This seems to be the most frequently asked question at the talks I give on religion and the environmental crisis. I’m always slightly put out by it, because the whole talk is about what I think people ought to do. I agree people deserve more help than I give them in the talk: I’m just not sure I’m equipped to do it: the talk itself was my contribution and now it’s over to you. However, here is an attempt at a framework based on my talk which might form a useful programme for a group wishing to pursue the idea of looking for hope in the middle of mass extinction.
I think you need to learn, speak, and act.
My talk is challenging and fresh not because I’m on the pulse of the zeitgeist, but because I hunt obscure things in dusty archives — in news that doesn’t make headlines, in ancient wisdom our culture neglects. As I argued in my talk, in the face of mass extinction maybe outdated religious concepts might turn out to be useful after all. The first law of history is ‘we ain’t no smarter than our ancestors’. If you agree we need a change in discourse, the first thing I’m asking you to do is to learn with me. Your brains are as big as mine. If I’m ahead in my thinking it’s only because I’ve been puzzling over this for the past ten years. There’s only one of me and there are many of you. The world needs your brains. Your first task is, get learning.
“When people know what they are facing, that’s when they dig deep, and find that miraculous hope and courage. That’s when they stop being afraid.”
Learn about prophets
“You are Jonah. You must be thrown into the sea. You must find the courage that’s only found when you’ve sunk to the very bottom. You must be vomited up on the beach, and you must go and deliver the message. You must turn into the hope.”
A prophet in Christian tradition is not someone who foretells the future by reading entrails. It is someone whose insights about the present are so clear that they can understand the probability of future consequences. This is what climate scientists do today, as well as those involved in equally important and less controversial environmental research. However, what makes a prophet different from most scientists is the scientist must retain a detached and objective perspective, whereas the prophet commits his or her whole physical life to becoming the message. This often involves great personal sacrifice, but this is the secret of the prophet’s influence: their actions tend to speak louder than their words. A valuable study exercise for a group would to each take one of the prophets in the Bible and see how they go about this, and to do what I did with Jonah. You might be surprised. Try it for Micah, Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Elijah, and Christianity’s greatest prophet (alongside his other roles), Jesus. Have each person report back and then discuss them. What would it mean for you to take these prophets as your role models today?
– How can a discourse change, can thought patterns change, without thinking and learning? The problem is, you have been used to fruitless, theoretical discussions about the bible, about theories of theology or morality that can never be put to the test or be other than subjective. I’m asking you to read it as a book of practical wisdom that’s relevant for real life now. Oh and quit the fruitless religious discussions.
“Whether you believe in God, or not, or don’t know, today it doesn’t matter, because the situation of Jonah stays the same, and our situation, so spookily similar to Jonah’s, stays the same.”
Learn about the environmental crisis
“Ecosystems are good at recovering, but faced with increasingly violent assaults from climate change, pollution and exploitation, they cannot recover, and eventually collapse. Not decline gradually: collapse. If this is new to you, I urge you to go and find out about it. The picture has got spectacularly worse over the past few years, and the science has not been widely reported.”
Find out what scientists are saying about the environment: global deforestation, the Pacific rubbish dump, Himalayan glacier melt, what mass extinction means. Read the report on the state of the oceans (stateoftheocean.org). I do commend Twitter not because it’s trendy but because it’s useful for getting at the right information quickly: many scientists use it to provide ongoing succinct updates of what they regard as their most important findings. Find a teenager to show you how to use it, then get in touch with me (@eleanormharris) and I’ll point you in the direction of useful resources.
– But Twitter sounds difficult and strange and scary!
– You asked me for hope. I’ve looked for hope and found it in you. Do you expect it to be easy? If you think Twitter sounds difficult and scary, I think you will have difficulty being the hope of the world. As Jesus said (when he wasn’t saying ‘don’t be afraid’), if you can’t be trusted with trivial things, whose going to put you in charge of more important ones?
“Either we transform our eating, or we starve. Either we transform our travelling, or we stop forever. Either we transform our living, or we die. Not modify: not reduce a bit: not next year: totally transform, now.”
I didn’t mean this metaphorically, and I wasn’t exaggerating.
It is often objected that your individual effort won’t make any difference. This is true of the individual who is merely doing things to salve their conscience, or as the result of an individual advertising campaign. But it is not true in your case, because you are prophets, and an essential part of being a prophet (as you discovered earlier) is that they are completely personally committed to their message.
“Get out of this church and demonstrate that humanity can be more than just a rogue species”
Here are two suggestions:
- Go through the gospels and find all the passages where people ask Jesus what they should do.
- Make a list of his advice.
- Take it.
1. Make one list of all the things you do which contribute to mass extinction, by using unsustainably produced resources, polluting, or damaging ecosystems. Do this in discussion with a group and with the help of on-line resources.
2. Make a second list of all the ways you can think of to create an environmental handprint, that is, to increase biodiversity and counter mass extinction.
3. Which do you think is currently bigger, your handprint or your footprint? Challenge yourselves and one another to live so your handprint is bigger than your footprint, to leave the world more biodiverse than you found it.
Try both. How do they compare?
tree planting and reforestation
wildlife gardening, window boxes for bees, green roofs and ‘no mow’ grass areas
using consumer power to persuade producers of food or wood to encourage biodiversity
install solar panels to generate electricity without contributing to climate change
find out about biodiversity and land use (grazing, crops, housing, recreation like golf courses and grouse moor), and support policies that improve biodiversity
give to charities and invest in projects that conserve or restore biodiversity (for example, money saved reducing your environmental footprint, or you might consider your pension and other investments)
support the global education of women: it’s the quickest, cheapest and fairest way to slow population growth and increase sustainable practices locally
“You have to be the prophets, who proclaim the message.”
Prophets speak. I got your interest by speaking. Discourse change leads policy change and happens, sometimes quite quickly, when the message of a few voices is taken up by many. My talk used the model of Jonah’s message spreading around Nineveh then being taken up as policy by the king. You think I’m naturally good at speaking: I’m not. I’m naturally inarticulate and prefer hiding in history archives, which is why I wrote my talk out word-for-word and spent much time rehearsing it. If you think what I said is right and important, it’s up to you to find ways to tell other people: not just in talks, but in conversation, by letter, by postcard, in sermons, in ten-foot-high letters on a wall, on Twitter (scary!!). I can send you the text of my talk if you like, but it would be much better to write your own. In your group, make a list of practical ways you could be prophets, and speak to the powerful.
– But speaking out is not my thing: it’s difficult and scary!
– Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid of looking a fool. The only fear allowed round here is `fear of the Lord’.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. Proverbs 1.7
“You’ll realise as the story unfolds that `the Lord’ represents everything that happens which isn’t human decision or will: objective scientific knowledge; the tugging voice of conscience; the uncontrollable forces of nature.”
Use your initiatives. I don’t know much and I’m not in charge of anything. I only have one brain and you have many.
If you’re reading this without having heard the talk, do invite me to come and give it. I’m told it’s thought-provoking. Clergy and non-churchgoers seem to find it most interesting, which is interesting!
And do keep in touch. Comment on this blog. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Do that scary Twitter thing.
There’s a discourse that needs changed. You are the prophets. Go and make more.
Since, then, we know what it is to fear the Lord, we try to persuade others. 2 Corinthians 5:11
“Nothing will ever be the same. Don’t be afraid. Turn into the hope.”