Combating environmental hopelessness and fatigue
Almost every day now we hear on the news that our global environmental crisis is getting worse. Climate change gets most of the attention, and there is no doubt that it is a very serious problem. The carbon dioxide concentration in our atmosphere is increasing year on year, and that is a major factor in driving the increase in global temperature that we are seeing, currently about 1.1oC above the pre-industrial temperature. This is reflected in the weather events we are observing around the world, and it is going to get worse. At the same time, we are losing animal and plant species to extinction at an alarming rate.
I am an environmental scientist, and recognise that climate change and biodiversity loss are only two of our problems. I could add soil degradation, nitrogen pollution, ocean acidification, land use change and a host of others that rarely make it to the news.
The snag for scientists like myself is that we don’t just hear about the environmental crisis that is engulfing us, but we live it. We collect the data, we analyse it and we write about it. We speak about it, we teach students and we read their essays and dissertations. We never get away from it.
Not too surprisingly researchers have found that environmental scientists suffer a lot from depression. Imagine charting your way to global catastrophe every day, and doing it for a living.
‘Imagine charting your way to global catastrophe every day, and doing it for a living.’
Hope for Planet Earth
I am also a Christian, and have been involved with the Christian environmental movement for over 30 years. For the last 15 years or so I have given an ever-increasing number of talks on these issues for churches and Christian groups.
In 2008 and 2009 I was the tour scientist for the ‘Hope for Planet Earth’ climate change tours with The John Ray Initiative, A Rocha UK, Tearfund and Share Jesus International. On those tours, I racked up over 100 talks on the science of climate change. After my talk, the other members of our team spoke about the effects of climate change on the poor, about biodiversity loss, what we could do about the problems, and a little biblical reflection.
As the title of the tours suggests, we had a lot of hope back in those days. We really did think that we could persuade enough people to change their lives, and governments to change their policies, and that would make a real difference. Sadly, a lot of that hope evaporated in late 2009 when the United Nations climate change meeting in Copenhagen (COP15) turned out to be such a disaster. Governments could not agree on the way forward. Where was hope now?
Where was hope now?
Not long after the Copenhagen meeting, my wife, Margot, met up with Ruth Valerio at a conference in Cambridge. They were among the people who often came on stage after my climate change presentation to talk about Christian hope. How could they do that now with integrity?
They decided to set up a project to look at hope in the light of the environmental crisis. First we gathered a number of the thought leaders in the area for a small meeting, and then had a much larger meeting which was attended by many of those who routinely spoke on these issues. And finally, we wrote up the conclusions in a special edition of the journal Anvil on ‘Environment and hope’.
‘When governments could not agree a way forward, how could we talk about hope?’
What were our findings? We identified three types of hope.
‘We can solve this problem!’
That was a lot of the hope we talked about on our tours. By taking appropriate actions at the individual, community, national and international levels we could deal with climate change. But what happens when we start to think the solutions are not happening?
‘God will fix it’, ‘It will all be alright in the end’ or ‘Jesus will come again soon’
When Christians are unable to solve a problem themselves they often turn to God, and to what the theologians call eschatology. Ultimate hope is a good hope to have, and it has sustained Christians down the ages. But if we put all our hope there, we can get the feeling that we don’t have to do anything ourselves and it can disable action.
3 Robust or resilient
This is a hope that acknowledges that we have a problem, is resourced by ultimate hope, but does not give up on proximate hope. Margot found encouragement from Romans 5:3–4: ‘suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.’ It is the sort of hope that keeps going whatever the circumstances.
‘It is the sort of hope that keeps going whatever the circumstances.’
Hope rising once more
In the years since the ‘Hope for Planet Earth’ tours, things have got a lot worse. Until recently, it seemed that nobody would do anything to halt the slide into oblivion. I am not sure exactly what has happened, but hope seems to be rising once more. The Paris Agreement of 2015 has set in train a lot of action. The school strikes led by Greta Thunberg. The vastly increased interest shown by churches in the UK. Some politicians finally seeming to get it.
Now we are approaching the crucial COP26 climate change meeting in Glasgow this November. We need to approach that meeting with all three hopes in our hands, and whatever the outcome we should never give up hope.
‘We need to approach COP26 with all three hopes in our hands.’