Rod Dreher

The Climate Crisis & The Benedict Option

Record Venice floods last month swamped St. Mark’s Square, and cathedral (Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP) (Photo by FILIPPO MONTEFORTE/AFP via Getty Images)

Here’s a really thoughtful essay in The New Atlantis, titled “Beyond Climate Despair.” The author is Matt Frost. His argument is that “catastrophism” about climate change has failed to move the world’s population to make the radical changes necessary to avert the calamities ahead. Here’s his provocative thesis, in sum:

But we are not condemned to a choice between despair and denial. Instead, we must prepare for a future in which we have temporarily failed to arrest climate change — while ensuring that human civilization stubbornly persists, and thrives. Rather than prescribing global austerity, reducing our energy usage and thereby limiting our options for adaptation, we should pursue energy abundance. Only in a high-energy future can we hope eventually to reduce the atmosphere’s carbon, through sequestration and by gradually replacing fossil fuels with low-carbon alternatives.

It is time to acknowledge that catastrophism has failed to bring about the global political breakthrough the climate establishment dreams of, and will not succeed in time to avert serious warming. Instead of despairing over a forever-deferred dream of austerity, our resources would be better spent now on investing in potential technological breakthroughs to reduce atmospheric carbon, and our political imagination better put toward preparing for a future of ever more abundant energy.

Frost cites a poll showing that most Americans, by a huge margin, believe that climate change is happening … but also very few believe that we can or will do anything to stop it.

The bleak poll results may reflect a broad, if perhaps tacit, agreement that we have reached diminishing returns on dread. Even now that most Americans accept the dire predictions of scientists and journalists, their assent does not change the fact that we currently lack the institutional, technological, and moral resources to prevent further climate change in the near term. The lay public has been taught to regard stabilizing the climate as an all-or-nothing struggle against the encroachment of a dismal future, and the bar for success is set high enough that failure is now the rational expectation.

The people who keep insisting, hysterically, that humankind can solve the climate change crisis if only we put our minds to it are thinking magically. It’s not that it absolutely, positively cannot be done. It could be done if all the world’s industrial economies collapsed utterly overnight. But we all know that that is not going to happen, nor, given the inconceivable human death and suffering that would occur in that instance, should we want it to happen. If you think that any nation will voluntarily send itself back to pre-industrial existence for the sake of what feels like an abstraction, you’re deluded. Any national leader who proposed that seriously would face rioting in the street. Macron tried to add a gas tax, and got the Yellow Vests movement. Here’s the core of Frost’s contention:

This combination of brooding pessimism and delusional optimism has not only failed, it has left us poorly equipped to imagine alternative responses.

Such as? Frost has some really interesting suggestions. That section begins like this:

We will not stop global warming, at least in our lifetimes. This realization forces us to ask instead what would count as limiting warming enough to sustain our lives and our civilization through the disruption. There can be no single global answer to this question: Our ability to predict climate effects will always be limited, and what will count as acceptable warming to a Norwegian farmer enjoying a longer growing season will always be irreconcilable with that of a Miami resident fighting the sea to save his home. But because our leadership has approached climate change as a problem of coordinated global action, they have constructed quantitative waypoints around which to organize the debate.

Read it all.It’s the most constructive, realistic thing I’ve seen on the climate change problem in ages. I leave it to you readers who follow the climate change issue more closely, and/or who have a scientific or economic background, to comment on those aspects of Frost’s story. As I read it, I kept reflecting on how Frost’s insights into how to cope with the unstoppable climate change crisis might affect our thinking about the Benedict Option and the decline of Christianity.

Consider this rewrite of the paragraph above:

We will not stop the steep decline of Christianity, at least in our lifetimes. This realization forces us to ask instead what would count as limiting its decline enough to sustain our individual and collective faith through the disruption. There can be no single global answer to this question: Our ability to predict religious life will always be limited, and what will count as a sustainable degree of Christian practice to Norwegians living in a stable, prosperous, homogeneous secular society will always be irreconcilable with that of a Nigerian fighting militant Islam and the encroachment of secular hedonism from the West via the Internet. But because our leadership has either denied, in one of various ways, that that Christianity has entered into an advanced and likely irreversible state of decadence, or has approached it as something we can only face by waiting for Jesus to take the faithful to heaven in a teleportation extinction event called the Rapture, they have failed to establish constructive points around which to organize the debate — or even to have a debate at all.

Of course if you have read The Benedict Option, you will know that that is precisely the point of the book: first, to convince Christian readers that this is not merely a cyclical downturn in Christianity, but quite possibly the beginning of its end, at least in the West; and second, to suggest practical ways we can start responding to a crisis more severe than any since the collapse of Western Roman civilization in the fifth century.

The most basic difference between our time and then is that the West had not yet been Christian. Most of western Europe had not yet been evangelized, or more than lightly converted. And the entire mental and social framework of people then was very, very different from what we have today, in late modernity — a period that arrives after the West has been entirely Christian for at least a thousand years.

If we only brood pessimistically about Decline and Fall — this is my personal temptation — we will be paralyzed, and not arise and take actions that stand to make this catastrophe endurable and survivable. But delusional optimism — “there is no problem,” or “actually, God is doing a new and wonderful thing with the church,” or “things will turn around sooner or later if we just sit quietly and wait” — is a death sentence.

Frost, in writing about the climate crisis, acknowledges that the problem is simply not one that can be solved by democratic societies. I encourage you to read his analysis; I’m not going to post so much of his (long) essay that you don’t go to it and grapple with its details. Let’s just say that he’s very persuasive on this point. Frost spends some time dealing with mistake of approaching the subject from the highly moralistic catastrophism that has characterized the way activists (hello, Greta!), journalists, and other engaged parties have favored.

In fact, Frost’s piece has helped me to understand better the most frustrating thing (to me) about this entire Benedict Option discussion: why so many anti-Ben Op people, despite my frequent and elaborately detailed denials, insist that the Ben Op is about heading to the hills to build bunkers and await the End. It’s like there is something compulsive deep inside people that makes them want to believe that extreme view, so they can dismiss the entire project.

Here’s what I’m getting at. Adapting Frost’s stance to the current crisis of the Christian religion, if Benedict Option Christians ran around saying at the top of their lungs that if all Christians don’t withdraw radically from the modern world by 2030, the faith will irreversibly collapse, most people would tune them out. Even if these prophetic Christians had facts and logic on their side, it would be realistically impossible to convince believers to take such an unimaginably extreme step. What if the prophets doubled down on excoriating the faithful for their unwillingness to embrace this kind of severe austerity? History does not give us reason to hope that masses of people respond favorably to this kind of thing.

But think about how climate activists and sympathetic journalists respond to anything other than maximally freaking out: they denounce them as timid half-measures. And climate-change deniers respond in kind, with charges of hypocrisy, e.g., “If these people really believed that a climate apocalypse was coming, then they would stop using air conditioning, stop flying in planes, and stop driving cars.” These snarky deniers aren’t entirely wrong. It is amusing to observe the vast distance between what climate activists say, and how most of them live. But the snarky deniers aren’t entirely right, either. Scientific facts don’t change based on whether or not people are hypocrites. Frost points to how the excessive moralization of the climate issue makes it hard to think clearly about what things we can do to get through the hard times ahead of us more bearable.

Well, I don’t see many Christians running around saying that we have to head to the hills and live like Bible-thumping survivalists. I don’t say that anywhere in my book, because I don’t believe it. I do believe, though, that Christians who don’t want to have to face the difficult truths about our situation invent a straw man version of the Ben Op to justify their own unwillingness to deal with this pressing crisis. If they can convince themselves that Benedict Option advocates are nothing more than Greta Thunbergesque malcontents, then (in their thinking) there must not be anything to worry about.

To be fair, it really might be the case that the only sensible thing for Christians to do is some version of “head for the hills”! I can’t afford to let myself think that, though, because there is no way that more than a relative handful of Christians would do such a thing, and, more importantly, there is no way that they could do such a thing. Most of us are far too enmeshed in the ordinary things of the world — jobs, families, houses, friends, responsibilities, etc. — to pick up and relocate to a Ben Op bunker. Nor do most people have the money for such a thing.

The forces driving climate change are understood, but unless we’re going to invent a time machine and go back to strangle the Industrial Revolution in its cradle, they are not going to be turned back in our lifetime. The forces dissolving Christian faith and practice go back even deeper into history than the Industrial Revolution — but, interestingly, the Industrial Revolution, and the radical social and economic changes it set into motion, has had as profound an impact on Christianity as on the global climate. Anyway, as with climate change, so with religious change: this is simply something we are going to have to ride out. We can’t even begin to figure out how to do that until and unless we give up the idea that the only choices available to us are to come up with a universal, complete solution to the crisis, or to deny that there is a crisis at all.

Frost writes:

This is not to suggest that because our politics have failed to arrest global warming we must somehow solve the problem outside politics, through voluntary commerce and innovation, while sovereign power recuses itself. On the contrary, our political efforts, domestic and international, must account for the lack of consensus, and should not presuppose sudden mass moral conversion or radical changes to our institutions. A successful politics for the era of overshoot will maintain continuity with our most enduringly human characteristics, appealing to our routine, unsophisticated self-interest as well as our loftier virtues. In the absence of a sweeping ethical revolution, a successful climate politics will look like a new variation on familiar methods, rather than a transformed social order.

That same paragraph, in a Ben Op context, would look something like this:

This is not to suggest that because our churches have failed to arrest Christianity’s decline we must somehow solve the problem outside the life of the institutional church, through individual religious efforts and innovation, while church leaders recuse themselves. On the contrary, our ecclesial efforts, domestic and international, must account for the lack of consensus, and should not presuppose sudden mass moral conversion or radical changes to our institutions. A successful religious strategy for the era of overshoot will maintain continuity with our most enduringly human characteristics, appealing to our routine, unsophisticated self-interest as well as our loftier virtues. In the absence of a sweeping ethical and spiritual revolution, a successful institutional Christian response will look like a new variation on familiar methods, rather than a transformed social order.

That is the Benedict Option.

There is another significant difference between solving the climate crisis and saving Christianity. If the climate crisis is going to be solved at some point in the future, it will be because science will have come up with a technology that can stop carbon emissions and remove carbon from the atmosphere. In other words, this is a technical problem. There are no technical solutions to Christianity’s crisis. You can’t engineer away unbelief. But, in both cases, the solution will require something like a miracle — that is, the emergence of a phenomenon that we can’t imagine now, but that will actually exist, and will change everything. Our most realistic hope, then, is to engineer right now, working within the limits of our nature and our capabilities, ways to keep us alive (physically, in the case of the climate crisis, and spiritually in the case of the religious crisis) and thriving until that future miracle.

Once more, here’s a link to Matt Frost’s great piece in The New Atlantis. And, if these musings spark your curiosity, and make you reconsider your rejection of the Benedict Option, here’s a link to the book. 

UPDATE: I just came back to approve comments that went up over the last hour, and I ended up spiking most of them. Look, folks, I am not going to let this thread be hijacked by people who want to argue about whether anthropogenic climate change is real. That’s a fine discussion to have, but this is not the place for it. Nor am I interested in approving comments that rant about how wicked Republicans are for denying climate change. That’s also a fine discussion to have, but not here. Read the Matt Frost article, or at least keep your comments focused on his proposals. Otherwise, I’m not going to post your comment.

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