This is the first in a series of three blog posts (part two here and part three here), from a lecture I gave last week at the wonderful Centre for the Study of Theology and Health at Holy Rood House. Very grateful to Rev Dr Elizabeth Baxter for inviting me–writing this showed me that I can still find the energy and discipline to write, and it’s been healing to get down some of the things I’ve been struggling with and ranting about for the last couple of years. Because I wrote it to a deadline (!) I didn’t bring in the heaps of valuable theological scholarship on related topics that I have found since, but not read yet. I thought about trying to cram it all and weave it in before putting online, but dammit that’s the kind of hoop I don’t need to jump through anymore if not seeking to publish in academic context. I will read them in the fullness of time and hopefully bring them into new writing.
This contribution will explore some of the theological resonances of the recent new wave of climate activism, of the models it has taken both implicitly and explicitly from the Christian tradition, and how these have been both generative and harmful.
In the last few years I have found my primary habitus—my community, grounding and purpose—in the climate activist movement, and it is that location from which I am speaking today. Climate activism is home to me, but like any home it is not without its complications and conflicts, and lessons to be learned from past mistakes.
Specifically, I will be drawing on my own experience with the decentralised and non-hierarchical activist network Extinction Rebellion (hereafter referred to as XR). I should note here that I decided to leave XR completely in September last year, without having been actively involved for about 6 months before that. What follows is not a critique of XR today—I simply do not know enough to comment on it.
Instead, I am reflecting on learnings stemming from an intense 16 months with XR Scotland around the year 2019, as well as the listening that I have tried to do since then. My hope is that these might be generative for those thinking about resisting climate change with a Christian theological framework in the context of the Global North (an umbrella term for the rich nations of western Europe, North America and Australasia).
When I’m bringing in narratives from my own experience, I’m doing autoethnography—life writing that hopefully contributes to broader insights, but with a critical awareness that ‘personal experience’ is not authoritative, that these narratives based on memory are very much mediated and constructed for a specific purpose (a methodological issue discussed at length in the first chapter of my 2014 book Sex, Sin, and Our Selves).
The intention for these personal reflections is to cast light on the issues for discussion from a broader perspective, rather than be an extended confessional or therapy session—but it’s not an easy balance and I hope I’ve got it right here.
In October 2018 the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, published a report collating the findings of 130 scientists, titled ‘Global Warming of 1.5°C’. The 1.5 degrees refers to the treaty agreed in Paris 2015—known as the Paris Agreement—in which the nations of the world made the legally-binding commitment to strive to limit the global heating caused by carbon emissions to 1.5 degrees higher than pre-industrial levels.
The report was remarkable not so much because of its findings about the extent of human-induced climate change, the damaging impacts that are already seen in temperature rises, droughts, food shortages, and extreme weather throughout the globe. These have long been claimed not only by scientists but by the people living at the sharp edge of climate change in the most-affected areas of the Global South.
Indeed, the IPCC findings have also been claimed as more conservative in their estimations than the science suggests. Instead, what was remarkable was the departure from the normally measured language of United Nations, and the political implications of the statement that ‘limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society’.
What was perhaps more remarkable—and accounting much for this moment marking a sea-change in discourse on and awareness of climate change—was how the mainstream media picked up the finding that carbon dioxide would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, extrapolating from this a ‘12 years left’ deadline, with headlines such as ‘We have 12 years to limit climate change catastrophe’; ‘Planet has only until 2030 to stem catastrophic climate change’; ‘We have 12 years to act on climate change before the world as we know it is lost’.
Earlier that that in 2018, sustainability leadership professor Jem Bendell self-published a paper titled ‘Deep Adaptation: A Map for Navigating Climate Tragedy’, that argued that climate science demonstrates ‘the inevitability of societal collapse’ caused by global heating, with a ‘near-term’ breakdown of civilisation. Meanwhile, Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg was gaining notoriety for her ‘striking’ from school to demand action on climate change, a solitary action that soon gathered momentum from weekly school strikes to the global Fridays for Future youth movement (which, it should be noted, encompasses young activists from Global South, Black, people of colour and Indigenous contexts who were taking action well before Thunberg).
On the 31st October, Extinction Rebellion launched with a Declaration of Rebellion at Westminster Parliament. Reading in The Guardian about this event, with its speeches from Greta herself and the likes of George Monbiot and Rowan Williams, I was inspired by the name—with mass species extinctions being a main focus of the climate anxiety and ecological grief that had been creeping up on me over several years—and the anger and resistance contained in the word ‘rebellion’. I wanted to let myself be furious. I wanted to stand in the street and declare: ‘No! We will not put up with this anymore. The global system is wrong, and it is killing us’.
I was not alone—two weeks later thousands were motivated to join XR in mass non-violent protests, blocking traffic on five major bridges in the centre of London, citing the examples of the civil rights movement, the suffragettes and Gandhi in using civil disobedience as a moral obligation in the face of governments’ failure to protect life. The three demands to government:
- Tell the Truth – about the climate and ecological emergency
- Act Now – reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025.
- Create a Citizens Assembly to oversee the changes.
At the same time I was among those getting Extinction Rebellion Scotland up and running north of the border, with our own Declaration and set of demands to the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood.
Both nascent movements Extinction Rebellion and the youth strikes were given impetus by the IPCC report, and picked up on the ‘12 years left’ deadline, but amped up the rhetoric even further, with ‘this is an emergency’ and ‘our house is on fire’.
Longer-term climate activists commented to me around this time that XR seemed to be ripping up the rule book of climate change and sustainability communication. For years NGOs and campaigners had been told that highlighting the increasingly-catastrophic effects would make people feel scared and despairing rather than inspired to take action; that it was better instead to give people ‘breadcrumbs’ of hope such as ‘10 actions you can take at home to be more sustainable: turn down your heating! Eat less meat!’ etc. All the while knowing that this is pretty much meaningless when we’re locked into a global economic system that depends on ever-increasing consumption, driven by fossil fuels sold by corporations determined to keep us addicted to them for as long as possible.
But even in these early days there was also the argument that XR took it too far, with the huge banner reading ‘we’re fucked’ not all that far from Dad’s Army’s Private Fraser’s ‘we’re doomed!’ or sandwich boards ‘the end is nigh’. This approach exemplified by XR, David Wallace-Wells’s 2017 essay and later book ‘The Uninhabitable Earth’, and Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation has been nicknamed by commentators and detractors as ‘doomism’.
The problems with the ‘climate doomist’ approach have been critiqued by thinkers including climate scientist Michael Mann, writer and ‘spiritual activist’ Alastair McIntosh in his book Riders in the Storm (2020), and XR activists and scientists themselves, with the main argument being that it will lead to hopelessness and despair rather than action.
However, this wasn’t my own experience or that of the hundreds of activists I was working with at the time: our horror and fear at the current and future climate crisis is certainly what had led us on to action. On whether this was a good motivation for healthy forms of action is a question on which I am now more ambivalent.
My position on ‘doomism’ (more kindly rendered as ‘alarmism’ by McIntosh) at the time, as I became pretty much a full-time volunteer activist with the national XR Scotland and my local XR Glasgow groups, was that the apocalyptic rhetoric of ‘climate emergency’ was powerful in getting across the vast scale of the issue and the necessary responses to it.
Indeed I considered Extinction Rebellion as having a prophetic role, of speaking truth to power and to the people, as represented in the first demand: tell the truth. Of shaking up the present ordering of the world, or ‘business as usual’.
Of presenting a vision of possible transformation while condemning in the strongest possible terms what it is that is so terribly, dreadfully, overwhelmingly wrong with the current economic and political system, voiced with love and rage, as we then signed off our emails.
I saw the extreme, public performance prophesying of Ezekiel, the symbolic visions of Amos, in XR’s artistic performances and installations and also in our non-violent direct action—the ritualised blocking of roads, the occupation of the public square, the prefigurative action of occupying Scottish Parliament to stage a ‘citizens assembly’.
My thinking here was influenced by my background in feminist theology and the interdisciplinary field of literature and theology; in the importance of the social imaginary, in how the symbolic models that we think with are so crucial to action, and how important it is to allow for several images and metaphors in any theological system.
I remembered John Dominic Crossan on the mythic and parabolic aspects of story, and how the role of parables is to break open; Rosemary Radford Ruether’s characterisation of the ‘sacred canopy’ and ‘prophetic’ modes of religion, with the task of latter being to denounce the former; and Sallie MacFague’s notion of the sacramental, or priestly, pole in theological language models as contrasting with the pole based on metaphors, or the prophetic, powered by the tension between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’.
The priestly and the prophetic modes are both necessary, both always needed to go together, and I saw the former in XR’s ‘regenerative culture’ principle alongside the more prophetic-oriented and headline-grabbing civil disobedience. But overall I regarded XR’s part in the contemporary climate and wider social justice movements to be prophetic, to sound the alarm that would cause the disturbance needed.
And the apocalyptic is a significant aspect of the prophetic tradition, and if we consider apocalypse in a bit more theological depth than the more basic, pop culture ‘the end of world is nigh’ sense usually meant when referring to ‘climate apocalypse’, we uncover how it may be fruitful, but also harmful, for today’s climate movement. This is explored in Part Two of this series.
Crossan, John Dominic. 1975. The Dark Interval: Towards a Theology of Story. Niles, Illinois: Argus Communications.
Fisk, Anna. 2014. Sex, Sin, and Our Selves: Encounters in Feminist Theology and Contemporary Women’s Literature. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock.
McFague, Sallie. 1982. Metaphorical Theology: Models of God in Religious Language. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
McIntosh, Alasdair. 2020. Riders on the Storm: The Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being. Edinburgh: Birlinn.
Ruether, Rosemary Radford. 1983. Sexism and God-Talk: Towards a Feminist Theology. London: SCM Press.