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‘We want to make a difference’ — environmental activists in their own words

04 November 2022

Christine Miles speaks to young Christian environmentalists about lifestyle, activism, the part played by the Church, and hope for the future

Ella Vickers (front row, second right) with the rest of the eco group at St Nicholas’s, South Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne

Ella Vickers (front row, second right) with the rest of the eco group at St Nicholas’s, South Gosforth, Newcastle upon Tyne

Ella Vickers, 18, is a parish eco-champion, deanery co-ordinator, and part of the diocese of Newcastle’s Environmental Working Group. She was instrumental in the diocese’s formally passing the commitment to be carbon net zero by 2030

MY INTEREST in the environment started at school, tree-planting and thinking about recycling. That overflowed into church and home as well. We try to recycle most things, and organise collections of soft plastics, like crisp packets. Now, once a month, people come to church armed with massive bags, and we take them to the recycling point at Asda.

In May, our deanery agreed to net zero by 2030, and I organised an event to promote the journey for all our churches. We have 20 churches to get to carbon net zero; some have funds and people resources, some are in interregnum and their priorities are just not centred on the environment — understandably — while others don’t have any money to change their boiler.

In urban areas, resource churches have had grants from trusts. Newcastle Cathedral is wonderful: they have air-source heat-pumps and new lighting, but then there are hundreds of rural churches who cannot make those adaptations. And with resource pressure comes a sense of apathy.

We’re going to have to be more creative: use local businesses, talk to secular contacts; councils may have grants for church halls that are a community resource. And simple changes can be made: churches can reduce water bills by using rainwater collection; doing more outside.

It’s frustrating. There’s a lot of talk and writing of policies, but practical action is slow.

I was talking to someone from a local bakery, and he said, we can’t wait for the government and other leaders, we need to make our own changes. So this man grows wheat locally because he feels we can’t be relying on supply chains or government to work with seasonality, or with the way we eat fruit and veg. We need to make changes ourselves.

The Church needs to be louder if Christians believe God is creator. Care for creation is side-stepped all the time. It’s the balance between the short term and the long term. At PCC meetings, A Rocha UK’s EcoChurch and the environment are so easily shoved on to AOB; to 9 p.m., when it’s late and people are tired.

I’d love to see churches involved more with their communities. Why aren’t we using churchyards with plant pots to grow wheat and make loaves of bread for our localities? We need to open our church doors on the other days of the week, not just on a Sunday.



Chris Manktelow, 27, attends an Evangelical Anglican church where he has earned himself a reputation as the “climate activist guy”

I’M A postdoctoral researcher in the geography department at the University of Exeter, doing research on rural transport and well-being, and on sustainable heating schemes.

Chris Manktelow, at COP26 in Glasgow, last year

I knew a lot about climate science through my Ph.D. research, and had become concerned about what was going on through talking to Met Office scientists, many of whom are very conservative and careful about what they say, but some of them seemed quite worried.

I signed up to the Young Christian Climate Network (YCCN) one day when distracted from writing my Ph.D. thesis. After joining, I became their press and media lead, writing press releases and helping organise radio and television interviews for the Relay to COP26. Then I was invited to take part in the Christian Climate Observers Programme.

It was inspiring to see activists, especially from the global South, calling for more radical action in the face of the climate crisis. But it was frustrating to see the extent of the greenwashing. For example, when oil and gas companies are sponsoring Brazil and Australia’s pavilions in the Blue Zone, you have to ask some questions.

I left COP feeling angry — more from big business and governments trying to slow down action, or churches not talking about it, than from fear about the future.

Before COP26, my church hadn’t ever mentioned climate change in a sermon before. I was given the chance to promote the Relay, and to talk about COP26 in a prayer meeting. Some people pray for my climate activism and are supportive, even if I do have a bit of a reputation as the climate activist guy!

I don’t have a car; I cycle and walk. I don’t eat meat for animal welfare and environmental reasons, but the most important thing — because everyone’s situation is different — is to talk about the problems, and what we can do to solve them.

If there was one thing that I would change, however, it would be for churches to think more carefully about what the gospel is. Too many think that the gospel is only personal: about Jesus forgiving our sins so we can have a relationship with God, and go to heaven when we die.

But God was reconciling the whole world to himself in Christ. If we had a more biblical definition, we would see that evangelism and climate activism are two implications of the same gospel.

YCCN called for disinvestment in our statement for the Lambeth Conference. We also wrote an open letter to the Church Times in February about disinvestment (Letters, 4 February). We received a reply from Alan Smith, First Church Estates Commissioner, and we wrote back asking to meet. They’ve not invited us to speak to them yet. But we would still be happy to do that.



Mali Valerio, 22, recently completed a B.Sc. in Zoology. She is a member of the new monastic Society of St Columba, and raised their first flock of sheep

MY LOVE for the environment has always been there. It’s probably been ingrained in me by my parents. My dad is the founder of the Society of St Columba. My mum is an environmentalist.

I try to live as consciously as possible: I go to the zero-waste shop, and try to have a zero-plastic bathroom (bars of soap, toothpaste tabs, stuff like that). I try and buy things in season and grown locally, buy second hand, and live a low-impact life. I’m also investing my career in looking after the earth, and want to pursue my own passion for farming and growing.

Mali Valerio, with St Columba lambs

In September 2017, the Society of St Columba bought the dreg-ends of a flock of sheep. We’ve been working since then on conservation breeding and lambing. Today, we have predominantly Shetland, with a small flock of pedigree Manx Loaghtan, for which we’re involved with the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.

We raise them mostly for meat and fleeces. Revenue from the flock supports other aspects for the Society: buying stuff for the community garden, pond restoration, or trees for the forest garden.

In the early days of the Society, I was learning how to be a shepherd. Having started with 180 ewes, we deliberately cut the numbers, and now have about 40 breeding ewes, plus lambs and hoggets. All in all, about 100 sheep. We’re at the size where it’s profitable, but we can still care for them on an individual level. The only meat I eat is our sheep, because I know they’ve had a good life.

I’ve learnt the most about the nature of God through being a shepherd. When I lived with the flock, I knew every sheep. As a child, I never really understood the parable of the lost sheep. Why would you leave 99, to look for one? But, as a shepherd, I’m fixated on finding any lost sheep. And I can see how God takes us for what we are, and nourishes us into something beautiful.

The Society is farming a 23-acre site at Chanctonbury, in the South Downs National Park, in West Sussex. Anyone is welcome to join in the practical work, with or without faith; there’s usually someone on site doing the garden. We meet the last Saturday of every month for community days, and the second and fourth Friday of the month for gardening days. We also have weekly prayer nights every Friday, with those of us who can come together.

Who do I look to, for the way forward on climate change? You want to be looking at big corporations and government, but they’re not doing enough; charities are doing their best but they’re not global. The Church is a global community, and has so much potential, but it’s not using its voice enough. Certainly, I’m not hearing it.

But I do see hope and a future. But we need to acknowledge it’s already happening, climate change is not something that’s coming, it’s happening. We need to recognise that, and as nations come together more effectively to sort it out.



Davina Bacon, 21, is in her final year studying English and Environmental Science. In her spare time, she runs a climate-related podcast with friends

I CAME to climate-justice activism partly through following climate activists on social media, partly from reading the Bible and seeing that one of its primary concerns is justice, and also from seeing how climate change was affecting my home country, Malawi, and wanting to do something about it.

I lived in Malawi and Zambia until 2017. In March 2019, with Cyclone Idai, hundreds of people died. It was weird seeing the effects of climate change through WhatsApp messages, when life here was normal.

It often feels like the actions you’re taking aren’t enough: I’m vegetarian, and I try to take public transport and eliminate food waste. But, ultimately, the most effective thing to do is to join a community group that works for climate action.

Davina Bacon enjoys nature at Kennall Vale, Cornwall

I talk to people about the environment all the time. I get quite emotional about it. When you talk about how it’s affecting you, and about the hope you have from taking action, other people think about taking action; about holding leaders accountable.

Last year, I was part of organising the launch event for the climate Action Relay to COP26. Our campaign, which we took to COP26, was Project Climate Finance, to try to get the UK Government to pay what they promised to help poorer countries adapt to climate change, and to restore the foreign aid budget.

Afterwards, a couple of my friends from the scheme and I set up a podcast, When Oceans Rise. Our aim is to make climate education more accessible for people, and though we’re all Christians, it’s not explicitly a Christian podcast.

There needs to be more talk about the theology of activism. Many people think that activism means glueing yourself to roads or something, but it doesn’t have to look like that. Part of being in community means we have so much more power, and churches are great because they are intergenerational. We could be such a big force in the climate movement.

And we need to remember that we are a global church. In Malawian and Zambian communities, church is at the centre of the community still. That means we can work with churches over there and be the centre of change in communities. We need to see ourselves as one body.



Beth John, 28, a member of Holy Trinity, Hotwells, and St Stephen’s, Bristol, sees potential in Christians’ getting involved in climate action

I’VE always been passionate about the environment. I studied geography at undergraduate level, then in 2015/16 did an internship with Christian Aid, where I really started thinking about climate change as a justice issue — not just about looking after creation.

Climate change disproportionately affects those who have done the least to cause it, and that’s not fair. Therefore, as Christians, I believe we are meant to do something about that.

During the pandemic, I did a Master’s in Environmental Policy at the University of Bristol. My dissertation was on the role of faith-based organisations in COP26, which I attended as part of the Christian Climate Observers Programme. I wrote a blog about the experience, to give an insight as to what happens behind the scenes, bearing in mind that COP27 takes place in Egypt, in November.

Beth John, pictured in British Columbia, Canada

I don’t like the term eco-anxiety, but the feeling of hopelessness is a really valid response, particularly for the younger generation.

But hope is a choice, and there is so much to find hope in. And people can choose to act. A huge amount has been achieved since the Paris Agreement in 2015.

I know the Anglican Church has included creation care as the Fifth Mark of Mission, that shows it’s becoming more central to the thinking of the Church. But churches, both as organisations and as a collection of individuals, can definitely do more.

At COP26, I was lucky enough to be involved with the Interfaith Liaison Committee, an informal group of senior faith leaders from across the world, from across the Church, from across the faiths, getting their voices heard from a faith perspective. There’s huge potential for interfaith co-operation around this issue.

There are lots of opportunities for young people to get involved in climate work, inside and outside the Church. And the YCCN is great, it’s such a grass-roots movement.


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