Scripta Varia

Climate Crisis and Hope

Mikkel Wold[*]

How did we become trapped in the present crisis? What mindset brought us there and what are the main goals in order to restore a lost respect for nature. What is our hope?

Like the nuclear threat, the climate crisis has such severe consequences that it is almost unbearable.

When things are unbearable, we tend to ignore and neglect them at first sight. This is one of the reasons why we sometimes see a tendency of denial, a repression of reality or worse, a tendency towards nihilism.

This is a well-known and well-described phenomenon in psychology, supported by numerous studies that demonstrate this tendency. A combination of denial and ignorance of reality has always been more popular than warnings about a coming but not very visible danger.

The psychologist and director of the Center for Green Growth at the Business School in Oslo, Per Espen Stoknes recently mentioned, referring to opinion pools in 39 different countries dating back from 1989, that the more we know about global warming, the more we tend to deny or reject that knowledge.[2]

Moreover, the aspect of our modern narcissistic culture is important for our understanding of our situation. In his book Strategies for Survival, psychologist professor Peter Elsass included a chapter titled “The New Type of Human Being: The Survival Artist” in which he points out that some of the modern critique of our society claims that our narcissistic culture has become a culture of survival – “defining ourselves as being among the last survivors – as victims, that is, who are still alive in spite of our civilization’s dissolution” due to a weakened egostructure, “which no longer can resist and contain the plurality, disunity and the ultimate sense, unintelligibility, of our surroundings”. Referring to Kohut and Lasch, Elsass continues to explain that scholars of the culture of narcissism often see acts of “selective apathy, emotional distancing, disregard for the past and future, […] on the basis of a decision to live one day at a time, here and now”.[3]

For some, denial is their only alternative to despair. Thus, if there is no hope within sight, it is quite understandable that some people choose to ignore the problem. Denial is for some people a strategy for survival. Even for those trapped in a narcissistic culture. That is why we must never forget to speak about hope.

Another aspect is that we have seen a remarkable lack of insight and very little readiness to grasp consequences of the scientific results presented to us due to a tendency of overestimated belief in the future and a reluctance towards warnings about great but not generally visible dangers. People who formulate such warnings are regarded as pessimists by nature, and little attention is paid to their arguments. Just think of warnings issued by numerous scientists since the 1970s about the threats to our climate. These threats are still not the overall number one priority in the political debates, at least not in my country, one of the richest and so-called happiest countries in the world. And the private companies have until recently been very reluctant towards taking initiatives in favour of the climate. Although many CEOs are beginning to understand the severe consequences of not changing our behaviour, one of the conclusions from a series of workshops held in the spring of 2019 was that many CEOs still find the Sustainable Development Goals too “fluffy” to integrate in their business. Moreover, they found it difficult to see how these goals could contribute to the profit of their company!

Four years ago, the parliament in Denmark cancelled a special low tax on electric cars with the immediate result that the sale of these cars decreased dramatically. Even though the tax has been lowered a bit since 2015, the sale never recovered; the share of electric and hybrid engine cars sold in Denmark was merely 3% in the first three months of 2019.

We still suffer from the attitude, that dramatically pessimistic predictions are regarded as sensationalistic and naïve. But naivety can take many forms. In 1911, Norman Angell published The Great Illusion, which became a bestseller of that time. Angell’s primary thesis was that the economic cost of war was so great that no one could possibly hope to gain by starting a war with such disastrous consequences. For that reason, Angell’s book was understood – I am not sure it was his intention – as the promotion of the argument that a general European war was very unlikely to start, and if it did, it would not last long. Even in 1913, this was a popular and widespread ‘truth’.[4]

It is of decisive importance that we inform about the consequences and the (man-made) causes of the climate change and loss of species while, at the same time, expressing well-founded and realistic hope such that people feel heard and recognized and that science, religion, and knowledge could unite in the struggle for ensuring the most vital elements of life that are essential for all of us.

Recognizing the mental roads that led us to this uncivilized way of exploiting nature that we have practiced for so many years now is a part of the solution and our hope for the future.

The shameless view on nature

The understanding of and view on nature in the Western culture could best be described – as done by the Danish theologians professor K.E. Løgstrup (1905-81) and especially by his student professor Ole Jensen (b. 1937) – as not only stupid but also shameless.[5] We could add the words of the Chinese statesman Yen Fu, who shortly after World War I said, that we have a form of civilization that “has lost the ability of shame”.[6]

We have developed an ignorant and one-sided mentality of exploitation towards nature. The statistics from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Ecosystems show this clearly. Published in 2008, this IUCN Red List “confirmed an extinction crisis, with almost one in four [mammals] at risk of disappearing forever. […] The […] study shows [that] at least 1,141 of the 5,487 mammals on Earth are known to be threatened with extinction”.[7]

For the Red List of 2015, the IUCN assessed the extinction risk of more than 77,300 species and found 4,894 to be “critically endangered”, 7,322 to be “endangered”, and 11,028 to be “vulnerable” to become extinct. Breaking down these figures per species, identified 41% of amphibians, 33% of reef-building corals, 34% of conifers, 25% of mammals, and 13% of birds to be threatened with extinction.[8] The severity of these numbers becomes even more obvious and alarming when looking at the most recent numbers released in 2019. These identified a total of 28,338 species to be critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable which implies an increase of about 22% over the course of four years.[9]

Who gave us this license to kill? With what right do we act so scandalously? What mindset brought us to such a mentality? Have we been so deceived by our skills, our victories in science and technology that we have forgotten that nature did not start with humankind and that we deeply depend on nature? To quote Løgstrup: “We live in an immense and fantastic forgetting about what has been given to us”.[10] The important things in our lives cannot be possessed, they are at our disposal as gifts. This basic and simple observation is often forgotten.

How come that we think we possess and own nature? One angle leading to an understanding of the mindset that brought us to where we are is a remarkable proclamation by Rene Descartes (1596-1650). In 1637, he proclaimed that with the insight and knowledge of nature, “we would be able to make ourselves masters over and owners of nature” (“Nous nous pourrions rendre comme maîtres et possesseurs de la nature”).[11] Descartes would probably never have accepted the level of stupid exploitation that we see today; he was unable to foresee what lay ahead. However, what came was a combination of the thoughts expressed by Descartes and a dualistic approach in which nature was seen as something at humankind’s disposal. And from there man decided to abolish not only God, but the very phenomenon of something being sacred and holy. Man took the divinity away from God and placed rationality at the divine place instead. From that point onwards, nature was at man’s brutal disposal and no longer admired as God’s unique creation.

It was quite appropriate then – although I doubt that the disappearance of the sacred was what they had in mind – when geologists not so many years ago started to discuss whether we should have a new era, a new geological epoch, named the Anthropocene, having started – as some suggest – with the first nuclear test in 1945. The abandoning of the uniqueness of nature is symbolized by the first manifestation of the man-made ability to destroy the planet.

So what has the master and owner of nature achieved? Not ownership over nature. Nature is disappearing and will not listen to or obey the person who thinks he owns it. And losing the sense of sacredness, man has also lost his sense of spirituality. The rational homo oeconomicus has taken over.

“But aren’t you forgetting spirituality?” some would say. Truly, spirituality has become a modern phenomenon, almost a buzzword. 151 million hits appear if you type “spirituality” into Google.

But what is spirituality today? Is it linked to the wisdom of those religions, from which it was once grown? Or has it been separated from its context and subjected to the rationality that today expresses itself in the shape of an instrumental attitude even to spiritual matters? I think the latter applies. And I think that is why modern spirituality cannot fill the gap and cry for meaning that has developed as a result of the loss of the sense of the sacred, the loss of musicality, and a deeper spirituality that we fail to experience nowadays.

We have replaced wisdom with knowledge, and even knowledge is being driven away in favour of information. Though we have never been as informed about facts as we are today, this information is not making us wiser.

Keeping tradition as a basis for renewal

How come that we had such a loss in our understanding of wisdom and spirit?

In order to understand this, we have to realize the importance of a vivid tradition. If we lose tradition, we lose the source of civilization, the orientation and meaning given to us through the historical knowledge. ”People become rootless if they forsake their heritage from the past”, said the former Keeper of National Antiquities in Denmark, P.V. Glob. It was a wise thing to say and therefore it is written on the wall (sic) in the city-museum of the Danish town Fredericia.

Tradition is not to be confused with traditionalism. Traditionalism has to do with nostalgia in the sense of sentimentality for the past. As if you wanted to become what you once were. Awareness of tradition is the opposite of traditionalism.

It is a bit like the difference between love for your country and nationalism. Nationalism is the perverted version of love for your country as often seen in modern nationalism. At the moment, we experience a dangerous combination of nationalism and nostalgia. It carries the roots of totalitarianism and chaos.

In his book Das Ende der Normalität, Gabor Steingart, then editor of Handelsblatt, gives an account of what effect it has on society if it loses its orientation. The ignoring and forgetting of the values that shaped the society lead to a society in which there is no guideline or belief, no direction from man towards something else, nothing to live or die for. “Wer an nichst glaubt, verzweifelt an sich selber” (he who doesn’t believe in anything, will despair in his own self), Steingart writes quoting Goethe, who wrote these words in 1774.[12]

Remember also the wise former diplomat and resistance fighter Stéphane Hessel, who in 2010 wrote the famous essay Indignez-Vous! (Time for Outrage!),[13] originally printed in 6,000 copies, sold worldwide with more than 3.5 million copies. In both this essay and in his book Engagez-Vous! (Get Involved!)[14] from 2011, Hessel expresses his shock over the dismantling of the values and initiatives that where vital for the rebuilding of welfare in Europe.

The loss of values or rather the loss of a vivid tradition carrying the narratives that teach us about life, is a loss that will lead us into what the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl called the “existential vacuum” and the loss of meaning in life. Frankl himself pointed out, that loss of tradition was the primary reason for the loss of orientation.[15]

Relativism and nihilism today

Not only the loss of orientation but also relativism and, as a consequence thereof, nihilism are an important and very influential part of a modern mindset. It is of vital importance to understand this if we are to comprehend one of the greatest threats to hope and meaning.

A relativistic approach to truth, where – in short – truth ‘is what you make it’, is not uncommon. “What is true for you doesn’t have to be true for me”, a famous saying goes in Danish. It is considered an expression of tolerance but, in fact, it is an attitude of laziness towards truth itself. If everything is a social construct, then who is to say what is false or what is sick?

These relativist and nihilist tendencies are an inseparable part of the post-modern mentality. In the end, they make it possible to openly display an attitude that does not really care about truth. Those who practice politics with a total nihilistic attitude can reach the highest positions and offices. Such an approach has been in charge for many years, long before Trump & co. It has been an element in the discipline of political spin for many years. It is all about presenting a certain image; the relation between image and identity, though, is ignored, such that credibility is no longer of interest!

Those in favour of this attitude would probably claim that they just have a realistic (that is, a cynical), view on politics, and that people without this attitude are naïve and idealistic fools. But if they read their history, then they might learn from Immanuel Kant, who wrote “a lie always harms another; if not some other human being, then it nevertheless does harm to humanity in general, inasmuch as it vitiates the very source of right [Rechtsquelle]”.[16]

A relativistic concept of truth bears the source of cynicism and nihilism. A nihilism that comes out of the despair that grows from the belief that nothing matters. It is therefore of great importance to realize that some statements are true and some are simply not true. Our relation to truth is that it exists independently of us. I am not the creator of what I see. I am directed towards something that exists independently of myself. Otherwise, everything is just a product of my dreams and longings.

 “But the seen depends on the eye that sees”, many would argue. Yes, that is true, but the existence of the seen is there and would still be there even if you – the viewer – were not. Existentially that is not only a great relief, it is also part of the definition of existence. To exist means to be oriented outwards, towards something or somebody other than yourself. This is why we become ourselves when we forget ourselves. An “I” become and “I” only when it is oriented towards a “You” as pointed out by the philosophers Martin Buber[17] and Ferdinand Ebner.[18] To become oneself is to forget oneself in the occupation with somebody or something.

Thus, truth is not a product of our opinions. Instead, it exists independently of those searching for truth. For Kierkegaard this was essential. “Subjectivity is truth”, he said repeatedly in Philosophical Fragments.[19] Kierkegaard tried to attack the Hegelian speculative rationalism that neglected the subjective element and explained how it is in the passion that the problem of truth has its life:

When the question about truth is asked objectively, truth is reflected upon objectively as an object to which the knower relates himself. What is reflected upon is not the relation but that what he relates himself to is the truth, the true. If only that to which he relates himself is the truth, the true, then the subject is in the truth. When the question about truth is asked subjectively, the individual’s relation is reflected upon subjectively. If only the how of this relation is in truth, the individual is in truth, even if he in this way were to relate himself to untruth.[20]

However, when Kierkegaard says, “subjectivity is truth”, this should never be interpreted as if truth were subjective! In his writings, he warned (with a German expression) against what he called “übergreifende Subjektivität” – “all-embracing subjectivity” – in which case truth would change in the course of history depending on people’s concept of truth. Then ‘truths’ would be replaced by new ‘truths’. However, “the essentially Christian [in Danish: “det kristelige” – that is the Christian religion per se, my remark] exists before any Christian [in Danish: “kristen” – person, my remark]) exists. […] even if no one had become aware that God had revealed himself in human form in Christ, he still had revealed himself”.[21]

Why is this so important? Because if truth is something that in the end is just a part of the human creation, a product made by our ideas, we are not oriented towards something that exists independently of ourselves. This assumption goes along with an existential loneliness leading to the despair and nihilism that unfortunately is an influential factor in our time. It makes people disillusioned about the fundamental striving for truth and justice. This nihilistic attitude is often combined with a reductionism that tries to “explain” religion and spirituality as manifestations of the self and nothing more. It involves an anthropology, an understanding of man, that ignores man’s longing for at spiritual dimension, for meaning and for living for something more than just a short-sighted satisfaction of instincts. If everything is to be understood under the relativistic concept of truth, nihilism is right in our backyard and a great hindrance for the crucial formulation of hope.

In her eloquent book Zivilisiert den Kapitalismus,[22] German intellectual Marion Gräfin Dönhoff quotes German philosopher Hans Jonas who illustrated our situation in his book on ethics in the time of technology as follows:

Nun zittern wir in der Nacktheit eines Nihilismus, in der größte Macht sich mit größter Leere paart, größtes Können mit dem geringsten Wissen davon, wozu. Es ist die Frage, ob wir ohne die Wiederherstellung der Kategorie des Heiligen, die am gründlichsten durch die wissenschaftliche Aufklärung zerstört wurde, eine Ethik haben können, die die extremen Kräfte zügeln kann, die wir heute besitzen. (We are trembling in the nakedness of a nihilism in which the greatest power mates with the greatest emptiness, the greatest ability with the smallest knowledge of: what for? The question remains whether without a restoration of the category of holiness, which was most thoroughly demolished through the scientific enlightenment, we can at all have ethics that can restrain the extreme powers we possess today).[23]

It is obvious that the quotation is not to be understood as a general attack on the age of Enlightenment, but only on the worship of rationality. There are several examples of how the Enlightenment could combine a love for science, knowledge, and musicality in a way that would never isolate ratio from spirit. 

Hopefully we are now on our way out of a culture of madness. Some may ask: Can a culture go mad? Or, more specifically: Can the mindset of a population change so dramatically that we, with some right, can describe it as more or less insane? Freud would definitely answer such a question affirmatively. He describes it thoroughly in Civilization and Its Discontents, where he speaks about a neurotic civilization and of a pathology of the civilized societies.[24] A society is able to develop an ever-deepening conflict with basic human needs. Our present culture has reached a point at which it is almost suicidal.

Ways of hope

So what can we do?

Recognizing the spirit of Einstein, that “a problem cannot be solved by the thinking that created the problem”,[25] we need to look for new roads. We cannot continue on the roads we have been following so far.

However, we can put the discourse about hope on a sound foundation without ignoring reality. We need to know what we can do; it is not sufficient to talk about hope in general terms. Optimism without facing reality will be short-lived.

We can learn from the past and try to abandon some of the insanities of our culture that so unethically have tolerated the exploitation of nature. We can learn from the fact that renewal comes from remembering the treasures of the past and integrating them into the shaping of the future. We must speak up and use the tools given to us, especially from this place, the Pontifical Academy, which hosts some of the most inspiring meetings in which the future can be formed.

The world can be changed if we want it to be changed! We are not slaves of a man-made illusion of a necessity that sees growth and the market-ruled economy as the only tools in society. Greed is not good, but has ruled society for the last decades with predator-capitalism as its result. Striving for utility has occupied our mentality to a degree, that we have almost lost sense of the importance of matters other than money and security. As Fukuyama says in his latest book: “What one really needs is a theory of why some people pursue money and security, while others choose to die for a cause or to give time and money to help other people”.[26]

We also see a new generation looking for other ways and visions for a better world. Last year, a professor asked his students in climatology at the University of Copenhagen why they had chosen this topic as their course of study. The answer from all of them was: Because we want to make changes for a better world. Such an answer would not have been possible just a few years ago. Today, however, large parts of the young generation are preoccupied with more than their own careers, and they are no longer afraid of being called do-gooders if they try to make the world a better place.

We, who happen to live in the privileged part of the world, must abandon some of our wealth, in order to create support for the countries in whose areas nature of vital importance for the entire planet is situated. If we want to prevent these countries from doing what we did in many Western countries at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century – that is, from turning forests into agricultural landscape – then we must work together with these countries to ensure that they do not end up paying the bill that we have an ethical obligation to share.

We should not try to turn the world into a paradise, but we can use all our strength to find ways of making the world more humane, giving people the possibility to live there lives so that we share the richness and the resources in a world given to us in a way that could never be possessed or owned by us.

One of the most hope-giving publications recently is the encyclical Laudato si’. Even in the protestant country I come from, this great publication has been an inspiration to many who normally would pay absolutely no attention to what any church had to say. Reaching out to people is possible. If we combine reality, hope, and love, we have a good chance of changing the world.

”May our struggles and our concern for this planet never take away the joy of our hope”.[27]


[*] Pastor at Frederics Church, “Marmorkirken” Copenhagen. Associate professor at the Centre for Pastoral Education and Research.
[2] Nyvold, M. (August 3, 2017). Hvorfor din hjerne er programmeret til at fortrænge denne klimahistorie, og hvad du kan gøre ved det [Why Your brain is programmed to neglect this story about the climate and what You could do about it]. Last accessed on October 9, 2019, from Zetland.
[3] Elsass, P. 1995. Strategies for Survival: The Psychology of Cultural Resilience in Ethnic Minorities. New York/London: NYU Press, p. 182.
[4] As argued by Florian Illies (2014) in his book 1913: Der Sommer der Jahrhunderts. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer.
[5] Jensen, O. 2011. På kant med klodens klima - om behovet for et ændret natursyn [On edge with the climate of the globe]. Forlaget Anis: Copenhagen, p. 17; Løgstrup, K.E. 1984. Ophav og omgivelse: Betragtninger over historie og natur: Metafysik III [Origin and surroundings: Considerations of history and nature: Metaphysics III]. Copenhagen: Gylendal, p. 54.
[6] Yen Fu according to Jensen, O. 1976. I vækstens vold: økologi og religion [In the grip of growth: Ecology and religion]. Copenhagen: Gylendal, p. 51.
[7] IUCN 2008. IUCN Red List reveals world’s mammals in crisis. Last accessed on October 10, 2019, at IUCN.
[8] IUCN 2015. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Gland: IUCN. Last accessed on October 10, 2019, at IUCN.
[9] IUCN 2019. Table 2 – Changes in numbers of species in the threatened categories (CR, EN, VU) from 1996 to 2019. Last accessed on October 10, 2019, at IUCN.
[10] Løgstrup, K.E. 1978. Skabelse og tilintetgørelse. Religionsfilosofiske betragtninger. Metafysik IV [Creation and annihilation: Religous philosophical considerations: Metaphysics IV]. Copenhagen: Gylendal, p. 141.
[11] Jensen, O. 2011. På kant med klodens klima - om behovet for et ændret natursyn [On edge with the climate of the globe]. Copenhagen: Forlaget Anis, p. 15.
[12] Steingart, G. 2011. Das Ende der Normalität: Nachruf auf unser Leben, wie es bisher war. Tübingen: Piper, p.173.
[13] Hessel, S. 2011. Time for Outrage!. London: Quartet Books.
[14] Hessel, S. 2011. Engagiert Euch! [Get engaged!, trans. M. Kogon]. Berlin: Ullstein.
[15] Frankl, V. E. 2006. Man’s search for meaning: The classic tribute to hope from the Holocaust (transl. I. Lasch). Boston: Beacon Press.
[16] Kant, I. 1993. Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals: On a Supposed Right to Lie because of Philanthropic Concerns (transl. J. W. Ellington; 3rd edition). Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hacket Publishing Company, 64-65.
[17] Buber, M. 1997. Ich und Du. Gerlingen: Verlag Lambert Schneider.
[18] Ebner, F. 1963. Fragmente, Aufsätze, Aphorismen: Zu einer Pneumatologie des Wortes. München: Kösel Verlag.
[19] Kierkegaard, S. 1992. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (Vol. I, ed. & transl. H.V. Hong & E.H. Hong). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
[20] Kierkegaard, S. 1992. Concluding Unscientific Postscript to Philosophical Fragments (Vol. I, ed. & transl. H.V. Hong & E.H. Hong). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 199.
[21] Kierkegaard, S. 2008. The Book on Adler (ed. Robert L. Perkins). Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 117-118.
[22] Dönhoff, Marion Gräfin von. 1997. Zivilisiert den Kapitalismus: Grenzen der Freiheit. Stuttgart: DVA, 14.
[23] Jonas, H. 2003. Das Prinzip Verantwortung: Versuch einer Ethik für die technologische Zivilisation. Ulm: Suhrkamp, 57.
[24] Freud, S. 1953. Civilization and Its Discontents. London: Hogarth Press, p. 141 ff.
[25] Einstein actually wrote, “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels” in an article titled “Atomic Education Urged by Einstein”, published in the New York Times on May 25, 1946. However, the idiomatic adaptation is more frequently known.
[26] Fukuyama, Francis. 2018. Identity: The demand for dignity and the politics of resentment. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 13.
[27] Pope Francis. 2015. Encyclical letter: Laudato si’ of the Holy Father Francis on care for our common home. Vatican City: Vatican Press, # 244. Last accessed on September 26, 2019.



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