Breda O’Brien: Spirituality is vital in facing climate change

Spirituality and religion provide a kind of sustenance that allows people to change, even in halting, imperfect ways

COP26: ‘We could despair and say nothing we do has any relevance until the behemoths who are driving the climate catastrophe choose to change. Yet all successful social change begins small.’ Photograph: Emily Macinnes/Bloomberg

COP26: ‘We could despair and say nothing we do has any relevance until the behemoths who are driving the climate catastrophe choose to change. Yet all successful social change begins small.’ Photograph: Emily Macinnes/Bloomberg

 

Vaclav Havel, playwright, political dissident and former president of Czechoslovakia, once wrote a much-quoted piece about hope. What he prefaced it with is quoted much more rarely. Havel describes how in 1989 he visited a place called Okrouhlice just outside Prague. 

 Although he claims he was stone-cold sober, he led a friend who was the worse for wear down a dark path. Without warning, Havel fell down into a deep, steep-sided sewer.

For 30 minutes, he struggled to keep from drowning in the excrement while people panicked and attempted unsuccessful rescue efforts. Eventually, someone found a long ladder.  Havel states that he did not, after all, have the distinction of becoming the first playwright to drown in sh*t at Okrouhlice.

This simultaneously terrifying and absurd incident prefaces some of the best things ever written about hope, including this passage: “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It’s not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. It is this hope, above all, that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things, even in conditions that seem as hopeless as ours do, here and now.”

Watching the posturing, the hypocrisy and the small gains at COP26, I thought of the flawed Havel, who preached truth but was seemingly incapable of being faithful to his long-suffering wife, Olga – a man who could not keep his country united and who failed in so many ways, and yet, taught us something vital about hope, in prison, in politics, and in sewers. 

Optimism about the climate crisis is impossible to sustain and pessimism is paralysing. Hope is sustainable. Havel described hope as an orientation of the spirit.

Motivation

Spirituality is a vital aspect of creating change. Even mentioning spirituality will cause some people to roll their eyes, believing that the solutions lie only in the practical application of science. It is true that scientific solutions are vital but science alone cannot provide motivation to change our behaviour in the most fundamental of ways.

We are addicted to our consumerist lifestyle and as they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, addiction cannot be overcome without a spiritual awakening.

In fact, there is a great deal in the 12-step programme that is applicable to the climate crisis. We need to acknowledge that the problem has become unmanageable and then turn to a higher power. Wisely, AA allows people to decide for themselves what higher power they will call on, thus allowing atheists, agnostics and believers alike to access resources to battle their demons.

Other steps include making a fearless moral inventory and attempts at apology and restitution while instituting spiritual practices that support these changes.

Even those who are allergic to spirituality and its close cousin, religion, must acknowledge that it is a case of all hands being needed to bail out the leaking boat. People do not make profound changes without serious motivation.

Spirituality and religion provide a kind of sustenance that allows people to change, even in halting, imperfect ways. Organisations such as Eco-Congregation are providing ecumenical leadership for people who otherwise might remain unengaged.

Churches and religions are full of flawed human beings who are capable of dreadful things but they are also rich repositories of habits and attitudes. At their best, they are communitarian and therefore, a powerful antidote to the kind of individualism that makes cooperation in service of important goals so difficult.

In his recent pastoral letter, The Cry of the Earth – The Cry of the Poor, Archbishop Dermot Farrell identifies elements of what he calls a culture of care. He describes a sense of gratitude and wonder for the gift of this extraordinary planet. He talks about sensitivity towards and commitment to the vulnerable, the weak, the defenceless and the voiceless.

Investment

He suggests an active investment in people and in the environment, drawing on the parable of the Good Samaritan, who invested time and money to help someone who was not of his people or culture. Finally, the archbishop talks of a sense of finitude and limit, a knowledge that everything is finite – the oceans, the soil, the air we breathe, the lives of people.

The latter encourages humility, again an antidote to the human hubris that has brought us to this place of crisis.

Ignoring religious traditions means missed opportunities. For example, meatless Mondays are a good idea but why not draw on the cultural tradition that existed until recently in Ireland of fasting on Friday from meat? Anglican traditions of harvest thanksgiving are other wells from which to draw.

Some will say that these small gestures are meaningless. We could despair and say nothing we do has any relevance until the behemoths who are driving the climate catastrophe choose to change.

Yet all successful social change begins small. Ripples of influence spread out until the powerful are forced to take notice. Hope that gives us strength to live and to continually try new things allows us to build the ladder that might just let us climb out the sewer we are now in danger of drowning in.

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