Motivation and hope in a time of gloom: Part 1

Introduction

Quite often I get asked, “Where is the hope for the planet?” and “Why should I bother trying to stop climate change when hardly anyone else is?”, two different and highly important questions. When I decided many years ago to devote my career to climate change issues, I knew I’d have to face them myself, and it’s likely that you have faced them too.

So this article and the next one consist of my attempt at answering them, by exploring the world from the point of view of the Christian faith. The first is about motivation; the second is about hope.They are more personal than the articles I’ve written so far on the blog, and won’t treat the question from the point of view of all religions because some of the principles discussed are unique to Christianity. They are meant for everyone to read, not specifically Christians, although one of my greatest desires is for the latter to care more for the environment. If you have any questions or comments then either post them at the end or email me on jennifer.love.09@ucl.ac.uk.

Part 1: Why should I bother fighting climate change, when it looks like things are getting worse and I’m only one person?

Let’s not deny it, CO2 emissions are still increasing; indeed very rapidly since the end of the last global financial crisis [http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/v2/n1/full/nclimate1332.html ]

I’m not sure how much damage we’ll have done before the world wakes up and does something about climate change, but it looks like we’re going to carry on warming the planet for a while.

At this point, some people pull out the, “I’m only one person, I can’t make a difference” argument, as an excuse not to do anything (sometimes they then go on to talk about “China and India”, but let’s not go there for now…). It is true that even if we as concerned citizens do a lot, we are outnumbered by people who do nothing or create yet more demand for fossil fuels. The logical conclusion to this is that if our motivation depends on things getting better, we will lose hope. If we can somehow separate our motivation from the end result, we will carry on regardless of the size of our impact.

To borrow someone else’s terminology [1], this can be concisely put in terms on ‘extrinsic motivation’ and ‘intrinsic motivation’, the former depending on results, the latter not.

My interpretation of intrinsic motivation is this: We try to limit our negative impact on the environment, not because we have confidence that it will work, but because it is the right thing to do.

This needs explaining…

Why is looking after the environment the right thing to do?

This might sound like a silly question – however, ‘looking after the environment’ in the context of our current sociotechnical system where flying and driving are totally normal, our food comes from far away and we like air conditioning in our offices when it’s hot,  potentially requires considerable personal sacrifice and sticking your neck out. So there had better be some good solid answers to why we should bother.  Here are some of mine:

a) We have a responsibility to look after a planet which isn’t ours.

The ancient Jewish story of the first ‘people’ on earth records God handing over the planet to mankind, with the following instructions:

“God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”  [2]

What does this mean? The Hebrew word for “rule over” is used in other texts to describe the benevolent rule of good kings over their subjects (so means “have responsibility over”); “subdue”  is related to working the soil and is a command to interact with nature and aid its fruitfulness.[3]

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it”. [4]

“Till” is the verb for “work”/ “serve”/ “worship (God)”. “Keep” means protect. So the verse can be interpreted: care for and protect the land in a way that gives life to it [3].

In case this terminology isn’t clear, or like me you prefer things to be explicit:

“The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” [5]

And yet, because of selfishness and greed, we prefer to consume instead of protect, often to the detriment of others:

“Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pastures? Must you also trample the rest with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink pure water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet?” [6]

These verses do not justify humanity’s greedy consumption of resources since these resources are not theirs to begin with, and our excessive consumption of them  involves “trampling” over others who are just trying to get their share. So how do we turn from this detrimental way of life and go back to what was intended for us?

b)      Jesus gave us several incredible and challenging examples of giving up things to benefit others.

My first example is a story he told, my second is what he did.

The parable of the Good Samaritan, which you can read here if you like [http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Luke+10&version=NIV], starts with someone asking for clarification of God’s command to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ by posing the question, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ To answer, Jesus tells a story of a Samaritan – looked down upon by the Jews at the time – helping someone he didn’t know and who would have been his natural enemy. I think this is very relevant for climate change in that we are helping people we don’t know – perhaps they haven’t even been born yet – so we’re not doing it to get recognition from those we respect or anything. So often we try to do good deeds just for those we love – this goes way beyond that.

But the most direct example of giving something up to benefit others was Jesus’ death on the cross. Christians believe that this death had a purpose: forgiveness. Not that people deserved it, but it had to happen if people were going to be able to have a relationship with a good and holy God. Forgiveness was brought about through the punishment for our wrong being taken by Jesus when he died. That act of love on behalf of people Jesus never met during his time on earth is an incredible example to us of the love we should have for those we don’t know – and how wrong it is to prioritise our own lives at their expense.

It’s very important not to absolve personal responsibility from causing climate change and say, “I can’t help consuming, that’s just the way the system is”. Jesus got a lot of stick for bucking the trend and loving others over social and religious norms, e.g. going to eat with the ‘bad’ people in society, or breaking a religious rule in order to be able to heal someone. Since he gave us such a radical example of a counter-cultural life prioritising love for others, let’s do the same!

c)      “Life to the full”

Christians are sometimes criticised for looking forward to going to heaven/the next life so much that they don’t care much about the problems of the earth and this life. To our shame, sometimes this is the case. It is totally contrary to how Jesus lived and I would say that his life gives me inspiration to do quite the opposite: that the thought that this isn’t my only time alive means I don’t feel the need to get the most out of it for myself (e.g. touring round on aeroplanes). I can therefore give this life towards looking after others. Please don’t think that I actually manage to achieve this, but this is my aim. Jesus said, “I have come to give you life to the full”. I absolutely don’t think that he meant this to mean just satisfying ourselves, but  being alive for a purpose: to love and be loved by the combination of God, people and the rest of the planet.

What is the role of right and wrong in this anyway?

This might seem a rather abstract/philosophical question to raise at this point. But it’s crucially important for fighting climate change as you’ll hopefully see…

A few years ago I was very involved in an environmental society. The people were truly wonderful. They would give and give and give out of themselves…and not really get anything in return apart from the feeling of doing good. Sometimes they would tell me that it’s very hard to keep giving when you don’t really get anything in return. I agree.

Christians’ motivation to do good is fuelled by what they have already received: love and grace shown to them by God by Jesus’ forgiveness of them. And it is out of this prior-received love that we can joyfully give it away. It’s the opposite of doing good to try and earn some kind of reward or to appease an angry god or to try to increase your chances of making it into some kind of heaven. We would never make it – we acknowledge that. And out of gratitude that humanity’s rescue came from God himself, we are free to love others with no ulterior motive. God’s love is what drives me to devote my life to try to make other people’s lives better via mitigation of climate change.

Conclusion to part 1

So far, we’ve discussed why we should bother when it often seems like we’re not getting anywhere with saving the planet. It has been argued that our motivation will fade if we depend on results and not motivation from somewhere deeper within ourselves. The Christian faith points to the concept of doing the right thing after receiving a source of love that does not depend on our actions and is still there, in fact, despite our often badly-intentioned actions. This receiving of love should then lead to gratitude and freedom to give our lives to helping others. I am sorry if you haven’t had this experience of Christians and I really hope you get to.

Part 2 will attempt to answer the other question, ‘Where is the hope for the earth?’, but until then, I hope you found Part 1 interesting and that it made sense to you.

References:

1. See the first comment on: http://ruthvalerio.net/2012/05/27/the-problem-communicating-hope-1/

2. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+8:17&version=NIV

3. “Cherishing the earth”, Hodson & Hodson, 2008.

4. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+2:15&version=NIV

5. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=psalm%2024:1&version=NIV

6. http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Ezekiel%2034:18-19&version=NIV

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3 thoughts on “Motivation and hope in a time of gloom: Part 1

  1. Jenny fab post and given me a lot to think about-Ross has just suggested that I turn off some lights as a first response…
    Thank you so much for such a challenging post, I’m really looking forward to reading part 2.

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