'Cheap Grace' and Climate Change | Sojourners

'Cheap Grace' and Climate Change

Farm landscape, dvoevnore / Shutterstock.com
Farm landscape, dvoevnore / Shutterstock.com

Novelist Jonathan Franzen was getting hammered earlier this month. He recently wrote a piece delving into his ornithological passion in The New Yorker entitled “Carbon Capture: Has climate change made it harder for people to care about conservation?”

The Audubon Society has accused him of “extreme intellectual dishonesty,”Grist has labeled him “confused,” and Think Progress held nothing back and called his recent article “bird brained.” (My favorite so far might be the Washington Post saying that the Audubon has “flipped Franzen the bird.”)

Some of this criticism, in my opinion, is justified. Franzen set up an option between treating the planet with “disfiguring aggression” to try and mitigate climate change related emissions or “with palliation and sympathy” since the battle has already been lost. This choice, as the pieces above point out, is a false one.

Unfortunately, those controversial statements have covered over what I found to be the core argument of the article, and his most compelling case. Here is where I think Franzen nails it:

As long as mitigating climate change trumps all other environmental concerns, no landscape on earth is safe. Like globalism, climatism alienates. Americans today live far from the ecological damage that their consumption habits cause, and even if future consumers are more enlightened about carbon footprints, and fill their tanks with certified green fuel, they’ll still be alienated. Only an appreciation of nature as a collection of specific threatened habitats, rather than as an abstract thing that is “dying,” can avert the complete denaturing of the world.

It is only through the particular that we are able to reach something close to the global, let alone a universal. God might “love the world,” but we need to love our neighbor. It is through specific and tangible action, not ethereal moral sentiments, that we live our lives as ethical beings.

When it comes to creating a moral rubric that forms our lives and actions, we might be better off trying to be like the one whose “eye is on the sparrow” than attempting to operationalize the generic moral edict of “thou must mitigate climate change.”

It’s not that we shouldn’t care whether global temperatures rise two degrees or four this century, or whether the oceans rise twenty inches or twenty feet; the differences matter immensely. Nor should we fault any promising effort, by foundations or N.G.O.s or governments, to mitigate global warming or adapt to it. The question is whether everyone who cares about the environment is obliged to make climate the overriding priority. Does it make any practical or moral sense, when the lives and the livelihoods of millions of people are at risk, to care about a few thousand warblers colliding with a stadium?

Yes. Yes it does make sense to care about the warblers. It makes sense to care about the stream running through your back yard. It makes sense to pick up trash in your local park. It makes sense to want the lake where you fish to be clean and the forest where you hunt to be preserved.

I care about farms and farming writ large because I first care about Clarkridge Farm on New Hampshire’s Route 13 that my brother is farming now, my uncle farmed before him, our grandfather before that, his uncle before that, and so on back to the 1750s. It is through affection for the specific that we are able to understand and show concern for the universal. In profiling successful conservations efforts, Franzen notices this about one of his subjects:

During my time with Janzen, he rarely mentioned other projects. What concerns him is what he loves concretely: the specific dry-forest hunting grounds that he uses as a tropical field biologist, the unprivileged Costa Ricans who work for the A.C.G. and live near its borders.

This could be interpreted to be isolationist and selfish. Shouldn’t this Janzen guy focus his attention on the global forces at work that could render his work in Costa Rica for naught?

Franzen uses theological categories to describe the difference between a generic universal concern for “the environment” primarily manifested through fighting climate change and from those who exercise their concern for the global through local commitments. He identifies the first with a “New England Puritanism” and the second as inspired by Francis of Assisi.

New England Puritanism and environmentalism share the common ethos that “simply to be human is to be guilty.” The Saint Francis-inspired approach presents the different option of “loving what’s concrete and vulnerable and right in front of us.”

What I don’t think Franzen fully reconciled is that the Christian life, and the life of the environmentalist, is lived in tension between that New England-inspired Puritanism and the way of St. Francis. Yes, we are born into a world in which our daily existence does not mean we treat Creation (human and non-human) as the gift that it is. This is part of what means to carry “original sin.” But we are called to respond to that reality through living out the edict to “love our neighbors as ourselves” through the specific practice of being disciples of Christ.

There is another implicit challenge here to a standard liberal approach to climate change.

What if part of the reason that we haven’t made more progress on climate change is because we’ve set up a sort of “cheap grace” of climate change? 

Whether intended, the message people might be hearing is, “Absolve your carbon footprint guilt by saying the Greenhouse Gas Emitters Prayer and then your name will be forever written in the Al Gore Book of Life.”

Just as attitudes of moral superiority for checking the “right” religion boxes has turned many a person off to Christianity, it is possible that environmentalists have turned off others for the same reasons.

Should environmentalists dismiss the conservative who hasn’t been convinced by the reports from the International Panel on Climate Change but keeps bees, raises their own garden, and shuns our culture of overconsumption because of their commitments to thrift and hard work?

How about that hunter or fisherman who thinks that the greatest thing the New York Times could do to help the environment is stop wasting all that paper it’s being printed on but wants to make sure that the woods of New Boston have a healthy deer population and that Lake Winnipesaukee is preserved for generations to come?

Normally lines are drawn between those who affirm the findings of the IPCC and those who do not. Success for environmentalists, in this model of understanding, comes from bring more people onto the side of those who do affirm those findings. What if instead we saw the lines drawn between those who truly express affection and concern for a particular place or habitat and those who do not?

Don’t get me wrong, I would love it if everyone in America affirmed the IPCC reports and thought we should take action as a nation. I’m arguing that one of the reasons why this has yet to happen might be because we have failed to cultivate the kind of specific affection for our own little neck of the woods that global change will require.

Timothy King formerly served as Sojourners’ Chief Strategy Officer and now writes and farms in New Hampshire. You can read his thoughts on farming, food, and faith at his blog, Almost Home.

Image: Farm landscape,  / Shutterstock.com