Though you wouldn’t know it now, for most of the modern era apocalyptic Christian thought has been intertwined with a scathing critique of capitalism. In the 1890s one premillennialist writer declared that America was controlled by “iniquitous business combines,” and in the 1930s another declared flatly, “God hates Big Business.” It was the strategic alignment of the Christian right with the Republican party since the 1970s, I suppose, that toned down such talk.
But the idea that God will punish the nation for its economic greed has gained a sort of rebirth with the advent of global warming. Witness this article (via Lee) in which Bill McKibben points to the increased frequency of hurricanes and writes, “This is the way God used to deliver messages back in the not very subtle day of plagues and floods.”
To stop this, he says, the world needs to reduce fossil fuel use by 70 percent. Immediately. This is not impossible, he asserts, if we are willing to improve our moral character:
Mandatory, too, because taking on climate change would mean taking on the central unchristian element of American culture: its wild individualism. More than anything else, fossil fuel has allowed us to stop being neighbors to each other, both literallyâ€”we move ever farther into ever emptier suburbsâ€”and figurativelyâ€”we depend less and less on each other for anything real. (The SUV, with its almost invariably single passenger, is the symbol of this trend.) This is what makes the politics of real change so difficult. Politicians are not willing to ask anyone to change. Not when three quarters of American Christians tell pollsters that they think the phrase “God helps those who help themselves” can be found in the Bible.
This is where I start getting irritated. Yes, we Westerners consume way more than we really need. Yes, modern technology, much of it fossil-fuel-driven, has helped make society more impersonal. But I think that casting the stoppage of global warming as perfectly congruent with fixing the flaws in our moral fiber is way too simplistic.
Take what I am doing now, for instance: blogging. Much of the increase in energy use in the last 20 years has been driven by communications technologies, and as I can tell you from my last computer upgrade, they are hogging more energy all the time. In fact, much technological innovation of the last decade hasn’t been in the service of isolating people but of connecting them. To some extent, of course, this is solving a problem that technology itself created, but it is also connecting people with distant folk who would have been totally Other back in the days when people huddled in the villages where they were born.
My boyfriend and I were talking about global warming recently, and he raised a couple of other problems he’s still chewing on. One is that he burns up a huge number of miles on his car precisely because he loves nature. His ideal way to spend a day off is to drive for three hours to some remote spot and wander around taking pictures. As far as nature is concerned, I suppose it would be better off if we didn’t love it but feared it, the way premodern folk used to tell stories about the terrible things that would happen if you disturbed the forest spirits too much.
A larger problem he brought up, however, is one that McKibben mentions in passing but promptly drops. Even if Westerners manage to drastically cut back their energy use, there are huge emerging economies like China and India that would probably be happy to use the oil that we don’t. John remarked that there’s a huge political problem with telling these countries that, after we’ve enjoyed the fruits of industrial prosperity for 150 years, we’ve now discovered that if they do they same they’ll wreck the planet. If I were an Indian, my reaction would probably echo the Church Lady: “How convenient.”
We are not just talking about fruits like TVs and cell phones, either. Modern medicine requires a lot of energy, too — the running of hospitals and their equipment, the research involved in creating drugs and in mass-producing them, all take lots of juice. Furthermore, it is well known that one of the big problems with medicine in the poorer parts of the world is physically getting it to people living out in trackless villages; building and running such an infrastructure would also take lots of energy.
The fact is, Christian fundamentalists and Republican congressmen aren’t the only people in the world who fail to place their trust in Western scientists. From what I’ve seen many Africans aren’t even sold on the accepted scientific understanding of HIV, and that’s certainly had a bigger impact on them so far than global warming. It’s painful to watch, but I also don’t see it as an unmitigated character flaw. The Western world has earned its mistrust.
Another phenomenon I have seen is what happens if something is successfully prevented. Often as not, the non-event causes a lot of people to wonder if the whole thing was worth the cost, or maybe even a big con, because, you know, nothing happened. I’ve seen it with the Y2K bug, with some averted African droughts, with recent terrorists plots that the feds said they foiled. This quality of the human character is not uniformly positive, but on the other hand, prevention always looks better in hindsight. In the present, it involves a weird state where nothing is actually going wrong, but everyone is maximally afraid of what could go wrong. In the English language, that state is generally called paranoia.
That is largely why, in my gut, I don’t think global warming can be indefinitely put off. It can be slowed, which would certainly help people to adjust to the changes. But the sort of dramatic, instant and permanent conversion of the world that McKibben envisions would take a miracle. I cannot rule out miracles, of course, but neither can I plan them. And trying to force miracles certainly has its own hazards. Another thing that bothers me about solutions to global warming is that they seem, by necessity, to be so authoritarian. In James Burke’s After the Warming, a sci-fi documentary from an imagined future, Burke says that in the 21st century a planetary authority took charge of the matter, enacting sweeping reforms such as outlawing beef. Nasty issues like how this was enforced were, to my memory, left unexplored.
I think the issue underlying all this is that, even on the Christian left, there still is a certain conflict between science and religion. The predictions of climatologists are mechanistic. The weather, in their models, doesn’t care what your reasons are for putting carbon dioxide in the air, nor does it care what means you use to lower them. It responds the same regardless. Only a personal God cares about motivations, or has mercy on sinners. So while the hand of God may indeed be in all this, I am not comfortable with turning climatologists into prophetic interpreters of natural events. Ultimately, their assumptions come from different premises.
In many ways, this whole discussion really reminds me of the last chapter of The Politics of Jesus, which I blogged about here. At the beginning of it Yoder discussed various efforts to discern the direction of history, and to manipulate it for certain desirable outcomes. The Bible, he says, rejects such approaches as human hubris; God knows where history is headed, and so his commands, even if they don’t seem practical in the short term, will lead us to the right place. There is something in that to be applied here, I think. Certainly Christian mores like supporting local communities and rejecting materialism can help fight global warming; but on the other hand, anointing scientists as prophets, making utilitarian calculations about what solution will kill the fewest people, and justifyng the power of government as a means to an end are actions that might combat global warming but aren’t exactly Christian. As with premillennialism, a little less grand theorizing and a little more trust in God might be in order.