BY Jim Harding
The UN’s latest report from its International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gave the greatest warning to date. Scientists warn of “severe, pervasive and irreversible” changes to the biosphere if societies continue to allow carbon to build-up in the atmosphere and oceans. Global temperature will continue to rise, glaciers will melt at faster rates, weather will become more extreme and there will be devastating impacts on marine and land habitats.
It is foreboding but the signs are already there. And there are limits to human resilience. If temperatures should ever rise 4 degrees C, the rate of dislocation and extinction could become unimaginable and food and water security could be a thing of the past.
This report makes the biggest shift yet from description and explanation to prediction. It notes that previous scenarios have underestimated impacts. And the knowledge assembled by the 2,000 scientists is not value-free. Rising ocean acidity and changes in the atmosphere’s chemistry will make the environment hostile to earth’s creatures, from the lowly shell fish to the mighty polar bear, which are intimately interconnected with us in the web of life.
PREDICTION AND PROPHECY
There will always be disputes about predictions. Scientists have this debate in an open forum to enhance the validity of claims. Scientists can be overwhelmed by nationalist, corporate, technological and even religious interests. But because of the gravity of this global crisis, we’ve reached a turning point in how we need to see prediction.
Religion no longer has a monopoly on prediction. The mass extinction of species triggered by the proliferation of extraction industries is already undermining natural systems. Religion has tried to grapple with similar matters (e.g. floods, plagues, droughts, etc.) on a much smaller scale in past eras and while these views carry on into our time, we need to make the full shift to more grounded understanding.
Imagine two groups creating scenarios about our future. One group uses observational methods and grounded theory to calculate the impact of rising carbon. Another looks solely for “clues” about our viability within their special scripture. They want to find out what their God has in store for the faithful. They may even conclude that they are “chosen people” who will go directly to heaven before a catastrophe.
Which “prophets” do you think the insurance industry, emergency measures, or infrastructure planners will draw upon?
We are now inclined to realize that these individual “prophetic” claims can sometimes be delusion, not prophetic. This is not to say that people previously deemed “prophets” in their pre-scientific times were necessarily delusional. Credibly foreseeing consequences has always been a mix of morality, understanding and imagination, more an act of creation. And some people are better at this. Delusional thinking happens when it gets too personalistic and narcissistic; God spoke to “me”.
To continue thinking of “prophecy” as coming from “divine inspiration” is not going to be helpful as we face the climate crisis. It is better to embrace the notion of “predictor” as in to “prefigure or foreshow”, which is what the global network of scientists are doing when warning us.
PROPHETS AND PROFITS
If fossil fuels are the major factor in causing devastating climate changes, wouldn’t rational, caring people work to quickly reduce the use of such fuels? Certainly! But we know that other interests are at play. Some are clearly corporate, which profit from fossil fuel sales and subsidies. Some are political; the Harper government is increasing exports of tar-sand bitumen regardless of future implications. And how we see “God” and spirituality can also complicate the discussion. Some political-economic interests draw upon their image of the supernatural to shore up their worldly cause.
Though the terms “prophet” and “profit” sound alike their meaning couldn’t be more different. Profit has to do with gaining advantage within economic relationships, which have been historically-shaped. Prophet has to do with trying to foresee consequences of historically-shaped relationships, but in the larger context of naturally-occurring events. They are of a completely different order of reality and it is sad to see some religious groups trying to give the world of “profit” some sort of godly sanction.
If one believes in a God who won’t abandon you and with whom you have special status, then perhaps they can ignore today’s scientific prophets. They may have more faith in interpreted text ascribed to long-gone prophets, who they believe have a timeless validity. It’s probably not relevant that these past prophets weren’t living in a globally-conceived time, with no conception of the biosphere. They had no idea about the Earth, they didn’t even know about the continents, all the oceans or all the other human civilizations. We are just beginning to get our archeological record straight.
But they did their best with what resources they had, trying to foresee what might happen to their tribe. They clearly believed that they were dealing with universals, but their tribe was not the centre of the universe nor was it a voice for the experiences of the whole human race. Their insights may have been great for their place and time, which is why some things like the Golden Rule still appeal to us. But their scope of comprehension was quite limited. Foresight built upon observation and grounded theory is simply more “prophetic” than that based on tribal belief and text, no matter how holy it may be considered.
It’s encouraging that some religious thinkers try to incorporate science into their framework. Thankfully the notion of “stewardship” is getting more emphasis, rather than our supposedly God-sanctioned “dominion over nature” which has been used to justify destructive extraction practices. But some religious thinking still polarizes science with an all-powerful God, which just rigidifies belief. We know that the Inquisition severely repressed the emerging sciences but thankfully Catholicism now claims to be more open to science. Meanwhile it maintains pagan and feudal practices such as a Pope appointing dead Popes as saints, as though papal authority can declare that some humans earned immortal souls.
Religiously-prescribed morality clearly requires reassessment. I don’t see anything in the Ten Commandments that “Thou Shall Not Degrade Natural Systems”. Yet in terms of preventing overall harms to all forms of life on the planet, abiding by such an environmental ethic clearly trumps the other commandments. Though the Commandments are inherently anthropocentric this doesn’t mean they can’t be re-interpreted to be more environmentally sensitive. But why not start directly with the insights from genetics to ecology about the interconnectedness of all life? Simply saying one is “pro-life” will not do.
Language can keep us confused. When we speak of “creation” we may or may not mean that we appreciate the gift of knowing so much more about our biospheric home than any previous human generation. We may or may not mean that we realize that humans have co-evolved with other species with who we share fundamental interdependence. Mainstream “creationism” tends to superimpose a supernatural explanation perceived as being outside natural processes, and opportunistic theology will quickly jump on any big scientific question, such as “what happened before the big bang”?, to try to shore up doctrine.
When indigenous people speak of the “creator” they don’t tend to externalize this from the natural world, whereas hard-core fundamentalism sees indigenous spiritual practices as being pagan. When fundamentalists speak of “creation” they generally see “God” as super-natural, likely without understanding how much “naturalism” in science has evolved past mechanistic conceptions into the study of energy.
Of course science itself has a history and keeps evolving. Yet is there a better way to gain a dynamic understanding of the interplay of the elements – earth, fire, water and air, into life-producing and sustaining systems? Advances in the Earth and Life sciences are far more profound than anything that occurred in the Renaissance, which gave rise to the Reformation.
The shift of the scientific paradigm towards ecology and the realization that both society and economy exist because they draw on natural systems constitutes a huge leap forward in our understanding of our origins and vulnerabilities. Our spiritual capacity, along with our intellectual and emotional ones, has to continue to evolve. The sense of being connected through our sentience with the sacred and eternal will carry on, but religion no longer controls how this is interpreted. With the climate change crisis global scientists are becoming a new type of prophet.