I wrote this ‘autobiography’ in 2014. In 2016 I find myself surprised I still largely agree with it.
I’m not sure where my sense of obligation towards nature came from, but it goes back as long ago as I can remember. Perhaps it was partly Blue Peter, but I suspect mainly my mother. She reminded me recently that when she took me to get a copy of The Trials of Life signed by David Attenborough she had to fight my primary school headmistresss to be allowed to take me out of school. It’s the only time I’ve ever met a “celebrity”, and I was so besides myself with nerves I never looked at him, except for his hand and the pen writing, but it had all the significance of an ordination.
Back home, my ‘Museum Shop’ raised money for World Wildlife Fund to save the rainforest: they sent me stickers in return for my proud takings of around £1.25. I did a litter-pick up the road, a biodiversity survey of the garden, and when it was my turn to produce a classroom display, I did traffic pollution and acid rain. This was all before the age of ten, at about which point I was put off, by the purgatory of school science, and discovered academia and religion. both of which appeared to be unrelated to nature.
I steeped my teenage self in Christianity. I read through the whole bible, studied bits with evangelical commentaries, learned psalms by heart and wrote out favourite texts in calligraphy. I drew out Jesus’ family tree, and Ezekiel’s description of the temple, both of which clearly required visual conceptualisation. I asked questions of anyone I thought might know stuff — although the answers were almost always disappointing: old books or non-Christian thinkers were reliably more interesting. At University I studied the history of western political thought, and learned what Plato, Augustine, Locke and Hegel thought about it all. I wrote a service-book for Compline, with 8 seasons, 52 Collects and 365 short readings.
Yet I also met people who thought other people were actually going to go to hell because they did not sign up to a set of beliefs about Jesus. I began to realise that a “personal Jesus” and the salvation economy were no more real to me than Flopsy Bunny and Bearland, which had contributed a great deal of (very real) meaning and morality to the childhood world of my sister and I. I realised that the people I respected most laughed at this Christianity, as you laugh at the devil and he flees. Stuff happened to me and to people close to me, and I realised I didn’t believe a word of it. I kept going to church though, three times every Sunday, because there was Byrd, Palestrina, Purcell, Bach, Bruckner, Poulenc, Stanford, Leighton, new editions of Ebdon, new settings of the Te Deum, a well of glorious sacred music that never runs dry, and a pint waiting at the end of it.
At one of my last undergraduate history lectures in Cambridge in 2000, our young and brilliant lecturer Dr Adam Tooze was illustrating a point about how steady economic growth results in sudden social change. He said, “in a few years, China’s economy will reach the point where ordinary Chinese people can afford cars”. Then he added, offhand, “And then we’re all going to die”. We laughed. I knew about global warming by this time, of course, and I could see the logic of his lecture was sound. A few years later China did reach that point. The first of his predictions had come to pass, because it had been based on good evidence and sound arguments; and I could see his second prediction, despite the offhand tone, had the same basis.
In January 2005 I was appointed one of two co-ordinators of Eco-Congregation Scotland. My task was to run workshops encouraging churches to register for the award scheme, to maintain contact with registered churches through means such as the newsletter and local networks, and to facilitate the assessment of churches for Eco-Congregation Awards by two local assessors, one from a church background and the other from an environmental organisation or local government. The three of us would visit the church, meet people, and hear about their activities in the three areas of the programme: awareness raising (or, if you like to be religious, spiritual development), practical action in the church, and community engagement. In the next two years I saw many different types of church and many different approaches to grassroots environmental action. I was invited to preach and give talks, and I organised regional network meetings. I also ran the website for a wider umbrella organisation, European Christian Environmental Network (ECEN), so encountered the often very different approaches being taken by churches in Germany, Sweden or Greece.
I was determined (never knowingly underambitious) that my church, where I sang evensong, should not only get an Eco-Congregation Award, it should be the best Eco-Congregation ever. The under-ambition of Eco-Congregation, it seemed to me, was to address the lifestyles of the congregation last. Surely it was obvious that if the church changed all its lightbulbs and prayed for ‘God’s good creation’, but the congregation carried on unchallenged in their wasteful, middle-class ways, this was simply tokenistic hypocrisy? I had learned (environmentalists learn this quickly) that telling people theircar or holidays were wicked tended to be counterproductive. So I made a poster, depicting an Edinburgh scene with around 100 little ideas for living a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle, along with a lot of little quotations from the bible which demonstrated what also seemed to me obvious: that living by scripture implies not harming nature.
Much environmental lifestyle material at the time suggested we should be aiming for a petty, parsimonious life obsessed with types of packaging and miles per gallon. So to challenge this I chose Psalm 96 as the key text, a vision of the natural world flourishing within a just society human society (the psalm personifies justice as ‘the Lord’, but you can equally validly read it in humanist terms, with justice as an abstract quality).
Sing to the Lord a new song;
sing to the Lord, all the earth […]
Say among the nations, ‘The Lord reigns.’
The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.
Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes,
he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples in his faithfulness.
I got together some support in the church and in September 2005 we organised an opening conference and gave out the ‘Earth be Glad’ leaflet, which was promoted throughout September, and at the beginning of October, at Harvest Festival, we invited people to make lifestyle pledges based on the ideas in the leaflet, to write them on paper leaves and hang them on a ‘tree’ at the front of the church. People enjoyed it, and were inspired. My leaflet was bought by other churches. We had a sense something new was possible. Then Harvest was over and that was it. There was no momentum. Church straight went back into the Imaginary Jesus rut. I hadn’t dropped a stone into a pool: I’d merely pressed a stone against a piece of ice and briefly melted a wee dent in it.
The idea of collective environmental action was inspiring, but the problem was there was no follow-up after the pledge. The latest thing was carbon footprint monitoring, but reducing a carbon footprint individually would have no impact on a planet with several billion human inhabitants: it was simply self-justification. But suppose whole communities, like churches, could monitor and reduce their carbon footprint together? Then you might get significant results. So a computer programmer and I brewed up a website where members of the church could create an account and enter their gas and electricity meter readings each month. In the first year people kept joining the scheme with different usages, so the average fluctuated wildly, and once membership stabilised, the weather fluctuated wildly between years, so there was no possibility of seeing whether anyone’s activity was reducing carbon emissions. However, it got people interested and in 2009 we got together a committee which won a grant from the Climate Challenge fund to develop the scheme, and myself and a far more experienced environmental activist worked on it for 18 months. The website became over-complicated and we never achieved the sustained monitoring I had hoped for, although we did raise a lot of environmental awareness, and by the end of it in 2011, a handful of people were sufficiently determined to keep it on the agenda to form a tiny permanent committee, which a witty priest dubbed the ‘Green Ginger Group’, because its aim was to ‘ginger’ the rest of the church into ‘green’ action.
It seems pretentious to say I went through a spiritual crisis, but it’s difficult to describe it as anything else. I had badgered and coaxed people in church into all kinds of other initiatives over these years: adopting a biodiversity policy in the garden, investigating environmental practices in the new building development, having a series of sermons and prayers reflecting on the environmental crisis each September, participating in a global initiative to ring bells to mark the opening of the climate summit in Copenhagen in 2011. Yet after many years of sporadic but determined work with this community, I had really achieved nothing. When there was a momentous demonstration in Glasgow called The Wave to call for a strong climate treaty in Copenhagen, St John’s was represented by three of us: me (soprano), my dad (bass), and a friend who wasn’t really a member of the church at all but occasionally sang tenor.
Meanwhile, since I began in 2005, nature had suffered badly. It was the State of the Oceans report, from a consensus of global marine scientists in 2012 that precipitated the crisis:
‘The world’s oceans are on the point of entering a phase of extinction unprecedented in human history. The first steps to globally significant extinction may have begun.’
Global consensuses of scientists do not say things like that. People who work on an evidential scientific basis do not announce that global apocalypse is beginning. Yet they just had. I knew I had failed, locally; but it was not just me. The environmental movement, which I had been following since primary school, had failed globally. In 2005 I had imagined building a sustainable society, a Psalm 96 Earth be Glad world, yet now mass extinction was upon us.
The reason it was a spiritual crisis was because it became apparent that the alternative to Imaginary Jesus – the ordinary, life-goes-on humanism which characterised the worldview of all my sensible friends – was just as flawed. Scientists were telling us we faced an apocalypse, and as one post-Kyoto summit followed another, and as one IPCC report followed another, and as carbon pollution became just one element in a mighty global killing involving palm oil, ocean junk, water theft, land grabbing, poaching – I realised we had lost control altogether. I was the last generation of historians, because our history was coming to an end. What does it mean, when evidential science tells us we have brought total destruction upon ourselves?
I gained a reputation as Jeremiah, and was banned from mentioning the environment in the pub. I thought and spoke to clergy and scientists, I frightened people and was ignored by people, and found everyone as unhelpful as they had been when I was finding out about religion all those years ago. I ended up thinking it through on my own. When I was invited to speak about our environmental work at St John’s, my talks had no hope, no salvation at the end, because I could see none. I couldn’t speak other than on an evidential basis, as a historian who listened to scientists: mass extinction is beginning, and there is no reasonable likelihood of action being taken to avert it. People said, ‘you must give us hope’, but I could not lie: I could not say, ‘maybe it won’t be as bad as you fear’. In any case, my upbeat vision of Psalm 96 hadn’t changed them: why should I purjure myself and let them go home entertained, when I knew it would not work?
I still had all that Christian knowledge. I had always admired the Gospels: those deeply radical teachings of Jesus about flowers and sparrows, cumin and figs, money and heaven, which I always read at face value, and I could never understand why so many people who ascribed to Imaginary Jesus appeared not to. You didn’t have to believe in God to know this was good stuff. Also, as a historian, I had as much respect for old wisdom as new wisdom. ‘We ain’t no smarter than our ancestors’, is Jonathan Steinburg’s First Law of History. Just because the bible is old and the culture is alien, doesn’t mean it isn’t as intelligent and sophisticated as anything that comes out of our culture.
Yet there was a lot of other stuff in the bible, the bonkers stuff, about apocalypse and salvation, miraculous conversions and miraculous redemptions, times so desperate that jobs, pensions, houses, religions, even families, could be dropped like old teabags. I’d never liked all that apocalyptic, miraculous stuff, because it had no evidential basis, and it annoyed me that the sensible Jesus had so much of it attributed to him. Yet now it had become relevant. The people talking about apocalypse – the people saying we needed some kind of miraculous conversion and global change of heart – were a conference of academic marine scientists. How much more evidentially-based could you get? The Bible was written, over about 500 years, by people experiencing the environmental crisis of the over-populated, over-exploited fertile crescent of the ancient Middle East. So from a historical point of view, it is unsurprising their experience should be a warning to us, and that what they wrote seems spookily prophetic and relevant. They were not foretelling our future: we are simply repeating their mistakes, but this time on a far more disastrous, global scale.
I don’t believe Jesus jumped out of a grave, or Divine Providence floats about listening to our prayers, any more than I believe Flopsy Bunny flies under the rainbow to Bearland. But if you get your head around the seriousness of the environmental crisis, and then read the bible, all of it is completely relevant, and profoundly true. The short fable of Jonah and the Whale, which packs a spectacular amount of psychology and sociology into something that sounds like a children’s story, is a particularly good introduction, which is why I made a re-telling of it the basis of a new ‘Earth be Glad’ initiative in 2014. The idea was based on a set of concepts far closer to that evangelical missionary Christianity I rejected so long ago, but not platonic and detached like it was, but earthed in beloved nature and mainstream science. For the first time in my life I am sure of what I am saying, about religion and about the environmental crisis. What I’m not sure is how I fit in: am I preaching the gospel or speaking about science? My listeners aren’t sure how to react: is this doom or hope? All I can report at this stage is that people from both religious and non-religious backgrounds are intrigued, and still thinking about what I said a long time later.
Some enthusiastic clergy say I’m a prophet, which sounds even more absurdly pretentious than saying I’ve been through a spiritual crisis. I’m a historian with a liking for church music and wild nature. I am a romantic: my life is an impatient pursuit of the love that will work, the love that will come out right, the love that will ring true. I hope that, with my odd mixture of cultural influences, I might have found something worth saying about true love, as we stand here on the brink of a mass extinction. I’d far rather not be talking about environmental crisis. I much prefer delivering a paper on Walter Scott’s treatment of father-daughter relationships, or the story of how George Gilbert Scott built a church for the millworkers of Hawick, or scrambling about the Angus Glens getting excited about bryophytes; but I can understand how that old prophet Amos felt 2500 years ago when he wrote:
The lion has roared –
who will not fear?
The Sovereign Lord has spoken –
who can but prophesy?
After thinking this through for thirty years, I have to talk about it and act on it. I wrote a short novel, Ursula, to explore the ethical issues with nuance and humour. I’ve spent every penny I have (and many I haven’t) on rescuing the old Edinburgh Academy field centre, Blair House, high amongst SSSIs and Munros in the Angus Glens, as a place to inspire children, academics, anyone with a passion for the natural world. I am continually exploring how communities, businesses, politicians can be led out of destructive paths and into Psalm 96 ones.
Finally, I’ll speak to any audience who is interested to hear me: churches, environmentalists, or religious or environmental sceptics. Invite me.