The South East England Faith Forum meeting at the University on Monday was about religious responses to the challenge of climate change. It was all polite enough as a Catholic Christian, a Buddhist, a Sikh, a humanist and a Muslim described their own faith positions’ approaches to the issue, and relatively chirpily outlined initiatives such as EcoSikhs and Green Islam. An elderly rabbi who is on the steering group of Extinction Rebellion changed the tone by asking us to examine our feelings about the prospect of the great changes pending for human society, and he was followed by Dr Justine Huxley, director of the St Ethelburga’s Centre for Reconciliation and Peace in London, who really led the hall down a dark path. The Centre was studying ‘how we operate within a landscape of approaching social and economic collapse’ and ‘mapping out the journey between “There are no courgettes in the shops” and mass starvation’. Thinking about the spiritual aspects of coming to terms with climate emergency, she drew a parallel with her father’s death from cancer and the way the clarity of his situation changed his whole life for his last couple of years: ‘humanity has had a global cancer diagnosis … Through this breakdown we will come to know our dependence on each other and God, but we don’t get there unless we go through the darkness.’ I was quite favourably impressed that another group of Christians was at least tackling the apocalyptic implications – using the word theologically – of what seems to be happening. At least it’s not just me.
At the XR meeting the other evening, and again on Monday, I was struck by the parallels between the emotional journey climate activists want people to go on (and to an extent which I have travelled too) and a very traditional Christian evangelistic technique – bringing an audience to a place of despair and then offering a way out. This is very explicit: I’ve now heard a whole variety of speakers describing precisely the same transition from grief and anguish to determination and engagement, activism as an antidote to hopelessness. I do question the notion of campaigning as therapy – if it only affects how you feel rather than what’s likely to happen, you may as well take up stamp collecting as a response to Armageddon, so I suspect the people who say that don’t really mean it.
Rabbi Newman and Justine Huxley both cited – independently of each other, because the speakers on Monday hadn’t vetted each others’ contributions first – Professor Jem Bendell’s 2018 paper Deep Adaptation, which predicts the collapse of Western civilisation in as little as ten years' time. Dr Huxley described how she’d taken a group of her staff on retreat into a wood to read it and talk about it together, and had gone through tears and terror before reaching a sense of resolution – exactly the process others are describing. Now she’s concentrating on helping groups take the same journey, she said.
Amazingly I'd never heard before of Dr Bendell's paper, 'the article that drives people into therapy' as it was reported. It’s a sort of confessional narrative, explaining how he took a sabbatical from his chair in Sustainability at the University of Cumbria to read up on the scientific literature around climate change and found himself horrified, and outlining the stages of his grief. I gather its tone, at least, is not universally supported among climate science specialists: Michael Mann, the geophysicist who developed the famous 'hockey-stick' graph illustrating the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide, succinctly summarises it as 'crap'. Dr Bendell’s response seems to be to characterise his critics as, for different reasons, 'social collapse deniers' in the same way those who support the climate change consensus term their now-tiny but sadly influential number of opponents. But thinking merely about the scientific element, Deep Adaptation is very open to criticism: it is citation-light in a way that, for instance, the Breakthrough centre's 2018 paper on the risks of extreme climate change, which I did read, isn't. It's really a work of rhetoric, not science. If XR and St Ethelburga's have imbibed their sense of terror and crisis from Deep Adaptation, and I and many others are picking it up from them, might the basis on which we are being plunged into existential anxiety be questionable?
I am no scientist, and therein lies the difficulty. The science of climate change isn't the kind of science which counts molecules and observes what happens when you burn a bit of magnesium in a Bunsen flame. It's about estimating how immensely complex processes will interact over time: an exercise in relative probabilities. I'm an historian by training; Dr Bendell is a sociologist; Dr Huxley, a psychologist. The truth is that we, like most people, have nothing like the necessary scientific grounding to be able to assess the validity of one research paper or another. I could sit Googling reports from Nature until I was blue in the face and it wouldn't turn me into a climate scientist: I did actually skim the 2018 IPCC report and could barely make anything of it apart from the summary. It's a different language and we don't have the apparatus to begin understanding it: so we rely on others to interpret it for us. Even within the scientific community the subdisciplinary knowledge required is daunting. Take one small example: the doomsday climate scenario relies to some extent on the generation of runaway heating as a result of natural processes achieving an escape velocity beyond which nothing human beings do will affect them. One of these might be the release of methane, currently trapped in deep permafrost, as that ice reserve melts, thus accelerating the heating. That was a theme reported several years ago, Jem Bendell talks about it, and the XR meeting I went to last week mentioned it. But I gather that the latest thinking (over the last couple of years) is that this 'feedback loop' is virtually impossible for various complex reasons. To grasp what they are, and to keep up with changing opinion, you have to be not just a scientist, not just a climatologist, but a specialist in that particular field. The rest of us just blink.
The same is true when we turn to what should be the more concrete matter of what human beings have actually managed to do to mitigate the crisis so far. For many climate activists, this amounts to 'nothing', and you can see why they say this. Despite decades of supportive words from governments and international conferences, global carbon emissions are still rising, forests are still being felled, pesticides are still killing off the very insects that keep the ecosystem going. European governments obscure the facts with statistical flannel, Mr Trump and Mr Bolsonaro rubbish the whole thing. On the other hand some point out that the Indian economy (covering a significant chunk of the earth’s population) is already compliant with a 2o rise in temperature and set to reduce that further, while China is likely to achieve its goal of peak emissions by 2030, and so on with more encouraging statistics. Neither side of the balance is untrue, and most of us don’t have the time or knowledge to be able to critique each position effectively. Which we might pick is, dare I say, a matter of faith, or of predilection. As a moderately conservative Christian I am predisposed to spot apocalypses, and if, like Jem Bendell, you're a leftish academic who's spent your entire career arguing that capitalism is about to implode, you are also liable to leap on a scientifically-underpinned narrative that seems to offer more justifying evidence than the elevated guesswork you usually deal in. On a human level, you might have to ‘go through the darkness’ on the way, but what you win is validation.
So as a slightly bitter entertainment en route, I can't help but see the religious instinct poking through the surface of the secular and the scientific. See what’s happening. For some, it’s not enough to accept that anthropogenic climate change will cause great social disruption and that it would be a good thing to mitigate it as best we can. It isn’t even enough to accept that there is a chance, maybe a substantial one, that such disruption would be civilisation-breaking and perhaps even threaten human survival. Believers now insist that this is not just a possibility but an inevitability, and outline a process of conversion by which people can accept the truth. Religious movements, too, tend to express their truth in a progressively more extreme fashion to raise the emotional stakes and generate commitment. ‘You’ve got the facts but you’re not feeling the truth, you’re not internalising it’, XR founder Roger Hallam told a BBC interviewer a few weeks ago. It’s a statement of the same sort as ‘you haven’t really repented’ or ‘you don’t really have a living relationship with the Lord Jesus as your personal saviour’. The way Dr Huxley and others have found their own engagement with climate science being shaped by what Jem Bendell underwent exactly parallels how conversion works in evangelical Christianity. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong or irrational, but it does make it something other than straightforward.
So this one specialist in nothing attempts to weigh up all the conflicting claims and concludes that the direction of travel is certain: what's debatable is how far we've gone, how far we have yet to go, how fast we’re moving, and how feasible it is to turn aside from that trajectory. This would in itself justify facing at least the possibility that our diagnosis might turn out to be terminal. I recognise the developing pattern – shaped by a religious impulse based around one emotional response to one interpretation of a set of data – too well to swallow it whole. But perhaps it’s the thing people need to open up their thinking; which is what conversion is.