We’re going to lose the fight against climate change
(The fact that we think about it as a “fight” probably has something to do with why we’re going to lose.)
Human civilization will collapse and the human species will be lucky to survive.
In 1988, James Hansen testified before Congress that climate change was real and was caused by humans. At that point, we were already at 350 ppm (parts per million) of CO2 in the atmosphere. According to scientists, 350 ppm is the safe upper limit, which will keep us below 2°C (3.6°F) warming, which is what we need to do if we want to keep living here.
Since that time, we have done basically nothing. Actually, we’ve made it a lot worse. In fact, more carbon has been released into the atmosphere since Hansen’s 1988 testimony than was released in the entire history of civilization before that! We are now on track for more than 4°C of warming. That’s the temperature difference between the last Ice Age and the world now! We are looking a future planet which may be uninhabitable to human beings in the not so distant future. It’s likely that we’re already past a critical climate tipping point, even if we had the means and the will to turn things around.
In the near future, we can expect rising oceans, more frequent super storms, wild fires, and droughts, mass migrations, food and water shortages, economic collapse, a return to subsistence farming, the spread of epidemics, expanding ethnic conflict, the collapse of government institutions, the rise of authoritarian leaders, and a drastically declining human population–anywhere from a 70% reduction from 7.5 billion to 2 billion (which would bring the population to a sustainable level) to complete human extinction.
Not to mention that, somewhere along the way, some asshole is likely to try to “geoengineer” the plant by sending sulfur into the atmosphere (Matrix-like) to block the sun’s rays. This isn’t science fiction. This is what our best minds are telling us. When they’re not practicing professional reticence, our scientists admit that they’re really scared.
In short … we’re doomed.
What would it take to turn things around?
Well, I think Roy Scranton summed it up pretty well in his essay, “Raising a Daughter in a Doomed World”:
“Politically, realistically, making human life sustainable at this point would demand a world socialist revolution, since only a unified world government committed to radical economic redistribution and ecological justice would be able to initiate and manage transitioning the global economy off fossil fuels. Socially, spiritually, we’d need a world religion that worshipped Mother Earth and put harmony with nature over all other values. We’d need to throw away our bedazzling hi-tech toys and turn our gaze back to the land, the air, the water, the rhythms of the natural world and the other beings who live there. While we’re at it, we should probably also put women in charge, get rid of nuclear weapons, and outlaw racial and ethnic discrimination.
“I could spin out the fantasy further, and maybe that’s a fine way to pass the time until we die. But I doubt we’ll see anything like it come to fruition. I’m pretty sure we’re going to keep fumbling along toward our doom, just like we’ve fumbled our way into breaking the planet.”
It’s the part about needing a world religion that worships Mother Earth and prioritizes harmony with nature that I want to talk about here.
As I see it, religion is a critical part of climate activism. I don’t think facts and figures have ever motivated any real change. It’s just not how human beings are built. What motivates humans to radical change is much more like religious conversion than rational conversation. While you can’t manufacture epiphanies, you can create the conditions which make epiphanies more likely. And religion, at its best, is good at creating those conditions.
Climate activists sometimes say that climate change seems too abstract and too remote to motivate people to take action. Seriously?! Every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, billions of Muslims, Jews, and Christians gather to pray to an abstraction, give their money, alter their behavior, and make personal sacrifices in the hope of a remote future. The problem isn’t with climate change. It’s with the climate change movement.
Unfortunately, the climate movement to date has been largely secular. While some of the climate activists I know are religious, none of them really bring their religion into their activism in a visible way. Occasionally, activist organizers will makes space for indigenous people to invoke the sacred, but most activists avoid religious references like the plague–either because of a personal animus toward religion or a fear of alienating others or being seen as irrational.
But I agree with Scranton that what we really needed was a world religion that worships Mother Earth.
Paganism could have been that religion.
Paganism came on the scene at the right time. Professor of Religious Studies, Sarah Pike, dates the origins of American Paganism to 1967. That year, Fred Adams founded Feraferia and the Church of All Worlds (CAW) filed for incorporation to became the first state-recognized Pagan church. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was the same year that Lynn White’s published, “The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis”, in which he traced our environmental crisis back to the triumph of medieval Christianity over pagan animism. A few years later, in 1973, White described the problem as one of finding “a viable equivalent to animism”.
Paganism might have been just that. Both Feraferia and the CAW styled themselves as nature religions. Fred Adams described Feraferia as “a fellowship for the religion of nature and the commonwealth of wilderness.” And the Church of All Worlds membership application required dedicants to commit to a way of life that is “ecologically sane,” and to pledge themselves to “a harmonious eco-psychic awareness with the total biosphere of holy Mother Earth.”
Just a few years after the founding of Feraferia and CAW, the first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, and brought out 20 million people. That same year Oberon Zell had a vision of Mother Earth as a living organism:
“[I]t is a biological fact that all life on Earth comprises one single living organism! Literally, we are all One. The blue whale and the redwood tree are not the largest living organisms on Earth; the entire planetary biosphere is.”
(This was several years before James Lovelock came up with the Gaia Hypothesis.)
In the 1970s, Paganism intersected with the eco-feminism movement by way of feminist witchcraft. Eco-feminists drew the connection between the oppression of women and the exploitation of the earth, and Paganism became even more earth-centered. Morgan McFarland, the founder of a gender-inclusive form of Dianic Witchcraft, todl Margot Adler in 1979:
“A Pagan world view is one that says the Earth is the Great Mother and has been raped, pillaged, and plundered and must once again be celebrated if we are to survive. Paganism means a return to those values which see an ecologically balanced situation so that life continues and the Great Mother is venerated again. Both ecology and Paganism seek a restoration of the balance of nature. If you’re not into ecology, you really can’t be into Paganism.”
In short, there was tremendous potential in the Pagan movement in the 1970s and early 1980s. Paganism was primed to step into the role of the religion of the ecological future.
What happened to Paganism?
There’s probably a lot of reasons Paganism failed. We spent a lot of time hiding the proverbial broom closet. A lot of energy was spent on fighting for equality with Christianity. And a lot of energy was wasted arguing with ourselves, playing identity politics, fighting witch wars, and other bullshit.
Pagans got distracted by occultism (infecting Paganism via British Traditional Wicca), which drew attention away from the real and present earth to an esoteric or symbolic “nature”, and away from the work of re-enchanting the world to the illusion of magical control over the world. In addition, those Pagan reconstructionisms and polytheisms which explicitly contrasted themselves with earth-centered Paganism became another distraction.
The fear of institutions and the aversion to authority have been millstones around the neck of Paganism since its beginnings. Pagans don’t want to be led anywhere, so predictably we’re not going anywhere. And those ego-Pagans who use Paganism primarily as a vehicle for self–expression, rather than connecting with something bigger than themselves, have been additional dead weight for the movement.
In the end, Paganism just never lived up to its potential as the earth religion for the new millennium.
I long held out the hope that Paganism would rise to the potential of being a significant social force for good, helping to shift human consciousness and transform our relationship to the earth. But Paganism has failed–not just me, but the world. The truth is, Paganism probably missed its opportunity back in the 1980s, long before I became Pagan. It just took me this long to realize it.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not blaming Paganism for the end of the world as we know it. Well, not entirely. But we definitely missed our opportunity.
Maybe the next time around. (If there is one.)