A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on Sunday 8 August 2021 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Readings of address: John 6.35
The facts of the climate emergency are widely known. The rise in global temperatures, accelerating at an alarming rate, is already having profound effects around the world in acute weather events, vulnerability of food supplies, and rising sea levels. We face the prospect of a sequence of progressively extreme consequences. These begin with increasing prevalence of intense and violent conflict provoked as access to energy and safe places to live reduce with alacrity. They move on to parts of the world becoming uninhabitable, species being decimated, and rates of migration expanding beyond our current imagination. They eventually reach human life becoming unsustainable, because of severe weather, the depletion of resources, or conflict over those resources becoming universal, permanent and brutal.
I’m not going to dwell on the severity, speed and extent of the climate crisis because everyone knows we have a very serious problem. Those who deny it aren’t going to be moved by evidence or graphic detail. Those who get it in their head but haven’t translated that into their heart or their hand aren’t going to be motivated by overwhelming and depressing data. What we each need is a sense of what we can actually do. So what I want to set out today is a series of five concentric circles, like ripples emanating from a pond in which you’ve just dropped a pebble. Think of a person living in two generations’ time potentially facing the extreme consequences I’ve outlined, and imagine what they’d be saying to you about what they wish you’d done differently. I’m going to set out what I suppose they might say, in five concentric circles, starting in the middle, with the simplest.
We have to begin with humility. It’s the beginning of the gospel: repent. Recognise how up to your neck your life is in the practices and habits that have got us into this mess. Don’t begin by hectoring the fuel extractors or denouncing the grossest emitters or berating the ozone destroyers. Accept almost all of us are immersed in a system that has made ecological depletion the inevitable fallout from human mastery of the planet. See it this way: there’s humanity, the centre of the story; there’s everything else that grows on or lives in or inhabits the planet; and there’s limitation – be it limited length of life, or strength, or speed of movement, or comfort, or breadth of diet, or a hundred other things. For centuries now we’ve been playing a game, which goes like this: how can humanity use those other constituent elements of this planet in its fundamental project of overcoming its limitations? Everything – be it silicon, titanium, oil, or ivory – has been corralled into this project. Almost every strategy for addressing climate change has been about working out how we can find renewable resources with which to continue this project. When will the time come when we start to question the very foundations of the project itself – the idea that we spend our time on earth seeking to overcome limitation by using those living or inanimate things with which we share our ecosystem?
When I say repent, I don’t simply mean ‘Continue to consume at exponentially increasing rates, but be sure to check those resources are renewable.’ I mean spend serious time reflecting on how much of our lives is shaped by the assumption that our mission is to make life that little bit longer, run the race that bit faster, eat food that bit more exotic, wear clothes that bit more stylish. Somebody has to pay for all these things we call progress, and further down the food chain beyond low-wage workers and unsavoury animal conditions comes the finitude of the earth and eventually life itself, of which this whole project is a denial. Humility means facing the truth that we’re all invested up to our necks in this project. So we’re not calling on some nefarious Them to change their behaviour or parental Government to fix things for us. We’re realising that if I want the world to change, I need to let that change begin with me. And it’s not about being forced to change – it’s about genuinely wanting to. That’s the first circle: humility.
The second concentric circle is solidarity. Lying at the root of so many of the great leaps of progress was a sense of escape – that those in possession of the new technology could not only escape from the limitations of being human but could get beyond and out of reach of the great mass of humankind into a place of safety, comfort and fulfilment. Likewise at the root of much of the denial and complacency of the last 40 years has been the sense that it won’t actually affect me. It may be tough on Venice, Bangladesh and the Maldives, but I’ll have access to enough protective devices to seal me off from whatever damage it does. This is one reason why the pandemic has clarified some of the issues about the ecological crisis. Coronavirus is not something you can easily seal yourself off from. It’s no respecter of wealth or status. Like the climate emergency, those with resources can more often find a degree of amelioration. But the rich and fit and young have died too, or been bereaved, or experienced debilitating long-term effects.
Solidarity changes our notion of the word ‘we.’ The pandemic has exposed the absurdity of thinking any of us, individually, locally or nationally, can seal ourselves away. The climate emergency is the same. Even if
you’re not living on a sea level island or farming temperature-sensitive crops, the effects will reach you soon enough. There’s only one ‘we’ now – and that’s the global ‘we.’ The only way to address the pandemic is as a global community. What used to be charity or imperial paternalism is now simply enlightened self-interest. It’s like the difference between the ethics of wearing a seat belt and of smoking a cigarette. Not wearing a seat belt endangers yourself. Smoking a cigarette endangers everyone around you. There’s no individual climate crisis. It’s an everybody thing. But the ‘we’ in the climate emergency isn’t just about everyone today. It’s about everyone who comes after us. ‘We’ now includes all future life on this planet, for hundreds, thousands, millions of years. It’s a big ‘we.’ There’s no escaping it.
The third concentric circle, building on humility and solidarity, is example. What inspires? Example. What changes hearts and minds? Example. What empowers the inhibited, dismantles inertia, outflanks cynicism? Example. Let me take you by the hand and walk you, online or tangibly, round the initiatives, communities and projects around the world, and show you something that will make you change your mind. It’s all in the word ‘show.’ We can protest, we can march, we can boycott, we can vilify, we can picket, we can sabotage, we can research, we can lobby, we can campaign: but what really changes the imagination is example. It’s in the imagination that transformation really happens. I’m standing in a church. A church is not fundamentally a building: it’s a living example of what the Holy Spirit can do among people committed to pool their assets, work together, seek a beautiful life, and open the windows to let God in. A church is built on those two concentric circles – humility, because none of us can do this alone, and solidarity, because together we can be more than the sum of our parts, we can be one body whose many members all have a vital role to play.
Let’s imagine I was to ask everyone here ‘What do you belong to?’ Many would say St Martin’s. Some would say a political party, or a national institution, or a trade or professional body. Some would have looser affiliations, like a daily newspaper they subscribe to or a neighbourhood association they support. Now let’s estimate how many we’d each have. There’s likely a lot of overlap so we’ll call it five. And there are maybe 150 people here and 200 online. That’s 15,000 affiliations between us. Imagine we said, ‘I’m going to make it my business to use all my influence to make each of those organisations an ecological example. An example of humility and solidarity – about fuel, about food, about waste, about air quality, about local sourcing of products, about all the things we all need to take for granted. This is how a society changes. Not simply by government directives: we’ve all seen the complexity and inequity of that in the last 18 months; but by changing what we all take for granted, what people disapprove of but tolerate and what people no longer tolerate. It’s happening about race, about gender equality, about sexuality, about online hatred. It needs to happen about ecology. It’s what St Martin’s is about. You try to set an example – you fail – people point the finger – but what do you do then? You don’t stop trying. You try harder. That’s the transformation of example.
We’ve spoken of humility, solidarity, and example. The fourth concentric circle is accountability. Accountability names the way people who generally think of themselves as powerless, or small cogs in a big machine, get to bring about large-scale change. When we’re talking about governments, or multinational corporations, a lot of us can feel there’s little we can do. In fact what we can do comes down to three questions. We ask, What state do you want the world to be in in 50 years’ time? Then we ask, What are you going to do about it? Then we ask, And have you done it? When we look ahead to the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow we’re considering the first two questions. But when we’re looking at the climate crisis as a whole we mustn’t lose sight of the third question. We’re simply saying, keep your promises. We want to extract more far-reaching promises. But promises count for little if they’re not kept. Accountability is the name for the way we hold people to the promises they’ve made. All the preparations for COP26 will be in vain if we celebrate promises made but nobody keeps them.
You may say, there’s nothing especially Christian about the first four circles. That’s back to humility. Christians have to accept that their notion of heaven has too often been used as a form of escape that protected them while others were lost, and that their notion of salvation has too often been seen as a kind of technology that enabled their mastery over human limitation. So Christians joining the campaign is a form of repentance and solidarity, rather than I told you so. But the fifth and last circle is a theological one. It’s hope.
We approach the climate emergency with two sets of facts. One, the universe is made up of a hundred million galaxies, each of which has a hundred million stars. We’re small beer. Two, the universe has existed for 14.8 billion years, humankind for 200,000 years, and civilisation for 6000 years. We’re the blink of an eye. The universe and the earth will manage just fine without us. The climate emergency is crucial not for the planet’s survival, but for ours. Those realities should only expand our wonder at the central conviction of the Christian faith: that God chose this planet and this species with which to be in relationship, and God is invested in us however badly we get that relationship and our relationship with the planet wrong. By investing in the planet’s future, we’re aligning ourselves with God’s investment in it and in us. God so loved
the world that we might love it too. Our hope is not that we can save the world, or that God will save us whatever happens to the world, but that God in Christ will be with us whatever happens – whatever, wherever, however, forever.
Those are the five concentric circles of climate action. Humility, solidarity, example, accountability and hope. We can see them as the shape of Jesus’ life; in Bethlehem he humbled himself to be born as one of us, in Nazareth he lived in solidarity with us for 30 years, in Galilee he set us an example of courage and sacrifice, on Calvary he faced the accountability of the distance between us and God, and at Easter he gave us hope that nothing can separate us from him. All of which shows us that following Jesus, responding to the climate emergency, and renewing our faith aren’t rival projects. They may turn out to be the same thing.