Conflict and Climate Change
This article from Dr. David L. Wheeler, first appeared on the Huddled Masses Mobilization Network blog.
It would be the most natural thing in the world, after the horrific events this past weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a Christ-follower yearning for the dawn of God’s Reign to add his or her voice to the chorus of prophetic denunciation of the racists and their highly-placed enablers. We must not keep quiet, and we must keep believing that, in the famous words of Martin Luther King, Jr., “the arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” Nevertheless, I am compelled to address another theme today.
In a sin-warped world, personal, ethnic, cultural and religious differences perpetually lure us into conflict with those who are different, as each of us seeks our individual or group self-interest. We objectify the “other,” and explain conflict in terms of the ignorance and selfishness of the other, or the inevitable clash between “civilizations” or “true” and “false” ideologies or religions. Nevertheless, I maintain — as I have done elsewhere* — that the leading driver of conflict in our world today is global climate change. Anxiety about access to life’s basic necessities is exacerbated by the uncertainties created by an unstable, fluctuating climate. Wars and international or interethnic conflict are always at least partly, if not largely, about access to resources. When people are afraid for their lives, scapegoating and violence find fertile soil, and “strongmen” and “saviors” get traction..
I could give a long litany of examples; just a couple will suffice.
— There is no more violent and intractable conflict on the globe today than the long-running war in Syria. This war has created over four million refugees and internally displaced persons; superpowers have faced off over their support of or opposition to the dictator Bashar al-Assad, and the ancient Christian community of Syria has been decimated. The standard account of the current conflict roots it in opposition to al-Assad by proponents of the 2011 Arab Spring. Al Gore points out in “An Inconvenient Sequel” that a historic drought afflicting much of the nation from 1998-2012 created the hunger and uncertainty that fueled the unrest.
— The horrific suffering in Darfur in the 1990’s and 2000’s in which several hundred thousand people died and perhaps three million were displaced, and the related conflict between the government of Sudan based in Khartoum, and south Sudanese rebels, were often cast in ethno-religious terms — Arab Muslims in the north arrayed against black Christians and indigenous religionists in the west and south. Yet underlying these conflicts were waves of famine rooted in the expansion of the Sahara southward (“desertification”), rendering the life situations of traditional agricultural and pastoral peoples increasingly desperate. And the desertification continues apace, as 13 of the 14 hottest years ever recorded have occurred from 2002 to present.
Currently there are over sixteen million refugees — persons involuntarily displaced from their countries of origin — in the world, double the number a decade ago, and over 37 million “internally displaced persons,” — persons uprooted from their communities within their home countries — six times the number a decade ago.** The twenty-four hour news cycle is full of desperate people turned away from the relatively affluent countries of Western Europe, stranded in refugee camps, and drowning in the sea as their overladen vessels capsize. Xenophobic rhetoric and anti-immigrant policies have become political staples in the United States and Europe. Some people fear for their economic futures; other people are afraid for their very lives. A toxic stew of systemic injustice, fear and loathing of the other and — today, more and more — climate change drives this situation.
The resource basis of both stability and perseverance and instability and decay of civilizations is nothing new. The English historian and pioneering environmental theorist Edward Hyams published his classic Soil and Civilization in 1952. He examined the trajectories of civilizations ancient and modern, from the Fertile Crescent described by the Tigris and the Euphrates, to the valleys of the Nile and the Indus to the dust bowl of 20th century Oklahoma, as a function of their relationships to the soil. Intensive irrigation, chemical fertilizers and pesticides and global food distribution networks notwithstanding, our lives still depend utterly upon the integrity of the natural systems which sustain us, natural systems to which we are internal and which are internal to us. Rising global temperatures, warming and acidifying oceans, shrinking aquifers and degrading soil profiles, along with exploding human population and demand for resources increase the likelihood of conflict exponentially.
Libraries have been written about how to address this crisis, and strategies have bloomed, from global initiatives such as the Paris Climate Accords to myriad grassroots initiative. For the Christian believer, the climate crisis is, at its root, a theological issue. We must push past an instrumental approach to the nonhuman elements of God’s creation, as in the traditional Christian teaching on creation “stewardship,” toward an attitude of awe, wonder and reverence toward all that God has made, and all those whom God has made — the winged ones, the finned ones, the four-footed ones and the rooted ones, in the words of theologian Jay McDaniel. In “The Extent of the Beloved Community”, referenced above, I have begun to develop a “panCreation” hermeneutic, which identifies and celebrates God’s love — referenced in scripture — for all that God has created — for its own sake, and not just for our sake. This kind of love is the key to meaningful response to the climate crisis, which threatens our existence and the persistence of all of God’s creation as we know it.
*David L. Wheeler, “The Extent of the Beloved Community,” American Baptist Quarterly, Summer 2016.
** The World Almanac and Book of Facts 2017, 35