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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

What are the stories that we tell ourselves to make sense of such a mind-bogglingly, epically huge challenge as climate change?

Which are the narratives with the depth and resonance to inspire action? Are those stories all ultimately drawn from the sources of myth and religion? Are we telling the right stories?

If not, which one’s should we be telling instead?

That’s the fascinating conversation that we’ve been having with Michael Shellenberger since we reviewed his and Ted Nordhaus’ book “Breakthrough,” a couple of weeks ago.

We were dead chuffed (that’s an English expression – it means “gratified” or “appreciative”) to get this warm response from Michael to our review.

Thanks for this very thoughtful review of our book. I really appreciate the comparisons and contrasts you drew between DOE and Break Through, and your admonition that we take the ties between religion and politics seriously…

Michael Shellenberger

Michael Shellenberger

As for religion, we support a secular politics, not a religious one… We also think that gratitude toward creation, reverence, and awe are powerful motivators for a progressive politics. This is perhaps the least developed part of book, but it may also be, as you suggest, the most important one.

You ask, ‘Will a secularized version of this narrative, built around clean tech investment, have the mythical power to move America to act on climate change? Or will a deeper and even more resonant story be needed, say of the earth as the God’s wondrous Creation that we are bidden to cherish and love?’ I hope it’s both. To date the religious discourse greens have used has overwhelmingly been one of a fall from nature that ends in apocalypse.”

The question Michael asks raises something we’ve thought about quite a bit at Jewish Climate Initiative. I wrote back:

…Yes, I too hope it’s both. It is uncanny how many secular environmentalists have reached (perhaps unwittingly) for a narrative of climate change in which future hellfire and damnation are the wages of sin; a story rooted in religious myth and a completely unhelpful one for inspiring action. The stories that we tell about this, the good ones and the bad, tend to be
traceable back to spiritual narratives. One of the things we’ve learned from your book is the importance of finding those religious stories related to climate change that can empower and inspire. I too very much hope we’ll continue the conversation.”

It really is uncanny. I have a Google Alert set up to search for articles containing the words “climate change” and “religion.” The results from Europe are almost all news stories about religious groups mobilizing to combat climate change; the articles from the US, on the other hand are usually near-identical opinion columns by climate change skeptics decrying belief in global warming as “the new religion.”

Annoying as these pieces are, the grain of truth within them is that many climate change activists have structured their case along mythic-religious lines. Whether consciously or not, they have borrowed a canonical, and readily available myth of Western culture to tell their story.

This is strikingly evident in the books of two very good recent writers on global change, George Monbiot and Mark Lynas. Both use medieval reworkings of the Christian myth of hell-fire and damnation to add a dash of literary panache and moral urgency to their writings. Lynas in his “Six Degrees” quotes liberally from Dante’s “Inferno,” while Monbiot in “Heat” spins a nice little allegory of climate change based on Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus:”

“Faustus is humankind, restless, curious, unsated. Mephistopheles… is fossil fuel. Faust’s miraculous abilities are the activities fossil fuel permits…And the flames of hell – well, I think you’ve worked that out for yourself.”

Even in post-Christian Britain, where Tony Blair recently admitted that he had kept quiet about his strong religious beliefs while Prime Minister, for fear of being branded a “nutter,” images of fire and brimstone are present enough in the national psyche to be irresistibly handy for global warming writers. Unfortunately, these myths provoke widespread paralysis, denial and despair and are generally not helpful to the public discourse on climate change.

Myth might be described as the deep, structuring narratives of human experience, and their primary source is in the great religious traditions. They are “the music we dance to even when we cannot name the tune”, as Bill Moyers put it, summing up the work of the greatest twentieth century mythology scholar, Joseph Campbell. Like Campbell, when we say “myth” we don’t mean “untrue”; rather we are talking about the deepest levels of psychic and spiritual truth.

Human beings need myth to make sense of the world. However, it is highly questionable whether the myth of hellfire is a helpful one in the climate change context. The implication that we are all sinners, and that we are therefore heading for damnation, may shake up some people, but no doubt pushes many more into despair or denial. We need to draw on all of the world’s great spiritual traditions to articulate different, more hopeful and empowering mythic understandings of climate change.

As a mere starting point, let us look at the most obvious biblical narrative of climate change, the story of Noah and the flood. This is sometimes thought of (for example by the Christian eco-feminist theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether in her book Gaia and God) as an apocalyptic end of the world myth. The rabbis, however read it as a story of human moral empowerment.

Noah heard a warning from God. His world was about to be inundated by catastrophic climate change. This threat was a result of systemic ethical failures. “The earth was corrupted before God, and the Land was filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:11.)

God commanded Noah to build an ark. The midrash asks why this was necessary. Couldn’t God have simply borne Noah up to Heaven? The answer is that the whole purpose of the ark was that it took a long time to build. First Noah had to plant cedar trees, which take a long time to grow. God wanted Noah’s contemporaries to see the construction, take heed of what was to come, and avert the decree by changing their ways.

Unfortunately, the response of Noah’s generation during the hundred and twenty year construction period was to scoff, deny the threat and refuse to change. The flood came, Noah and his family was saved, the rest of humankind perished.

Yet the Torah is implicitly critical of Noah for not having done more to save others. In the Torah text, he is silent. In the Midrash, he tells others,” God intends to bring a flood on the world, and told me to make an ark, so that I and my household may escape.” Noah’s passivity is compared disparagingly to the activism of Abraham, who took responsibility for the fate of his generation.

At the dawn of the twenty first century a new warning has been sounded. Today, there is no ark except the earth, and no prospect of salvation apart from the entire global family. We must hear the call and repair Noah’s mistake of indifference to his neighbors. Climate change challenges us to act like Abraham, and work with the rest humanity to save our common home.

For more on climate change ethics, we invite you to visit our ethics page at JewishClimateInitiative.org.

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By Rabbi Julian Sinclair

Last month Al Gore gave a rousing speech on climate change. He threw down an audacious challenge to the American people. By 2020, Gore declared, let America be powered 100% by renewable sources of energy.

Gore appealed to the Apollo Project as the model for an enterprise of such grandeur.

In 1961 President Kennedy announced his goal that America put a man on the moon within a decade. Kennedy’s challenge captured America’s imagination and galvanized the American computer, aeronautics and space industries. As wildly ambitious as the aim at first appeared, the United States reached it with 15 months to spare. Today, Gore announced, we need a new Apollo Mission for energy.

Here’s the video of the speech:

Painting a vision of this magnitude represented something of a departure for Al Gore in his thinking about how to move people on climate change. He has done more than anyone to raise awareness of the issue, but at first he appeared to think that simply laying out the inconvenient truth about global warming would be sufficient to mobilize action. When it didn’t, he started musing about the inconvenient evolution of the human fear gland that was designed to respond to immediate, emotional stimuli rather than cognitive and scientific input.

In his Apollo speech, Gore was adopting the approach of two renegade activists, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Their 2004 essay “The Death of Environmentalism” argued that environmentalism was too fear-based, too narrow and too policy wonky to ever make a real difference on climate change. The piece set off a firestorm of controversy in the green movement. After all as former Sierra Club President Adam Werbach observed, “nobody likes to be called dead, especially when they think they are still alive.”

Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility” is the updated book length version of Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s thesis. It’s an important book as it encapsulates a body of thinking that has done much to reorient the US environmental movement’s response to climate change, from Al Gore downwards.

In “Breakthrough,” Nordhaus and Shellenberger expand on their critique of classic environmentalism and broaden it into a new vision of progressive politics.

The starting point of their critique is that the doom-mongering discourse of climate change doesn’t work. It just paralyzes people. They quote the most quoted lines of their earlier essay:

“Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech is famous because it put forward an inspiring, positive vision that carried a critique of the current moment within it. Imagine how history would have turned out had King given an “I have a nightmare speech” instead.” (p.1)

Shellenberger and Nordhaus

Environmentalism has for forty years been giving “I have a nightmare” speeches. As the nightmares have become more lurid and terrifying, culminating in the four horseman of the apocalypse predictions on climate change, people have stopped listening.

Focusing on problems has been problematic for environmentalists for other reasons too, the authors claim. It has turned the movement into a special interest group concerned with its own particular category of problem objects, polluted water, air, endangered species etc, to the exclusion of other people’s problems, such as jobs, race, women’s rights etc. Furthermore it has led to environmentalists speaking a jargon of technical, legal and bureaucratic solutions to their problems (CAFÉ standards, cap and trade etc.) as if the American electorate was made up of “one hundred million policy wonks.”

Breakthrough argues that the way forward for environmentalism is to become part of a progressive politics that emphasizes possibilities rather than limits and that recounts an inspiring story rather than a litany of problems and grievances. It needs to recognize Americans aspirations for meaning and fulfillment.
Nordhaus and Shellenberger urge progressives to look across the chasm of the culture wars and learn from what those on the other side are doing right; the Republicans have been telling a story about American national greatness and moral strength that resonates across the income groups and Evangelicals such as Rev. Rick Warren have drawn tens of thousands to their mega-churches by preaching the spiritual greatness and uniqueness inherent in every person.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger exhort environmentalists and progressives to find a way to tap into these rich sources of inspirational and electoral power. In particular, they urge the left to unite around the New Apollo Project, a program for combating climate change that will invest $300 billion in renewable energy R and D. They estimate that the program will create 3 million jobs, undercutting the claim that environmental concern must come at the cost of trade union jobs and so helping to create a broad backing coalition. The Project is wrapped in an uplifting story of how American inventiveness, know how and get-up-and-go will once again come to the world’s rescue.

Some of Breakthrough’s points are spot on; about the enervating effect of doom and gloom, the fragmenting consequences of environmentalists’ focusing on things, and the key role of vision and values in mobilizing action on climate change. It’s a bracing read too, grappling with Fukuyama’s End of History thesis, Paul Berman’s elergy to the sixties generation, “What’s the Matter with Kansas,” John Dewey, and the American Transcendentalist tradition of Emerson and Thoreau, among other sparring partners.

The main weakness of the book is that the authors are fixated on the question “how are we going to get a Democrat into the White House and blue majority in both houses of Congress?” This leads them to discount potentially good solutions to climate change because they aren’t politically sexy. For example, they give Cap and Trade short shrift (p258) because it’s a problem based solution and “politicians who vote against such initiatives won’t pay a price at the next election.” In other words, it can’t easily be explained in a ten second sound bite. Nevertheless cap and trade is indispensable for leveling the energy playing field and bringing renewable sources on stream sooner.

The political slant of the book also leads the authors to reject any approach that might make Americans feel bad about their role in creating the world’s environmental crises. We are repeatedly told that Americans respond to a vision of aspiration and possibility far better than to the old environmental politics of limits and constraints. That may be empirically true, but maybe the fact that the United States, with 4% of the world’s population, has produced 30% of the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere should prompt some soul searching about whether a few limits might indeed be in order. And if politicians can’t do the prompting, then perhaps someone else needs to. Religious leaders, for example.

In fact, anyone who has thought about the intersection of religion and ecology will be struck by the weirdly ambivalent relationship that Shellenberger and Nordhaus have to religion. They admire Evangelical churches for giving their congregants an overarching moral framework, and a strong sense of esteem and belonging and wish that there were liberal institutions that could do the same in a way that wasn’t as patriarchal and reactionary as they find the Evangelicals to be. But the authors are unconvincing about where the progressive counterparts to such values might come from.

At the end of “Death of Environmentalism,” Shellenberger and Nordhaus wrote:

“Environmentalists need to tap into the creative worlds of myth-making, even religion, not to better sell narrow and technical policy proposals but rather to figure out who we are and who we need to be.”

In Breakthrough, they do not repeat this call for a turn to religion as a source for ecological thought. The story of American greatness has become the aspirational myth that can inspire the fight against climate change. But it was a Puritan pastor, John Winthrop who first sketched the vision of the “Shining City on the Hill”, and the “I have a Dream” speech was drenched with biblical references. Will a secularized version of this narrative, built around clean tech investment, have the mythical power to move America to act on climate change? Or will a deeper and even more resonant story be needed, say of the earth as the God’s wondrous Creation that we are bidden to cherish and love?

“Breakthrough: From the Death of Environmentalism to the politics of Possibility.” Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Houghton and Mifflin 2007.

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