During the upcoming United Nations conference on climate change, to be held in Copenhagen from December 7 to 18, the only issues really on the table are CO2 emissions and the green energy sources that might reasonably replace fossil fuels. Denmark will use this opportunity to show the rest of the world its own example - a country managing to maintain a high level of economic growth even as it draws 20% of its energy from clean sources, including wind power.
The social aspect of this question will be marginalized, at best, if not completely ignored. It is, however, far from a negligible aspect of the problem. Early in the 1970s, at the time of the first energy crisis, Ivan Illich, in his book, Energy and Equity, reminded us that the excessive use of cheap fossil fuel was as damaging to society as it was to nature. He wrote: “[H]igh quanta of energy degrade social relations just as inevitably as they destroy the physical milieu.”1 The explanation is simple: having mechanical slaves at our service reinforces our feeling of power, and distances us from that self-conscious sense of vulnerability that helps us accept the constraints of a hectic social life. That which is first experienced as liberation – e.g., no longer having to draw water from wells – quickly becomes alienating: We believe that we no longer need one another; we isolate ourselves and become strangers to others and then to ourselves.
One of the sure signs of the wrong being done to society is the weakening of the sense of belonging. Urban sprawl, made possible – often made necessary– by affordable energy, has had the effect of distancing people from their homes – where they often do little other than sleep – and from their cities, which they associate exclusively with their work. The major urban planners, such as Lewis Mumford and Jane Jacobs, didn’t wait for the damage of climate change before decrying this reality.
The same problem exists in the country. The distance from the village of North Hatley to our small farmhouse is 16 kilometres. When I make the trip in the car, I never think about stopping to look at a garden, or to talk to those whose pride and joy it is. The first time I made the same trip on foot – early one May – I moved from discovery to discovery, from conversation to conversation. Just like so many before me, I began to understand that belonging to the land and belonging to a community are inseparable realities.
To achieve the desired end then – i.e., moderation in use of fossil fuel – would it not be wiser to launch a movement for belonging, rather than against CO2 emissions?
Muslims go farther than this. They have begun to seek to attach religious sensibility to the sense of belonging to the community and to the land, where previously they felt that issues related to the environment should be completely separate from religion. Sheikh Ali Goma’a, Grand Mufti of Egypt, has launched a seven-year plan aimed at transforming the pilgrimage to Mecca into a convivial experience, an experience shared by companions, an opportunity to bring oneself closer to other people, to nature, and to God.2 Isn’t this the same spirit we are seeing in the current revival of the pilgrimage to Compostela?
According to Jean Vanier too, belonging must be multi-faceted. It is there in his eyes – a law of his inner life. “The more we advance on the road to interior peace and integrity, the more the sense of belonging grows and deepens. It is not only belonging to others and to a community that is the cause of this, but also belonging to the universe, to the earth, to water, at all that lives, to all humanity.”3
The European countryside, as shaped and worked by the Cistercian monks of the Middle Ages, is often cited by ecologists, notably René Dubos, as an example to be imitated. Dubos, originator of the aphorism “think globally; act locally,” writes that to follow such an example is to engage in a path in which the inner life sets the tone for all other manifestations of life. He quotes St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “That spot has much charm, it greatly soothes weary minds, relieves anxieties and cares …The smiling countenance of the earth is painted with varying colours, the blooming verdure of spring satisfies the eyes, and its sweet odour salutes the nostrils. … While I am charmed without by the sweet influence of the beauty of the country, I have not less delight within in reflecting on the mysteries which are hidden beneath it.”4 Thus did St. Bernard write, evocatively, of the site at Clairvaux where he would establish a monastery.
3. Jean Vanier
4. Cited by René Dubos, in A God Within, (New York: Scribner’s, 1972), p.171.