Cape Town is nearing “Day Zero,” when the city’s water taps will be officially turned off for lack of water.
A three-year drought has precipitated this disaster. Residents will be forced to line up for their daily ration of water, and Cape Town’s version of Craigslist is bursting with ads for hiring drivers to get water from other regions, at a steep price. Yet many of Cape Town’s wealthiest are continuing to water their lawns and fill their pools with gallons of the vanishingly scarce resource.
This crisis is a shocking example of our climate-altered world. Should we be preparing to witness an environmental apartheid, as the wealthy lay claim to what little water is left? How can such grave danger be met with such passivity?
There is little doubt now that the world’s poorest people will bear the brunt of climate change’s ill effects. Sea level rise threatens hundreds of millions who inhabit the deltas of Southeast Asia and the isolated Pacific Islands. Domestic disasters like Hurricanes Katrina, Harvey, and Maria have shown us that it is our nation’s poorest who are most vulnerable, suffering deepest and longest after these natural tragedies.
It is easy to succumb to paralyzing frustration at the inaction of governments on this issue, the defining crisis of this generation. Because of this, action on climate change requires a total paradigm shift in our views.
It is undeniable that climate change is inextricably linked to the rapid growth of industrial capitalism. Increasingly, climate alteration is tied up with some of the greatest wealth the world has ever seen.
Pope Francis puts it well:
“Is it realistic to hope that those who are obsessed with maximizing profits will stop to reflect on the environmental damage which they will leave behind for future generations? Where profits alone count, there can be no thinking about the rhythms of nature, its phases of decay and regeneration, or the complexity of ecosystems which may be gravely upset by human intervention.” (Laudato Si, 190)
The core shift required is this: Climate change is a logical culmination of Western society’s extractive, consumerist mindset. Tackling climate change in any meaningful way will require substantial redistribution of wealth. But with so many politicians in the pockets of the wealthiest citizens, what hope do we have that our citizen activism will bring about these huge changes? When have we seen the powerful elite be truly, sacrificially, concerned with the plight of those at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder? We need to look elsewhere for hope.
There’s a Sunday school song that says: “He’s the king of a kingdom upside down, if you want to go up, you have to go down. To be the greatest, learn to be the least.” As Jesus himself said, “For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” (Luke 9:48)
This reassignment of value according to God’s principles is compelling. Jesus’ message was about redistribution of wealth and power — those who have wealth must share with those who do not, and those with power must cede it first to God, then to their fellow humans. Jesus broke the power of the religious ruling class and offered his transformative salvation in person.
And he continues today to say: “'Whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” As Christians, this is a mandate for action on climate change.
Perhaps climate change’s calamities will galvanize the international political scene, cracking the iron grip of the wealthy on our politics and forcing redistribution of resources. But no matter what happens, people of faith must lead the charge in envisioning a just world for all inhabitants. To slow the destruction of the earth, a fundamental reimagining of our societies is required.
This reimagined world — where the poor are valued, the wealth is shared, and the earth is cared for — is no less than the world that Jesus asks his followers to cultivate. This is a world in which a “Day Zero” is unnecessary, because even in the face of dwindling resources, people put others before themselves.
Hope is the domain of the faithful. While all around us there is cause for despair, we must join hands in prayer and rebellion to see God’s promises and God’s order awakened in society, for the sake of the world. With God’s order as our goal, our protesting, writing, and calling for action on climate change are necessary steps in the march towards justice.
These are huge dreams, and they often feel impossible. But striving for heaven on earth was never going to be easy.