books climate change religion

Climate, catastrophe and faith, by Philip Jenkins

Scholars have written the history of religion, and other scholars have written the history of the climate. The two haven’t necessarily been put together, and Philip Jenkins remedies that with his engaging book Climate, Catastrophe and Faith: How changes in climate drive religious upheaval. It shows how times of crisis in the weather have dramatically shaped religious movements across the world.

Reading back over the past thousand years, there have been periods of misery that have gone down in folklore – ‘years without a summer’, times of famine, plague and turmoil. Years of drought or of unrelenting cold. Years when the sky went dark and people thought it was the end of the world.

We can often pin a reason on these disasters now, such as El Nino cycles or volcanic eruptions – Tambora, Krakatoa, others not yet identified but leaving their fingerprints. With no knowledge of smoking mountains on the other side of the world, “people framed their sufferings with whatever ideologies were close at hand.” Religious leaders were often ready with an answer, and it often involved the judgement of God.

At times of inexplicable crisis, “the language of apocaplypse became alarmingly plausible” writes Jenkins. When the revival preacher Jonathan Edwards admonished the “sinners in the hands of an angry God” in 1741, it was following two years of punishing cold, failed harvests and widespread early death. Edwards’ ministry unfolded in a religious and cultural context too, but the climate was also a factor. “To make this point is in no sense to trivialize the content or message of a religious event or revolution,” Jenkins stresses, “but rather to apply its essential context.”

This is a repeating pattern, with times of crisis spawning periods of religious fervour, both positive and negative. There are revivals and awakenings. There are also eras of persecution, pogroms, and outright warfare. If God is angry, then why? Whose fault is it? At various points in history religious extremism ends badly for Catholics, and in other places for Protestants, or for Muslims. Or ‘witches’. Or sects and free thinkers.

Movements, splits or traditions that emerge at these points sometimes endure well beyond the crisis. Much of the popular understanding of witchcraft comes not from pre-Christian traditions, nor from any actual practice, but from the feverish imagination of Pope John XXII during the famine years of the 1320s. Iraq’s longstanding Christian communities were driven into exile at around the same time, and Coptic churches and monsteries in Egypt were burned, significantly shifting the demographics and religious traditions of those countries right up to today.

The ‘catastrophe’ of the title is a pretty good clue to the woe that lies within, but there are positives too, where good climate conditions prevailed. Jenkins describes how Europe’s great cathedrals were built during the Medieval Warm Period that blessed the high middle ages.

One thing that’s interesting to observe is how explanations change over time. Earlier crises are more marked by conspiracy, scapegoating and violence. By the time we get into the 1700s and 1800s, science has more explanations to offer. Religious changes are more likely to be about personal piety than purging God’s perceived enemies, and so the arrival of science and literacy helped to reduce religious violence. And moving into a modern world, many people are more buffered against climatic shock. World food markets make up for poor harvests in some places with surplus from elsewhere, at least for the rich. A cold winter might go unnoticed in an age of cheap energy.

Of course, the periods discussed in the book are different climatic crises to the Big C Climate Change of today, which is caused by industrial emissions rather than natural events and cycles. But history might help us to think through the kinds of religious changes that we might see in future. If times of crisis lead to religious extremes, we should be alert to that, especially in places where literacy rates are low and traditional theologies of anger and blessing predominate. Jenkins points out a couple of potential faultlines, such as African countries with Sufi Muslim minorities. He resists any kinds of predictions in what is a carefully considered book, but this is a history we can learn from, and try not to repeat past mistakes as the climate changes.

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