Antidotes to Environment Despair - for Christian Believers and Others
Dr David Golding CBE
“Thank you so much for sharing these encouraging thoughts.
I am glad my words were of assistance and… inspiration for you!
(Dr Katharine Hayhoe, Chief Scientist, The (US ) Nature Conservancy)
"Dr Golding's article presents a case for hope that is both scientifically grounded and spiritually wise. Without settling for naive optimism, he sets out ways to live positively and constructively –
in fullness of life, during this moment of crisis."
(Revd Professor Charlotte Sleigh, Vice-president, British Society for the History of Science;
Curate, St Martin and St Paul, Canterbury)
“This study demonstrates that it is never too late to do something and, regardless of religion
or faith, we can identify the antidotes that we need to overcome environmental despair
- and move on to a brighter future.”
Professor Sir Christopher Edwards, Former Vice-Chancellor at Newcastle University;
Trustee, Planet Earth Institute
Author’s note: I received many appreciative responses to my article, “Harvest – will you mark it with celebration or lament?” (https://www.drdavidgolding.com/post/harvest-23-will-you-mark-it-with-celebration-or-lament), which was an update of one published in The Church of England Newspaper on 14th October, 2022. However, concern has been raised that the bleak message it conveys will engender, in ‘the wo/man in the pew’, not action, but despair. I fear this could be right. Perhaps I focused too exclusively on the shameful distortions so often reflected by church services at harvest, at the expense of sensitivity for the hearts of the actual worshipers. So I now offer to the Christian community, and others, some suggested “Antidotes to Environment Despair”. I thank Revd Rachel Webbley, Rector of St Alphege, Whitstable, and those named above, for helpful discussions of this issue.
“It is easy to focus on the negative and feel defeated, especially when it seems to be coming for us from every angle. In a 2021 survey of 10,000 children and young adults from 10 countries, 59 percent said they were very or extremely worried about climate change.” (Dr Katharine Hayhoe, Chief Scientist at the US Nature Conservancy, 2023)
This problem is particularly acute now, in the aftermath of COP 28, the international climate conference in Dubai, last year. Searching for an appropriate response brought to mind the thrashing administered to the delegates at COP17 (yes, COP17!), in Durban, in 2011, by Anjali Appadurai, representing the youth delegation: "You have been negotiating all my life. In that time, you have failed to meet pledges; you have missed your targets and you have broken your promises," she thundered. But the rebuke by that unqualified teenager just echoed the judgement by the legendary climate scientist, Dr James Hansen, just two years earlier: “They talk about goals which sound impressive, but… the actions are such that it will be impossible to reach those goals.” And so it has continued. However, for those wanting a broader, more considered, view of COP28, I commend Tearfund’s assessment. Go to www.tearfund.org/stories/2023/12/good-cop-or-bad-cop.
Dr Katharine Hayhoe, Chief Scientist at the US Nature Conservancy, stated in her Facebook page, on 23rd August, that, “It is easy to focus on the negative and feel defeated [on the climate crisis], especially when it seems to be coming for us from every angle. In a 2021 survey of 10,000 children and young adults from 10 countries (including the U.S.), 59 percent said they were very or extremely worried about climate change. More than half said they felt sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless or guilty. Three-quarters said they think the future is ‘frightening,’ says this article.”
The problem of eco-anxiety, particularly as it affects children, has always troubled me greatly. However, there really is ‘cause for concern’ about the future of life on earth – the now very real possibility of “the abyss of climate breakdown, mass extinction, mass starvation and mass migration”, as Ruth Jarman, one of our leading environmental campaigners puts it. In this, Ruth is merely echoing the findings of the IPPC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 5th Report, 2022), whose work is based on tens of thousands of bona fide, peer-reviewed scientific publications and has been unequivocally endorsed by all the world’s leading national academies of science (of which our own ‘Royal Society’ is the oldest): “Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.”
Believing, as I do, that God has written two books for our illumination, namely the Bible and his creation, I don’t believe it’s consistent with Christian discipleship to try and deal with the environmental crisis by pandering to facile optimism. We should deny those who, in their determination not to be disturbed, “say to the prophets, ‘Give us no more visions of what is right! Instead, tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions!’” (Isaiah 30.10) "I want you to panic!", said the redoubtable, 15 years-old, Greta Thunberg, in 2017, but although a bit of panic would be an improvement on the current, widespread complacency and indifference evident within the Christian community (sigh), it is hardly consistent with Christian faith!
For those who turn away from ‘wilful blindness’ and “try to face the truth of where we are at, climate anxiety and grief are healthy and natural and right responses”, according to Ruth, and I think she’s right. However, to become incapacitated by anxiety and give way to despair is most certainly neither healthy nor right! Furthermore, the command “Fear not!” is said to be repeated 365 times (!) in the Bible, despite being often accompanied by warnings of great difficulties to come. So how do we deal with the temptation to despair?
Antidote to Despair 1: - An antidote from climate science
A surprising source, you may think, but the first antidote is the present state of climate science! As Dr Katharine says, “stories of crisis make headline news every day, but there are many examples of hopeful stories that get lost between the doom and gloom – from companies, governments, people, and organizations taking action. I mention these stories every week in my newsletter if you are doubtful!” https://bit.ly/3OLmKSY
True, terrible times lay ahead - they are now 'baked in' as a result of humanity's woeful abuse of creation over the past 30 years. Limiting heating to 1.5 degrees, to which the world’s governments committed themselves in 2015, is now beyond our reach and the 2 degree, ‘fall-back’, limit is now in grave doubt. However, the very worst, i.e., total climate cataclysm and rampant wildlife extinction, is still avoidable, if we take urgent and vigorous action. And as Dr Katharine says, every tenth of a degree is worth fighting for!
Antidote to Despair 2: Swop Foreboding for Inspiration!
This was the statement made by the man who used to be introduced as “The next President of the United States” ☺, Nobel Peace Prize winner, Al Gore, at the close of the COP 13, International Climate Change Conference, in Bali, 2007:
“Not too long from now, when our children assess what we and our generation did here in this world, they will ask one of two questions.
“They'll look back, and either they will ask ‘What were you thinking? Didn't you hear the IPCC three times (now it’s five) unanimously warning the world to act? Didn't you see the glaciers melting? Didn't you see the deserts growing, and the droughts deepening, and the crops drying up? Didn't you pay attention to what was going on? Didn't you care? What were you thinking?’
“Or they'll ask a second question, one that I'd much prefer them to ask. I want them to look back on this time, and ask: ‘How did you find the moral courage to successfully address a crisis that so many said was impossible? How were you able to start the process that unleashed the moral imagination of humankind to see ourselves as a single, global civilisation?’
“And when they ask that question, I want you to tell them that you saw it as a privilege to be alive at a moment when a relatively small group of people could control the destiny of all generations to come.
“Instead of shaking our heads at the difficulty of this task, and saying ‘Woe is us, this is impossible, how can we do this?’, we ought to feel a sense of joy that we have work that is worth doing that is so important to the future of all humankind. We ought to feel a sense of exhilaration that we are the people alive at a moment in history when we can make all the difference.”
[Of course, I would say, “When we, with the help of God and by his grace, can make all the difference”.]
Antidote to Despair 3: Just do something positive, for the best of all reasons!
The leading (Christian, I believe) environmentalist, Bill McKibben, says, "People always come up to me at my talks to say, 'How do I make things better?' That strikes me as a very psychologically healthy response to the situation we're in. It's in some respects like any other emergency. If your house is on fire, what do you do? You try to put it out. The best antidote for despair is action."
In an attempt to respond positively to the problem of eco-anxiety in children, I always went out of my way to support Greta Thunberg’s 'Fridays for the Future' school strikes – most unhappily brought to a premature end by the pandemic. I even went to the extent of joining the group in North Tyneside, then jumping on the Metro to be in time to support the Newcastle one! Psychologists were clear that participation in the strikes gave youngsters a sense of 'agency' - of doing something positive – and that this contributed positively to their psychological and emotional health.
Being in a family with adults who face up to the realities fully AND are both living responsibly (low carbon; supporting biodiversity; cutting the plastic); AND, more important, engaging with our leaders; AND, best of all, “practise civil disobedience for the sake of righteousness” (Pete Greig, Co-Founder, 24-7 Prayer Movement, and Tearfund Ambassador), if we are able, will give those involved, young and old, just such a sense of agency, apart from the fact that those things are good, in and of themselves.
But ideally, Christians should do these things for the best of reasons! As Ruth pointed out, instead of worrying about “your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear” (Matthew 6.25), either in the here and now, or in an increasingly climate-ravaged future, Jesus said we are to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” – in other words, we should “worry about something worthwhile”! To do so, also has implications for life in the world to come.
Antidote to Despair 4: Place your confidence in God in the here and now
“A Poem of Lament” (Drew Dellinger)
It's 3:23 in the morning…
and I'm awake…
because my great great grandchildren…
won't let me sleep.
My great great grandchildren…
ask me in dreams…
“What did you do while the Planet was plundered?
what did you do when the Earth was unravelling?
Surely you did something…
when the seasons started failing?
as the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?
Did you fill the streets with protest?...
What did you do…
“Forbid it, Lord, that this terrible thing should come to pass!
But if, in accordance with your immutable decree, it should do so,
let us have no readily avoidable part in it…
may it not happen with our meek acquiescence…
and help us to remember that you will be with us,
for time and eternity, Amen.”
Antidote to Despair 5: Always remember, there’s a New Day coming!
There's a New Day coming - a glorious kingdom, in a renewed creation - and it will characterised by 'shalom' (peace, health and justice) in the relationships between God and humanity, between human beings, and between humanity and the rest of creation. And this isn’t just any old hope, this is our Assured Hope!
But the kingdom is here right now, albeit in its infancy, since it was inaugurated by the coming of Jesus, and believers are members of it right now. And they are part of the new creation right now. Consequently, we should personify the values of that coming kingdom, and exemplify the characteristics of that new creation, in all we do right now!
Anything we do now in this spirit, to live out the values of the coming kingdom, is of lasting significance! Even if the impacts of reformed lifestyles, restored environments, or climate advocacy, are swamped by contrary developments, such lives are “not in vain in the Lord” (I Cor. 15.58). In ways we can barely imagine, lives lived now which reflect the character of the coming kingdom, in the renewed creation that is to come, have enduring value and their echoes will sound on into eternity!
[This section’s thoughts were inspired by “Hope in an Age of Despair – the gospel and the future of life on earth”, by Jonathan Moo and Robert White, IVP, 2013]
David W. Golding CBE PhD DSc DCL
Whitstable, Kent; & formerly, Associate of the Institute of Sustainability, and Honorary Chaplain, Newcastle University (1968-2021); Voluntary Spokesperson for Tearfund.