film religion

On ecological repentence

Second Chances is a short film by Eilidh Munro, featuring the words of a Peruvian forest ranger called Juvenal Huari Castilla. It’s just under three minutes long, so you’ve got time to watch it before you read on:

Castilla used to be a logger. He was paid to cut trees in the rainforest, and then later got a job as a ranger. As he came to understand the forest and the importance of protecting it, he regretted his previous work. “I walked in this forest, I’ve logged trees” he says. “What did I do?”

And then he uses an interesting phrase: “it’s not too late to repent.”

For him, that ‘repentence’ means a shift from cutting the trees to protecting them. It’s a second chance for both him and the forest.

Repentence is of course a religious word. In the Christian tradition, repentence is the turning away from old ways of doing things and making a commitment to do better. The ‘sinner’ comes to God for forgiveness and repents. As God forgives their mistakes, they commit to not returning to their sinful ways.

You rarely hear the word used outside of this context. But if we lift it from its religious connotations for a moment, there’s a useful idea here.

When it comes to consumer lifestyle choices, we hear a lot about guilt. Indulgent things are often described as ‘sinful’. Other products are marketed as ‘guilt-free’, as if their alternatives come by default with a side-order of shame. This kind of language often gets used in environmental choices too, certainly in popular conceptions of the green movement. People might feel guilty about their carbon footprint, or ashamed of using single-use plastics.

In order to stop making these guilty and sinful lifestyle choices, people are supposed to ‘give things up’ or make sacrifices.

What occurred to me in watching the film is that environmental language has borrowed the religious ideas of guilt and sacrifice, but not what comes next, which is repentence. The giving up of the old ways is only half the picture. Repentence involves leaving the old thing and then embracing the new, and the second half of that process is less prominent.

That matters, because repentence is a positive response, not a negative one. It’s not just about leaving something behind, but making a proactive choice to do better. That seems like a more hopeful and more inspiring proposition. It suggests agency and responsibility, rather than duty or guilt. It moves on from the crisis of conscience and makes a new start. There is the possibility of restoration and making amends.

I don’t suggest that campaigners start calling petrol-heads or frequent flyers to repentence in those words exactly, but good choices could be framed more positively. For example, it’s the difference between ‘choosing a vegetarian diet’ as a positive, and ‘giving up meat’ as a negative.

This may be true for the movement as a whole, as well as individual choices. The transition to a sustainable future can’t be defined forever by what it says no to – like the degrowth movement, for example. That’s only half the story. There has to be a positive choice that we turn towards, a pivot towards embracing the better option – as we see in the circular economy, regenerative agriculture, or rewilding perhaps.

With those sorts of ideas, we get to move past the guilt narratives of environmentalism, and people and planet alike get a second chance.

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