The Climate Summit: to save nature we must start with human nature

Carolyn Moynihan
September 23, 2019
Reproduced with Permission

Around 60 world leaders are meeting today for a climate summit hosted by the United Nations in New York. The UN Secretary-General, António Guterres told the media on Sunday that he is encouraged by what some countries are doing and by the rise of the youth climate movement, but he expects "very meaningful" commitments to be made at the summit.

Earlier he warned, "Nature is angry. Nature, you cannot play tricks with nature. Nature strikes back and we are seeing nature striking back."

"Tricks" is an interesting word for how we relate to nature today, one worth coming back to, but it hardly describes the human causes of climate change. Our forebears were not trying to deceive nature when they invented the steam engine or the blast furnace; they were merely applying human ingenuity to the resources they discovered in nature to speed up the production of goods and improve living standards. At least for the few.

But, according to today's climate change experts, the current phase of global warming did begin during the Industrial Revolution, with the use of coal to drive machinery and the resulting boost to carbon dioxide emissions. With the addition of oil and gas this effect increased exponentially in the 20th century.

Everything was booming in the 20th century. As an essay in The Economist puts it,

"In no previous century had the human population doubled. In the 20th century it came within a whisker of doubling twice. In no previous century had world gdp doubled. In the 20th century it doubled four times and then some."

Some blame "the population explosion" for all this industrial production and the accompanying environmental degradation and atmospheric warming. However, the fact that world production increased more than twice as much as the population suggests another culprit: over-production to feed consumerism, and profit for the producers; in other words, a materialistic orgy of making and consuming as ends in themselves.

From the gas-guzzling cars of the 1950s to the latest smart screen and the multiplication of food and clothing outlets today, this culture has emerged from an attitude of ruthless exploitation of nature – including human nature – that goes back to the birth of mass production in the "dark Satanic Mills" of early industrial England.

But there was something before that. According to this writer there was a separation of humans from nature, which started "with the rise of Judaeo-Christian values 2000 years ago." Prior to that, paganism and other natural religions found the sacred in nature and saw "humanity as thoroughly enmeshed within it [i.e. nature]."

"When Judaism and Christianity rose to become the dominant religious force in Western society, their sole god – as well as sacredness and salvation – were re-positioned outside of nature. The Old Testament taught that God made humans in his own image and gave them dominion over the Earth."

I am no expert on nature religions but I do know something about the Judaeo-Christian tradition and this statement leaves out a lot more than it explains.

For a start, in the creation story we learn that when God created man he placed him – where? In a garden, in a state of harmony with the animals and plants, over which he and she were given a dominion that was conditioned by stewardship; they were to "till it and to keep [conserve] it". Human wilfulness spoiled this lovely plot, but the commission holds good.

As Pope Francis pointed out in his ecological encyclical, "Laudato si", by no longer seeing nature as divine, Judaeo-Christian thought actually

"emphasizes all the more our human responsibility for nature. This rediscovery of nature can never be at the cost of the freedom and responsibility of human beings who, as part of the world, have the duty to cultivate their abilities in order to protect it and develop its potential."

Furthermore, if the God of Jews and Christians (and Muslims for that matter) transcends nature, as He certainly does, and created man in His own image, as He certainly did, it is also true that according to the Christian faith God became man in Jesus Christ.

The Word of God took flesh of a woman, Christ worked with wood, called himself a shepherd, chose fishermen for his close companions, told parables about trees and birds, worked miracles with water and dust, and instituted sacraments whose outward signs are basic material things such as water and oil. Christ himself, according to the Catholic faith, is received under the signs of bread and wine. A transcendent God can't get much more enmeshed with nature than that.

In fact, it was the incarnational realism of the Catholic faith that the reformers of the 16th century were so anxious to discard, along with papal authority. One could trace a line from their rejection of God really present in a piece of bread, to the rationalism of the Enlightenment, to the separation of man from nature, and the subsequent treatment of nature as mere matter to be exploited.

The key figure in that development was the French philosopher René Descartes, whose famous dictum "I think, therefore I am," signals a disruption of the view, going back to the Greek philosophers, continuing into the Middle Ages and persisting into our own time, that man is an inseparable union of body and soul. As Michael Cook wrote recently:

"Descartes problematized this mysterious but evident union. His successors found more and more problems and by the 19th Century, man had shrivelled away and become a "ghost in a machine". The real person was the ghost, that is, our will or our consciousness. Our bodies are just machines, clunky instruments to be used and modified at the owner's discretion."

The context for that remark was today's gender ideology, according to which, if a man thinks he is really a woman, then it is his body that must be changed, not his mind. (I think, therefore I am.) And similarly for a woman, or, increasingly, a child – including some who have barely reached the age of reason.

And here's the point: this attitude to the body is all of a piece with that arbitrary attitude to the rest of nature which has now landed us – or soon will – in hot water. And it is not the only example; the way was prepared by the manipulation of sex with contraceptive technology, which enables us to use the body as a thing, not an integral part of our person.

Laudato si condemns this attitude:

"… our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. The acceptance of our bodies as God's gift is vital for welcoming and accepting the entire world as a gift from the Father and our common home, whereas thinking that we enjoy absolute power over our own bodies turns, often subtly, into thinking that we enjoy absolute power over creation. Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology." (155)

On the other hand, and to borrow Mr Gutteres' term, "the tricks we play" with our own human nature stand in obvious contradiction to the mounting concern for preservation and rehabilitation of the natural world, to our indignation at its wilful and reckless exploitation, and our fear of the dire consequences that are now, apparently, staring us in the face.

The writer quoted earlier, who mistakenly traces the root of our current malaise to the Judaeo-Christian tradition, wants schools to

"use every opportunity in the curriculum and playtime to tell children a new story of our place within the natural world. … According to this story, the decision of whether to fell a forest for cattle grazing is not merely weighed against carbon accounting – which allows us to offset the cost by installing solar panels – but against respect for the forest and its inhabitants."

What about some respect for human nature and its mind-body unity? What about us becoming re-acquainted with our bodies, and listening respectfully to what they tell us about who we really are when we are not abusing them with drugs and devices?

This, though as old as Western civilisation, would certainly be a "new story" for today's young people, and like the climate change accounting, we owe it to them. How about putting that to the world leaders, Mr Gutteres? After all, if we cannot understand and respect ourselves, what hope is there that we will understand and respect the world around us?