Tuesday, 13 February 2007

Looking for the Signs of the Times

The rarely seen frilled (above) and goblin sharks which have appeared in shallow water (and distress!) off Japan in recent weeks may be no more than the kind of freak catch of which fishermen have always told stories. Yet, as a friend said the other day, there is just the chance that they are the canaries of the ocean - alerting us to a sudden acceleration of climate change in deep-sea ecosystems. And, even if this isn't the case, we know that rapid climate change is a real possibility, which makes it reasonable to look for such omens.

We are faced with so mysterious a process, so full of unknowns, that it plunges us back into something very like an eschatological relationship to the world: looking for the signs of the times that could augur a rapid overturning of the ways of life we take for granted. For those of us who have grown up in stable, relatively secular countries, surrounded by the assumption that we are the beneficiaries of progress (political and technological), this is psychologically disorientating.

In the early summer of 2004, I returned from China, travelling overland across the former Soviet Union. While living in Xinjiang, I had enjoyed an extended online correspondence with Sebastian Mary, who was then in rural Kentucky, working on a novel. We both arrived back in London that August with a feeling that Europe was sleepwalking: even the fundamentalist visions of the American end-timers seemed, by comparison, a better preparation for the changes we might live to see - though not, unfortunately, for the kinds of action needed to mitigate them.

I was reminded of this by Mark Dowd's documentary, God is Green, which aired in the UK last night. It was heartening to hear about the shift of attitudes in the American heartland being achieved by the Evangelical Climate Initiative. It reminded me of a story Steve Hayes told recently of the theologian Karl Barth. Speaking of the "Doppers", the most conservative and fundamentalist of the Dutch Reformed Churches in Apartheid era South Africa, Barth commented that "one should not worry too much about them, because they believed that the Bible was the Word of God, and so one day God would speak to them through the Bible." Similarly, there is more hope in middle America turning green from within than of it being convinced of the errors of its ways by secular liberals.

For all of us, whether or not we expect to be spoken to by God, climate change poses an eschatological challenge. How do we live in the knowledge that the world as we have known it is in a deeply precarious position and that our small, everyday actions may bring about a future which is unrecognisably different? How do we hold onto that knowledge when day to day life gives most of us an experience of continuity - and, often, of the insignificance of our individual actions? For those of us involved in running businesses or organisations, how do we incorporate that knowledge into our decisions? For all of us, how do we live as if our actions are going to catch up with us, rather than in the hope that they won't?


Paul said...

The big change I've had to go through in my head is from prevention to adaption. This bit of a Long Now seminar by Peter Schwartz is pretty terrifying.

Dougald Hine said...

Thanks for the link - that's hair-raising stuff!

Anonymous said...

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