All I want for Christmas is more Christmases

By Gene Miller, December 2011

Tis the season for reflection on the moral obligations imposed by climate change and ecological destruction.

Hectored by my friend Denton to add a more Canadian sensibility to this column, I asked “So, what do you think are the compelling Canadian narratives?” He suggested two: how Tim Horton’s manages to keep the glaze sticking to their French crullers, and Harper’s anticrime bill.

The first of these is one of life’s great mysteries, akin to getting the ketchup to start flowing from the bottle; the second is easier to decode. Most Canadians respond to the proposed anticrime bill by looking rearward and pointing out that crime stats have been falling. That’s their mistake. 

All this stuff about nailing drug dealers, tough love for repeat offenders and more jails is just a smoke screen: Harper is readying us for the Big One and showing extraordinary prefigurative genius in anticipating a future filled with sweeping social unrest, incipient class warfare, evacuation-style flight from urban chaos, and unknowable but surely catastrophic fallout from ecological stress. Yes, even here in Canada. In years to come, history will record this bill as the apex, the four-bagger of an otherwise uninspired political career. 

Oh, I forgot. There won’t be any history because of the environmental apocalypse.

This takes me directly to the real subject of this column. Journeys are said to start with a first step. Mine recently was to Google “Is conservatism opposed to environmentalism?” which led me on a wander in which I discovered that, according to some, green is the “new red;” environmentalism is a vehicle to get to socialism or communism; it’s very rare for environmentalists to do something on their own, instead of demanding that government solve problems for them; environmentalism is a secular atheist “counterfeit gospel;” environmentalism is just another billion-dollar industry; and the Earth is an inanimate object, so to say that humans have responsibility to the Earth is like saying we have responsibility to a rock.

Welcome to feel-good Christmas 2011, friends. Peace on earth.

It’s a whipsawing, wearying hobby spending time online each day tallying the political body count from gleanings in the New York Times, Globe and Mail, Huffington Post and a number of other news sources (it replaces yesteryear’s frolic of day-trading full-time at home in your underwear); and there’s no escaping that it has been a dispiriting, fractious, corrosive and outright scary time in history, a period in which extreme and mutually antagonistic narratives—political, social, economic—have been locked in a cage fight. 

We have had echoes of this here in Canada, but you have to look south for the full CinemaScope version. In particular, I note an intensifying, braying hostility toward the environmental agenda by the political, social and religious Right, and on the progressive environmental side, an ever-more-urgent tone heavily laced with pessimism and a sense of slipping progress. Under the twin hammers of a ruinous economy and conservative hyper-demonization (if you can stomach all 12 minutes of it, see “Resisting the Green Dragon” on YouTube), the ecological agenda has taken a beating. While ecology and economy share the Greek root word for home or house, oikos, the two seem increasingly estranged. Ecology has taken on a political valence and been entirely swept up in ideological warfare; or putting the whole matter in faith terms, the fine but very important biblical distinction between dominion and domination seems to have been trampled by all the battlefield traffic.

In this month when every God-fearing person is attending to the twin duties of spiritual connection and orgiastic shopping, I want to focus on religious faith and environmentalism—seamless adjacencies for some, matters separated by a fortified skirmish line for others. 

My possibly morbid fascination with environmental apocalypse—more specifically, our willingness to court it—led me in late October to attend a two-day conference hosted by Progressive Christians United in Claremont, California (an hour east of Los Angeles) entitled “Brave New Planet.” Under blue skies and in t-shirt weather, I and another 200 folks spent our time exploring the ideas elaborated in founder Bill McKibben’s latest book, Eaarth: Making A Life On A Tough, New Planet.

The night before the conference, McKibben had spoken to a slightly restive, mostly university-age audience of over 2000 at nearby Pomona College’s Big Bridges Auditorium whose air system was almost overwhelmed by the funk of existential fear, faint hope and pheromones. As in his book, McKibben’s talking points were that we have already warmed the earth by one degree and are now living with those climate consequences; that things are getting worse and in the face of environmental change coming on every front “we’ll need to figure out what parts of our lives and our ideologies we must abandon so that we can protect the core of our societies and civilizations;” and that this is not the time for despair, but increased engagement at the local and national levels. In other words, to the life rafts, but bring your iPad.

The conference itself was a mixture of inspirational presentations by McKibben and other luminaries, testimony, prayer, singing and age-appropriate, praise-fuelled jump-up by a largely senior crowd. Let me state without a whiff of cynicism that the Christianity of Progressive Christians United is gorgeous: intelligent, open-minded, clear-eyed, respectful, inclusive, communitarian, powerfully rooted in belief. Their faith is authentic and humble, not dogmatic or institutionalized. They believe faith enjoins them to a life of service and the great moral task of bettering the world. They express it by undertaking and supporting social justice and environmental initiatives.

The 64 million-dollar question is: Why do some Christians believe that their faith binds them to climate action while other Christians believe that their faith binds them to climate denial? Are there two ways of interpreting scripture and biblical injunction; and, more pointedly, does one of these interpretations lead a Christian to climate change concern, the other to climate change denial? Are there two Gods? Two Jesuses? Let me ask, in the context of climate issues: where does sin lie?

Certainly, I came away from the conference with a clear image of, if not sin, then moral failure, as political or social inaction in the face of profound and looming climate impacts. But the conference was just a two-day respite, an island of safety from the raging ideological storms. Calvin De Witt, PhD, Professor at the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, University of Wisconsin and founder of the Evangelical Environmental Network, explained to me at the conference that an enormous rift has developed within the faith community between evangelicals who believe in “creation care” and those who believe the environmental message is a false religion that contaminates Christianity. As “Resisting the Green Dragon” claims, environmentalism “is striving to put America, and the world, under its destructive control,” and even creation care is just a stand-in for the “well-funded effort to infiltrate churches by groups with beliefs that are deadly to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” notes a New York Times report on the Cornwall Alliance, evangelical sponsors of the “Green Dragon” video.

The Cornwall Alliance’s website states: “We believe Earth and its ecosystems—created by God’s intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence—are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth’s climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history.”

Ah, God’s intelligent design....

Adam, alone in the Garden of Eden, laments that every animal has a proper mate, but he has none. God is moved by Adam’s longing and, in one biblical interpretation, fashions woman from Adam’s rib. The one becomes two. Later, prelapsarian Adam and Eve are instructed by God not to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (elsewhere interpreted as the tree of all knowledge). But they do, and in a first, defining schism between humanity and ecology (which will lead inexorably to an ecological collapse called The Flood), are banished from the Garden of Eden. Humanity, according to this biblical telling, begins its story around great themes of division and disjunction, rash self-indulgence, and itches it cannot scratch—all of which will echo down through time.

You will recall from bible class that later when the Flood recedes, God covenants with Noah that He will never again destroy the Earth, and by way of inking the deal sets a rainbow in the skies. (In my somewhat looser interpretation, a by-then-exhausted and disappointed God is simply off-loading responsibility for Earth’s destruction.)

So, here’s a topical question for this season of heightened attention to matters of the spirit: is Earth the Cornwall Alliance’s “robust, resilient, self-regulating and self-correcting” world, in need of no particular care, repair or attention from us, or did we lose that world and, like it or not, take on a great moral task when we were booted out of Eden?

Gene Miller is the founder of Open Space Arts Centre, Monday Magazine, and the Gaining Ground Sustainable Urban Development Summit.