The Swedish historian David Larsson Heidenblad has published a study in which he shows the striking similarities between late modern notions of anthropogenic climate change and pre-modern ideas about divine punishment.
Dr David Larsson Heidenblad
Department of History, Lund University, Sweden
Below are a few excerpts from the summary of Heidenblad’s interesting thesis “Our own fault“:
In the late autumn of 2006 the topic of climate change had its major breakthrough in Western media. The impending threat of global warming was transferred from the cultural sidelines to the newspapers headlines. Throughout the public sphere the same basic message was, almost unanimously, carried out: ”Humanity is in grave danger, and it is our own fault”. Everyday practices, such as driving and meat-eating, were depicted as direct causes to the crisis. Urgent calls were made for individuals to alter their energy-intensive lifestyles.
The future of mankind depended on our everyday choices, on our moral behavior. From a historical standpoint neither the threat of climate change nor the urgent calls for individual change were new. Rather, they had been put forward in the public sphere since the late 1980s. But in the autumn of 2006 the calls were more frequent and the public at large was markedly more responsive. Climate change was no longer considered a green issue in the margins of high politics. It was increasingly becoming an everyday concern. From a cultural historian’s viewpoint the calls for individuals to alter their way of living in order to avoid future catastrophes is a distinctly familiar pattern. The theme was an ever-recurring feature of the pre-modern Judeo-Christian World where wars, famines, and epidemics were repeatedly depicted as God´s punishment for the sins of man.
According to this biblical explanatory model man was habitually seen as responsible for his own misfortunes. Calls for individuals to change their sinful ways and do penance was hence repeatedly decreed as a means to avoid future calamities. Divine punishments was, in much the same way as anthropogenic climate change, considered to be our own fault.
The striking similarities between the near present and the distant past begs the question if history is repeating itself. Have man throughout the ages continuously envisaged connections between collective moral behavior and looming disasters? Can these ideas be seen as a deeply entrenched cultural pattern in the Judeo-Christian World? Is the threat of climate change a late modern variation on an ancient mythological understanding of man’s relation to his surroundings? —
Why do the climate alarms of the early 21st century resemble pre-modern ideas about divine punishment? The line of argument advocated in the study is that there are four points of structural similarities which, when taken together can provide an explanation for the remarkable cultural parallels. All four points exist in both the pre-modern setting and in its late modern ecological counterpart, but not in the historical time periods in between.
The first point is that man is seen as having a moral responsibility to his surroundings. Some courses of actions are deemed detrimental while others are deemed beneficial. Everything man does affects his surroundings, which in turn affect man. The abstract greatness which man stands in a direct relation to – Nature and God respectively – is not the same. But structurally there is an overall similarity in that man is not deemed to be self-sufficient.
The second point concerns how the individual’s everyday actions are thought of as relating to the well-being of the collective. This is in both cases a fundamental point of departure. No man is an island. Everyone is linked together in the great chain of being.
The third point is that both late modern ideas about anthropogenic climate change and pre-modern ideas about divine punishment are based on the strongest knowledge authority of their time – the natural sciences and theology respectively. Both these fields share pretensions of universal validity for their knowledge. Hence neither threatening climate change nor ideas about divine punishment have been portrayed as a matter of individual interpretation, but instead as indisputable realities – truths. The fourth point is that every individual is seen as being a part of the problem. In the pre-modern religious worldview no man was free from sin and in the present times of climate change no man is free from carbon dioxide emissions. The individual ecological footprint can be greater or smaller, but it is nevertheless a footprint. No one, at least not in the West, is seen as free from guilt.