts you developed "in order to gain entry to a community" not your own, the book feels at times like a detective narrative. What were your experiences of entering a new world and discovering its dynamics? Did it ever feel as if you were doing undercover work?

I like the notion of a detective narrative! I certainly felt like an explorer in a sub-culture largely unknown to me. When you ask people to sit down with you and discuss their experiences, ideas, and passions, it can be quite a vulnerable moment for everyone involved. I was requesting time and openness, hoping people thought the research worthy of their generosity. The participants were trying to decide if they could trust me, if I would do their stories justice, just how much to share. But those moments of vulnerability also offered opportunities for real connection and understanding. Our conversations challenged so many of the media stereotypes about American evangelicals – a vastly more diverse, complex community than typically recognized. I try to capture that nuance and texture in the book.

Now that the election is over, and the Northeast still reels from Hurricane Sandy, are you hopeful that our political leaders will finally begin to engage fully with the difficult challenges of combating global warming?

President Obama’s comments on climate change in his inauguration address are cause for hope. At the same time, the clock is ticking, while political dynamics remain challenging and public opinion mixed. There is substantial work to be done to shift from a fossil fuel economy to one powered by clean, renewable energy. To get there, we need a level of political will and engagement we simply haven’t seen. That means climate care advocates and all those invested in a healthy world ought to be raising their voices and hands. A groundswell of grassroots support is critical to add momentum to this moment, moving us from talk to action. I also believe schools have a key role to play in leading the charge – shifting their energy sources and investments out of fossil fuels. If we’re serious about educating our children for the future, we shouldn’t risk the planet they must live on.

In one of your book's sections entitled "Advancing Climate Care in Word and Deed," you talk about evangelicals of a younger generation who should be allowed by their churches to develop their own passions and platforms. Are you hopeful that these young Christians will be more aware of the consequences of climate change and promote a paradigm shift within fundamentalist churches? In the course of your research and interviews, did you encounter any dynamic young leaders that give you confidence about the continued development of the climate care movement?

We are witnessing a very dynamic moment in the evangelical community. I kicked off this research thinking it would focus on climate change, but what I realized is that environmental issues are just one piece of broader political and ethical shifts taking place within American evangelicalism. Many of the leaders I interviewed expressed frustration and even disgust with the myopic focus of years past on narrowly construed “moral” issues. They argue that an alliance with the Republican Party blinded them to concerns that ought to be on a Christian agenda – poverty, HIV/AIDS, sex trafficking, etc. This shift is particularly pronounced among young evangelicals, with polls showing significantly higher belief in and concern about climate change, among other issues. Groups like Young Evangelicals for Climate Action are the future of the climate care movement.

How did you reach the intersection between environmental studies and religion? Did any of your early experiences at Paideia influence the path of your career? Connect the dots between Paideia student, Rhodes Scholar, and author of “Between God & Green”.

Two truths about this work… First, it’s wildly interdisciplinary. It cuts across religion, politics, environmental studies, social movements, discourse analysis, and more. As an institution, Paideia allowed me to grow intellectually without internalizing the rigidity of disciplines and subjects and sub-subjects. In a place where a novel read as a class becomes a script and then a staged musical, boundaries don’t make sense. I entered the world of higher education with vital openness and curiosity – prepared to challenge conventional thinking and connect disparate but connected topics. Second, this work is fueled by a deep passion for sustainability. Martha Roark’s tutorials on wetlands – and invitations to creative exploration of related issues – were an early seed. In high school, I spent a semester at the Outdoor Academy, where my “green” self sprouted fully. Upon return, Paideia became a young change-maker’s laboratory: teaching environmental science to elementary students, lobbying for Paideia’s first LEED building (and suffering my first major defeat). By the time I crossed the Symphony Hall stage, I was already committed to and engaged in effecting change. The invitation to unfettered curiosity, passion, and engagement – using head, heart, and hand – defines my Paideia experience and the legacy it gave me.