Beyond Hope: An Exodus to Grief and Courage
I have been working in the Christian environmental movement for nearly 20 years, and am going to share with you a framework which tries to make sense of what I have been doing. It draws together theological resources which, between them, have nourished me with hope for the world’s future. Maybe you will find cause for hope in it too.
But you have caught me at an awkward moment. I need to be honest with you: I don’t know what hope is any more. Towards the end of this paper I am going to say things which I have never dared to say in print before. Among Christians I feel at best unorthodox, and at worst transgressive – but I may as well be honest.
A change in the mood
There can be no doubt that a succession of reports and events in the autumn of 2018 darkened the outlook and shortened the odds of catastrophe. In October we were told by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that we have 12 years to avert climate breakdown. But in November top UN officials gave two years to secure deals on both climate and biodiversity, or risk mass wipe-out of non-human and potentially even human life. In that same month, the self-styled Extinction Rebellion1 took to the streets, bridges and government citadels of London. They accuse government of betraying the people; they have made it possible for ordinary people to voice the fear and heartbreak they had kept to themselves; they will go to prison to protect the world they love.
Short of civil disobedience, there appear to be two alternatives: succumb to despair, or whistle a happy tune and pretend that easy solutions are in our reach. If we talk about the environmental crisis at all, most of us incline to one or other of these alternatives. Both are dangerous fallacies.
There may be another way which the gospel opens up. Let me offer a theological narrative which helped me and my associates in Green Christian to gain purchase on the environmental crisis and communicate Christian hope to a public who, if they have environmental concerns, lack the language and culture to express them. Whether you find the hope convincing I leave to you to judge. But first let me set out the context in which this narrative is set, parameters which any honest account of Christian ethics in these times must observe.
Physics and human values
Because of its sheer cognitive scale and complexity, the environmental crisis has earned the appellation of a ‘hyperobject’.2 The challenge of climate change to human comprehension is such that it requires ethical responses which are systematic rather than symptomatic, and iterative rather than simply prescriptive. It requires social-ethical narratives which are at once personal and universal; scientifically robust, emotionally authentic and politically actionable; far-reaching and yet achievable within the little time that is now left.
There is one factor which mitigates this potential for bewilderment. In many social concerns, rights, responsibilities and standards are matter of culture, contest and debate. In the environment, however, hard, natural absolutes are in play. Here I want to identify three parameters which I believe are paramount, and serve as bearings for taking in the landscape.
First, we must answer to environmental limits. Science is getting ever clearer about how much human interference the Earth’s ecosystems can take before human survival is in peril. The IPCC’s latest warnings are intended to leave governments in no doubt of the nonnegotiable carbon budget. Johan Rockstrom et al popularised a health assessment3 of ten ecosystem services in 2009. His ‘dartboard’ was in turn the basis of Kate Raworth’s influential framework of ‘doughnut economics’.4
Planetary boundaries must set the horizon within which righteous action is now construed. They will then become a stimulus for creativity and innovation, and a benchmark for social accountability. Faiths have an urgent task to reform their ethics to honour these limits, and form consciences accordingly. However there is an inherent conservatism in faith-based ethics. The leading edge of ethical development is now coming from sources without a particular faith alignment: organisations like Perspectiva5 and podcasts like Emerge.6
For Christians in particular there is serious doctrinal heavy lifting to do. In 1966 Lynn White notoriously blamed the Western project of ‘subduing the Earth’ on a Judaeo-Christian domination system.7 But it will not be enough simply to ‘reinterpret’ Genesis 1, to abjure one reading of scripture in favour of another. A new narrative of humanity is needed. More on that shortly.
Second, we must hear God’s kairos word to humanity. Scientists and campaigners have been saying for decades that ‘time is running out’ and it will soon be ‘too late’. Is the world ready yet for the truth about climate, or even the truth of our anxieties about it?
The sheer scale of the hyperobjects of climate breakdown appears to leave little room for hope, especially at a time when populist governments are eroding slender voluntary accord such as the Paris Agreement. Judging by BBC News’ apparent model of demand-led news coverage, there is little sign of a general awakening in Britain. When it comes, there are those in the Climate Psychology Alliance and elsewhere, who stand ready to help the public realm open up to the private fears that haunt many of us.
At the risk of creating ‘urgency fatigue’, faith leaders too must add their voice about our shortening odds. Communications specialists now generally argue that ecological doomsaying provokes resistance and disempowers its audience. But what’s the alternative? Time is too short for incremental ‘nudge politics’; the reliability of technofixes is too uncertain; and humanity deserves a better choice than eco-fascism or self-immolation. There seems little space left in which to speak the truth.
Third, in the time remaining, we must create an economy which is ordered to human flourishing. Personal actions by consumers can never be sufficient, because most environmental impacts are created by producers, governments and intermediaries. The slogan ‘you can make a difference’ is a con: it is the meme by which the neoliberal industrial complex seeks to quell mutiny, through a strategy of divide-and-rule.
Demanding regulation and imaginative fiscal incentives will help, but more important is a new goal for mainstream economic policy – growth not in Gross Domestic Product, but in human dignity, equality and conviviality.
The discipline of economics has earned its reputation as the dismal science. It badly needs reform, and student bodies at several British university economics departments have begun to demand more plural and critical approaches than their teachers offer.
Heterodox economics deserves all the friends it can get. Green Christian’s ‘Joy in Enough’ programme7 is one of many post-growth initiatives. We want churches to gather communities of practice in which sustainable economies can be constructed. To help us frame our early thinking for the development of ‘Joy in Enough’, we developed a credal manifesto. This includes a number of Greek words for the key themes.
We believe in one Earth: Creation / κτισιϛ
Our natural identity is as creatures of this Earth. The economy too is a creature of the Earth and set within the limits of its productivity. In ecological terms, therefore, a sustainable economy will be a closed system of material flows in which nothing is lost and no external input can be added. Such an economy will:
- Maintain the health of ecosystems and the life-support services they provide
- Extract renewable resources at a rate no faster than they can be regenerated
- Consume non-renewable resources at a rate no faster than they can be replaced by the discovery of renewable substitutes
- Deposit wastes in the environment at a rate no faster than they can be safely assimilated.
The finitude of creation is implicit in the biblical precepts not to covet the goods of others (Ex 20) or extract interest (Ex 22) and the laws of firstfruits and Sabbath (Ex 23) and jubilee (Lv 19, 25).
We turn to Christ, God made human: κενωσις
In Christ, God became a human, spirit, soul and body. The Infinite entered and occupied the finite. We can find our true life only if we accept Earth’s limits as Christ did. If our desires collectively exceed those limits, we exceed the measure of our true identity in Christ.
At the scale of Christ we are also challenged to share the fruits of creation equally. As well as respecting Earth’s limits, a sustainable economy must secure fair distribution of the goods of creation.
We confess our consumption of excess: judgment / κρισις
Because we do not live in scale with creation, we are eroding the ‘natural capital’ of the ecosystems which support life. Since the mid-20th century economic growth, driven by production, consumption and debt, has become the primary economic goal of all governments. Its take of natural capital has grown far faster than any reductions from advances in resource efficiency. And it tends to be associated with widening inequalities in wealth and income. It does not deliver growth in human well-being.
Marketing industries have become adept at contriving consumer demand by extending our desires still further and recruiting new consumers, with damaging impacts on the wellbeing of young people and the cohesion of society. So long as the current system prevails, any voluntary mass-movement for restraint risks being blamed for triggering recession and hardship, and for unpatriotic behaviour.
We acknowledge this moment of choice / καιρος
Now we face a choice between life and death for ourselves, future generations and all life with which we share this earth. How will we find the power to choose?
Enlightenment thinking would argue that homo oeconomicus can choose rationally to effect the change we need. However, choices available to consumers are constrained by powerful and persuasive producers, and the power of democratic choice over corporations has been progressively eroded. Furthermore those who educate economic policymakers have evaded the critical evaluation which is regarded as essential elsewhere in academia.
There is no single solution that will bring about a one-planet economy, and totalitarian ideologies will ultimately destroy themselves. The one kairos choice confronting humanity will be expressed in myriad varied choices by policy makers, citizens and consumers. All of these will need empowerment to confront the marketing machine, seek reconciliation with their passions and solidarity with each other, future generations and other species.
We hope in a renewed humanity: new / καινος
In the short term many of the choices we have to make will come at great cost to all the interests we have vested in the status quo. These losses cannot and must not be downplayed, just as the gains which will follow must not be lost from sight. In the throes of change, we must be vigilant that the costs are borne by those who can afford it, and not by those who cannot; and that the benefits are shared equally with all.The change must be just in both process and outcome.
But with God’s kairos invitation comes the power and wisdom to accept it. The church calls this conversion, and the attitude which predisposes the heart to it is penitence.
Let us hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches: Calling / κλησις
The Church is charged to proclaim this gospel in our time and equip God’s people to respond. The aim of Christian mission is not to sustain a fading institution or religious subculture. The mission of God for the church is to draw all people into the far-reaching, self-giving task of being salt for the Earth and light for the world. At stake is not just salvation but survival. If the Church is faithful to its mission for the Earth, there is hope for humanity.
So that’s a possible template for mission in this age of crisis. But is there enough time for such a long game? Can the dwindling community of believers supply the critical mass that is needed for a 3 per cent tipping point in society at large? Are my energies not better spent on more direct and effective levers of change, in politics and protest? Are Christians even ready for the demands of such a journey? Am I?
I’m not at all sure. We know that things will get worse, but not by how much, or how quickly. We know that in vulnerable nations of the global South, climate change is beginning to contribute to the premature deaths of an increasing proportion of people. We must expect some survivors to seek asylum on our shores. But we do not know how well states will honour their Paris Accord commitments (those who care to make one). We do not understand all the potential climate feedback mechanisms, or how our grandchildren will judge us in their old age, or if indeed they will reach it.
We do not know what the return on our effort will be, and we will never know. Given that carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere are now higher than at any time in the last 3 million years, it is at least possible that the Anthropocene could be the a mere blip in the fossil record, before the Post-Anthropocene takes its place. It is Good Friday without a prospect of Easter Sunday.
Hope under strain
It is not only a hard time to hope. It is a hard time to agree what hope is. I am beginning to hear that hope could even be part of the problem and that courage is the more necessary virtue for this time. According to Jason Stewart, creator of a travelling roadshow for community dialogue on climate collapse:
Hope … seems at first blush like such a benevolent presence ‒ a rare and mandatory gift. But I believe there is so much hidden underneath the surface ... When we say “We need to keep our hope up”, I’m concerned about the message that we’re giving to those unborn great grandchildren who will have no choice about whether to be hopeful or not. (Personal communication)
In December 2018 I travelled to Poland with a well-known British church-based development NGO for four days alongside the United Nations climate summit in Katowice. Up the road from COP24, thirty of us met with our peers from our sister agencies across Europe. Of the 90-odd people there, most were in their twenties (I felt my age). We were there to gain ‘hope’ and ‘inspiration’ and skills for a new advocacy campaign which would be launched in the new year. It would have been disloyal to our hosts, and to the camaraderie built up after our overnight coach journey, to say that hope was spent.
In the closing evaluation I joined a group of four young women. One of them recalled the opening session four days previously, which included a speaker from the Sami people of Arctic Europe. The speaker’s voice had noticeably faltered when expressing the impact of climate change on mental health among the Sami’s young people. The five of us shared how we had all been taken aback by this fleeting moment of pathos. For the next 20 minutes the four young women shared their own anxieties about the future, their doubts about ‘hope’, and how difficult it they found it as campaigners. After four days of showing a positive face they voiced feelings of anger, grief and, above all, worry. Before we broke up one of them said ‘I’m so glad I’ve had this conversation’ – unfinished though it was.
In my own work in the Christian environmental movement over nearly 20 years I have seldom questioned that I had a duty to safeguard hope. Over that time, as remedies have failed to materialise, the forecasts have got worse. I am now aware that I have used hope to censor my own fear and heartbreak, and I am not alone.
A time for grief and courage
NASA scientist Kate Marvel says, ‘As a climate scientist, I am often asked to talk about hope… Climate change is bleak, the organizers always say. Tell us a happy story. Give us hope. The problem is, I don’t have any’. She adds:
the opposite of hope is not despair. It is grief. Even while resolving to limit the damage, we can mourn. And here, the sheer scale of the problem provides a perverse comfort: we are in this together. The swiftness of the change, its scale and inevitability, bind us into one, as broken hearts are trapped together under a warming atmosphere.10
Perhaps we need to re-conceive grief, as a virtue and a skill for a time of collapse, and to offer others the opportunities for mourning.
In fact artists are already doing it. Since 2009 the Dark Mountain project, founded by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, has formed a school of writers who reckon with the unravelling of the myth of progress. They are crafting a culture of ‘Uncivilisation’ – humble, heartfelt, and poetic.
Persephone Pearl, a performance artist, staged the first funeral for extinct species in 2011. International Remembrance Day for Lost Species has been marked every 30th November thereafter. The 2011 funeral was funded by Arts Council England, no less, and took place in Brighton. Now they’re popping up everywhere, but not, so far as I am aware, in church.
Andrew Boyd is a creator of ‘12 characters in search of an Apocalypse’,11 which inspired Jason Stewart’s roadshow and influenced Extinction Rebellion. One of the characters asks himself:
Do we dedicate ourselves to an impossible cause? Or do we pull back and look after our own? The choice – once you’ve sat quietly with this question – is clear. You must dedicate yourself to an impossible cause. Archbishop Oscar Romero said when asked why he was attending to the sick at a hospital for incurables: ‘We are all incurable.’ Solidarity is a form of tenderness. We must take a stand – not because it will lead to anything, but because it is the right thing to do.
These leaders of mourning bear no discernible trace of Christian affiliation, and yet are rich with the trappings of Christian precedent. But hope of divine intervention is absent.
And what lies beyond grief? Kate Goddard concludes her commentabove by saying ‘We need courage, not hope… Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending’.
After faith and hope
If the time for hope is past, now is the time for grief and courage. And it seems to me that so far Christian theology has not been prepared to go there. I do not doubt the sincerity of many promoters of Christian hope today, who I believe want to help humanity to confront and dismantle its denial about the ecological crisis. Christian hope has been a useful stratagem for circumventing our aversion to narratives of ecological doom. But I have a nagging fear that the Enlightenment myth of progress lurks in the shadows, a hidden sponsor of many accounts of Christian hope.
What duty does the Church have to enable the truth to be told – even if only the truth about our fears? It would be a lie to say that God will ‘make it all right’: indeed there are times in Scripture when God did not make it all right. The Hebrew tradition has a rich vein of lamentation, which is espoused by Christianity as a good and holy part of the faithful’s experience. However, beyond some privatised penitential formularies, ecological lamentation is all but absent in our churches. Where are those who are enabling us to grieve for the future? For now, it seems that others in society are having to do our lamentation for us.
I have not been one of the Extinction Rebels – yet – but you catch me at an awkward time. Meanwhile I wait, held by Thomas Merton’s advice to Jim Forest, who reckoned with his own futility as a peace activist during the Vietnam War:
‘Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, or perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself… All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love’.
Paul Bodenham is the chair of trustees for Green Christian, and works for the Justice and Peace Commission of the Diocese of Nottingham.
2. Morton, Timothy (2013), Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press
7. White, Lynn (1967), The historical roots of our ecological crisis. Science. 155. pp. 1203–1207
9. Daly, Herman E.; Cobb, John B., Jr (1994). For the Common Good: Redirecting the Economy toward Community, the Environment, and a Sustainable Future. Boston: Beacon Press.
10. Quoted by Dahr Jamail at https://truthout.org/articles/theglobal-extinction-rebellion-begins/