The 22nd Conference of Parties (COP) was held in Paris over the past few weeks, culminating on the morning of Saturday 12th. From the deliberations of the world’s governments over night and day, an agreement has been created – 31 pages of aspirations, promises, and plans, all concerning the steps that will be taken to protect our atmosphere, oceans, soils, and habitats from climate change. It is the first time any such agreement has been truly comprehensive; including all our world’s nations as signatories. It is, in this way, a historic act. But the agreement itself is not nearly enough. Taken together, the commitments made by the parties will still allow carbon emissions rise to an unacceptable degree. The doorway to a sustainable future remains open – but we are still a long way from crossing the threshold. The influence of big emitters remains strong, the ambition of national governments remains relatively weak. As such, despite the agreement, some commentators have said that COP21 was a failure.
“At COP21, I saw Christian priests, Buddhist monks, Muslim youth, and indigenous elders; all representing the ecological teachings of their respective traditions.”
I was fortunate enough to attend COP21 as a researcher. As part of a team of researchers affiliated with Climate Histories– a seminar series dedicated to tackling questions around climate change – I helped document the civil society-focussed “Green Zone”; a large exhibition space open to the public. Spread over several acres beside the main Conference Centre, the Green Zone was filled with stalls, lecture rooms, restaurants and an auditorium, all hosting a variety of speakers and NGOs, voicing their own particular solutions to the crisis. These spaces were frequently contested. Activists would often seize space in the Green Zone, protesting the inclusion of major corporations in the Conference or drawing attention to the neglected plight of the marginalised.
When I first entered the Green Zone, having passed swiftly through heavy security, my ears were met by singing. A group of men and women wearing dog-collars processed about the site chanting in words I did not understand. One of them played the bongos, while another piped away on a wooden flute. This procession of Christian clergy was an indication of the increasingly important role that the Christian churches – and religions more generally – are playing in Climate Action. Whether it is the theologically vigorous paean to the Earth and our responsibilities to her of Laudato ‘si, or the spiritually-infused passion of indigenous peoples for protecting their homelands; holy words and sacred deeds enliven the movement for environmental justice. At COP21, I saw Christian priests, Buddhist monks, Muslim youth, and indigenous elders; all representing the ecological teachings of their respective traditions.
With the active participation of so many different religious groups, I wondered if there were any Pagan organisations present at COP21. I hadn’t come across any, so I went to Twitter to see if I could track them down. As you can see , my post didn’t pick up any replies.
Obviously, this isn’t to say that there weren’t any Pagans at COP, or that Pagans didn’t engage with the process in other, meaningful ways. Witches in Paris and elsewhere raised a protective, empowering, golden circle around the Conference and the city, “to summon the great, powerful, irresistible Goddess of Love – the Great Mother – she who grounds, protects, and tips the scales.” The importance of magical work cannot be underestimated; by focussing our energies onto collective ends, miracles can (and do) happen. And I have no doubt that there were Pagans taking part in marches and protests – in Paris and elsewhere – throughout the Conference. What I find interesting, is not what Pagans were doing, but what we weren’t doing, compared to other faith traditions.
Christian churches have been very active in recent years in throwing their energies behind the climate movement. They have been assiduous in establishing a platform in a host of civil society spaces – such as COPs – from which they can influence the wider debate by sharing their own valuable theological, moral and cosmological perspectives. Other spiritual groups have done likewise: even when they lack centralised ecclesiastical institutions (such as Islam), or when they’re small communities that struggle to afford the cost of travelling to these events (as is the case for indigenous communities).
Pagans, by contrast, have yet to engage in this organised fashion. Though we may be active participants as individuals, our organisations have shown a puzzling lack of initiative; failing to capitalise upon the almost unique relevance of our philosophies to climate change. While it has taken a seed-change in Christian theology, and a harnessing of long-neglected (but nonetheless orthodox) parts of Christian thought to respond to this Great Challenge of our Age, no such shift is necessary within Pagan religions – we share a common, compelling reverence for Nature; either as the body of the goddess, as an utterly animate cosmos, or as the province of many deities. It should be the easiest thing in the world for us to take our place in spaces like COP, and to command great power and respect when we do so: and yet, this has not happened.
This passivity has consequences. Before I went to COP, the final Climate Histories seminar of term was on the topic of religious engagement with climate change. Dr Jonathan Chaplin, the Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics (KLICE) gave a fascinating talk on the subject, focussing upon the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale’s compilation of Climate Change Statements from World Religions. The much-discussed Pagan Statement on Climate Change was not even listed amongst them. In comparison to the statements created by other faiths, further, the Pagan Statement itself seems oddly cursory – it does not refer to a broader literature, nor does it take steps to link our ecological concerns to social justice. As has been argued on Gods and Radicals previously, this shortcoming allowed the Catholic Church to effectively steal our thunder with Laudato ’Si. Indeed, at one of the lectures hosted in the Green Zone, the discussant – Dena Merriam, the Founder of Global Peace Initiative of Women (GPIW) – invited a series of speakers to discuss the spiritual malady at the heart of environmental destruction. The person tasked with speaking to how we might reconnect with the living world was not a Pagan, but Father Michael Holleran – a Catholic Priest and Zen Buddhist Sensei. He spoke well, and even mentioned us: “The Earth is our Mother. That’s not just… you know, “Wiccan”, you know, that’s… Pope Francis uses that image in here as well, and many traditions wisely and correctly do.” The is an implicit sense here, that Wicca is the fringe, from which the notion of the Earth Mother must be reclaimed. At this talk, incidentally, were Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, a Muslim, and a Lakota elder. But no Pagans.
It should be no surprise that under such circumstances, our religions should be sidelined on what is – in essence – our moral cause celebre. It’d be like Christians being outclassed on charity, Jains being outstripped as ascetics, or Zen Buddhists being bested on inner peace. Pagan organisations are in a position to lead the world in environmental ethics – and yet, that position is rapidly being lost as other traditions shift emphasis, and prioritise ecological concerns. The ability to do this is not a matter of money, or size – many of the agencies present at COP21 I spoke to had minimal resources – but of application.
Of course, the obvious point to be made in response is that there’s no point in engaging with these formal spheres of discussion around the climate. Many activists, when I spoke to them, pointed out something my fellow researchers and I also saw: the Green Zone was less an experiment in the democratic inclusion of non-state narratives and actors, and more of a Sustainability Expo. It was devoted to showcasing bright ideas, over and above nurturing real political action – this function, it seems, was reserved for the Blue Zone, where the parties gathered. Though there was much to be inspired about being said and showcased, as the searing poetry and art of SustainUS’s young protesters decried, this was obfusticated by and into so much greenwash, while people of colour and the world’s poor are being slain and displaced by rising waters, soaring temperatures, rushing winds, and failing fields. Caleen Sisk, the Chief of the Winnemem Wintupeople of California, who are currently battling against the raising of the Shasta Dam that will flood what’s left of their country, wryly observed to me – the whole place had the feel of a playpen; where the dependents could be amused, while the adults talked next door. Far better, then, that we Pagans try to green our own lives and take action at a grassroots level, than to involve ourselves with the messy business of international politics.
But it’s important to remember: even though they were critical of the entire process, these activists still took part in it. They recognised the importance of contesting the Green Zone, reclaiming the space and speaking truth to power, as far as possible. The reason being, if you don’t participate at all, you simply surrender to the corporations, lobbyists, and oil-producing governments who already command huge influence. The Green Zone, despite its significant shortcomings, is the place where the future is imagined, where expectations are raised, and the parties in the Blue Zone come to learn and witness a broader set of views. The more strongly the multitude can occupy this space, the harder it is for for those opposing change to have their way.