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A faithful Third Act

Environmental stewardship fuels Patricia Tull’s work with Baby Boomers to provide a brighter future for generations to come.

Photo by Tobias Keller on Unsplash

Many Presbyterians are voicing alarm over the climate chaos confronting our grandchildren. As mostly gray-haired Christians, we also fret over our church’s dearth of younger members. These twin worries can lead us to overlook a source of hope staring at many of us in the mirror: the vigor of baby boom retirees.

In 1935, when Social Security began to offer assistance to Americans over 65, the U.S. life expectancy was 60.7 years. But by 2020 it was 78.8: 18 bonus years. Social Security, Medicare and other protections that older adults enjoy have created a class of people who can, if they wish, spend a decade or two amusing themselves — or can meaningfully and skillfully pay forward the benefits of living in God’s creation in the United States in the 21st century. In the current decade, as we are determining the Earth’s carbon load and climate stability for the foreseeable future, what we choose matters more than ever.

The congregation my spouse, Don, serves in Scottsburg, Indiana, rarely sees more than 25 worshipers on a Sunday. These two dozen busy, creative Presbyterians know their halcyon days are behind them, but they keep leading large initiatives. During National Drive Electric Week last fall, they and a neighboring congregation hosted an EV (Electric Vehicle) Ride and Drive that invited folks to see and try Chevy Bolts, Mustang Mach-Es, F-150 Lightnings and e-bikes. That same weekend, the congregation hosted a public viewing of the beautiful 2017 ecofilm Chasing Coral.

They have developed environmentally themed classes, celebrated the Season of Creation in worship, endorsed carbon tax policy and refreshed the church grounds with native plants. They act from their skills, passions, financial security and, crucially, their available post-retirement time. The ringleader of many such efforts, Elder Carol Dunn, said, “I am incredibly proud of our tiny congregation. We realize we cannot count on our government to address the climate crisis without prodding from alarmed citizens. Getting serious about earth care and helping restore the planet for our beloved grandchildren has brought us new energy, hope and even fun.”

We boomers can do so much more than we may think. We’re a large generation with outsize responsibility and capacity to help save the future. This understanding led some retired women in southern Indiana to dub themselves Presbyterian climate advocates and to teach nationwide Zoom courses called Faith and the Climate Crisis. It’s why a nearby congregation, First Presbyterian Church in Jeffersonville, Indiana, installed two solar arrays, changed every light bulb, led members into home energy conservation efforts and helped the Africa Inland Church in Kisumu, Kenya, to found a tree nursery. It’s why churches surrounding Kisumu, in the once pristine but now deforested Lake Victoria area, have sown, grown and distributed tens of thousands of seedlings along with providing environmental education to schools, churches and farmers across the region. As a result, residents of that region of Kenya are seeing wildlife return. Just a few people instigated these large differences.

We boomers can do so much more than we may think. We’re a large generation with outsize responsibility and capacity to help save the future.

This understanding of boomers’ responsibility is why people across the United States hop on overnight buses to attend climate marches, pipeline protests and Poor People’s rallies in Washington, DC. With both environmental justice and democracy hanging in the balance, older adults are raising their voices, calling and visiting legislators and rethinking investment and banking habits, travel plans and even family menus.

This responsibility is why my spouse and I joined the ranks of those building all-electric, net-zero solar homes to power our pursuits and commutes. It’s why we talk to visitors about how our system works and why we evangelize strangers who admire our Chevy Bolt at charging stations. We know full well that our lives are privileged and that our efforts are mere drops in the bucket. But as poet Julia Carney proposed in her 1845 poem “Little Things,” a lot of drops can fill an ocean. Decarbonizing requires not only governments and corporations, but also citizens, to weatherize, electrify and in some cases solarize at home and work. Empty nesters who decarbonize while they downsize can be part of the solution.

Some of us admit to feeling overwhelmed by the climate crisis. We’ve never seen anything like this. But we aren’t helpless. Baby boomers approaching retirement can help reset the needle on climate change, and nothing soothes the fretting like getting things done.

Granted, we don’t all have the fortitude of our ancestor Moses, who began his best life at age 80. Moses was first alarmed by seeing a slave being beaten in Egypt. But for decades he delayed acting. Coming around to the need to intervene was a struggle for Moses, even when he heard God calling him. Moses is well known for resisting God’s instructions, questioning God’s judgment and finally pleading with God, despite many reassurances, to “please send someone else” (Exodus 4:13).

Moses had himself been saved as an infant by his mother and sister, who convinced the previous Pharaoh’s daughter to raise him as her son. Things come full circle when God calls Moses to return to Egypt and save his own people. None of it is easy. He must confront the new Pharaoh, who is not only Egypt’s most powerful figure but apparently Moses’ own adoptive kin, with all the enmeshing that entails. Yet after many tries and setbacks, Moses manages to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, across the desert and across a whole generation to the doorstep of their promised home. In doing so, he offered a role model for senior citizens: nobody is too old, too busy, too soft-spoken, too fraught with family, too inexperienced or too easily intimidated to change the future.

Few of us will be called, like Moses, to spend our remaining lives leading thousands of not necessarily grateful people from an old world into a new one. But we are all part of the crowd, whether we are cheering or naysaying. We can each do something significant for the Earth that has nurtured us and the neighbors who need us.

Some of us are moved, as Moses was, by a troubled sense of fairness. We are all God’s children — but in our earthly home some have the biggest rooms, the fanciest toys, the richest foods, the greatest comfort. Our misgivings arise not just from the fact that some siblings on this shared planet have less, but from the reality that their habitations are being devastated by others’ self-indulgence. The global north has produced a whopping 92% of excess greenhouse gases, yet the impacts – floods, famines, deadly heatwaves – hit poorest nations hardest. Despite the landmark UN agreement made in Nov. 2022, which seeks to reimburse developing countries for disproportionate damages caused by climate change, we have barely begun to acknowledge what rich nations owe to poorer ones. We know that’s not fair.

Others are moved by compassion, with hearts trembling at Jesus’ words: “Just as you did it to one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). Even if science fails to move us, we cannot sit still while
others suffer.

For some, we are motivated by wanting a credible legacy. What if we nurture our kids, work hard, vote regularly, go to church, tidy our campsites, eat our vegetables and do everything we were taught, but we don’t give our grandkids a livable future with stories they will be proud to tell about us?

For me, the realization was a sudden jolt. I felt heartsick seeing the hockey-stick graph of rising temperatures mirroring the hockey-stick graph of rising greenhouse gases. Knowing that nothing else will matter if we don’t make our best effort to change this — this has a way of reshaping all one’s plans. Every outsized hurricane, flood or fire renews the grief. What have we done? What can we do?

Lately, though, as more Americans recognize the climate crisis, my grief is tempered by visions of what success will look like: a thriving human family in a thriving creation; children growing sturdy and not subject to asthma and lead poisoning; communities drinking clean water, free from toxins; farmers enabled once again to grow human food instead of crops to produce cattle grain and high fructose corn syrup; cities built for walking. Sacrifice zones and environmental cancers can become a thing of the past. None of it is certain, but all of it is doable.

Thank God we are not alone. We have clouds of witnesses, known and unknown, to share the work and double the joy. I once heard Jewish environmentalist Roger Gottlieb talking about what makes creation care hard — the frustration, grief, anger, bewilderment. Then he articulated why, despite all this, caring matters personally: because we want to live for something larger than ourselves; because sometimes we succeed; and because, he said, lovers of creation make remarkable friends and companions.

Thank God we are not alone. We have clouds of witnesses, known and unknown, to share the work and double the joy.

This cloud of witnesses is growing. We who, like Moses, face the crowning third of our lives now have a movement to inspire us. It’s called Third Act (thirdact.org). It’s another brainchild of writer and climate activist Bill McKibben, the Vermont Methodist and cradle Presbyterian who in 2008 founded the international climate organization 350.org. In 2012, with a handful of college students, he ignited the fossil-fuel divestment movement to save stock portfolios and retirement funds from the financially risky petroleum industry. McKibben, who recently turned 60 himself, instituted Third Act to rally baby boomers and the silent generation to employ our faith, voices, skills and other accumulated assets not only to rethink our individual habits but to help remake the systems that now threaten our future.

“All across the country,” McKibben said recently, “we are finding older Americans who want to be engaged in public as older Americans, who understand that elders have an important role in a working society. We come with a lifetime’s worth of skills, sometimes with resources, often with time, and mostly with kids and grandkids who take that abstract thing called legacy and make it very concrete. Your legacy is the world you leave behind for the people you love.”

Your legacy is the world you leave behind for the people you love.

Many of Third Act’s ideas work well for elders: writing letters to the editor, registering young people to vote, evaluating and perhaps changing where we bank and protecting local elections and democracy. A beauty of Third Act’s structure is its working groups. Some are geographical. Others gather people sharing vocational interests. One that beckons Presbyterians is the Third Act Faith Working Group. In the words of its website, “Elders in the Third Act Faith Working Group are motivated to explore how their spirituality and faith direct them to rise from their places of worship to stabilize the climate and our democracy.” The movement has plenty of room for new ideas, such as

  • Joining Season of Creation Sundays and other environmental worship opportunities
  • Offering climate grief counseling and mentorship
  • Sharing a local faith-and-climate movie series
  • Helping others distinguish partisanship from democratic political action

Akaya Windwood, coauthor (with Rajasvini Bhansali) of the 2022 book Leading with Joy: Practices for Uncertain Times and Third Act’s lead advisor, said, “It’s time for us to be good elders. The next generations are asking us not to step away, but to step beside them with support and enthusiasm. We want our great, great grandchildren to look back on us with pride because we met this moment with determination, grit, and joy.”

Climate scientists warned in 2018 that if we wish to avoid a future that is far more chaotic than what we already see, the world has only until 2030 to reduce our carbon pollution by 45% and until 2050 to become carbon neutral. Some of us are heeding this warning, but our work must accelerate. Six years ago we were on track to warm the atmosphere by a catastrophic 4 degrees Celsius. Now we have begun to reduce that threat. But scientists and the global community agree we must keep the warming under 1.5 degrees Celsius — and we are already at 1.2. We haven’t done enough, but we are moving in the right direction. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act will help us cut U.S. carbon pollution considerably. It is not our final answer, but it is good news.

As climate scientist and evangelical Christian Katharine Hayhoe said, millions of people are already working to save us, and we just need a few more hands. Our elders’ hands through the decades have handled many tools, served many meals and carried many children — these experienced hands have so much more to give.


Editor’s note: For further conversation on the topics touched on in this article, Presbyterians for Earth Care will be hosting “Older Adults & Climate Change,” a free webinar on January 24 at 7:30 pm EST.

The webinar will begin with “A Brief But Spectacular Take on Climate Change,” a four-minute PBS-TV video presentation by Bill McKibben, environmentalist and founder of Third Act, which encourages people 60 and older to take action on climate change. Following this will be live talks by the Rev. Dr. Patricia K. Tull, the Rev. Dr. Jim Antal, and Dr. Dan Terpstra, hosted by Presbyterians for Earth Care moderator, the Rev. Bruce Gillette.

For more information and to register, visit: https://presbyearthcare.org/older-adults-climate-change/.

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