On Cathedrals, Dreams and Climate

September 27, 2009
By Andrew C. Revkin
New York Times - Dot Earth

Over the weekend, I attended an event at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine recalling the “great work” of Thomas Berry, who died at 94 this year, and honoring the philanthropic efforts of Martin Kaplan. The several hundred attendees were swallowed up by the vaulting space of the enormous building, which — like most cathedrals — took generations to build. It’s useful to be in such a space when reflecting on epic questions, like figuring out how to provide adequate energy as human numbers and appetites crest in the next few decades without risking a dangerous destabilization of climate.

The speeches centered on Berry’s idea that humanity has come to a great point of transition in its development, a point between “two dreams,” as some of Berry’s intellectual heirs describe this juncture. (This is a more elegant framing of this moment than a planetary transition out of puberty, perhaps.) The old dream or worldview was human-centered and defined the rest of the Earth’s inhabitants as a “collection of objects” to be exploited, not what Berry called “a communion of subjects” to be respected and cherished.

Clearly, the work of those aspiring to create a new norm for how humans define progress and relate to resources, both living and nonliving, is akin to the methodical, sustained work required in cathedral building. Some people, in fields as different as commerce and philosophy, call this approach “cathedral thinking.”

Global warming was touched on repeatedly in speeches at the Berry memorial, and this planet-scale challenge, too, appears to be a perfect target for the cathedral-building approach, given the time scales required to curb emissions that are still a near-direct reflection of economic activity.

The real tension among those seeking a meaningful shift away from fossil-fueled “business as usual” is whether humanity has time for cathedral building. There are those seeking science-driven policy who insist it’s clear now that we overshot the safe zone for greenhouse gas concentrations in 1988, when the carbon dioxide level was 350 parts per million. (Now it’s 385 or so). This bloc is pursuing a powerful international accord in Copenhagen in December with binding commitments to deep, prompt cuts in emissions.

Then there are policy realists, including Eileen Claussen of the Pew Center on Climate Change, David Victor of the University of California, San Diego, and Michael Levi of the Council on Foreign Relations — as well as many of the people in President Obama’s climate team. They have repeatedly warned that the country can only support a climate agreement that it knows is feasible in the real world (clearly trying to avoid signing on to something that wouldn’t fly in the Senate, as happened with the Clinton administration and the Kyoto Protocol). Their approach, despite the underlying urgency, is one of patience and persistence, accommodating the nature of the human side of the problem (our varied interests, our political focus on the here and now, our limited menu of competitive non-polluting energy sources) as well as the risks identified by science. Even though Copenhagen comes 17 years after the first effort to create a climate treaty, it is a beginning, not an end point, this bloc says. (Here’s a valuable recent examination of short-term steps that could result in effective long-term risk management.)

The foundations of meaningful climate action were laid in 1992, and some adornments were tried in 1997. Now comes the heavy lifting. What are the traits required of those working on a cathedral, whether one built of stone or of a thousand variegated actions aimed at a long-term environmental and social goal (for instance taking the carbon out of the global energy system)?

In a recent piece on his Archizoo blog, Jim Meredith, a strategist and designer (and other things), used the words intentionality and responsibility to encapsulate this approach to planning a long-term endeavor. Another vital component, he wrote, is “mindfulness of the future in all that we do.”

Does humanity have the time for cathedral building on climate? If so, does society have the will, fortitude and discipline to keep building a new energy future despite our focus on the here and now?

[UPDATE, 1:30 p.m.: In a comment, Mike Roddy rejects the cathedral metaphor, noting the dark realities behind many such such edifices. In a reply, I note that the wealth and power of the Church that facilitated cathedral building are far harder to marshal in an American-style democracy. No one said this'll be easy.]

This excerpt from Berry’s 1983 poem about the cathedral provides another level of meaning and message in the soaring space and echoes:

The arch of the Cathedral itself takes on the shape
Of the uplifted throat of the wolf
Lamenting out present destiny
Beseeching humankind
To bring back the sun
To let the flowers bloom in the meadows,
The rivers run through the hills
And let the Earth
And all its living creatures
Live their
And Abundant life.