Refugia: How to find and create places of shelter during the climate crisis

Editor's Note: This story is part of our series, Sacred Earth which examines the intersection between climate change — and faith, worldview, philosophy, psychology, and the creative arts. This series is sponsored by the Fetzer Institute.

Climate change must be dealt with, but how can an individual avoid feeling overwhelmed by the gargantuan challenge? 

Nature offers guidance in the form of a phenomenon called refugia. Think refuge and you’ve made a good start on understanding this natural blessing. A common definition of refugia is little pockets of safety where life persists in times of disaster out of which new life can emerge.

An excellent example was the aftermath of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens volcano in Washington. A widespread presumption was that the area would be a dead zone for a very long time, but only a few weeks afterward scientists began seeing fireweed and some insects and even pocket gophers. 

Some creatures and plants had survived by being in refugia — going underground, for example. Refugia is a biological term for places where living things — from humans to the tiniest plants — can persist and survive when threatened with extinction.

For people dealing with threats like climate change, places of refugia, however, don’t have to be physical; they can take the form of social interactions, personal responsibility, or even a change of attitude. 

“Refugia are places to find shelter — but only for a time," says Dr. Debra Rienstra, English Professor at Calvin University and author of a 2022 book titled “Refugia Faith: Seeking Hidden Shelters, Ordinary Wonders, and the Healing of the Earth.”

In a recent speech in Kalamazoo, Rienstra continued, "More importantly, refugia are places to begin, places where the tender and harrowing work of reconstruction and renewal takes root. It’s a way to think about who we are as people of faith and conscience at a moment of crisis. The climate crisis is the underlying crisis of our time."

Renewal is possible

Rienstra spoke in Kalamazoo on May 2 at a dinner meeting honoring the 10th anniversary of the founding of Hope for Creation, which describes itself as “a grassroots inter-religious group working to encourage and support faith-based action on climate change in greater Kalamazoo.” About 45 people were present and they gave the author’s proposals an enthusiastic reception.

In her book, Reinstra writes, “We are living in a time of crisis eruption. Our failures of vision and restraint have propelled us into ecological danger on a scale never before seen in human history. The future is uncertain; it always is. We do not know exactly what’s coming. But the earth teaches that extreme disturbance can be survived and can even bring renewal — and one way this happens is through refugia.” 

She says, “The refugia model calls us to look for the seed of life where we are, concentrate on protecting and nurturing a few good things, letting what is good and beautiful grow and connect and spread."

Imagination is necessary

Rienstra asks us to consider how to find and create places of refugia within our current climate crisis. The process, she says, takes imagination. In her talk she asked,“What particular gifts do we offer as people of faith and conscience? How do we enlarge our role in the larger communities in which we live and in the global context? What if we imagine ourselves as people of refugia?"

How did the notion of refugia arise?

“Originally it was an answer to the question, why did anything survive the Ice Age? The answer was that when there’s a huge disturbance in the natural world there are often little pockets that survive. So a lot of things were wiped out but there were little places of shelter where things survived. It just struck me that maybe this is a really good metaphor for people of faith.”

Rienstra adds, “I started to think about all the stories in which God likes to work with little tiny inconsequential remnants of things. And it sure seems like God likes refugia, like this is a favored technique God seems to use in history. Think about Noah’s Ark or even the family of Abraham — no big powerful dynasty, just a random family who then is called by God to become a great nation and bless all nations.

“So in nature, refugia are mechanisms of resilience and maybe that’s exactly what we need right now. The question then becomes how do we find and create and nurture refugia right where we are.”

Some ways to create refugia now

When asked for examples applicable to everyday living, Reinstra offered two: “Plant a small native garden. You can do this in your yard if you have one, or perhaps on the property of a school or house of worship you are connected with. Doing something tangible, however small, helps us feel that we have agency as well as a connection to place. You can begin with this website (from Homegrown National Park).

"But it’s even better to connect with people in your community who already have native gardens and ask them how to do it. This creates community connections!”

Curiosity about what's around us is also important, Rienstra says.

“Learn about your place. Learn the names of plants and animals around you. Learn about your watershed. Read a book or two about the history of your community. Visit a local museum. Meet your neighbors if you don’t already know them. So many of us feel ‘placeless’ because we know so little about the places where we live. If we know more, we begin to care more, and when we care more, the places of refugia reveal themselves."

No gesture is too small

While speaking to Hope for Creation, Rienstra said, “In talking about refugia, small is not insignificant. Small is important, small is extremely important locally. And the truth is, we all experience crises on a local scale. 

"So to create these refugia here is a way of acting globally, too. We do it with the global goals in mind, of course, but the mitigation and adaptation have to be particular to our place, and we can try stuff and if it works we can tell others. That’s how refugia connects us."

Faith institutions can support this process, Reinstra says.
“Religious groups have a crucial role to play; we have to figure out what our gifts are and then use them to create this social fabric that we need in order to do what’s best.”

To learn more:

Rienstra is also the author of three other books—on motherhood, spirituality, and worship. She writes the fortnightly Refugia Newsletter on Substack, a newsletter for people of faith who want to know and do more about climate. She also writes fortnightly for The Reformed Journal, a blog bout spirituality, climate change, pop culture, the church, the arts, higher education, and more. 

Her book is available on Amazon and elsewhere.

More about Dr. Debra Rienstra:

She was raised in Michigan and holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. from Rutgers University. She and her husband, the Rev. Dr. Ron Rienstra, have three grown children. She enjoys gardening, solving crossword puzzles, hiking in the dunes near Lake Michigan, and “listening to very wonky podcasts.”

Hope for Creation:

Hope for Creation started in 2014 and these were the founding churches: First Congregational, First United Methodist, First Presbyterian, St. Luke’s Episcopal, Temple B’nai Israel, Congregation of St. Joseph, St. Thomas More Catholic Student Parish, and Kalamazoo College Office of Religious and Spiritual Life. Founding individuals included Sister Ginny Jones, Cybelle Shattuck, Steve Bertman, Ben Jamieson and Janet Scarrow (deceased).
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