The environment, in spirit

Illustration by Manos Symeonakis

There are many prisms through which to view the environmental issues troubling the world but a religious or spiritual one is not the most obvious. Nevertheless, Patriarch Vartholomaios, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians, insists this is the true approach. He had a chance to share this view during a visit to Greece last week when he held talks with Environment Minister Tina Birbili. It has long been clear that Greece needs a miracle to rescue its natural beauty from further destruction – perhaps some divine intervention, or inspiration, is just what’s needed.

Vartholomaios has earned the nickname “The Green Patriarch” for his commitment to the environmental cause since the 1990s. In 1997, he placed environmentalism firmly within a religious framework by saying: “To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin.” In 2008, Time Magazine named him as one of its 100 Most Influential People in the World for “defining environmentalism as a spiritual responsibility.”

Watching the USA’s East Coast battered last weekend by the heaviest blizzards – the so-called Snowmageddon – in almost a century, it was hard not to think of the climate in terms that are broader than just the way it affects the weather. The TV footage was certainly reminiscent of “The Road,” a film currently playing at Greek cinemas, which is based on Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of the journey of a father and son through a post-apocalyptic American landscape. The book, which tells a bleak and terrifying story of a struggle to survive, contains a line that captures the spiritual element that Vartholomaios espouses: “Perhaps in the world’s destruction it would be possible at last to see how it was made. Oceans, mountains. The ponderous counterspectacle of things ceasing to be. The sweeping waste, hydroptic and coldly secular.”

For all the Patriarch’s efforts though, the debate about climate change and the environment both in Greece and abroad, rather than being based on spirituality continues to revolve around the very practical, such as temperature changes, rainfall measurements and carbon emissions. Some commentators have taken the cold snap that gripped much of Europe in past weeks and is now putting the freeze on parts of the USA as a definitive sign that global warming is a myth cooked up by environmental do-gooders and socialist governments scrambling for an excuse to tax people more and intervene in their lives.

Environmentalists have responded by pointing out that weather has always been varied or inconsistent and that it’s not the weather we’re worried about; it’s the climate, which is a completely different thing. “The ability to distinguish trends from complex random events is one of the traits that separate humans from the rest of the animal kingdom,” Leo Hickman and George Monbiot recently wrote in the British daily newspaper The Guardian.

On climate change though, many humans seem unable to adopt an approach that rises above their base instinct to have lots of numbers and charts thrust into their face. In other words, we appear incapable of developing a mindset that takes in the wider context; one that touches on the spiritual.

An example of this was the debate generated by an article on The Guardian’s environment blog, in which Ed Gillespie, a director at communications agency Futerra which helps companies develop greener policies, suggested that “The Road” is the latest major film (after the “Simpsons Movie,” “Wall-E” and “Avatar”) to tackle environmental issues.

“Back off sonny,” wrote one blogger, called Princeruprecht. “One of the most powerful aspects to McCarthy’s book is that he never makes it clear what event or events have led to the f***d up world it depicts. It’s left for us to wonder. Don’t try and hijack the man and his son’s story by hitching it your crusade.”

“The ‘ambiguous environmental catastrophe’ is most likely a super-volcano eruption or series of eruptions hence the obscured sun, covered skies, grey dust and the fires,” said Manzikert, another blogger.

“It is impossible that any man-made cause, barring nuclear war, would cause devastation on the scale described in the book,” writes Pikaia, before adding: “I think it’s ironic that the central plank of environmentalism — that humans are destroying the planet — is based on an inflated sense of human importance. We are not capable of destroying the planet — only of rendering it unfit for human habitation for a few thousand years.”

Well, that’s reassuring.

McCarthy has left the cause of the world’s destruction in “The Road” deliberately vague because that’s not the crux of his story. Ironically, the fact this side issue should be the subject of debate is reminiscent of the discussion about climate change itself. When skeptics challenge the minutiae of the evidence that reveals the damage we’re wreaking to the planet, they’re not seeing the burned forest for the missing trees.

Those who seriously doubt climate change have seized on every mistake made by environmental scientists as evidence of a big hoax. The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had to issue a statement last week regretting an error in a 2007 report that indicated the Himalayan glaciers would melt by 2035. It was the latest embarrassing slip-up by IPCC scientists, which included leaked e-mails that suggested some information that did not fit the climate change argument should be withheld.

The panel’s chair, Dr Rajendra Pachauri, insisted this should not sway people’s opinion. “Look at the larger picture, don’t get blinded by this one mistake,” he said. “The larger picture is solid, it’s convincing and it’s extremely important. How can we lose sight of what climate change is going to do to this planet? What it’s already doing to this planet?”

Therein lies the real issue in the climate change debate – the argument is not about statistics, it’s about common sense. It’s not just to do with how we treat the planet, it’s about how we treat each other and in that sense, it is a very spiritual matter.
You don’t need to believe that McCarthy’s vision is going to become reality to use less electricity. You don’t have to expect the Himalayan glaciers to turn into waterfalls to save water. You needn’t be convinced that Greece will soon turn into a desert to recycle your trash. You do these things because you realize it makes sense, because the world’s resources are finite, because man has to live within some limits, because you want clear air to breathe, because others will also suffer the consequences if you fail to act.

If we can’t understand or don’t want to accept any of this, then, as the patriarch might say, heaven help us.

This commentary was written by Nick Malkoutzis and first appeared in Athens Plus on February 12, 2010.

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