Wednesday, November 10, 2010

What shall we do? Twelve responses to converging crises

Responding to contemporary converging crises
Human society faces a series of converging crises in our economy, energy and ecology. It is very difficult to know exactly how these will interact and pan out. The depth and breadth of the problems can be overwhelming. Recently, a Christian friend asked me for personal advice as to what he can and should do to take these matters seriously. I made the following suggestions (what have I missed? Or how would you improve this list?):

1. Give thanks for the good world. There is so much going wrong with the world and yet it remains a good gift of the Creator. It is right to grieve, but a healthy grief requires the nurturing of our wonder and appreciation for the goodness of the creation that our actions are degrading.

2. Repent of the patterns of consumption and acquisition that lie behind so much of our destructiveness. Billions are spent every year in a largely successful effort to corrupt our desires, convincing us to covet the cornucopia of stuff that pours out of the world's factories. Learning contentment is at the heart of a good response, since it frees us from feeling the need to protect our toys or way of life and so enables us to focus on what is important and worth preserving (the glory of God, the welfare of our neighbour, communities of trust, the richness of God's creation, and so on). This may not end up "saving civilisation", but it helps us keep our heads when all around us are losing theirs.

3. Stay rooted in the gospel of grace, hope, peace and joy that celebrates Christ's death and resurrection so that you are free to grieve, yearn, groan and lament, that is, to pray. The temptation is to look away or harden our heart to the damage and the danger because it hurts too much.

4. Reject false hopes. We are not going to make it out of this place alive, either personally or as a society. The goal is not to secure immortality, but to love, trust and hope. Society is likely to change significantly or even radically during our lifetimes. The myths of endless growth, progress and individualism are likely to be unmasked for the illusions that they are (though this will be resisted because people hate to lose their dreams, far less to admit that their dreams were actually a nightmare). New illusions are likely to replace them. Survival is not your highest goal. Self-protection is a secondary consideration.

5. Assess your life and habitual patterns to see where your ecological footprint can be significantly reduced: eating less meat, flying less frequently or not at all, driving less or not at all, switching to a renewable energy provider, investing in insulation and local power generation, avoiding all unnecessary purchases and buying responsibly (e.g. food that hasn't been strip mining the soil, local products, durable products, and so on).

6. Invest in communities of trust. If and when things get difficult or there are significant disruptions to "normal", then people tend to distrust strangers, but to keep their friends closer. Get to know your neighbours and people in your local community. Strengthen your ties to a local church.

7. Engage organisations seeking to transition to a more resilient and less destructive society (such as the Transition Network, concerning which I'll have more to say soon).

8. Get out of debt, as far as possible. Debt is a bet that the future is going to be more prosperous than the present so that I can incur debt now and will have plenty to pay it off later. This assumption is becoming increasingly dangerous. Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another (Romans 12.8).

9. Petition governments and corporations as citizens, not simply consumers. The roots of our problems are far larger and more systemic than consumer choice or personal greed. Structural changes are required to reduce the damage we are doing. Here is a good example of a letter to banks that briefly makes the case for disinvestment in fossil fuel projects on both ethical and business grounds. Such engagement may begin with petitions or letters, but it certainly needn't end there. Civil disobedience has a noble history in reforming unjust laws and practices.

10. Learn to garden or some other useful skill that you can share with others and which keeps you grounded in the material basis of our existence.

11. Keep learning more about the world and its problems and opportunities. We live in a novel period historically and we currently have the benefit of a large and growing body of research into these matters. Having some idea of the major threats and what they might mean for you, your community, your society and the world helps to orient your practical reason and will make you a more responsible citizen and neighbour.

12. Proclaim the good news, using every means you have, that Jesus is the true and living way, the dawn from on high that has broken upon us who live under the shadow of death and ecological disruption, and which guides our feet in the way of peace.


Anthony Douglas said...

Re 8 - I fear there is also the dark part of our hearts that thinks 'if the crisis is that bad, I might never have to pay it off'. Even failing this, it's clear enough that having the money now can only advantage rather than disadvantage me...

Byron, I've had a phrase in my head for a few days - what do you think of it? 'Irretrieval ethics' - when a situation is so dire, it's no longer possible for our actions to effect any good end, and so you hit a point where one course of action should be abandoned in favour of another.

2012 (the 'film') presented an example - there was no hope of mitigating the disaster, so no action was taken to warn people, and instead the authorities concentrated on escape pods.

Do you think there is such an ethical tipping point?

gbroughto said...

Anthony... sounds like you've been reading Bonhoeffer. Well, I have anyway. I think he would resonate with your idea of 'irretrieval ethics' in that he thought reflection on good/evil was exactly the wrong place for ethics to begin

byron smith said...

Anthony - it may indeed be a dark part of our hearts that thinks that, though for those struggling under unfair and more or less compelled debt, the desire to be liberated by the downfall of the creditor can be an expression of a desire for justice. But for the average greedy mortgage-slave up to their ears in leveraging in order to play the property market, it is indeed a wicked thought. Yet whatever the origin of the thought, at a practical level, I think it could well turn out to be a desperately misplaced thought, even at a pragmatic level. Our predicament is crucially different from, say, being ten minutes after launch of mutually assured nuclear destruction, where the world really has only minutes or hours left and hugging loved ones is almost the only expression of humanity left. Instead, we are in the (in some ways worse) situation of having a disaster (or series of interlocking crises) that will unfold across decades and even centuries and millennia (the effects of our injection of CO2 into the atmosphere will be felt for hundreds of thousands of years, species extinctions are forever and could well lead to radically different (and for a long, long time much, much simpler) ecosystems)). What this means is while some shocks could be quite sudden (as we saw in 2008, banks can (almost) collapse within 24 hours if conditions are right), but I don't think we're going to see industrial civilisation go down in an afternoon (barring global nuclear exchange). It will take decades and quite probably a series of crises. That is, there is likely to be plenty of time for creditors to come knocking amidst major economic downturns, and for civil society (include the protections that debtors currently enjoy) to be significantly eroded and for us to return to more brutal bankruptcy experiences.

As a more general comment, I think many "catastrophe porn" films like 2012 (which I haven't seen) only further corrupt our moral imaginations by asking us to imagine ourselves in pure survival mode, which is a form of ethical laziness, since it is much more likely the real crises will bring moral challenges considerably more complex than "will I resort to cannibalism?" (The Road). I've said it before, but I'm not expecting either Mad Max or Star Trek, but probably something more in the ballpark of (the background scenes of) Children of Men.

Even in the ludicrous scenario of 2012, it is not the case that "it's no longer possible for our actions to effect any good end". Although many good ends may be cut off, there are always some good ends available (even if they are limited to hugging one's neighbour and prayer while awaiting the arrival of a thermonuclear device without prospect of making it to a fallout shelter. Thus, irretrieval ethics seems to me to be merely retrieval ethics. Retrieval ethics acknowledges that the more obvious goods have been thwarted and seeks to discover which goods can still be pursued nonetheless.

In our contemporary situation, there are still plenty of good ends to pursue, even if it is increasingly unlikely that our actions are going to "save" civilisation as we know it. Whether we conceive ourselves as offering palliative care or building arks for the coming storm, there are more options than trying to plug the hole in the Titanic as it goes down (to mix three metaphors in as many lines).

(NB If we are offering palliative care, perhaps it is to a pregnant woman, and our care may yet save the baby.)

Geoff - I've had Bonhoeffer's Ethics sitting on my to read pile for some time. I'm sure you'll know when I get to him.

Anthony Douglas said...

As is often the case, I only work out that I didn't say what I meant to say after the fact.

Your comment on irretrieval/retrieval clarified for me the key idea I left out: the possibility that upon reaching a tipping point, what was good and what was bad become radically skewed, reversed even.

eg. Say we should put all our human capacity into the challenge of undoing climate change (it's a hypothetical, alright? Where better to tilt at windmills? ;-). Then, one day the tipping point arrives; we decide it's no longer possible and completely abandon it, and instead engage in the most efficient exploitation of remaining resources that we can in order to relocate to some convenient New Earth planet, where we can start ruining it too. 'Save the planet' turns into 'screw the planet'.

It's a poor disguise for the old social justice/evangelism chestnut, I guess. But the possible extinction of Life As We Know It (getting in my movie reference) may actually force a choice upon us this time.

byron smith said...

Anthony - I think you are actually getting closer to the heart of my research project. I suspect that the perception of being "too late" will only increase in the next few years and that this could well lead to all kinds of very bad ethical decisions being made (dagners/predicted increasing trends: nihilistic hedonism ("eat, drink and be merry..."); populist quick techno-fixes; authoritarian paternalism; scapegoating of outsiders). My concern is not to say ahead of time what ought to be done (though many of the things that ought to be done now are more or less clear: i.e. the 12 in this post), but to focus on the formation of Christians who will not respond to such (likely accurate) perceptions out of fear, guilt or impotence, but from faith, hope and love.

As for your example, I realise it was hypothetical, but I think it is worth saying that we are never colonising another planet - certainly not in a timeframe relevant for responding to climate change. Such escapist dreams are a distraction. But I take your point and can suggest a range of more plausible scenarios that raise a similar issue. When do we abandon New Orleans, switching from doing all we can to protect it, to pulling out and letting the sea reclaim it? Or when do we decide that nuclear fission energy is not the silver bullet to enable a smooth transition to a post-carbon society without significant loss of economic growth but is rather a dangerous liability that raises the stakes of a likely highly bumpy period in which we transition to lower levels of social complexity?

I guess I would make two comments. The first is that even in your hypothetical case, the ultimate goal hasn't actually shifted after the tipping point, merely what is perceived to be the best way of pursuing that goal. The goal both before and after seems to be "ensure the survival of the human race", and the proximate goals of saving or screwing the planet are in service of that greater goal. I agree that there may well be various points at which we abandon or seriously modify various proximate goals, but part of the point of my research is to reaffirm that for Christians, ensuring the survival of the human race (or my society, or my family or my life) can never be the highest goal.

Instead, I think that the goal of participating in the divine life of love (for instance) is not something that will change after any tipping point, though the ways that it is pursued might.

And so second, I continue to deny that there is any actual conflict or competition between the love of God and the love of neighbour, or between the proclamation of the gospel in our words and in our lives. Purported examples to demonstrate such conflict will require false dichotomies, impossible situations or simply a lack of moral imagination.

What is unchanging in our novel moral situation is the summum bonum, even if it requires radically new ways of being pursued, or a radical renewal of some old ways recently abandoned or forgotten.

Anthony Douglas said...

Yep, I'm with you there. Though I'd want to add the very real danger of apathy. This isn't necessarily the nihilistic hedonism that it could be; for a Christian, I can see it as quite likely that the crisis goes in the too hard basket, and attention is given to other areas where it's possible to feel like one's good ethical actions bear good fruit.

What would you call that? Truncated discipleship? It's a tough one - we can't do everything that we have available to do. I can't be a missionary in the Congo, a clergyman in my hometown, a salt-speaking secular workforce ministry supporter, etc etc. We rightly expect diversity in the church in how people lead godly lives. The problem will be if too many shy away from engaging in this particular area.

(And yes, I recognise the danger that by engagement I'll assume I mean remedial action to 'save the planet' in one form but not another.)

byron smith said...

Yes indeed - apathy through distraction (even by good things!) rather than deliberate rejection of the importance. And so this is why it's important that our responsibility isn't simply personal but also communal. The whole body is not an eye. But if the body has no liver, then it's very unhealthy.

Anthony Douglas said...

Liver?! I see you're in a cryptic crossword double-meaning mood...

Christine said...

Thoughtful, helpful list. Thanks.

byron smith said...

The excellent blog Make Wealth History has a similar post that is worth checking out.

byron smith said...

Another (small) thought: Skeptical Science offers a number of ways average citizens can contribute to scientific knowledge of our world.

byron smith said...

The Conversation: Simple steps to save the environment may not make much difference. The kinds of small steps that lead to larger ones vs those that lead to resting on one's laurels.