Monday, November 22, 2010

How to avoid thinking about climate change

Climate change is not an environmental issue. Of course, it has ecological implications (including making the bleak outlook for biodiversity considerably worse), but it is also an issue of justice (especially international and intergenerational), of national security, of resource (especially water) management, of economics, of agriculture and so of food security, of public health, of national and international law, of geopolitical stability, of refugees, of urban management, of energy generation, of cultural continuity, of archeology and so on, and so on.

Yet labelling it an "environmental" issue enables those who would rather not think about just how large and scary a threat it is to put it in the basket with other "environmental" causes and so to treat it (in accordance with some ideologies) as a "luxury" issue that we will get to with the time and resources left over once we've thought about the more important issues of the economy and, well, okay, the economy some more.

Here are some common strategies used to deflect or defer the matter from being a topic of common reflection at the dinner table, over the back fence or on the train (if any of these social interactions still occur in an age of T.V. dinners, local estrangement and iPods):
1. Metaphor of displaced commitment: "I protect the environment in other ways".
2. Condemn the accuser: "You have no right to challenge me".
3. Denial of responsibility: "I am not the main cause of this problem".
4. Rejection of blame: "I have done nothing wrong".
5. Ignorance: "I didn't know".
6. Powerlessness: " I can't make any difference".
7. Fabricated constraints: "There are too many impediments".
8. After the flood: "Society is corrupt".
9. Comfort: "It is too difficult for me to change my behaviour".

- S. Stoll-Kleemann, Tim O'Riordan, Carlo C. Jaeger, "The psychology of denial concerning climate mitigation meaures: evidence from Swiss focus groups", Global Environmental Change 11 (2001), 107-11.

Do any of these sound familiar? Each of these strategies may sometimes be founded on a half-truth, but even when that is the case, most of the time they are simply employed to avoid having to deal with an issue that is much more conveniently placed into the "too hard" basket.

The good news is that Christian discipleship, although not (of course) designed to prepare us for responding well to climate change, actually prepares us for responding well to climate change. Or at least, it ought to if we are sending down deep roots into the life-giving stream of God's grace. Each of the above strategies is countered by convictions arising from the gospel narrative.
1. "I protect the environment in other ways": Since we are saved by grace, there is no need to justify ourselves through our actions. Therefore, we are free to take the actions that will actually love our neighbour and glorify God, not simply do those we feel duty-bound to do to meet some minimum standard.

2. "You have no right to challenge me": Since our judge is also our saviour, we fear no one's condemnation. If others are making accusations against us, we can consider them soberly, without needing to jump to our own self-defence. Similarly, since God has poured out his Spirit on all flesh, we can never safely write off anyone's speech, since it may be a divine word addressed to us.

3. "I am not the main cause of this problem": That may be partially true, but if you are reading this blog, it is highly likely that you have enjoyed at least something of the kind of lifestyle that has cumulatively got us into this mess (this also applies to #4). God's forgiveness of even those who have sinned much means an honest acknowledgement of liability can become the first step into sanity. But even where it is largely true that my contribution to the problem has been small, loving one's neighbour isn't done out of obligation or based on quid pro quo. We love because God has first loved us, an experience that brings an unexpected realignment of our priorities such that even enemies are included within the scope of our care. Insofar as we have been forgiven much, the small debts that others may owe to us are no grounds for a diminishment of love towards them.

4. "I have done nothing wrong": Extending the previous answer, the good Samaritan was neither the main cause of the victim's problem, nor had he even done anything wrong, but he saw himself as the wounded man's neighbour and so helped him anyway, even at personal expense. Christ invites us to go and do likewise.

5. "I didn't know": Ignorance is not bliss; it can be culpable. Knowledge of God leads into deeper knowledge of and solidarity with the groaning creation, opening us to the vulnerability that comes from paying close attention. We may find that we are no longer merely observers, but get caught up in the action. As we begin to learn about the world and its fractures, what we do with what we know matters. Acting upon the (limited) knowledge we have is a privilege and an opportunity to learn more.

6. "I can't make any difference": In Christ, we are liberated from the impossible burden of saving ourselves. Our actions may not preserve a stable climate or rescue civilisation from collapse, but they can indeed make a difference. Empowered by the Spirit, the seeds that we plant or water may indeed grow into unexpectedly fruitful trees of great beauty. In the Lord, our labour is not in vain.

7. "There are too many impediments": Impediments to total solutions there may be, but the possibility of non-trivial action is secured by the Spirit's work opening the path before our feet to keep trusting, loving and hoping. Our actions need not secure ultimate ends to remain worthwhile.

8. "Society is corrupt": All too true. Yet it is the nihilism of despair to conclude that we ought therefore to eat, drink and be merry, to play the whole corrupt game because if you can't beat them, you may as well join them. Such despair overlooks the divine commitment to even this corrupt society: "For God so loved the corrupt world...".

9. "It is too difficult for me to change my behaviour": On the contrary, it is too risky to remain comfortable. The attempt to freeze history, or at least to distract oneself sufficiently from the rush of ongoing change to preserve the fiction of stability is one of the surest ways of losing all that one holds dear. Clinging onto one's life means losing it, seeing it ossify and decay from the very grasp with which one attempts to preserve it. Only letting go of control of one's life is the path to discovering that life is granted anew.


Anonymous said...

Go shopping or do some "needed" house/home renovations, or become a "master chef" enthusiast.

There was an explosion of the home-renovations industry here in Australia immediately after September 11. And most probably of home-renovation, cooking and gardening programs on TV too.

byron smith said...

Anon - yes, they are also common practical distractions to accompany this list of verbal excuses. Fascinating piece of information about the post-Sept 11 response in Oz. I wasn't aware of that. Do you have a link to the source of that claim?