Living in Exile
This is the third post in a series to do with ‘Exile’ as it applies to the climate crisis. Those of us who are aware of the consequences of climate change and who understand that we have left it too late to return to the world as it was, feel a sense of exile. We are entering a new and unknown world. We don’t know what that new world looks like, we don’t like it, we don’t know if we will achieve some level of stability or normalcy; we wish the whole thing would go away — but we cannot change course. We are in exile.
The first post was Exile to Babylon. In it we compared our current situation with that of the Hebrew people almost three millennia ago when they were forced to leave their homes, their temple and everything they knew to live in exile in Babylon. We quoted Bishop Spong to describe their situation.
Exile is never a voluntary experience. It is always something forced upon a person or a people by things or circumstances over which the affected ones have no control. One does not leave one’s values, one’s way of life, or one’s defining beliefs voluntarily.
. . . exile is not a wilderness through which one journeys to arrive at a promised land. Exile is an enforced dislocation into which one enters without any verifiable hope of either a return to the past or an arrival at some future desired place.
The second post was Choosing Exile. In times of stress, some people elect to retreat from the world. This does not mean that they live in isolation, but it does mean that they establish a way of living that is detached from the norm. The Benedictine monastic life is an example of this way of living.
In this third post we consider how people should act as we enter this enforced exile. In particular, what should we try to keep, what should we abandon, and what new institutions should be created?
Life During Exile
The first post we talked about how the Israelites were driven into exile. How did they behave and act once they were actually living in Babylon, their exile home? Based on what we read in Psalm 137 they felt grief and a profound sense of loss. They also wanted revenge.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. There on the poplars we hung our harps, for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the songs of the Lord while in a foreign land?
They were not only angry, they wanted revenge on their Babylonian captors.
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks.
They were not in a forgiving mood.
Before talking about how to respond to the feeling of exile, we need to recognize our own emotions — even anger — as to what is happening. We are so carelessly and thoughtlessly destroying the only home that we have. Many activists blame large corporations, particularly the oil companies. There is no question that these companies have, at times, acted in a reprehensible manner. But the activists must acknowledge that their current way of living is utterly dependent on the availability of fossil fuels. The dependency goes way beyond transportation needs. Fossil fuels are embedded everywhere.
The Hebrew exile took place many centuries ago, so the written and archeological evidence as to what happened to the exiled people is limited. However, it does appear that, in spite of their grief and anger, the Judaean people were permitted to live together as a separate ethnic group, and that they were free to practice their religion. Becking suggests that many exiled Judaeans were settled in agricultural areas in order to supply the urbanized areas of Babylon with food, and that the exiles actually had a reasonable standard of living. (He also suggests that the Babylonian Exile corresponds to a time of climate change, specifically, rising temperatures. There is even evidence to suggest that the return from exile was associated with a period of declining temperatures.)
Maybe they mellowed. There is some evidence to to suggest that, when they were offered the opportunity to return to their old promised land, some of them preferred to remain in Babylon — their new home.
Maybe we in our time will find that the world of climate change is not as bad as we think it might be. Maybe we will develop new ways of living.
Broadly speaking, there are two strategies that can be followed when it comes to our response to climate change. The first strategy is to work top-down. The second strategy is bottom-up. Individuals and small organizations such as a church adjust their lifestyle so as to reduce their impact on the climate.
Both of these approaches deserve and need our support. Only governments and large organizations have the resources and authority to radically change our energy infrastructure or to finance major construction projects such as sea walls. On the other hand, actions at the local level do have an impact, however small. And local actions demonstrate a commitment and example to the world at large.
I write these words just two weeks before the COP26 meeting in Glasgow. This is the 26th ‘Conference of the Parties’ at which governments around the world attempt to come up with an effective and coordinated response to climate change.
The omens are not good. The last major conference of its type was COP21 held in Paris in the year 2015. That was a time of optimism — for the first time it seemed as if countries all over the world, rich and poor alike, were seriously committed to “bending the emissions curve”. The economies of the world were doing well, there was still time to take preventive action, and political relations were generally quite good.
Now, five years later, we approach COP26. Very few nations have come close to meeting the targets that they set for themselves in 2015, the world economies seem to be running on fumes, political tensions are rising, and we are still struggling to contain a deadly pandemic. Above all, five years have passed by.
In spite of all the bad news, world leaders still do not assign climate change measures the level of commitment and urgency that is needed. They are treating the subject as being just one problem among many — not something that is existential.
The existential threat to humanity is climate change . . . if we reach beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius increase in temperature, we’re gone. Not a joke. Not a joke.
I’m presenting a commitment to the world that we will, in fact, get to net-zero emissions on electric power by 2035 and net-zero emissions across the board by 2050 or before. But we have to do so much between now and 2030 to demonstrate what we’re going to — that we’re going to do.
Clearly President Biden understands the scope and threats to do with climate change. Yet his government does not treat the matter with the urgency that it demands.
Many churches and church leaders publish mission statements to do with environmental issues and climate change. For example, Patriarch Bartholomew, Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby recently issued a Joint Message for the Protection of Creation. Their message contains statements such as,
Each of us, individually, must take responsibility for the way we use our resources.
Statements such as these are fine, but they are vague. What are we expected to actually do?
In future posts we will consider how small organizations such as individual churches can develop programs that deliver measurable results. For example, what would a ‘Net Zero by 2050’ program look like for a small church? The key word is “measurable”. The management slogan “What gets measured gets done” is foundational. Church leaders need to be able to focus on the “important few” and ignore the “unimportant many”.
In the words of Lord Kelvin (he of degree K fame),
I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot measure it, when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind.