To witness a British Conservative government minister cracking up when announcing the last-minute failure of COP26 to agree to a deal on coal power was sobering. The twenty-sixth Conference of the Parties—the UN forum dedicated to addressing global heating—was hosted by the United Kingdom and took place in Glasgow last November. Alok Sharma, presiding, had negotiated through the final night with recalcitrant countries, notably India and China. Clearing his throat, he reported that they had agreed only to “phase down,” not “phase out,” coal power, substantially watering down the commitment.
That was not the only disappointment of COP26. As a whole, it failed to elicit the commitments needed to keep the climate to within 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels. Campaigners everywhere were understandably dismayed at another display of global political inertia in the face of the climate emergency. They lambasted elite reluctance to take the costly political decisions required if catastrophic climate breakdown is to be averted in the lifetime of most readers of this magazine.
The event was not, however, a complete failure but did, after all, chalk up some worthwhile victories. Most of the two hundred nations present committed themselves to dated “net-zero emissions” targets (India, however, only by 2070). There was an agreement to end deforestation by 2030 (although the fact that Brazil, currently slashing the Amazon to pieces, signed it evokes cynicism about its sincerity). Ninety countries signed a pledge to reduce methane emissions by 30 percent by 2030 (but Russia, China, and Australia didn’t).
Not surprisingly, one of COP26’s most acerbic critics was Greta Thunberg, whose generation faces the unprecedented task of staving off the disasters mine has bequeathed to it. The title of this article—“it’s never too late to do everything we can”—is an exhortation she voiced at Glasgow.
The phrase struck me immediately as one with concealed theological power, however unintended. To me, it crisply evoked the Christian calling to live faithfully in every part of life whatever the apparent prospects for “success.” Peter summons followers of Jesus both to “wait for” and to “hasten” the “coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:12). There’s no tension between “waiting” and “hastening.” In the Bible, “waiting for” is never mere quiescence, still less withdrawal from the world, but a posture of anticipatory, faith-focused alertness to the restorative work God is doing now. And “hastening” is an active choice to live in hope that the signs of redemption we glimpse in this age will one day flood the cosmos. Whoever, wherever, and whenever we are, we are to “do everything we can” to help heal some part of our wounded creation from the possibly terminal sickness of global heating.
Some biblical commentators have misread Peter’s words to imply that creation is, after all, destined to be destroyed. They point out that Peter goes on to say that, in the day of God, “the heavens will be set ablaze and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire” (2 Peter 3:12 NRSV). Why, they say, invest time and effort in a failed project—a broken, doomed creation—soon to be consigned to the flames? But what they, and many translations, miss is that in verse 10 Peter explains the metaphor of a fiery conflagration as meaning that creation will be “disclosed,” not “destroyed” (the NRSV gets this right). That is to say that it will be “judged”—finally, the truth will out. Everything in line with God’s good intentions for creation will be revealed as righteous, and retained, while everything that opposes those intentions will be exposed as unrighteous, and let go of forever. Thus, Peter proclaims that “in accordance with [God’s] promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness is at home” (3:13).
All this is an answer to a question: In the light of the forthcoming “disclosure” of un/righteousness, “what sort of persons ought [we] to be [now] in leading lives of holiness and godliness?” (3:11). Applied to our theme, it means we are both to wait for and hasten the healing of creation. It is “never too late” to take whatever steps we can to that end, large or small, in whatever settings we find ourselves.
What sort of “settings” would those be? They include many personal, relational, and institutional contexts we find ourselves in. The danger of excessively investing in—and disproportionately lamenting—elite political gatherings like COP26 is that we risk taking our eyes off the multitude of ways to practice ecological healing already within our grasp. Politics is one of the indispensable “spheres” through which we must live out our eschatological calling to practice ecological righteousness. I’ll return to it later, but let’s begin by looking at some others.
An Inventory of Ecological Discipleship
Here we can take an initial cue from the vision of a plurality of social spheres long championed by “Kuyperians.” On this vision, different institutions are conduits for the expression of distinctive capacities and possibilities arising from the way human beings have been created by God. Each is understood as an outworking of what it means for humans to be entrusted with the unfolding and care—the “tilling” and “keeping” (Genesis 2:15)—of one or other dimension of creaturely existence. To be thus entrusted is central to what it means to be made “in the image of God.” Some of this can be done individually. But insofar as it requires various forms of collective organization, the institutions thereby generated should reflect, and be “fitted to,” those created capacities and possibilities. At bottom, that is what is meant when Kuyperians claim that plural social spheres are “grounded in creation.”
Supporting the idea is an empirical claim that most should grasp in a moment’s reflection. It is that most human societies have tended to generate a wide variety of specialized social networks, associations, communities, and institutions, each designed to advance some particular social good. In modernity, these have become more distinct from each other—“differentiated.” Each enables (well or badly) the corporate, cooperative expression of one or other core human capacity or possibility.
Those who don’t find this “thick” Kuyperian account compelling could repair to the “thinner” pragmatic observation that such diverse spheres exist, that most seem in some way to be necessary for some aspect of human flourishing, and that since we seem to be stuck with them for now, we may as well figure out how best to shape them in ways faithful to what we as Christians claim to know about human flourishing.
Construed thickly or thinly, how might the idea speak to environmental challenges like climate change? I suggest that it helps us draw up an “inventory of ecological discipleship”—an integrated overview of the many different relational and institutional settings in which we are called to take steps toward ecological healing.
For example, those working in the business sector can nudge their enterprises away from ecologically harmful activities. This can involve anything from minimizing wasteful production processes to producing more environmentally sustaining goods, to switching from fossil-fuel energy suppliers to renewable ones. While as a minimum this involves fully complying with existing environmental regulations imposed by governments, business people need not wait to be ordered by law to act faithfully but should be doing so anyway (and many are). Business leaders can also lobby their trade associations to offer braver public leadership on such matters.
The business sector has enormous power in this regard. One of the most potentially far-reaching pledges at COP26 was not, in fact, given by governments but given by hundreds of financial institutions committing themselves to managing their staggering $130 trillion assets in line with achieving net zero by 2050. A key player in that initiative was Canadian Mark Carney, former Bank of England governor and devout Catholic. I’d wager that initiatives like this from outside government could be at least as effective as anything governments do.
Or consider trade unions. They can, for a start, ensure that their own organization’s internal activities are ecologically responsible (and this implies many actions any organization could do: recycling, energy saving, and so forth). Then there are, as in business, a range of “sphere-specific” actions that fall to unions. These can include promoting environmentally friendly work methods or pressing the employers whose workers they represent to adopt environmentally responsible policies.
One of the primary sphere-specific roles of unions is, of course, to protect workers’ jobs. Here we seem to hit a clash between what falls to the unique “sphere” of an institution and what the larger task of ecological healing seems to demand. What happens when pushing business or government for wider ecological justice seems to threaten the very jobs they are mandated to protect? Which wins out, ecological justice or economic justice?
But that is a misleading way to frame the problem. It implies that these two areas of justice are in a zero-sum game. If we grasp economic justice in all its fullness, it itself mandates ecological justice. We must seek, as the Kuyperian economist Bob Goudzwaard puts it, the “simultaneous realization of norms.” So, for example, unions need be encouraged to be courageous in proposing “just transition” measures that seek to diminish and terminate ecologically damaging industries—such as the grotesquely polluting Albertan oil sands project. Essential to just transition measures, however, is the stimulation of new jobs to replace those that will disappear as such projects are replaced with renewable energy ones. The same point applies in any other sector of the economy, such as fridge or car manufacturing. Such employment-stimulation measures should not be introduced in ways that risk turning communities heavily dependent on a single industry into human and natural wastelands (as the sudden closure of coal mines did in the UK in the 1980s).
If we grasp economic justice in all its fullness, it itself mandates ecological justice.
So much for business and labour. How about education? Educational institutions from kindergarten to university can work to make ecological responsibility integral to their distinctive offerings, such as by baking it into a balanced, age-appropriate curriculum at every level. This does not mean a curriculum dominated by climate campaigning, although, given its contemporary urgency, that should now be an integral part of any school or college’s civics curriculum. More important is what schools do that no other institution can do, such as nurturing in children a knowledge and love of the beauty, complexity, and fragility of their own surroundings and nature in general, or adopting pedagogies that awaken proper sensitivity to many dimensions of creation care students will confront in their future lives.
In the area of culture, arts organizations can embrace ecological responsibility as part of the normal output of the arts, not as an eccentric add-on. We already have “climate writers” and “climate filmmakers”—how about “climate sculptors” and “climate choreographers”? Again, this does not mean subsuming the arts under some overbearing political project. That would risk turning art into propaganda and so skewing the uniqueness of art itself. Art’s distinctive task is to engage people’s imaginative capacities so as to heighten their felt awareness of any part of the human predicament. That embraces depicting the suffering and tragedy of human life, including imminent threats like global heating.
Churches can, in the first instance, adopt many of the environmentally friendly measures that any organization can. In the UK, over four thousand churches have signed up to A Rocha’s “Eco Church” program, which walks a congregation (chapel or cathedral) step by step toward greater environmental faithfulness. My local church earned its “Silver” award last year. No doubt there are parallels in Canada and the United States. But what is striking about that program is that at its heart is what only churches can do. It doesn’t only invite churches to recycle or turn the heating down; it also invites them to build ecological faithfulness into their own liturgical, catechetical, and pastoral DNA. This involves showing how all such activity springs from a deep theology of creation care and biblical justice (year-round, and not only on Harvest Sunday), nurturing a spirituality of ecological care, and calling people to live by faith even when success seems out of sight.
Ecological Public Justice
“Doing everything we can” to live in environmentally faithful ways thus requires us to identify both the actions that apply in every sphere and those that pertain specifically to each distinct sphere. Let me now return to where I began, to politics, the purpose of which (on a Kuyperian view) is to pursue public justice across all areas of society. Granted that we cannot look to governments to fulfill tasks falling to many other spheres, what then is their distinctive brief in relation to the environment? Let’s call government’s unique task in this area the promotion of “ecological public justice” (I spell this out further in my contribution to this book). This might involve four kinds of initiative: internal governance, external support, public infrastructure, and global diplomacy.
First, like all other organizations, governments at all levels and governmental agencies of all kinds should build environmental responsibility into all their own internal operations—those recycling, paper-saving, and energy-saving schemes, for instance.
Second, governments should actively support the practice of environmental responsibility by other institutions (a task not only for environment departments).
This could involve supporting business organizations facing high transition costs from fossil fuels to renewables. For example, governments could offer tax or other incentives to small- and medium-sized businesses to eliminate pollution and waste, produce environmentally responsible products, or abandon environmentally damaging and socially unjust trading practices (rampant in the clothing industry, for example). They might offer targeted funds to support environmentally focused university research (such as an interdisciplinary project in Cambridge I was involved in). They could offer households solar-panel or home-insulation subsidies (although in Ontario one such scheme ended up mainly benefiting the wealthy—not all schemes are wisely judged).
This might seem like governments piling yet more burdens onto supposedly free institutions (“sovereign spheres”). But when governments call other spheres to their own environmental responsibility in these ways, they are not “adding” an extraneous responsibility to those spheres’ callings—they are not “politicizing” them—but simply urging them to assume what are already their own responsibilities.
When governments call other spheres to their own environmental responsibility in these ways, they are not “adding” an extraneous responsibility to those spheres’ callings—they are not “politicizing” them—but simply urging them to assume what are already their own responsibilities.
Third, governments are uniquely responsible for exercising oversight of the public spaces and infrastructure on which every individual and organization depends. They must ensure justice is done to this public realm in which everyone has a stake. This government duty is neglected in some North American Kuyperian discourse. The duty could include environmental legislation or other regulatory instruments or incentives intended to reduce pollution, support low-carbon transportation, clean up rivers and wetlands, protect biodiversity, promote energy efficiency, or boost the renewable energy sector.
Finally, governments must also commit to tireless international diplomacy in order to build support for necessary global ecological initiatives that transcend the capacities of nation-states, as many of them now do. This includes delivering on the promises, however inadequate, secured at events like COP26. At a minimum, that means each nation meeting its “nationally determined contributions” (NDCs), or making those determinations promptly if it has not yet done so.
I’ve spoken of the duties of government. But citizens share in the calling of government to promote (ecological) public justice. There are numerous political actions they can take at national, regional, and local levels by which to practice “ecological citizenship.” These include signing petitions or joining demonstrations, voting for ecologically courageous candidates or party policies, and supporting (or launching) environmental faith-based or secular organizations, campaigning groups, NGOs, social movements, or think tanks. 350.org, led by visionary environmentalist Bill McKibben (a Methodist), is an exemplary case.
I have given only a few glimpses of the multiplicity of ecologically faithful steps that plural institutions enable us to take to respond to climate change or other ecological crises. A pluralist take on the fight against climate change is empowering because it dignifies every person and institution with a unique role in bequeathing to the next generation a livable habitation—a place where at least a degree of ecological righteousness, to use Peter’s words, “is at home.” In the gracious providence of God, it’s never too late to do all that we can, and no righteous act will ever be wasted.