How do we live through the climate crisis? Is there anything significant that we can do? I listen to colleagues who have worked in the area for decades and hear them wonder if any progress has been made at all. Despair can tug at us.
I think there has been significant change, even though there has been far from enough. I grew up in a conservative country community which voted Liberal and Country League. We would have voted for coal, for diesel subsidies, and derided "Greenies." Recently, I was at a meeting where someone reported that the Superannuation Fund used by many of us within the Uniting Church has said it will have divested from "dirty coal" investments by 2050. A farmer from the area I grew up exclaimed, "2050!" She muttered something under her breath which I'm pretty sure was "Bloody hell!" What enables us conservative farming types to change, and to immediately see that Fund statement as nothing but a deflection? As someone asked the meeting, "Is there anything but dirty coal?"
What enables change? There is education, of course. The facts of climate change are well established. And for farmers, especially, it's difficult to avoid noticing that the seasons are starting later and ending sooner. Evidence helps people to change their minds.
But more important for the changing of minds is the seeing of other ways of living. We may hear of farmers who are using new "green" techniques. We may hear that some people ride a bike instead of using a car. But what lets us see new ways of living and enables us to change, is actually seeing the bike being ridden.
Bike lanes help change occur. Monetary subsidies that favour the use of solar panels definitely help. But seeing the person next door put solar panels on their roof is the powerful thing which motivates us. (As does hearing that the neighbour no longer pays electricity bills— even with three teenagers in the house, we paid no electricity bills for fifteen years.) Seeing that it can be done by someone like me lets me do it.
This fact was recognised by Jesus the Messiah who said, "Follow me." Mark's Gospel reinforces this with the statement that the man healed of his blindness followed Jesus ton hodon, on the Wayi. The key witness that church asks of us is not to relate to people a list of propositions that need to believed in order for someone to be saved. To witness is first of all to exemplify, to show someone a different way of living. Words are important, showing is key.
But when it comes to being changed, even more important than the witness of someone doing something, is doing the thing ourselves. Doing changes our being. And within church, doing is witness which has integrity. That's why Jesus does not simply show us, but asks us to follow, which means to do.
In facing the climate catastrophe our immediate enemy is fear. It does not matter if we are in "full on denial" that there is a problem. It does not matter if we think humanity will manage to survive the change in climate which is already happening. And neither does it matter if we think there will be massive societal collapse, or even the extinction of our species. All of us are afraid. And that fear, at base, is the fear of death. If death were not a problem for us or for our children, then we would have nothing to fear from climate change.
At this point my concerns are twofold. How do I live in the climate catastrophe myself; that is, how do I manage my own fear? And how do I assist and care for others?
It is doing which is the significant factor. I avoid using plastic bags when shopping. I collect apples, bananas, potatoes— all that stuff, and put them together on the supermarket conveyor belt. Then they go loose into my reusable shopping bags. The amount of plastic I save is minuscule. It will do nothing to save us. What is significant is that people see what I am doing. That effects change. People sometimes see me take the trolley outside and pack my shopping into my pushbike panniers. That seeing is far more significant than the little petrol that it saves when I do my shopping by bike. And for me, there is a certain pleasurable freedom in these actions. Because of my practice, I am not quite so bound by the way society works.
This scales right up to living well in the face of death because doing changes my being, as well as showing others a way of being. It is the change of my being which rescues me from helplessness and hopelessness. The call to discipleship is not an imposition, but an aspect of grace: doing is the gift which begins to free me from the fear of death.
The human fear of death is the basis of our culture. Earnest Beckerii understood that culture is a death avoidance mechanism. It is the thing we do to make a permanence, to say we have left our mark and done something worthwhile, even if we must die in the end. That is our culture at its best and at its most heroic. Far less admirable, is our universal temptation to use violence to get ahead.iii Status and wealth are the cultural weapons we use to at least try to make ourselves more insulated from death than those around and beneath us, who have less, and are therefore more vulnerable. In our fear of death we use violence (the threat of death) to bolster our own survival. Competition, that underpinning tenet of capitalism is, at base, a form of violence.
If we truly face death then we accept we have no permanence— none at all. I often think of "Auntie Flood", my great-great Aunt, in this respect. Elizabeth Flood was my father's favourite Auntie. The wife of a respected clergyman, she had no children. The last person who knew her, my father, has been dead some nine years. In a few years, her grave site will be used for someone else. When I die, she will not even be a memory, but only a line in a database or two. This is the case for all of us. Even Caesar is only a name in ancient books: No one knows what he really liked or what he deeply cared for. No one remembers him. No one cares for him. And for the vast proportion of human beings there is not even a name in a book, or on a grave. This is death.
What difference does it make if I do not live in the deception that I can have some permanence?
My first experience is that to internalise the insights I have been sketching out, and to seriously consider what they mean for me, is to open the emotional floodgates. The pathos of Auntie Flood's loss to human memory becomes not only a symbol of my grief about my Dad's death and his loss to me, but it becomes a trigger and a symbol for my own personal fears. I say in another post that
the climate crisis is abruptly stripping us of all our defences and pretences. It is cutting through our busyness and the buying of houses and the getting of promotions, and is destroying the sense of some predictability and security which these things bring. These things normally work pretty well to insulate us into middle age, especially if we are relatively affluent, but now they are being stripped from us. https://www.onemansweb.org/climate/living-with-fear-and-despair.html
The climate crisis suddenly makes clear that the impermanence of all our Auntie Floods, and of ourselves, is the impermanence of all humanity. We are flooded with the hardest question: What is the point of anything? Why live? And how do we live without a sense that this is all pointless?
But on the other side of all this is a great freedom. So much no longer matters. Getting a particular promotion, owning a certain item, receiving recognition or being popular, cultivating a certain look — none of it matters! And, if we could fully live in this, not even death would matter. John Chrysostom said the one
… who fears death is a slave and subjects themselves to everything in order to avoid dying...[But] the one who does not fear death is outside the tyranny of the devil. For indeed 'man would give skin for skin, and all things for [the sake of] his life,' [Job 2.4] and if a person should decide to disregard this, whose slave are they then? They fear no one, are in terror of no one, are higher than everyone, and are freer than everyone. For the one who disregards their own life disregards more so all other things. And when the devil finds such a soul, it can accomplish in it none of its works. Tell me, though, what can it threaten? The loss of money or honor? Or exile from one's country? For these are small things to those 'who counteth not even their life dear,' says blessed Paul [Acts 20.24]. Do you see that in casting out the tyranny of death, He has dissolved the strength of the devil? (Quoted in Richard Beck The Slavery of Death, Cascade Books 2014 pp 14 I have removed some of the gender specific language)
But if so much of the stuff we have struggled to achieve really doesn't matter after all, how do we live? What is the point of life? Does anything matter? This is the deep water in which we can find ourselves if the floodgates open as we look honestly towards our dying. Even if this does not happen, and our emotional equilibrium feels less swamped, there is still the fact that everything about life demands reassessment. What really is important now? How do we live in a world which is fixated on possessions, including the possession of life, and which is increasingly ideological and tribal, and therefore violent, in its attempts to insulate itself from chaos and death?
Here we approach the terrifying paradox central to Christianity which the climate crisis has thrown into sharp relief. On the one hand, Christians are called to be ideological. There are ways to read and interpret the traditions of the church and of the Messiah which are far closer to his sensibilities about the nature of humanity, and there are ways to read him which are simply racist and nationalistic rationalisations of his life which we adopt for our own benefit. These are a perversion of the Christian faith.
Yet on the other hand we, of all people, are called to be anti-ideologues and of all people, the least tribal. Our living is to be without violence. The love which Paul the apostle speaks of in 1 Corinthians 13 requires that we act to give all people the same opportunity, safety, and value, in life. This love is witness that God loves and values all people just the same, for there is no hierarchy of human worth. As the Messiah's followers, we follow his example; we do not impose or force behaviour upon people, for that is a violence. We can only exemplify the love of the Messiah to all people, even to the point of death.
What all this means is that we do not winiv. We do not strategise to defeat others for the sake of the Christ. It means not only that we will advocate for the vulnerable of society, but that we will be the vulnerable, and the losers. This is the foolishness of the cross (1 Cor 1:18).
As biologically embedded beings whose evolutionary heritage is survival at all costs, and as relationally embedded beings whose desires are formed by a violent culturev, making the Messiah our model of desire and our way to live is a highly aspirational decision. We will fail terribly. But it is in the doing, in the trying to do and to follow, that our being is changed. It is here that we find joy and purpose despite all our impermanence. It is here that we find joy and purpose despite our inevitable death, and despite the death dealing tragedy of the climate crisis. Andrew Prior June 2021
ii The Denial of Death (The Free Press 1973)
iii I take violence to be the outworking of the Doctrine of Original Sin. It is universal falling short of a fuller humanity which can be without killing or the threat of killing. As many have observed, it is notable that the first story in the Old Testament which takes place outside the Garden of Eden; that is, the first historical human activing outside our Dreaming, as it were, is a murder.
iv See for example: The Joy of Weak Power (https://www.onemansweb.org/theology/weakness/the-joy-of-weak-power.html)
v I take it that contemplation is a certain sort of seeing. I take it from Girard that we always learn to see through the eyes of another. The desire of another directs our seeing and makes available to us what is to be seen. In other words, there is no reality "out there" to be seen. What is "out there" is already, inescapably a construct made real by human desire. When, as in most of our cases, most of the time, the other through whose eyes we are learning to see is the rivalistic other, competitors, the crowd, what we see is what is given value by them, and the one seeing it is moved by that desire, and knows and loves with that desire: the "self" becomes the incarnation of that desire, jostling for security, reputation, goodness, success. Merton refers to this in a number of places as a sort of collective hypnosis. In this, as in many areas, he is onto the same thing as Girard.
I also take it that when we talk about contemplation in a Christian context we are talking about quite a specific sort of seeing. We are talking about learning how to be given our desire through the eyes of another. The other is Jesus, the Word of God. So, we are being taught to look at what is through the eyes of the One who reveals the mind of God, that is to be possessed by the mind of God ourselves. By being taught to receive ourselves and all that is around us through the eye and desire of God our "self" becomes an incarnation of that desire and we start to speak words formed by the un-hypnosis, the awakening desire of the Creator. In other words: we are being taught to be loving lookers at what is by the One who is calling into being and loving what is. We are being taught to see and delight in what is by the One whose delighting is what gives it, and us, to be.
Let me emphasize this point, taken from Girard, since it is the key to everything I will try to say today, and is I suspect much more important than my fragile ability to practice it, and thus than my fragile ability to be able to yield for you any fruit from it. We desire according to the desire of another. That is to say, the eyes of another teach us who we are by teaching us what we want. I take it that this is a simple anthropological fact of no great difficulty. The only question is: which other? The sometimes peaceful, sometimes rivalistic, always ambivalent desire known in John's Gospel as "the world," or the entirely gratuitous, peaceful non-rivalistic desire, given us as an entirely sentient, conscious human life history by the Word who reveals God's heart. Christian contemplation is, I take it, the learning of the second regard, the regard of the peaceful other. James Alison quoted at http://girardianlectionary.net/res/alison_contemplation_violence.htm. The material here is developed more fully in the book On Being Liked (DLT 2003, see pp1-2))
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