Full ahead

On knowing where we’re headed, and not minding.

A couple of months before Extinction Rebellion’s April 2019 uprising I attended a talk hosted by Falmouth University’s multi-faith chaplaincy. The event was billed as The Spirituality of Ecology. The speaker was the Rev Lucy Larkin, an Anglican Priest and Doctor of something called eco-theology – a new term to me, one that pricked up my ears and drew me along to hear more.

During the first half of the evening all seemed to be going well. With her audience listening quietly Dr Larkin outlined a few of the interlocked predicaments commonly referred to as the ecological crisis, as she sought to bring the gravity of the crisis itself into focus before offering a response to it.

In the second half of her talk the atmosphere began to change. The proposed conversation between ecology and spirituality turned out, it seemed, to mainly involve a closer reading of the Bible – to better appreciate just how much fecund greenery its ancient books contain – and from that basis, presumably, to reset civilisation’s sloppy ecological habits.

Gradually the murmurs of dissent grew into open heckling: the event would surely have more honestly been billed Ecology & Religion, or perhaps Ecology & the Bible? Some of that heckling, having started out as banter, began to harden into something uglier as one of the evening’s bleaker questions, What if this crisis turns out to be about the insects outliving us humans?, was rather brusquely dismissed. In the end the beleaguered Dr Larkin chose to wrap up early in the face of what had by now become a palpable appetite for disruption within her audience.

Three years on, I’m still curious about the volatile impatience which welled up in that room. What were those people expecting to hear, I wonder, concerning the entanglement of spirituality of ecology? After all, the invitation had made perfectly clear that the talk would be given by a Christian priest.

I recall two things said that evening which might offer a way in to that. The first was Dr Larkin’s response to my friend Zoe’s suggestion that the talk would have been more appropriately billed as Ecology & Religion. (Zoe has since become the university’s first Pagan Chaplain.) Spirituality, Dr Larkin replied, was a vast and complicated subject, so she was sticking to what she knew as a religious professional.

I think for me the opposite might be nearer the mark: that it’s institutional religion rather than spirituality which tends towards ever greater complexity – a complexity which may or may not bring us anywhere near to the radical mystery of our being here at all – to the regenerative unknowing that spirituality, as I understand the word, returns us to.

The second concerns Dr Larkin’s citation of the IPCC’s 2018 IR5 report, and specifically its assertion that we have – or rather, we had – “12 years” to avert irreversible climate catastrophe. If any of us feel moved to foster a sense of urgency about this window slamming shut on a survivable future, perhaps we might also begin jotting a few notes, then, for whatever version of ‘urgent’ we’ll be proffering a decade or less from now?

During the COP26 gathering in Glasgow an international coalition of climate scientists called Scientists Rebellion chained themselves together at the neck, managing to occupy a bridge in central Glasgow for five hours before being cut free and taken away by police. Climate Revolution Or We Will Lose Everything, was how they put it. The largest ever – in fact the first – mass arrest of climate scientists. Of all the images from that two-week festival of greenwash and broken promises, those chained-together climate scientists is the one I keep coming back to.

There’s another image that’s begun to haunt me as I listen to the latest exhortations and admonishments from an ever more desperate academy – this one conjured only in my own overheating brain. A crowd of people find themselves packed into an overloaded boat, drifting down a wide river towards the fast-approaching edge of an abyss. Yes, same-old same-old I know, but bear with me …

A few of these people, armed with binoculars, are carefully scanning the riverbank and calling out to the others on board that – Look, here and here – there are still safe paths up the bank. What no-one mentions as these paths flash past in the distance, one after another, is that even now the boat continues to steer resolutely away from the riverbank. In fact the crew, who have long since been aware of both the paths to safety and of the chasm now directly in front of them, are not merely surrendering to the current but have the engines rammed to full as they power directly towards the dull thunder up ahead.

Hackneyed clichés aside, the root and branch entanglement of spirituality and ecology begins here, for me. What we urgently need to do may be a question best answered by our ecological, social and political sciences. Why so few of us seem especially bothered by the total and irretrievable loss we’re powering straight towards seems to me a question that science as such may be less well-equipped to address.

This slower conversation with our own numbed, somnambulant hearts need surely deflect no energy from immediate practical measures to foster resilience or mitigate suffering. Perhaps the opposite. I wish now that I’d had this question more clearly in mind when I turned up to hear Dr Larkin speak. Who knows, we might have found an opening for the dissonant perspectives within that room to settle into a more fruitful conversation. In the world towards which we are without exception headed, one of eradicated beauty and imploding food security, of hardening hearts and borders, one awash in upwelling fear, confusion and bitter rage, it seems to me that Yeshua’s revolutionary ethic of radical nonviolent love is about as good a place as any from which to begin asking each other what notions like resilience or adaptation really amount to. A story of the good life wherein our own survival isn’t the fundamental measure of value – where personal survival, in fact, isn’t even relevant – feels like one it might be good to be acquainting ourselves with about now. Before we lose everything.

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