“Marvellously Human”: On the Spiritual Consequences of COP26 by Michael Centore

October 31 marked the official beginning of COP26, the global United Nations summit on climate change being held in Glasgow. Over 120 world leaders are currently in attendance. The summit was originally scheduled for last year, but after the effects of the coronavirus complicated travel logistics, it was forced to be postponed.

COP stands for Conference of the Parties, the supreme decision-making body of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). All countries that signed the treaty establishing the UNFCCC in 1994 will be participating. This is the 26th meeting of the Conference of the Parties—thus the summit’s name. Between now and November 12 when COP26 officially ends, representatives will cover a range of climate-related topics, including reducing carbon emissions, providing aid to countries most impacted by climate change, financing clean energy and the transition away from fossil fuels, and other actions essential if we are to limit global warming to less than 1.5°C as advocated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and keep our planet habitable for future generations.

“Climate change knows no borders,” former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon famously remarked, and the question before us now is how to foster, sustain, and deepen the collaborative consciousness necessary to avert the worst of its effects. One can cite any number of statistics—the 1.2 billion potential climate refugees; the 287 million people in danger of coastal flooding; the loss of adequate growing conditions for over 30 percent of the global food crop—but until we internalize them as more than just numbers, until we see the human face behind each data point, we risk abstracting ourselves away from this generational opportunity for global solidarity. Pope Francis illustrated this point beautifully with an image in his encyclical Fratelli Tutti:

When we speak of the need to care for our common home, our planet, we appeal to that spark of universal consciousness and mutual concern that may still be present in people’s hearts. Those who enjoy a surplus of water yet choose to conserve it for the sake of the greater human family have attained a moral stature that allows them to look beyond themselves and the group to which they belong. How marvellously human! The same attitude is demanded if we are to recognize the rights of all people, even those born beyond our own borders (§117).

To be, in this moment, “marvellously human”—this is what the urgency of the situation demands. Forest fires and flooding, heat waves and drought, the global mass extinction of species: we are already witnessing the contraction of the web of life brought about by what Eugene McCarraher has defined as the “‘great delusion’ of capitalist modernity: the belief that economic growth can go on forever, regardless of ecological limits.” What is worse, carbon emissions are projected to rise by 16 percent by 2030 rather than fall by half, which is what we need to achieve the 1.5°C target. Simply put, there is no time. When we read that the shortfall in pledged international climate financing is the same amount—$20 billion—that the U.S. gives to the fossil fuel industry in direct subsidies every year, the backwardness of our priorities is laid bare with frightening symmetry.

Though Pope Francis himself will not be travelling to Glasgow, he has made COP26 and issues germane to the summit a centerpiece of his recent public statements. On October 9, he delivered an address to participants in the pre-COP26 parliamentary meeting in which he made clear that “Care for our common home . . . is not just a matter of discouraging and penalizing improper practices, but also, and above all, of concretely encouraging new paths to pursue.” His video message for the Fourth World Meeting of Popular Movements the following week—which included a litany of pleas to pharmaceutical companies, arms manufacturers, and other extractive industries to desist from their structures of sin “in the name of God”—reiterated the theme of the October 9 address more pointedly: “This system, with its relentless logic of profit, is escaping all human control. It is time to slow the locomotive down, an out-of-control locomotive hurtling towards the abyss.” And on October 29, two days before the opening of the summit, Pope Francis broadcast a special message on the BBC calling on COP26 leaders to “offer concrete hope to future generations” and presenting the choices before us in stark contrast: “We can confront these crises by retreating into isolationism, protectionism and exploitation. Or we can see in them a real chance for change, a genuine moment of conversion, and not simply in a spiritual sense.”

To motivate this “moment of conversion,” we might draw foremost on the urgency of the situation; unlike the summit convened to address them, the effects of the climate crisis cannot be postponed. We might also draw on what the great teachers of the Eastern Orthodox tradition refer to as the incensive power of the soul: something like courage or righteous anger that, when rightfully deployed in accordance with nature, can embolden our desire for justice. This is precisely what we see in the nonviolent actions of groups like Extinction Rebellion.

And yet there is another ingredient, another aspect of our collective human response, that we cannot discount: the imagination, “that sublime human faculty,” in Pope Francis’s words, “where intelligence, intuition, experience and historical memory come together to create, compose, venture and risk.” Imagination for a better future, for “solutions,” yes, but also for those less qualifiable, less easily instrumentalized stirrings of our creative condition: a recognition of and reverence for the harmonious concordances of nature, where not a single fallen leaf is wasted in the earth’s continual transmutation of death into life; an ability to sense—and not only to sense, but to apprehend with the active faculties of the heart—our interdependence as a human species so that the insight of favorite Francis theologian Romano Guardini rings true: “God grasps the individual, but only in the whole”; and, educing these potentialities of the imagination as a teacher does a pupil, an innate longing for beauty, for balance and proportion, in which the love of truth subsists.

The opening days of the COP26 summit have already revealed some of the internal contradictions and counterproductive finger-pointing that have long plagued nation-states in their efforts to combat climate change. There may be an understandable temptation to lose hope, or even to outright cynicism. But we are at too critical a juncture to succumb to the “paralysis that the egoism of the strong and the conformism of the weak want to impose,” as Pope Francis expressed it to the Meeting of Popular Movements. We must turn instead to the signal statement of Francis’s fellow Jesuit Teilhard de Chardin, the priest, paleontologist, and mystic who conceived a brilliant synthesis between salvation history and evolution, and whose vision of a sacralized cosmos in which all life is tending toward its final divinization has inspired religious and secular thinkers alike:

It is in no way metaphorical to say that man finds himself capable of experiencing and discovering his God in the whole length, breadth and depth of the world in movement. To be able to say literally to God that one loves him, not only with all one’s body, all one’s heart and all one’s soul, but with every fiber of the unifying universe—that is a prayer that can only be made in space-time.

Our full stature is realized not in spite of but through our delimited world. This underscores the importance of the health of our planet and the ways in which we must live in partnership with its self-regulating processes. It is the expression of a prayer that we need desperately to heed, in Glasgow and elsewhere, now more than ever, if we are to evolve in our call to be marvellously human. ♦

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2 replies
  1. Eugene Ciarlo W-1
    Eugene Ciarlo W-1 says:

    You have captured so much in this editorial piece, from basic definitions that need to be understood, to the thoughts and ideas of thinkers who are in touch not only with science but with the realities of the human state of affairs. Add to this the insights and warnings of Pope Francis and here is a great summary of conditions as they exist and the true and obvious direction in which we must go in order to save the planet. This piece needs wide circulation because it captures so much so succinctly and without wasting words. Adelante!


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