What if part (a big part) of the New Story is a very old story, reinvented for our troubled times?
Over the years, I’ve been very comfortable talking about the spiritual dimension of today’s green movement, while simultaneously dismissing (and sometimes even disparaging) any possible contribution from mainstream religion. Crudely put: spiritual good; religious not so good. And often positively bad.
But I have to admit I’m starting to rethink this, what’s more, it’s Pope Francis that is the principal cause of my rethink. Whilst remaining nervous about bigging him up too much (given my views on family planning and women’s rights), there’s so much to admire about what this man is saying and doing. He’s a growing and already inspirational presence in our environmental world.
He seems to think and act like a campaigning NGO – which I suppose he is, in an evangelistic kind of way. Here’s his timetable over the next few months:
The Pope keeps on getting ‘the environment’ and ‘climate change’ into his speeches and declarations. And pretty impactfully: “If we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us. Never forget this.”
A conference in the Vatican on “the moral dimensions of climate change and sustainable development” was jointly organised by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the UN. And he and Ban Ki-moon certainly told it as it is:
“Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality, and its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity. In this core moral space, the world’s religions play a very vital role.”
A widely-trailed papal Encyclical is to be issued, addressed to all the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, aimed specifically at influencing the Climate Conference in Paris at the end of the year. As Ban Ki-moon put it in his speech to the Conference in April:
“The Encyclical will convey to the world that protecting our environment is an urgent moral imperative and a sacred duty for all people of faith and people of conscience.”
A major address at the UN General Assembly in September this year, when he will no doubt further ramp up the rhetoric.
You’ve gotta love it!
And you know it’s for real because the enemy (in this case the forces of contrarian, denialist evil) has suddenly realised just how big a deal a campaigning Pope might be – even in the US of A. The Heartland Institute, one of the most persistent of Big Oil-sponsored “think-tanks”, still deep into totally mendacious climate change denialism, sent a delegation to Rome at the end of April to protest at the central thesis of the joint Vatican/UN Conference.
We must wait and see what will be in the Encyclical – but the signals are good. And that has to be celebrated, whatever misgivings one may have about other backward-looking, intolerant tendencies in the Roman Catholic Church.
Beyond the Vatican, there’s a whole new stir of ecumenical engagement around climate change. Not just the Pope. A new project, called Show of Force, has teamed up with the highly-respected Religions for Peace to encourage religious groups (of every denomination) to get stuck in on addressing climate change – in line with their own faith, using familiar tools and teaching to find a true and authentic voice. Here’s their video.
Then there’s the People’s Pilgrimage, which kicked off on World Environment Day at the start of June – and this is a truly brilliant idea:
‘In the coming months, up to December’s climate meeting in Paris, people of faith will show their concern about climate change by walking to places they care about. They will also be fasting for climate, and praying, chanting and meditating for their leaders to have the courage to act. The aim is to show the outpouring of human love for the Earth and people wanting climate action – anyone, anywhere, can take part any time up to December.’
The Pilgrimage is being launched by Yeb Saño. You may not remember the name, but I can pretty much guarantee that many of you will remember the extraordinarily moving moment in the 2013 Climate Conference in Warsaw when the Climate Commissioner for the Philippines broke down in tears as he contrasted the lethargy in the negotiating hall with the horror story unfolding at exactly that moment in his home town of Tacloban – then on the receiving end of Hurricane Haiyan.
That was Yeb Saño. He committed then and there to fasting until the end of the meeting, which triggered a worldwide movement, #FastfortheClimate, inspiring thousands of people, especially young people, to follow his example.
Yeb Saño has now joined OurVoices, one of the organisations helping to run the People’s Pilgrimage, as an Ambassador. He has just started out on his own pilgrimage from the Philippines all the way to Paris, meeting people on the front line of climate devastation (and on the front line of the solutions agenda), walking in pilgrimage with holy men and women, government officials, and activists, and looked after by all those he meets along the way.
I’ve no idea what his itinerary looks like, but I sincerely hope that he will be meeting up with the Pope on his way – probably in the Vatican just before his final leg up to Paris.
All of which is creating a different climate (forgive the pun!) for advancing some new thinking about our New Story. Which is why I was so fascinated when the RSA (full name: Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce), an organisation that presents itself as a bastion of rational and enlightened secularism, brought out a publication last year under the title of ‘Spritualise: Revitalising Spirituality to Address 21st Century Challenges’.
As if to acknowledge that this might be a bit shocking to the RSA’s empirically-minded supporters, its Director, Matthew Taylor, was in somewhat sheepish mode in introducing the publication:
‘The fact that the RSA – known for its work on policy issues like city growth, self-employment and public service reform – undertook this project is a sign of the growing importance being attached to spirituality as a source of motivation, meaning and creativity. Spirituality is coming into the mainstream. It could powerfully affect the way we approach major 21st century possibilities and challenges.’
Only in the UK could you get away with the utterly absurd notion that spirituality is only just ‘coming into the mainstream’! Blinded as we are by decades of de-spiritualised materialism in this little country of ours, we conveniently forget that the vast majority of human beings on this planet still lead lives informed (and, for the most part, enriched) by spiritual insights and practice.
To be honest, I’m not sure that I either understood or ended up sympathising with the publication’s explicit aim of ‘giving spirituality an improved intellectual grounding and greater cultural and political salience’. But I did find myself aligned with its explanation of how spirituality might help inform our deliberations about many of today’s key issues:
‘The overarching societal role of spirituality is to serve as a counterweight to instrumental and utilitarian thinking. At an economic level, that means intelligently critiquing the fetishisation of economic growth as a panacea and global competition as the only game in town. At a political level, it means that citizens need to be the subjects of social change, not just its objects, with spiritual perspectives playing a key role in shaping and expressing the roots and values of democratic culture.’
So can we now look forward to spiritual perspectives playing a bigger part in the debate about climate change? Will the Pope’s increasingly trenchant comments about the moral deficiencies (or even ‘sinfulness’) of much of today’s politics encourage other religious and spiritual leaders to join the fray, to demand that we take a more morally-based approach to delivering the kind of radically decarbonised world that we now so urgently need? One sincerely hopes so.
Jonathon Porritt, Forum for the Future