The Climate Crisis – The First Post-Modern Natural Disaster

By Dr. Jeremy Benstein

This story took place in 1755. On Sunday, November 1, All Saint’s Day, around 9:30 a.m., a big earthquake hit Portugal. Big is not the word: tens of thousands of people were killed, in Lisbon, the third largest city in all of Europe. Most buildings (including all its churches) were destroyed, half of Portugal’s GNP was wiped out. Tsunami waves reached the Caribbean and Brazil. This was the one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history.

No wonder that it was a topic of discussion for a very long time. But perhaps even more surprising was that it had a decisive influence on philosophical and even religious issues. Some call it: the first modern natural disaster. Why? During ancient times and during the Middle Ages, natural disasters were considered acts of God. Rain and good weather conditions are reflections of God’s blessing for our good deeds, and droughts (or floods or earth quakes) are curses or punishment for our sins. We know this approach from our Jewish tradition. In the book of Deuteronomy (11: 13-17): ” If, then, you obey the commandments that I enjoin upon you this day…I will grant the rain for your land in season, the early rain and the late… and thus you shall eat your fill. Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods … [For God] will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce…”

The cracks that opened up as a result of the earthquake were not only in the streets of Lisbon. The religious belief that tied up human activity to judgment of the God in the world of nature cracked as well.  If thousands of believers died when the ornamented ceilings of the churches collapsed over their heads during services, could this really be God’s doing?  The French intellectual Voltaire saw this as a testament to his belief that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds, and because of the arbitrariness of natural processes, it is certainly the case that there will be righteous that suffer and wicked that prosper.

Moreover, philosophers such as Emanuel Kant that began exploring the earth (pioneers in the fields of geography and geology), were increasingly able to show that indeed these are natural events that can be examined, analyzed, mapped and eventually understood. Meaning, that for the explanation of this earthquake (and hinting to natural disasters in general), we best turn to the field of geology, and not to theology.

This was a turning point in history, in the development of the materialistic-scientific approach to the world, and the “big split” between humanities and natural sciences, and between human morality and society on the one hand, and the realm of Nature, on the other hand, that runs according to its own rules. Physics does not depend on metaphysics. According to this new modern approach, texts like the above from the book of Deuteronomy, are just silly superstitions. Rain falls both on the righteous and the wicked, and if it does not, it is because of the hydrological cycle, and not because of the balance of good deeds and sins. One of the most salient features in this modern world view is the disconnect between humans and nature – both in academic research and in the moral world.

What does all of this have to do with the climate crisis?

The climate crisis with all its manifestations (global warming, droughts, floods, fires, etc.) is a “natural disaster” that is deeply tied to human behavior. This is true in two senses: first, in the dimension of society’s resilience to the disaster’s impact (what we call: adaptation): Poor people living in poor living conditions are more exposed to risks from natural disasters than wealthy people. The degree of destructiveness of any “natural event” is thus a result of the structure of human society.

But the deeper sense is that the conceptual boundary between what is natural and what is artificial (human-made) is no longer clear-cut. Bill McKibbon declared “The End Of Nature” 30 years ago (in his book of that name), saying that there is no longer any place on earth that the human hand has not left its mark. That modern duality has been replaced by a more unified, post-modern view: humans and nature are part of a single, interconnected physical and metaphysical system. We have changed the structure of the world with our own hands, and it is coming back to us as a boomerang.

In this sense, we did not return to the pre-modern view of the Creator of the world that punishes a society of sinners, but we are in a postmodern era, which needs to understand anew the scientific facts: the human economy, based on fossil fuels, our wasteful consumerist lifestyles, and an exploitative society that allows for horrific inequalities, all produce destruction of the natural world, and within it the carbon balance of the atmosphere, which is a disaster for us, human society.

After the last time there was a “natural” disaster that threatened to destroy the entire world – the flood story in Genesis – God promised in the end: “Never again will I doom the earth because of man… So long as the earth endures, Seedtime and harvest, Cold and heat, Summer and winter, Day and night Shall not cease” (Genesis, 8:21-22).

God did not break His promise. It is we who have become like God, with the ability to create and destroy. We need to wake up to these capabilities, and work together to choose life.

There is nothing like a New Year, our commemoration of another trip round the sun in our vulnerable spaceship Earth, which suggests the themes of soul-searching and renewal, of repentance, as well as of a deep connection to the renewal of the season, and a happy and joyful holiday, even as we consider together where we as a society are headed, and how to act together to prevent the impending disaster.

Wishing you a full year for collaborative efforts to build a more just and sustainable society –

The Heschel Center