The climate summit, COP27, seems to have been reported on with various hues of despair; the impossibility of meeting the 1.5°C global heating target, the ensuing chaos that will bring, and the inability of politicians to act decisively with it.
There are of course signs of hope and progress amidst the gloom, though these are often overwhelmed by the brute facts of where our planet seems to be headed.
If it feels like we’ve been here before, it is because we have. Every year for the last few decades world leaders hear and respond to the facts, which are often then belied by a collective failure to act. Rinse, repeat. Perhaps part of the issue is with the assumption that climate change will ultimately be solved through technology, politics and economic reform. This seems a little optimistic, given that the crisis was caused by these very innovations and institutions in the first place; can we solve issues with the same thinking that led to them? If our institutions are a mess, it must be because we are a mess. As philosopher Jonathan Rowson comments, solving climate change will “…depend as much on spurring personal transformation at scale as it will on developing new technology or instigating political action.”
In Yuval Noah Harari’s 2011 book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind , he points out that we sapiens are uniquely able to organise ourselves differently depending on our narratives – from communist to capitalist societies, to those living with a divinely ordained religious hierarchy. The problem is that our societies are stuck in a story that has facilitated the despoiling of the planet. Jonathan Rowson quotes Professor Guy Claxton in observing, “We pollute the skies and ruin the earth because we are confused about who and what we are.” What and who we think we are informs how we behave – we are beings driven more by mythos than by logos.
As the poet and activist Muriel Rukeyser pointed out, ‘the universe is made of stories, not atoms’.
Among the many guiding narratives of our time, there are certain dominant themes that seem to indicate the drift of civilization. The French sociologist and theologian Jacques Ellul described the governing principle of the 21st century as ‘technique’. Technique for Ellul, is the principle whereby human action is governed by the needs of productivity and efficiency. According to Ellul, this principle got into its stride in the industrial revolution, and became the defining feature of the 21st century. As scientific knowledge progressed, the world became increasingly disenchanted and desacralised. Without the hindrance of reverence, productivity and ‘progress’ was increasingly unbound. For much of the ‘developed world’, there has emerged a perverse sense that humans exist above and distinct from nature, and ‘have come to look on every tree as potential wood’ as German philosopher Hannah Arendt put it.
This story is in fact much older than the industrial revolution, as Ellul also points out. It rings true of the biblical story about a couple in a garden who chose not to live in harmony with that garden and its creator, but to use it for their own gain. Disregarding limits that existed for their own good carried grave consequences; they became alienated from the garden, each other, their creator, and indeed themselves. As writer Paul Kingsnorth put it “we see the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit, of choosing power over humility, separation over communion, the stakes become clearer each day”, or in the words of the noted psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist “there never was a time that the fall narrative felt more pertinent, indeed prophetic.”
While the Genesis fall narrative offers a keen description of our disposition and predicament, the story does not end there. The bible tells a story of redemption, of the alienation with creation and creator being reversed. It is a story of a people turning away from power and dominion, and moving towards humility and relationship with each other and the land, where entitlement is replaced by gratitude. A beautiful expression of this story is found in the church forests of Ethiopia, where stewardship of the natural world is a spiritual value that has preserved the ancient Afromontane forests – these sit like islands in stark relief amidst arid farmland. The church forests offer a case in point that the kind of attention we pay to the planet is really a spiritual affair, which suggests that the climate crisis is also a spiritual affair.
If you listen closely to the news from the COP27 summit, you can hear pleas to find a better story. The Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Mottley, called on the Global North to recognise its duty towards helping the Global South through reparations for loss and damage. Not because the North is magnanimous, but because it has a duty, given both its colonial history and its outsized contribution to climate change. Whatever else this plea is, it is a call to repentance, redemption and practical love for both people and planet. Surely it is such stories that we need right now, for only through them might we find our way back into looking after both each other and our shared home.