It was 1985. Big hair, big ties and big budgets. Boomers were trading flower power for buying power, VW busses for BMWs, scruffy jeans for three piece suits. Then Africa happened.
This is a story of changing times and shifting values. Its a story of an emerging worldview based on a belief that the planet is sacred and fossil fuel is anathema. Climate change is the new poverty. This article attempts to explain why.
In the mid-1980s, the devastating famine in Ethiopia was suddenly in the headlines and on our televisions. The images were heart wrenching, mobilizing an astonishing outpouring of charitable concern. On March 7th, 1985, Michael Jackson et al released the single We Are the World that swept the globe and sold 20 million copies. There are people dying rang out Stevie Wonders voice. If you can get past the hairstyles, the famous video is still a moving testament to the power of music and celebrity to inspire the masses to make a better day.
The 80s pop culture ethos was infused with the feeling that people in faraway places should not go hungry, especially when the rich world was so incredibly well fed. A war on hunger was declared, and everyone was enlisting. What a great cause, and a heroic global media can be thanked for propelling the story forward with gripping coverage of the suffering Africans.
Now, hit the fast forward button on the VCR, right past the DVD era, all the way to the era of the PVR/DVR, and the age of the carbon protester. The 80s zeal is still there, but the mission is entirely different, and the related headlines seem to lack the gravity of a continent in crisis.
Take, for example, a huge 2013 Vancouver Sun front page story that screamed Hidden Sponsor Revealed. The shocking expose? Port Metro Vancouver paid $5,000 to sponsor the Canadian Coal Association Convention in Vancouver.
The article, that included a half-page photo of an overflowing coal train, reported the allegations of Voters Taking Action on Climate Change. They claimed that Port officials were bias in favour of the industry and failed to display their logos at the event. PMV confirmed they did indeed want to keep a low profile, owing to an application for a new coal transfer facility in the region.
How did such a seeming non-story relegate hard news and even Toronto Mayor Rob Fords latest hijinks to the back pages? Was it just a slow news day in Vancouver, or has a fundamental shift in priorities dramatically changed the focus of our public discourse? How has the image of a coal train become as upsetting to readers as scenes from a refugee camp?
Measured in ink and video tape, it aint the 80s anymore. The children are no longer the world. A new consciousness has emerged where our perishing earth is the world. In the new narrative, an epic tragedy, starving people are at best part of the chorus. The protagonist in this tale, the planet, is in the spotlight. Its a sad script. The heros own children are plotting her murder.
But where did this new storyline come from? What author is writing this gloomy drama? To attempt an answer, I put forward the case of the Pacific Northwest of North America. Sometimes called Cascadia, the vast area encompasses northern California, Oregon, Washington and Southern British Columbia. The region is currently gripped in a titanic struggle over fossil fuel transportation.
Coal trains with fuel destined for Asian markets require significant new port facilities and infrastructure, and the opposition is akin to a holy war waged against the forces of darkness. Much like their oil pipeline cousins, the ferocity of the resistance is astonishing. I suggest that the roots of the hostility are not to be found in dry science or cold logic, but, rather, in religion.
In his fascinating book Cascadia, The Elusive Utopia, Vancouver Sun religion columnist Douglas Todd examines a curious Pacific Northwest phenomenon. From census data, the regions populace is found more than any other US area to answer none to the question of religious affiliation. Paradoxically, surveys show that the least-churched people in North America indicate that they are spiritual. This enigma was the focus of the 2004 book The None Zone.
A contributor to both The None Zone and Cascadia, Oregon scholar Dr. Mark A. Shibley, in a 2011 paper, describes an influential Pacific Northwest belief system he calls Nature Religiona popular religiosity that makes nature sacred. Nature Religion, and amalgam of beliefs and practices venerating nature, Shibley argues, redraws the line between sacred and secular, with important implications for public policy. I argue that in this region earth-based spirituality is religion, is widespread, takes various forms, and is influential in civil society.
Eminent German philosopher Rudolph Otto famously framed religious experience as an encounter with the numinous, a sensing of something powerful, fearful, and wholly other. In the sparsely populated and mountainous Pacific Northwest, the overwhelming beauty and grandeur of nature translates for many into a moving, emotional experience.
Those living in metropolises like Vancouver and Seattle can, within a few minutes, find themselves paddling in spectacular fiords, hiking amongst bears in wild forests, or wandering hopelessly lost on deadly mountain bluffs. In Cascadia, nature is the numinous, wholly other from whence many derive their religious experience. Church pews are vacant, but the hiking trails are busy.
Shibley cites author Bron Taylor whose book Dark Green Religion, a detailed study of radical environmentalism and other earth focused groups, defines Nature Religion as religious perceptions and practices that are characterized by a reverence for nature and that consider its destruction a desecrating act. Northwest advocates engaged in resource and land use policy debates are well known for overlapping moral and spiritual metaphors with scientific information.
When it comes to overlapping Nature Religion with public policy, no better example can be found than Vancouvers popular mayor, Gregor Robertson, who recently banned coal exports, even though Vancouver had no coal to ban. Formerly an organic farmer on BCs rustic and beautiful Cortes Island, Robertson went on to build a successful organic juice company called Happy Planet.
Not far from Robertsons farm on Cortes is Hollyhock, a spiritual retreat centre of considerable renown, offering guests training and experiences in shamanism, teleportation, meditation, yoga, psychic healing, holistic medicine, Buddhism, naturalist wisdom, cooking, and even how to write a grant application. Guests gather in the sanctuary to meditate before breakfast. Hollyhock describes itself as linked intrinsically to our ecology and fits well within the above definition of Nature Religion.
As this Hollyhock promotional video reveals, this spiritual community of brothers and sisters openly integrates Nature Religion with social and political activism.
Robertson, a Hollyhock sojourner and onetime treasurer, found himself amongst some influential and ambitious people, such as Joel Solomon, the head of some well healed philanthropic organizations. Solomon has said in interviews that he and several like minded west coast folks had developed a 500-year vision for the world. Funders affiliated with Joel Solomon contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars in support of Robertsons political career, leading to his election as Mayor of Vancouver in 2008.
Five hundred years is a long time, and in that intense concentration on the distant future we find the crux of how public discourse has transformed from the 1980s focus on world hunger to our present obsession with planetary collapse. The 80s popular reaction to African famine was fueled by the urgency of thousands of children dying right now and visceral images of mass starvation. Climate catastrophes predicted to occur in 50 to 100 years time, on the other hand, can only be imagined.
How can anyone change popular sentiment and public policy concerning events that might occur many decades in the future? Primarily, would-be opinion shapers need a strong moral framework from which to prophesy and denounce the status quo. This framework, as if written on stone tablets, in addition to shame and guilt, must instill a deep fear of cataclysmic consequences for non-compliance. Nature Religion helps foster a world view that can tolerate great sacrifice in the present for promised bliss in the future.
Through efforts to restrict access to electricity generating fossil fuels like coal, in hopes of saving the planet, pundits and politicians are forced to make a terrible trade-off. The premature death and morbidity of millions now through energy poverty, it is reasoned, must be stoically accepted to preserve the sanctity of planet earth. The eschatology of Nature Religion sees a utopian future through obedience to the deity, earth, and a terrible Armageddon through defilement.
And Hollywood is doing a fine job bringing the myth to life. Waterworld, Avatar, The Day After Tomorrow, Wall*E, and, for the indoctrination of the kids, Ice Age: The Meltdown. The eco-disaster movie has replaced towering infernos with melting ice caps, with John the Baptist-like eco heroes crying in the wilderness, but also getting the girl at the end. Nature Religion, no longer a fringe movement from the wild-west, has become mainstream.
But in many parts of Africa, huge numbers of children are still suffering, but they are no longer the world. We Were the World might be the chorus of todays superstars, as they strain to be heard over carbon protests and climate anthems. The priorities have changed, and the priorities are wrong.
The contention that poverty reduction should remain our top priority is supported by the fact that, gratefully, the war on poverty is working. As Bill Gates and others have been pointing out, the idea that economic development and foreign aid is ineffective is a myth. Through real, quantifiable, verifiable results, we see 80s dream of a brighter future coming true.
Quantifying costs to humanity of a slightly warmed planet 50 years hence, however, is a highly speculative endeavor. Despite this uncertainty, sadly, many children today are taught to believe there simply wont be a habitable planet for them when they grow up. Climate criminals have stolen their future, left them for dead, and fled the devastated earth for Elysium. That is until Matt Damon saves them.
The 80s kicked off a tidal wave of action to relieve the suffering of the worlds poor. For the starving abroad and the homeless on our doorsteps, huge effort has produced real progress. In 2014, what are the results of millions of lives investing millions of hours and billions of dollars in climate initiatives? The fruit of all the effort seems elusive.
Saving the world for the future is a lofty goal, but saving the children now is nobler still. After all, they are the world.