Sustainability vs Nostalgia

I have recently been reading Bill McKibben’s latest book Eaarth, in which McKibben points out that we are already living in a different world (or on a different earth) than we were 20 years ago.  Because of the effects of global warming, the earth we once knew is gone, and it will never return.  This is a sad reality, but one with which we must come to terms before we can move on and work toward increasing options for human survival in a changed world.  I’m entirely in favor or remembering the past and maintaining a vibrant memory of the way things used to be, but it strikes me that nostalgia for a world that is no more will not serve us well in the future.  By nostalgia I mean a mindset that operates through the lens of the past, unable to adjust to present and future conditions.

Daddy, what did YOU do to stop global warming?

This past week I visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium and walked through an exhibit on how the seas are changing as a result of increasing water levels and temperatures.  The exhibit included wall-sized versions of old posters that have been modified to raise awareness of this new world in which we live.  The World War I poster pictured to the left was changed so that the caption read:  “Daddy, what did YOU do to stop global warming?”  A woman visiting the museum on seeing this modified poster exclaimed: “That’s bizarre.  That’s just wrong.”  Evidently she would prefer to hold onto some nostalgia of the past rather than face the reality of the present.  It seems that the modification of the poster struck her as somehow perverse, as denying (rather than re-appropriating) the original meaning and power of the poster.

We often ask what we can do as people of faith in response to the environmental crisis.  As a start, we can stop being nostalgic, which means stop living and acting as we did 20 years ago.  The way we live and operate as people of faith must change.  I’m not talking about worship, denominational structures, or church governance (although I think some of those 20th century models are also unsustainable), but about the way we approach creation and creation theology.  The days of proclaiming the stewardship model are over.  It is no longer productive to say that we are stewards of the earth.  The earth is not ours to have dominion over and protect, and numerous Biblical scholars now suggest that it never was.  In fact, many have already argued that this view of dominion is precisely one of the theologies of the past that has gotten us into the present crisis in the first place.  Instead of proclaiming a stewardship model, I suggest (with others such as John B. Cobb, Jr., Roland Faber, and others) that we view ourselves as co-existing on the earth with all other (created) forms of live, rather than as somehow elevated above the rest of creation.  I think this fundamental realization and shift in perspective is a necessary first step in approaching questions of sustainability as people of faith.

If the modified version of the above poster is in fact perverse, then perhaps that kind of perversity is precisely what we need as people of faith to wake us from our nostalgia and orient us to this new world.  And if throwing out the stewardship model is somehow a perversion of Christian creation theology, then I definitely think that this sort of perversion is what Christianity needs in order to understand that we can no longer view humanity as the top of an ecological hierarchy.  We must see ourselves instead as vitally and inextricably connected to all of creation.  The fate of the world is our fate, and nostalgia will not help us solve the problems of the present and future.


Author: Jeremy

I am happiest outside, surrounded by trees or water. I rarely go anywhere without my camera, and I actively seek ways to connect my work as a philosopher and theologian with regular people who are trying to make sense of this world.

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