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  • Writer's pictureIan Sutton

Ivan Ilyich and the Climate Change Predicament

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

Death of Ivan Ilyich is a predicament that relates to climate change.

One of Leo Tolstoy’s most famous works is his novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The story, set in Russia in the late 19th century, describes the final months of the principal character, Ivan Ilyich. He is living a successful and prosperous life until he starts to feel chronic pain in his side. At first he treats the pain as something that can be treated and cured. But as the pain gets worse and worse he comes to realize that he has a fatal illness (we are not told what it is but it seems to be pancreatic cancer) and that the doctors have no cure. It is at this point in the story that he says,

“It can’t be true! It can’t, but it is.” He would go to his study, lie down, and again be alone with It: face to face with It. And nothing could be done with It except to look at it and shudder.

Ivan’s response to It — his own upcoming death, the pain that he is enduring, and the blasé attitude of his family and friends relates to how we are treating climate change. A small but increasing number of people recognize that climate change is a predicament, not a problem. (Problems have solutions, predicaments do not not. When faced with a problem we can come up with a solution that makes the problem go away. When faced with a predicament we can respond and adapt, but we cannot make it go away.) These people treat climate change as being Ivan Ilyich’s It. They look at it and shudder.

Most people, on the other hand, are like Ivan’s family and friends — they are concerned and sympathetic, but but not if it requires a fundamental change in attitude. Ivan's illness and upcoming death are not something that deeply concerns them. For example, his wife and daughter make excuses for going to the opera and to social events while he is lying on his bed of pain. So it is with climate change — few people have internalized just what it means to them personally. It is mostly something “out there”. Hence they feel free to carry on with their lives as normal. They may spend time and energy hunting for solutions, but they fail to recognize that climate change is a predicament, consequently there are no solutions. Indeed, most of the so-called solutions will actually make the situation worse (Jevons Paradox).

The situation is discouraging, but it does provide an opportunity for the church to provide leadership. But, before doing so, the church leaders and people need to come up with a new way of thinking — a theology that is not aligned with the Church of Endless Progress. As a starting point, a structure could be built around the following three points.

  1. Understand and tell the truth.

  2. Accept and adapt.

  3. Live within the biosphere.

In the context of this post 'Understanding and telling the truth' means being willing to honestly examine the science and engineering of climate change and the proposed solutions. Doing so will likely generate an understanding that there are no solutions that will allow us to maintain our current energy-profligate lifestyle.

‘Accept and adapt’ means that we need to look for responses as to how to live in a creation that is going to be very different from what today’s world.

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