Can religion help us solve climate change?

After the interesting the debate with @DarkOptimism on doomerism a couple of posts ago, I was intrigued to see him tweeting a link to the latest BigIssue which carries an article by Adam Forrest called Climate Change: A Matter of Faith and asks the question, Can Science and religion work together to save us from ourselves? (pdf download here.)

Many climate skeptics and environmental critics have long felt that these movements are best seen as religious ideologies rather than being based on objective science; but while these charges are normally dismissed as absurd conspiracy theories, here we have an example of activists who not only freely admit to a religious dimension to their cause, but actually advocate the deliberate creation or invention of religious ideas in order to motivate the kind of change they want to see. (Simon Fairlie provides another example of this approach here.)

All the peer-reviewed studies and strategies of persuasion known to Green PR have failed to fundamentally alter the way we live… the green prophets in the persuasion business do not have an easy task

So why has the green movement failed in its stated task of fundamentally changing the way we live? The article, which references Transition Towns and the Dark Mountain Project as guides to a Post-Collapse Society, goes on to quote Stefan Skrimshire, who specializes in Theology and Climate change at Leeds University, who asks:

How do you get people to believe in the end of civilisation enough to make them hopeful and proactive enough to help forestall disaster?

Hmm difficult question that one. What is odd- or perhaps predictable- about the whole article is that it is based on an absolute presumption, total conviction, that we are facing the collapse of civilisation, and the fact that most people and society at large is snoring is a result of some kind of denial, or the usual human frailties of greed and selfishness. Alistair McIntosh, author of Hell and High Water, points to traditional narratives of doom going back to biblical times, but draws completely the wrong conclusion:

The metaphysical matters, for without it we miss the whole picture…I would like to see the use of [science] tempered with some of the wisdom the pre-modern world possessed.

There are so many garbled ideas and messages contained here that it is hard to find one’s way through. Science is not about telling stories, but about considering the evidence. The Grand Narrative of Environmental Doom being proposed here is laden with the Guilt of Original Sin and Revenge Fantasies. The problem is, environmentalists of this ilk do not value the gains of the modern world, and imagine a romantic past that never existed. There was wisdom of a sort in traditional cultures, but it was not a sort of wisdom that will do us any good now- and the last thing we need is to be dragged back into a superstitious Dark Age.

The reality is, humans have used their innovations and technologies to drag themselves out of the extreme hardships that Nature bequeathed them, and that this has certainly exacted a cost to the environment- but by and large it has been worth it because the past was in fact so terrible. Those who yearn for some kind of idyllic simple life in the stone-age should remember that life expectancy was pitifully short and infant mortality was generally very high.

The way to address environmental problems is to embrace technology and innovation. Simply developing cars with higher mileage, for example, will have a far, far bigger beneficial impact than any amount of “lifestyle change” simply because the kind of lifestyle changes Greens like to proselytize about, were they to actually mean anything in reducing environmental impact, equate to poverty. And poverty in the here and now is far, far worse than some vague and abstract notion about climate change sometime in our grandchildren’s time.

“It is, inevitably a spiritual change and we will be more and more pushed to think about these things.” muses McIntosh. “It’s bigger than anything we’ve ever faced before and we are going to have to strengthen our personal resilience.”

How can climate change sometime in the future, the effects of which are highly uncertain, our ability to adapt largely dependent on wealth and technology (not to dismiss community and “resilience”- those things are important as well) possibly be bigger than anything “we” (humanity? White Western Males with University tenures?) have ever faced before?

When, as an angst-riven teenager just becoming influenced by such post-modern ideas complained to my parents about how awful things were getting in the world some 30 years ago, I was reminded that they had grown up during a World War. I had no concept of what that must have been like. But if WW1 and 2 do not suffice, how about the Black Death? That must have been pretty bad, when some 30-60% of the population of Europe was wiped out in the space of a few years.

There have been hundreds of other plagues, famines, natural disasters and wars throughout history, but science, progress, development and technology have allowed us to mitigate many of the worst effects for much of the world. Not, of course enough- there is still 2billion too many in poverty; we are not going to help them by hand-wringing about how awfully materialistic we have become. Materialism is the result of our incredible success, and with it we have developed liberal values of the Enlightenment, democracy and, hey, we may even be becoming less violent.

Instead of celebrating these astonishing gains, and the fact that we are here to witness them, these noble Green Theologians believe that if they only tell Joe Public the right Story that we will all See the Light and mend our evil ways. Unfortunately, as another ancient myth, that of Pandora’s Box, tells us, there is no going back, we can only continue on our path of progress, and for that we should be surely thankful.


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