Global warming threatens to wreak changes to the earth that are of mythic proportions. The worst scientific scenarios project a kind of end of history as we know it.1
It is natural then, that peoples should reach for mythic narratives in order to try and grasp what is at stake. It is important, however, that these narratives are the right ones. They should make coherent sense of the facts about our situation and offer not just warning but also hope and empowerment in the face of the dangers.
Myths are usually rooted in religious traditions. Therefore, one of the roles of religion in confronting the challenge of climate change may be to articulate such “mythic”2 narratives that can guide us on the path that lies ahead.
It is striking that the most common such myth deployed by writers on climate change, even thoroughly secular ones, is the Christian notion of hell fire and damnation being the inevitable punishment for a life of sin. 3Burning too much fossil fuel is the sin, and the world consequently becoming very hot in the coming decades is the retribution.
I have a Google Alert set up to search for articles containing the words “climate change” and “religion.” The results from Europe are almost all news stories about religious groups mobilizing to combat climate change; the articles from the US, on the other hand are usually near-identical opinion columns by climate change skeptics decrying belief in global warming as “the new religion.”
Annoying as these pieces are, the grain of truth within them is that many climate change activists have structured their case along mythic-religious lines. Whether consciously or not, they have borrowed a canonical, and readily available myth of Western culture to tell their story.
However, it is highly questionable whether the myth of hellfire is a helpful one in the climate change context. The implication that we are all sinners, and that we are therefore heading for damnation, may shake up some people, but no doubt pushes many more into despair or denial. We need to articulate different, more hopeful and empowering mythic understandings of climate change.
As a mere starting point, let us look at the most obvious Jewish narrative of climate change, the story of Noah and the flood.
Noah heard a warning from God. His world was about to be inundated by catastrophic climate change. This threat was a result of systemic ethical failures. “The earth was corrupted before God, and the Land was filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:11.)
God commanded Noah to build an ark. The midrash4 asks why this was necessary. Couldn’t God have simply borne Noah up to Heaven? The answer is that the whole purpose of the ark was that it took a long time to build. First Noah had to plant cedars tree, which take a long time to grow. God wanted Noah’s contemporaries to see the construction, take heed of what was to come, and avert the decree by changing their ways.
Unfortunately, the response of Noah’s generation during the hundred and twenty year construction period was to scoff, deny the threat and refuse to change. The flood came, Noah and his family was saved, the rest of humankind perished.
Yet the Torah is implicitly critical of Noah for not having done more to save others. In the Torah text himself, he is silent. In the midrash, he tell others,: God intends to bring a flood on the world, and told me to make an ark, so that I and my household may escape.” Noah’s passivity is compared disparagingly to the activism of Abraham, who took responsibility for the fate of his generation. 5
At the dawn of the twenty first century a new warning has been sounded. Today, there is no ark except the earth, and no prospect of salvation apart from the entire global family. We have no choice but to act like Abraham, and work with the rest humanity to save our common home.6
1 See e.g. Six Degrees by Mark Lynas, (London, 2007) who draws on extensive scientific studies to project a world in which the range of IPCC warming estimates form 1 to 6 degrees centigrade over the 21st century are realized. In Lynas’ depiction of the five and six degree worlds, the earth’s capacity to support large scale human life becomes critically threatened.
2 By calling a story “mythical,” I do not mean to assert an opinion about its literal truthfulness, or otherwise. Rather, I use the word in Joseph Campbell’s sense to refer the deep lying, archetypical narratives that structure a culture’s perceptions of reality.
3 See for example George Monbiot’s book Heat, and Mark Lynas’ Six Degrees. Both writers employ as a running literary motif, medieval versions of this myth; Monbiot uses Marlowe’s “Doctor Faustus”, and Lynas builds on Dante’s “Inferno.”
4 Tanhuma, Parshat Noah.
5 Berishit Rabbah, 30:10.
6 A different version of this point is made by Aharon Ariel Lavi, in an article about Parshat Noah that appeared in the Shabbat Supplement of Makor Rishon, October, 2007. (Hebrew.)