When my car needs a tune-up, it flashes a sign at me from the dashboard: “Regular maintenance required.” Since I rarely get the car to the auto shop until I’ve driven a few hundred miles over the limit, I often drive along with the car’s computer yelling at me, or so it feels. I take the accusation personally – extending the warning sign to my own diet, my own sleep habits, my own exercise regimen (or lack thereof). They may be appropriate, but I can’t say I relish reminders about other cases of deferred maintenance.
I often feel the planet yelling at me too. It is begging me, and everyone else, to initiate a maintenance plan. It may even be asking for an oil change but that’s probably stretching the metaphor too far.
What steps can we make toward change? Often we stage the climate debate in terms of doing something novel, and rightly so. We are making energy in new ways at a rapid rate. Renewables are a hot story.
We often imagine that the planet is like the Titanic, making a sharp turn towards a different way of sourcing energy. We imagine fewer cars, more public transportation, and city thoroughfares dedicated to bikes and pedestrians. I have done most of my climate thinking on this plane. I call it: “new, different, better.”
Another way of thinking environmentally is on a sacramental, enchantment plane. If we just changed our story and let desacralized nature become re-sacralized nature, we would find ourselves in a different relationship to the planet. That different relationship would result in an energy shift that would further accelerate the path to renewables.
But lately I have been toying with a third plane of thinking about the environment. More authoritarian methods may be necessary to combat climate change. For example, tax gasoline a dollar more per gallon; prohibit solo cars driving into cities on their morning commute and instead require three passengers per vehicle. All of these measures would result in immediate change in consumer habits. The more authoritarian approach has value, if only by observing its opposite. The price of gasoline has gone down, for instance, and people are driving more.
Each of my environmental theories has its own theology. The authoritarian model fits with notions of divine judgment. God wants us to have freedom but also is appalled at the sinful ways we use our freedom, thus limits need to be imposed on our ecological waywardness. Enchantment resides in a sacramental theology: the earth is magnificently sacred and if we became more grateful for this awesome gift, we would find our way to change. My “new, different, better” resides in a resurrection theology: we may look dead but we aren’t. A whole new way is right around the corner.
We can no longer ignore the stark, flashing ecological warning lights. Maintenance IS required, and can no longer be deferred, and an important part of this maintenance has to do with our thinking. We need to carefully think through our environmental theologies. What is the theology, or what are the theologies, behind an environmental approach that refuses to defer maintenance? At minimum, right thinking must include an understanding of stewardship that claims we are indeed free, but free to take care of each other, including earth and things. At our highest and deepest humanity, we are caretakers.
A stewardship centered maintenance mode still features a strong focus on new technologies and sources of energy. They too would need to be maintained. In an enchantment or sacramental mode, we would still need that word “awesome” to push us to consider how to feed people on our planet with a smaller environmental footprint. And by embracing stewardship, we might also consent to self-regulation and not have to employ authoritative measures to maintain the earth. We might change our habits rather than blithely going about our lives with the warning sign flashing.
Freedom put to the purpose of stewardship. Now that is an environmental theory and theology worth embracing.