Climate: Jeremiah xxi.8 and the path of life in catastrophe

03/08/2016 § 3 Comments

King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon is bearing down upon Judah. The hapless King Zedekiah sends to the prophet Jeremiah for advice. Jeremiah replies (xxi.8ff): “Behold, I set before you the way of life and the way of death. He that abideth in this city shall die by the sword, and by the famine, and by the pestilence: but he that goeth out, and falleth to the Chaldeans…he shall live, and his life shall be unto him for a prize.”
This is tough stuff: Catastrophe, the great overturning, is coming for sure upon Jerusalem, and as Jeremiah understands it,  it’s an unavoidable consequence of the unfaithfulness of the people.  The only path forward is to go with the tides of history, accept grief and dislocation, relearn faithfulness in a land of exile, and build towards a time — still incubating (in George Fox’s wonderful phrase, Ep. 233) “in the womb of eternity” — when later generations can once again enjoy their heritage.

This passage hit me hard,  having just read a blog post by Eric Holthaus, a meteorologist who writes for  “Our hemisphere’s temperature just reached a terrifying milestone.”  Holthaus reflects on the emerging climate data for February, notes that for the Northern Hemisphere, for that month, it looks as though the temperature exceeded the “normal” benchmark by 2°C.  Of course, this is just one month, and of course it’s only half the globe, but (he says) it’s

likely the first time since human civilization began thousands of years ago. That mark has long been held (somewhat arbitrarily) as the point above which climate change may begin to become “dangerous” to humanity. It’s now arrived—though very briefly—much more quickly than anticipated.

Looking at the whole globe, the anomaly above normal could turn out (when all the data  sets are verified and analyzed) to be 1.4°C.  At the Paris climate conference in December, nations adopted 1.5° as the most desirable ceiling of warming to strive for, since we’ve already reached 1 degree.  Holthaus writes

Keep in mind that it took from the dawn of the industrial age until last October to reach the first 1.0 degree Celsius, and we’ve come as much as an extra 0.4 degrees further in just the last five months.

For many years now, the policy world has used 2°C as the upper limit of acceptable warming, and the argument has been that this is [a] achievable, and [b] likely to have  manageable if unfortunate consequences (not that people are clear what “manage” might mean).   Meanwhile, the world itself has been saying something different:  with just a 1°C anomaly, we’re seeing (not a complete list) significant weather disruptions, intrusive sea-level rise, massive loss of ice on land and sea, evidence of effects on ocean circulation, dramatic changes in seasonal patterns with consequent ecosystem responses, and possibly the beginning of irreversible melting of at least some ice sheets.  All this has come far more quickly than most scientists predicted.  Holthaus again:

So what’s actually happening now is the liberation of nearly two decades’ worth of global warming energy that’s been stored in the oceans since the last major El Niño in 1998…..We could now be right in the heart of a decade or more surge in global warmingthat could kick off a series of tipping points with far-reaching implications on our species and the countless others we share the planet with.

This is a milestone moment for our species. Climate change deserves our greatest possible attention.

Put another way:  You may well not feel it right to make climate action your main focus, because there are other important needs to address, but every one of us has to find a way to take some active role in addressing this challenge, because it is the state of our world. Climate change is now, to use Trueblood’s phrase, a “second vocation.”

And this is therefore an educational and spiritual problem for all of us.  This will take: continuous learning by every one of us.  Moreover, it seems to me that the kind of learning that will be required  (following John Dewey’s)  is growth, a ” cumulative movement of action toward a later result”  (Democracy and Education, Ch. 4. “Education as growth”).  This growth is a multi-dimensional, constructive task which we undertake with the full knowledge that one effect of any thoughtful work is some transformation of one’s self in the transaction between ourselves and our environment (natural and human):    

Development… means the direction of power into special channels: the formation of habits involving executive skill, definiteness of interest, and specific objects of observation and thought…The adult uses his powers to transform his environment, thereby occasioning new stimuli which redirect his powers and keep them developing.

To respond to the climate challenge, each person needs to figure out what piece they can do, and what demands of time and re-organization this step will make. Some of this involves learning about, but some of it is learning how to, and some is social learning, as more and more we come to accept that everyone is trying to accommodate and experiment — and engage in discourse about our learnings and unlearnings.

What better evidence of our educational, ethical, and spiritual commitments can we give, than to accept that we — adults as well as children — have a lot to learn, and to throw ourselves into that learning whole-heartedly (to use another Deweyan term), in a task that will engage every dimension of us as learners — spiritual, intellectual, moral, esthetic,  physical, and social?  There’s no time like the present — indeed, there is “No time but this present.”

(Note:  Some of this adapted from a posting on



§ 3 Responses to Climate: Jeremiah xxi.8 and the path of life in catastrophe

  • treegestalt says:

    We’ve been told pretty clearly, by now, that we’ve collectively given ourselves a terminal illness… and yet, collectively, we continue, even intensify, the practices known to cause and exacerbate the condition. Nobody thinks they’re “in despair,” yet all our remedies are quackery and poison… while people go on making ‘positive’ plans for their futures.

    Is this divine ‘punishment’? — or the beginnings of a deathbed repentance?

    It cannot be a meaningless accident, nor ultimately hopeless.

    “The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul that seeks him.
    It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord

    for the Lord will not
    cast off forever
    but, though he cause grief,
    he will have compassion
    according to the abundance
    of his steadfast love;
    for he does not willingly afflict
    nor grieve the children of Adam.”


    • briandrayton says:

      Well, there’s a lot of different psychological things at work in people’s responses to climate change– the American Psychological Assoc a few years ago put out a very helpful review study of this subject. But of course many reactions are rooted in aspects of human nature that have always been evident: “Preach to us smooth things!” (Isaiah), “The vision he sees is for many years ahead, he prophesies for distant times” (Ezekiel)


  • We cannot avoid this. I am not sure that it means extinction from This particular thing,
    but I feel confident that the sun will also at some point burn out, and before that it will have a hiccup that sends a, well, perfectly disastrous flare our way…how the species learns to restrain itself(if it can), in my opinion, is the only way along to some mediation of what we do as a species…just as, in some sense, restraint is the way for an individual to wait for God.


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