Healing the Disconnect
Ever since the first astronauts looked out their window on the beautiful green, blue and white planet below, our perception of the world has changed. If the world was the size of an apple, the atmosphere where we live would be no thicker than the skin. A delicate, fragile skin in perpetual motion. The Greeks had a word that comes to mind: “Oikomene” – to dwell together in the one house. How do we dwell together in our time? What is our “great work”? (Every culture has one). In our time we are as it were midwives, birthing a new order. That is our spiritual task – nothing less – as we help guide our one world into the post fossil fuel era as this industrial era outsrips its resource base, so that where once it brought blessings, it beginning to bring curses. Father Thomas Berry called the new era the ECOZOIC: following the Paleozoic and the Mesozoic, the Ecozoic must be an era in which we learn to live within the Earth’s capacity to sustain us. Since about 1970, we’ve moved steadily beyond that limit. There are clear signs that the fossil fuel powered era is in its terminal phase. On the 18th June last year, Pope Francis came out with an encyclical – that’s a major teaching – on the environment, in which he strongly urges all to take effective action on climate change. He calls on the rich nations to begin paying their “grave social debt” to the poor and take concrete steps on climate change, saying failure to do so presents an undeniable risk to a “common home” that is beginning to resemble a “pile of filth”. The pope’s encyclical is basically a moral call for action on phasing out the use of fossil fuels.
He sees his text not as a green manifesto, but as a social teaching “The developed countries ought to help pay this ecological debt by significantly limiting their consumption of non-renewable energy and by assisting poorer countries to support policies and programmes of sustainable development.” Francis writes: “Those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms”. He points to the loss of a “sense of responsibility for our fellow men and women upon which all civil society is founded”.
Jesus, towards the end of his ministry, met a man who really did want to do the right thing – lead the good life – the moral life. But he was troubled. He had a niggle: “Good teacher, what must I do? I feel I’m not doing enough…” “You know what to do,” Jesus says. And he lists the commandments – “don’t kill, don’t commit adultery, don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t defraud…” “Well yes, I’ve kept all these – but the uneasiness persists. Jesus goes deeper: He sees the man’s disconnect. “It’s your possessions” he pointed out. That man was trying hard, but the stuff in his culture was pulling him back. Mark as usual puts it bluntly: “He went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
We are that man. We try to lead the good life. We want to do the right thing for the poor of this world, for our grandchildren, for God’s family (the oikomene). But we’ve got a problem, because 97% of scientists report that global heating is a serious human caused issue, and we must stop burning fossil fuels. We know we’re putting 40 billion tons of carbon into the air every year. But we go on doing it, making all sorts of excuses for ourselves. We too have a disconnect.
I think Pope Francis is right when he sees this as a moral and a spiritual problem. How then do we help our culture negotiate the transition that must be made? If we don’t do it in an orderly way, it will happen in a disorderly way, with resource wars, climate refugees, violent weather, rising sea levels, species depletion and all the rest… You’ve heard it all before. We feel helpless, so we just shove it all aside, or deny its reality, stop thinking about it all – it only makes us depressed, like the rich young man Jesus met, who just went sadly away. A good man. A man who tried hard. But just couldn’t face the elephant in the dining room.
We too have all sorts of psychological tricks up our sleeve: minimising the problem; perhaps just not thinking about it at all; or going down the “what can we do?” track – we can have no effect at all. And even full-blown denialism: “I’s all a hoax by the scientists.” A famous cartoon in “USA Today” picked that one up: it asked “What if the whole climate issue was a hoax, and we ended up creating a better world for nothing?”
We can always do something to create a better world and that, I believe, is where we must put our efforts. Dire warnings don’t impel us to action. They just make us feel bad. The scientific consensus means little to most people. We need to take another tack – and that is, to think positive. Every teacher knows positive reinforcement works best. Reframing the issue in a positive way can be done. Two examples. Think insurance. Most of us take our insurance against fire or car accident, or personal health problems, or theft or earthquake.. surely we also want health and good quality of life for our grandchildren? We can take steps to insure them against the worst effects of global warming: moderating our consumption, changing our ways, putting in place protections for environment and future life. After all, we caused the problem and the experts tell us, we have it in our power to deal effectively with it. Maybe the thing we insure against won’t happen – 3% of scientists who study global warming think it may not. Maybe you won’t get burgled. Maybe you won’t have a fire. But you still take out insurance.
Another positive thing we can do is to take a lead from the pope and frame this whole issue as a matter of ethics. It’s about doing the right thing. It’s no use getting focussed on the scientific uncertainties, (they’ll always be with us), or what India and China may do (or not do). The fact is, we are embedded in the web of creation. Caring for creation is one of the faces of mission. It is simply the right thing to do. Curbing emissions is the compassionate way, the right way, into the Ecozoic.
Like Martin Luther King, can we have a dream, a vision of the Ecozoic in which people live with greater well-being: learning, giving, caring. And in achieving these things, doing it with a shrinking ecological footprint – bringing that footprint again within planetary boundaries. Friendships, networks, organisations, learning, storytelling, and the arts all flourishing; walkable and bikable cities; off-grid buildings with passive heating and cooling; silent electric cars and public transport; food short travelled and nutritious; a liveable minimum wage for all; green spaces and wildification everywhere… What’s your story of where we ought to go? Because if we don’t know, we surely won’t get there. For as the Chinese sage Lao Tsu said, “If you do not change direction, you may end up where you’re heading.”