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Posts Tagged ‘earh and sky’

Last week I received this mail from Simon Donner, a climate scientist at University of British Columbia:

‘I came across your site, thanks to links you have to the letter I’d written for desmogblog and to my colleague Michael Oppenheimer‘s work. It is good to see some discussion about the psychology of climate change. You might be interested in a recent paper/essay of mine in the journal Climatic Change about how long-standing traditional or religious beliefs about the separation of earth and sky pose an obstacle for climate change education.’

I was so taken by the originality of his insights, that I asked him to write a guest article for La Marguerite. Here it is:

‘Climate change is so obvious. Where’s the outrage?’, the writer Bill McKibben once wrote. Scientists, environmentalists, politicians, op-ed columnists, you name it, they have tried, some say in vain, to answer that question.

The problem is too long term. There is no direct cause and effect. It is too expensive. Scientists are poor communicators. People don’t want to give up their SUVs. It is Exxon’s fault.

What unites all these answers? An anecdote from the South Pacific, told in a recent essay of mine in the journal Climatic Change, might give a clue:

Each year in the Fijian village of Matacawlevu on the island of the same name, the people hold a festival to celebrate the planting of crops. There is food, music and no shortage of kava. But the most important part of the festival is a church service where the local minister leads the village in prayers for good weather and a strong harvest. According to Fijian religious tradition, a mix of Methodism and animism typical of the South Pacific, proper prayer assures that the rains will come. In the event of a drought, people blame either each other for not being devout, or blame the minister for failing to properly deliver the people’s message. The tradition of the planting festival masks a sophisticated system of land management that has sustained indigenous people in Fiji and across many islands in Polynesia and Melanesia for centuries. In Matacawalevu, the Chief’s decision to sanction planting is based upon years of experience and the advice of a villager trained in agronomy. Crops are rotated and selected land is left fallow to maintain soil fertility. The village’ s agricultural practices follow directly from a deeply held belief that people exert control over land. The weather, however, is up to God.

In virtually every traditional and religious belief system, there is a clear separation between the earth and the sky. The earth is the domain of humans, and the sky is the domain of the gods.

Separation of Earth and Sky

The very notion that we could be influencing or controlling the weather and climate runs counter to thousands of years of belief in a separation between earth and sky. From the essay:

Today, the concept of human-induced climate change may not directly conflict with the everyday religious beliefs of the majority of people in North America or Europe, as it does in many Pacific Islands. Yet doubt about human influence on the climate may be grounded in a more general feeling, a remnant of thousands of years of belief in earth– sky separation, that unspecified forces grander than humans control the climate. Skeptics of climate change have effectively exploited this spiritual uncertainty about human influence on climate by stressing the natural variability in the climate system. For example, organizations discouraging reduction in greenhouse gas emissions often distribute material that focuses on the large forces that alter climate over time…

Whether intentional or not, the argument taps into our pre-existing doubts that humans could disturb the domain of the gods.

This is not an indictment or endorsement of religion, rather a discussion of the separation of earth (the domain of humans) and sky (the domain of the gods) in different traditions and the need for a long view of human history when communicating climate change. I encourage people to read the essay and provide feedback on how we can use these ideas to improve climate change communication efforts. Perhaps we are overlooking the magnitude of the paradigm shift that human-induced climate change truly represents? The essay:

From Galileo to Darwin, science is full of examples where new discoveries challenged traditional beliefs. If history is a guide, it can take decades or centuries for the new science to become the new orthodoxy. The battle over public acceptance of natural selection is still being fought 150 years after the publication of the Darwin’s The Origin of Species. The potential for human-induced climate change may not belong on a list of the most fundamental scientific discoveries of last 500 years. Like those discoveries, however, it does challenge a belief held by virtually all religions and cultures worldwide for thousands of years.

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