I’ve suspected for some time that people’s denial of the human contribution to environmental destruction arises out of a sense of helplessness. Despite the fact that evidence is building up that we ourselves are potentially making planet earth uninhabitable, an astonishing number of people simply refuse to take the possibility seriously. Many of these climate change deniers are religious fundamentalists. Many believe that they will be among the Saved when four horsemen usher in the end of the world, and so they don’t have to worry. (Not, I will admit, a very Christian attitude for those exhorted to “love thy neighbour as thyself”. But common, nonetheless.) Others simply quote Jesus’ exhortation for us to “look at the lilies of the field,” and convince themselves that God can cure climate change “with the snap of his fingers” if he wants to.
Some recent research into the workings of the brain began to make this kind of reasoning make some kind of sense to me. Researchers have found that we may very well use the same part of our brain for problem-solving as we do for at least some of our religious thinking. In other words, religious belief may actually be a problem-solving exercise.
This has certainly been true historically. What we now think of as religious belief was the explanation for why the sun seemed to go into a sulk every year and needed to be coaxed back by the sacrifice of a virgin or two. Religion explained why the stars did not fall down on our heads, and even today is used by some preachers to claim that our sinfulness is the cause of events like tsunamis and earthquakes.
Religion, therefore, can often solve problems that otherwise seem unsolvable. It saves us from a sense of hopelessness and despair.
I that context, I wonder if a lot of people deny climate change – or at least our contribution to it – because the problem seems unsolvable. I will admit that until very recently, my main hope was not that the governments of the world would agree to the measures we all must take around the world to save us from destroying ourselves. My most optimistic scenario was that a sufficient number of humans would survive the inevitable global droughts, starvation, wars, and disease that would reduce our numbers from the current 7 1/2 billion to a more manageable billion or so, which will have learned the lesson that God does not intervene when we ourselves are creating our own problems.
But I am reading a book, which frankly, I am finding astonishing. It is Adventures in the Anthropocene: A Journey to the Heart of the Planet We Made by an Australian journalist Gaia Vince. She does not by any means minimize the size of the problem we have created for ourselves. With terrifying clarity she visits and describes the problems that are already evident – the air that is killing us, temperature changes that are moving populations, melting glaciers, depleting water tables and creating a rate of species extinction on a mega-scale, the destruction of farmlands and forests on every continent.
But she is also identifying solutions that creative individuals have designed that have addressed these problems, transforming entire villages, farmlands, cities. Some of them are simply amazing.
It is convincing me that we can solve this problem of environmental destruction if we do not give up in despair.
And it is not up solely to governments. In fact, many of the solutions have already been found on a small scale. They have been found by creative, determined individuals and small groups who have refused to simply ring their hands in despondency, saying there is nothing they can do that will make a meaningful difference. Governments need to look at these local solutions, study them, and find ways to spread them across the world.
No one – not even the most creative or powerful – is going to turn this problem around alone. Nor are governments going to be able to do it alone.
But the human race is incredibly ingenious.
Jesus didn’t look at the lilies of the field and suggest that we should just sit back and trust that supper will somehow miraculously appear on the table tonight. It is not telling us to sit passively in the trust that God will take care of everything and we don’t have to do anything to make things better. Today, this parable, I think, is urging us to trust that we do not need to despair, that we have been given the capacity to solve the problems of environmental change.
But we do have to work at it. We do have to take responsibility for what we are doing. Almost all of us can take small steps that add up. A few can take giant steps that we can emulate and apply.
Over the next months, I plan to describe some of the solutions Vince lays out in her book. I hope it will help spread hopefulness, rather than helplessness.