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  • Writer's pictureIan Sutton

King Canute and Ecclesiastes

Updated: Jul 13, 2021

King Canute tried to turn back the waves
King Cnut/Canute (bottom right)

In last week’s post Climate Change: Lessons from Jeremiah we suggested that a root cause of the unfolding climate catastrophe is that we we are chasing false gods. In the Hebrew Bible the false gods were idols such as the Golden Calf. The false god of our time, what Jeremiah called a “worthless idol”, is a belief in endless material progress, that it is possible to have infinite growth on a finite planet.

COP 26

The background to the post was the upcoming COP 26 (the 26th Conference of the Parties); an annual meeting organized by the United Nations at which countries set climate change targets. They then, sometimes, act to meet those commitments. The following chart shows just how effective these meetings have been. It shows how the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has risen steadily and inexorably. Overlaid on the chart are the dates of various COPs, starting in the mid 1990s. (Also shown are the dates of reports from the IPCC — the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.)

What makes us think that “it will be different this time”?

One reason for the failure of previous COP meetings is that the the discussions and proposed actions were all based on the myth of endless material progress, a belief that we can have out planet and eat it too. The conference conclusions further assumed that people in wealthy countries could maintain and enhance their current standard of living while those in poorer countries could aspire to a lifestyle of large homes, SUVs and central air conditioning.

The fact that such progress would lead to ever more devastating climate change was finessed by stating that we could transition from “dirty” energy (i.e., fossil fuels) to “green” energy (mostly solar and wind). The reality is that such a transition has to be enabled by the use of fossil fuels. Moreover, a growing economy leads to the use of all types of energy, regardless of its cleanliness. People are quick to point out that our use of solar and wind has increased in recent years. They are less quick to note that our use of fossil fuels has also increased. Indeed, the fraction of energy supplied by the fast-growing renewable, clean sources is actually declining. (This paradox is resolved by recognizing that a small percentage of a large number can be bigger than a large percentage of a small number.)

Therefore, if COP 26 is to be successful, the attendees will have to persuade everyone, rich and poor alike, that they need to voluntarily cut their standard of living. They also need to persuade the leaders of nation states to reduce their economic output, even though doing so makes them vulnerable to commercial and military attack from foes who have not made that sacrifice.

King Canute and the Waves

The above analysis is discouraging — there seems to be no way of averting our slide into a world of climate chaos. But maybe this is the opening, the opportunity for people of faith. What can they contribute to the discussion? Let’s attempt to answer that question by looking at the famous story of King Canute and his attempt to stop the waves.

King Cnut/Canute was a powerful medieval king. However he understood the limits of his power. He demonstrated these limits by showing his courtiers that even he could not stop the waves of the sea from coming in.
Cnut failing to stop the waves

Canute was king of England, Norway and part of Sweden from 1016-1035. He was a powerful and successful monarch. He also understood his limitations — his Christian piety is illustrated in a story told about him a hundred years after his death.

It is said that he ordered a chair to be placed on the seashore as the tide was coming in. The king sat on the chair, claimed the title of overlord of the sea, and commanded the waves to stop invading his land. Needless to say, the sea paid no heed to the king, and the waves continued coming in, drenching Cnut’s legs. The king jumped back, declaring that the power of earthly kings was empty, and that only He who commanded heaven, earth, and the sea was worthy to be called a king.

Had they played baseball in medieval England it is likely that Cnut would have understood the term, “Nature bats last”.

The delegates to COP 26 have not learned Cnut’s lesson. They treat climate change as a negotiable issue, not realizing that the laws of physics, thermodynamics and biology do not negotiate. We cannot bargain or delay as we would when negotiating issues such as health care or trade policies. The waves are coming in and they could care less about our opinions, needs or bargaining points.

Hubris and Nemesis

Nemesis, Rethel (1837)

About 500 years ago Galileo Galilei pointed his newly invented telescope to the night sky. He declared that the moon and the planets are made of the same material as the Earth — there is no celestial heaven or music of the spheres. Since that time there has been rivalry between religion and science as to which can best explain the physical world in which we live.

Science has generally “won” this competition — and, in the form of technology, it has greatly improved the human condition. Religion has been confined to the role of “mere” spirituality and an advisor of souls. However, science and technology have led us into the predicaments discussed at this blog.

Science is suffering from hubris: excessive pride and self-confidence. But nemesis or retribution always follows hubris. And that is where we are now. Albert Einstein is famous for saying that, “We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” So it is with science and technology. They cannot solve the issues discussed in this book.

A new approach is needed — one in which people who have what Aristotle called an “educational acquaintance” with both science and the liberal arts can chart a path forward. This is the opportunity for the church to provide leadership. But, before it can do so, church leaders will need to have an “educational acquaintance” with the laws and principles of science. One example of such a person is Pope Francis, as we can see in the encyclical Laudato Si’. He is not a climate scientist. But that’s just the point; he is able to understand the bigger picture to do with the causes and consequences of climate change.

The section of the book Faith in a Changing Climate that is to do with Hubris and Nemesis closes with the following words.

. . . the last three hundred years have been a time like no other in the history of humanity. It’s as if a person has been living within her current modest income and then is suddenly given a large inheritance. She spends the inheritance and has a wonderful time. But when the money is gone she has, once more, to live on her modest income, but has much greater expenses to take care of. She should, of course, have invested the inheritance such that she could live of the additional income generated without depleting her capital. But she didn’t.

This is the position in which we find ourselves now. Our inheritance was the stored energy contained in fossil fuels: coal, oil and natural gas. We should have invested in learning how to create renewable energy sources. But we didn't. We should have invested in technologies that prevent us from destroying the planet’s environment. But we didn’t.

A Faithful Response

When we reach an understanding that there is not going to be a fundamental change it is all too easy to slip into fatalism, and to decide that it is not worth taking action. At another blog one of the commenters said,

I'm firmly convinced that humanity can't and won't change course. The immediate-term benefits of mass consumption of fossil fuels and other resources are too appealing, it would be both political and military suicide for any country to try to meaningfully reduce these things until forced to by circumstances . . . hope for some kind of benevolent world empire arising to impose benign managed degrowth on the world is more fanciful than Mars colonies.
At most we'll see some more of what we're already seeing: laughable token measures (replacing coal electric plants with natgas, bans on plastic shopping bags) and subsidy grifting by billionaires (EV's, solar panels, biofuels) among developed nations while developing nations like China and India continue to hoover up every dirty resource they can, basically letting rich countries outsource their pollution to them in exchange for a share of the resulting wealth. No one with any real power anywhere will ever try to strike at the root of the problem with ideas like population stabilization or controlled de-industrialization or de-globalization. Every powerful and wealthy person on the planet will fight against these things with every resource at their disposal.
I do believe that political and business leaders are to some extent aware of these problems; it's not a question of getting them to suddenly wake up and realize that nothing grows forever and fossil fuels will certainly run out one day, it's that there are no solutions to these problems that are both effective and palatable. So they serve out their terms, offer the aforementioned fake solutions, and wish their successors luck.

For all the gloom, this situation does present people of faith with an opportunity — an opportunity to provide leadership in dark and difficult times. We know that it can be done because it’s been done before, as we will discuss in future posts.

We have seen how Canute, or at least the legends told about him, can help us as we figure out a path forward. We start with subduing our pride. Just as Canute could not subdue the waves, so we cannot prevent the climate from getting more chaotic and our resources from being further depleted. Having reached that point we can decide what we need to do to keep our feet dry.

The legend to do with Canute concludes with yet one more example of his humility. The chronicler tells us,

Thenceforth King Canute never wore his crown of gold, but placed it for a lasting memorial on a statue of Our Lord nailed to the Cross, to the honor of God the Almighty King . . .

Vanity of Vanities

The words of Ecclesiastes (1:2-10) provide a sensible starting point for a different way of thinking and acting.

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises, and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south and goes around to the north; around and around goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again.
All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.

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