Climate Change, Mr Morrison, and Theology

Mr Morrison has a problem. By now, someone in his government’s environment portfolio will have read the IPCC’s Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers report. The message from this United Nations scientific panel about climate change is very simple: business as usual will doom us all. Mr Morrison must have some sense that this is a significant problem, as one would imagine that the 2019–20 bushfire season is pretty well seared into his political memory. But the end of the world as we know it in twenty years’ time (if we don’t act now) does not define Mr Morrison’s problem. Mr Morrison’s first and only political problem is defined by how he understands the art of the possible in the present—by how he reads political necessity now.

The bottom line of contemporary political power is that Mr Morrison’s party’s ability to form government depends on his electoral success. He will succeed as PM if he reads us correctly and gives us what he believes we want. He will fail as a politician if his government loses power on his watch because he doesn’t at least promise what the electorate wants.

Representative politics is always at risk of devolving into the art of feeding and pleasing the crowd. Our modern understanding of parliamentary sovereignty means that political authority comes from no other source than the will of the people, in the present, as determined by numbers in a representative process. So Mr Morrison as the servant of political authority defined only by electoral success, has no other role than going in whatever direction the majority wind blows, right now. It is a beautifully simple arrangement that liberates pragmatic politics from all the stress of trying to determine matters of metaphysical justice and moral legitimacy.

After what Nick Greiner called the rise of the ‘post-ideological age’ in the 1990s, Australian democracy seems to have lost sight of the high moral and metaphysical categories that used to define the broadly humanist and softly Christian categories of justice, truth and foresight that made democratic politics an imperfectly good system of power in twentieth-century Australia. Nowadays political success is defined by, well, success, and success alone (i.e. being in power). As a very contemporary politician, Mr Morrison’s first and only problem is reading (and perhaps writing) us correctly enough to hold on to power. In this context the IPCC report represents a secondary storyline problem that must in some manner be read into the winning electoral narrative that the Australian people need to hear from their leader (who is following the people). This renarration of jarring storylines can be a complicated problem to solve. But, coming from the marketing world, Mr Morrison is a formidable expert at solving just such problems. If he stays on the main storylines of his political brand—safety, prosperity and national pride—all other stories can be subordinated and retooled to harmonise with the winning narrative.

Swinging away from Mr Morrison’s mastery of pragmatic metrics, his expert skills in PR techniques, and his cool facility in operating the machinery of majoritarian success, let us play with an interesting hypothesis concerning that other intriguing aspect of our prime minister: his deep religious convictions.

As a thought experiment, let us imagine that Mr Morrison reads the IPCC report, he prays about it, and another miracle happens: God speaks to him and says, ‘The Pope is right about all this environmental business, Scott. You need to ditch fossil fuels right now, and switch to renewables’. Let us imagine that Mr Morrison is converted in his deep inner convictions and becomes, overnight, a climate-change-mitigation zealot (… the Pope has done this, as has the Patriarch of the Orthodox world, as has the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, so this is quite a real possibility for high-powered Christians of deep conviction).

Mr Morrison, as we all know, is a man of strong religious convictions, but he is also a man who is adept at isolating his personal convictions from the necessities of political success. For example, as a Christian, Mr Morrison is no doubt deeply committed to the Sermon on the Mount—committed, that is, within the proper domain of religious feelings and personal morality. As the former minister for immigration, excluding the alien and the outcast and indefinitely consigning them to offshore detention was his public responsibility, so that Australians could feel ‘safe’ behind our secure and sovereign borders. This important job, which he did so well as to show his obvious prime-ministerial potential, may seem to contradict his personal Christian commitments. Not so. For Mr Morrison upholds the necessary iron wall between public pragmatics and personal faith that our secular political domain requires. So I can imagine Mr Morrison explaining to God that even though his humble servant is now sincerely converted into an eco-theology environmental advocate, it is all very well for the Pope to tell Roman Catholics that they should all embrace environmentally proactive religious convictions, but the Pope is not a political leader.

Clearly, as a politician Mr Morrison has never aspired to be a religious leader; he has always been a public figure acting within a firmly secular domain, who also happens to be a Christian of deep faith in the sanctity of his own private beliefs and personal morality. So, imagine our converted Mr Morrison now has a strong religious conviction that Australia really should pursue the costly climate-change-mitigation action required to hold global warming at its current, already dangerously overheated level. That would require very serious and immediate action to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. But as a politician Mr Morrison often has to uphold democratically authorised stances that he himself does not agree with (such as same-sex marriage, perhaps), and even though God Himself (in our hypothetical scenario) may have spoken to Mr Morrison, this does not mean our PM can simply decide to push the Australian people in a direction that conforms with his own religious convictions.

And so we return to Mr Morrison’s first problem. Deeply personally converted though he may be, Mr Morrison would simply not be able to act on his inner environmental convictions. The pragmatics of politics mean that he has to keep powerful mining-and-energy-sector interests happy in order to keep economic normality—already seriously stressed by COVID—viable, and the Coalition has branded itself electorally as a party that provides security for the mining and energy sector. And pragmatically, Mr Morrison is no doubt very aware that the mining sector alone contributes substantially more to our economy and our government coffers than manufacturing and agriculture combined, even if the mining sector doesn’t employ many people.

Under former prime minister Kevin Rudd the Australian Labor Party tried to introduce a carbon tax, and the Coalition very successfully played fear and greed politics with the electorate (gleefully aided by the Murdoch press) and got rid of the ALP. (Internal leadership implosions didn’t help the ALP either.) But the current Coalition run in office started with a rejection of Kevin Rudd’s moral imperative about addressing climate change. So it has been  demonstrated at the ballot box that the electorate has decisively said ‘no’ to an environment tax, the Australian people expects our government to provide security to the mining and energy sector, and the voting public will not take costly steps to radically change our ways in order to save the planet for our children. This is the kind of objective metrics of power that Mr Morrison pays very close attention to. So even if he personally wanted to take strong and sweeping action to slow climate change, politically we—the electorate—won’t allow him to do this.

The picture is more complicated than the one I have drawn above, for sure. But it is more complicated in a very surprising direction, which only becomes visible when you start looking at theology.

Dropping the PM’s hypothetical environmental-conversion idea, the fact is that Mr Morrison and we the electorate largely share the same theological outlook when it comes to science and natural exploitation.

At the outset of what we now call the scientific revolution, Francis Bacon was throwing out Aristotle and embracing a firmly useful approach to science, motivated by the theology of his day. Adam was considered to have a divine mandate to subdue and rule the earth, proper scientific knowledge gave us power over nature, and the point of our power was the enhancement of human utility, thus recovering the rightful lordship over nature that we had lost in the fall. Further, the increase of knowledge and global travel was a sure sign, to Bacon, that the Lord was soon to return, and we could help usher in the Kingdom of God through our advances in science and technology.

Mr Morrison probably assumes a broadly Baconian theology of creation, science and technology. But, though we as a collective are considerably less religious than Mr Morrison, we  share that same basic theology when it comes to natural exploitation and the use of science to create utopia on earth. And why not? For it is this theology that has made the West the masters of the planet and given us all the wonderful benefits of the scientific age. We have a secularised Baconian theology. Here, for  secular agnostic/atheists and Christian dominion creationists alike, the natural world exists for no other purpose that for us to rule and use. No doubt, to the Baconian Christian we are stewards set over the earth by God, but our rulership is also an expression of our own sovereign freedoms so beloved of the spirit of free enterprise. Adam Smith’s eighteenth-century classical economics comes out of the same dominion- and freedom-concerned theological backstory as does Francis Bacon. Continuous with the modern Western technological and financial ideology of power, Mr Morrison, the (I presume) Jainist CEO of the Adani coal mine, and the majority of largely irreligious Australians are theologically on much the same page when it comes to attitudes to natural exploitation and personal wealth accumulation. Our actions and attitudes reveal our theology far more than our religion and personal beliefs do.

In making the above claim I am drawing a distinction that you may not be familiar with: between theology as a deeply embedded cultural outlook and theology as a personal religious commitment . The Lynn White thesis made this distinction in 1967 in relation to the West’s attitude to the environment. The field of eco-theology that sprang up as a result of White’s work understands the distinction between theology and religion very well, as does modern religious studies, but this is still poorly understood outside academic circles that work with ‘religion’. Let me unpack this distinction quickly.

‘Religion’, as we now use the term, is a pretty recent invention, arising at much the same time as the modern approach to science entered Western history. Science in the seventeenth century arose out of Christian theology, and nearly all the great fathers of modern science were amateur theologians. But the modern Western notion of ‘religion’ finally solidified in the late nineteenth century. What we now mean by ‘religion’ is the idea that some people have deeply personal and private belief convictions about a supreme supernatural being, also tend to perform religious rituals in special religious places, and in some cases adhere to a particular set of doctrinal stories and personal morality rules. Crucially, these religious matters are explicitly separate from the public and secular domain of work, factual knowledge, and legal and civic life. Religious beliefs are optional and subjective personal convictions, and the very recent idea of religious liberty allows people to have whatever personal belief convictions they like. In contrast, our public knowledge and actions function in the domain of objective science, and are governed by public law.

Intriguingly, for most people of faith in the world today, the manner in which secular Western modernity assumes that religion must stay strictly within the discrete and private domain of personal belief is entirely foreign to them. So they are not religious in our modern Western sense, or at least they are not exponents of what we see as safe and sensible (albeit probably delusional) religion. And while one form of the Christian faith—evangelical Protestantism—is decidedly modern in its nature, all the older forms of Christian faith are not really religious in this modern, personal-domain-defined sense either. So ‘religion’ has a distinctive meaning in the context of secular Western modernity, and it well describes a striking socio-cultural signature of Western modernity unique to Western secularism: a discretely public and secular sphere is held to be totally autonomous from a discretely private and religious sphere. But this type of religion does not describe religion itself. And indeed, religion itself is highly context textured. This is why academics who work in the sociology, history and study of religion do not try to make universal category definitions about what religion is. But theology is a bit different.

When it comes to commonly shared cultural attitudes to the physical, the spiritual and the social world, most of what we ‘know’ we receive in our mother’s milk, as it were, rather than heroically decide for ourselves. As sociologists understand quite well, there are primal mythic and philosophical outlooks that define a culture’s basic common reality understandings, and the word Aristotle used for these first principles is ‘theology’. I won’t give you a lesson on Aristotle and theology here, but in the West it is unavoidably the case that various shades of Christian theology are the deep shapers of Western culture’s primary common reality outlook.

So it is not theologically insignificant that Mr Morrison is an evangelical Christian, and that secular business interests heavily invested in natural-resource exploitation are pretty well on the same page as Mr Morrison about climate change, and that the majority of Australians who live within the norms of the modern technological age also share the same basic sense of natural-resource-exploitation entitlement. Indeed, it is pretty hard for the average adult in any context to imagine an entirely different sort of relationship between technology, natural resources, and individual and corporate power than the one they have grown up with. As the sociologist Bruno Latour has pointed out, politics, power, economic normality and theology are all deeply integrated in our life-world (however much we might like to imagine that they are separate domains).

Lynn White is right: we won’t avert ecological disaster unless we are prepared to take a close look at our culturally assumed theological reflexes about what nature is and what our human powers are entitled to do with nature. This is something Pope Francis has taken very seriously to heart.

Among university educated and somewhat progressive Australians, there is a sense of urgent need that our government should take immediate and far-reaching climate-change-mitigation measures. This is a minority stance in the Australian electorate (and, of course, many university-educated people do not fit on the progressive spectrum). For this reason, soft progressives (on this issue) like myself cannot look down on Mr Morrison for his Baconian theology and his sense of electoral constraint, because his feelings in this area are largely shared by the majority of Australians. Mr Morrison’s instincts about the assumed environmental tendencies of the electorate are not wrong. Reflecting on our prime minister’s antics with a lump of coal in Parliament House, it is clear that his environmental assumptions presuppose an overt dominion-over-nature theology, of one piece with the outlook of Francis Bacon. But we all have this theology—even if unconsciously and irreligiously—if we are modern Western people, and even if we like to think we are progressive.

If we didn’t already know it, the IPCC report shows us that anthropogenic climate change is deeply in play, now. We seem powerless to make sensible decisions about our future that move outside of the necessities of immediate political viability. This is frightening on two fronts. If we stick with electoral necessities that track the ballast of assumed Australian attitudes about nature, we will produce a horrifying future scenario for generations to come. If we can’t solve these sorts of problems politically, then executive power will eventually impose harsh and unbending solutions on us. Ironically, our theology is giving us a devil’s choice. Perhaps we need to think more seriously about both our theology of nature and our theology of power.

When it comes to reworking our modern and Western theology of nature—a tacitly Christian and seventeenth-century theology—listening to contemporary eco-theologians like Pope Francis is an obvious place to start (read Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si’ if you want to try this). But we need to rethink our theology of power as well.

As regards our theology of power, it was a post-evangelical English jurist of the late nineteenth century, A. V. Dicey, who strongly promoted the notion of firmly secularised parliamentary sovereignty in England, and hence in the Commonwealth. Dicey firmly rejected older metaphysical and theological categories of political authority in favour of a ‘black box’ parliamentary constructivism where, provided proper procedures are followed, parliament can simply ‘make up’ any law it likes and that law becomes valid and just by definition. This is a profound shift away from the older notion that the will of the people as expressed through democratic political processes reaches (always imperfectly) towards Justice and Goodness. This new doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty held that there is no metaphysical horizon of justice beyond parliament, so parliament simply makes up justice and goodness by following a majoritarian representative procedure.

But if, after Dicey, parliamentary sovereignty locates political authority only in the will of the majority, then—as Plato pointed out a long time ago—we are always going to be at risk of bad leadership (i.e. no leadership at all). This is because a simply majoritarian mentality finds self-interested greed and irrational collective fear the easiest tools of power. Indeed, channelling these subrational herd powers is the only sure passage to democratic victory for the power pragmatist totally committed to riding the winnable majoritarian will of the people. And as marketing psychologists well understand, mass communication works best as a tool of crowd manipulation at a subrational, fear- and greed-priming level. Distorting information and appealing to leverageable prejudices to gain mass-appeal support is simply how effective mass-media power normally works.

When the Australian constitution was built, it was a compromise design incorporating aspects of the new idea of parliamentary sovereignty that had taken hold of English politics in the late nineteenth century, with the older concept of sovereignty as an imperfect yet divinely mediated ruling authority. To protect the people from merely majoritarian rule, certain checks and balances were built into the constitution such that the will of the majority was not the only principle of governing power. Here, older concepts of political and juridical authority are at play. The crown itself—the final symbol of political authority in Australian law and government—is an intrinsically theological idea: on the very top of the English crown is a cross. The idea here is that earthly political authority, however imperfectly mediated, is of divine origin. This is also the final symbol of justice in our legal system.

The principle here—which, again, one does not need to be ‘religious’ to respect—is that justice and authority are not merely a function of procedural or executive power but are in the final analysis transcendent and spiritual in nature. A leader who is firstly accountable to Justice and the Common Good is not going to be merely defined by the necessities of electoral victory. Such a leader can actually lead the people, rather than simply harnessing the lowest-common-denominator (i.e. majoritarian) energies of the crowd. The energies of the crowd can be dangerously anti-civic, as they are easily defined by the ‘animal spirits’ of the market: the bulls of greed and the bears of fear. Such animal spirits can also turn in a straightforwardly anti-human and demonic direction given enough instability and insecurity, as we saw in Nazi Germany. And forget not that Germany was a pinnacle of intellectual and artistic European culture in the early twentieth century. The crowd can be easily turned, under the right conditions, and become intrinsically opposed to Justice and the Common Good. Saving democracy as a high and moral ideal means ensuring that the will of the people remains humane and political and does not devolve into an irrational collective monster governed by powerful sub-human and anti-human spirits.

We are, alas, now seriously theologically ignorant as a people. We do not think about the high concerns of intrinsic meaning and transcendent values when we think about nature and politics any more. We like to think that being pragmatic and ‘realistic’ is all very grown up and sophisticated, but actually it plays us into the irrational and demagogue-vulnerable dynamics of mob rule.

Theology…who would have thought that our theology of nature might be the cause of the end of Western modernity as we know it? Who would have thought that our theology of power might make us unable to break out of the sub-political and deeply irrational crowd dynamics of fear and greed? It looks like Mr Morrison’s problem is our problem. So what are we going to do about it?

Empire of the Dead: The Fossil Fuel Order and the clean-energy rebellion

David Ritter, Jun 2021

The reality is that none of our cherished futures are possible if the burning of coal, oil and gas remains business as usual; the fond horizon will be a bitter mirage for as long as the Fossil Fuel Order stands.

About the author

Paul Tyson

Dr Paul Tyson is an honorary senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland. He works in an integrated manner across sociology, philosophy and theology. His recent books include Theology and Climate Change (Routledge 2021) and Seven Brief Lessons on Magic (Cascade, 2019).

More articles by Paul Tyson

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Thank you for such a succinct and enlightened view of theology and power and its effects on climate change. Hopefully it encourages deeper thinking and courage for action on a positive level which can lead to a rejuvenation of God’s creation.

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